Hypervigilance: My experience with gun violence

Editor’s note: This is a personal narrative by Talisman writer Adam Murphy.

It was the summer after my freshman year of high school. My friends and I were having a party.  We were 15 — too young to even consider drinking as an option. I was barely 15. I wasn’t ready to grow up so fast, but who really is?

It was getting late, only about 8 p.m. but it had already gotten dark. Someone made the suggestion to go eat at McDonald’s in the Pleasure Ridge Park neighborhood of South Louisville. I don’t remember who, and I don’t know if I would blame them or not. I remember not wanting to go — it was too far of a walk, I thought — but I went anyway.

We thought there was a group following us as we walked. We were vigilant, like our parents told us to be. On our walk back, three men passed us.  I say men, but they couldn’t have been older than 18. We walked on.


We walked across an apartment building’s parking lot making our way to the front of the neighborhood. We turned on our phone flashlights in the dark, not realizing that we were painting bullseyes on our backs. My friend’s boyfriend noticed them running up on us before anyone else. He ran into the woods, leaving all of us behind and confused. He yelled something — I still don’t know what.

Running by, he knocked my phone out of my hand, and I reached down to pick it up. When I looked back up, I saw the barrel of a pistol pointed between my eyes. The gun looked like something out of the movies. Something my dad had taught me to shoot years ago in Boy Scouts. Something I would never have even imagined pointed at me. I wish I hadn’t looked up.

The three men yelled at us to put down our phones and wallets. I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying; I just knew it was loud and fast.

Now, I wish I could forget a lot of those things. I freeze at the reference of someone having a gun. I can still feel how my body locked up in that moment four years ago and how I couldn’t move. I remember how I couldn’t cry; it just wouldn’t happen.

At the time, I shut down. And I still shut down. I can’t breathe when I hear police sirens. It reminds me of that night when the sound of sirens cut through the sounds of my crying friends and cops asking if we were OK, if we were hurt, if we remembered their faces. It haunts me.

After my junior year of high school, I traveled across the Midwest on a service trip. One of our stops was in Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson. We visited their police department and fire department to try to get an understanding of the protests that followed the shooting. We saw a community that had tried to work together to pick up the fractured pieces left by gun violence.

As our group gathered to take a final photo, a car drove up behind us. A man got out. He began yelling for help and pulled a kid out of the backseat, bloodied and in need of medical assistance. The leaders of my group told us to run to the bus, thinking that at first it was an active shooter situation. They were trying to keep us safe.

I had a panic attack for the next 20 minutes. I could only take brief, shallow breaths, and I didn’t feel safe in my own body. I kept reliving the moments over and over again. I wish I could have run the first time, back in the woods. I wish I was the one to run away — to just not have a gun shoved in my face.

Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still see the police officer interviewed us. I can remember every detail of her face. I can remember the look on the guy’s face who kicked us out of the liquor store across the street, refusing to help us or call the cops. I can’t remember the muggers’ faces. They’re like static. The people I wish I could remember the most, so I could find them one day in their mugshot and feel safe again.

I wish that I didn’t hyperventilate when I’m around my relatives who conceal and carry. I wish I felt safer when I visit my dad, who owns a pistol. I can still see the pistol from that night. I can see it pressed between my eyes. Sometimes when I lie awake at night, I wonder what it would have been like if he pulled the trigger. I wonder what would have happened if I didn’t go to the party. I wonder what life would be like if I didn’t lock up when hearing police sirens. I’m still angry that I wonder these things.

I wish I didn’t have to ask myself these questions. My safety was taken from me. I feel like a prisoner within my own body. The world feels like a crushing weight that makes it so hard to breathe. I keep asking myself why. I need to stop. The world moves too fast to even think of why God or whoever would have made this happen.

My therapist calls it hypervigilance. That the reason that I am always on my toes and can’t ever feel safe is because I am too aware of the world around me. That I am always on the lookout. I hate it.


I will never stop being angry. I’m angry at the people who robbed us — who thought that shoving guns in the faces of teenagers was OK. I’m angry at us for deciding that it was a good plan to go out at night in a not-so-good area of town. I’m angry at myself for still dwelling on the past almost four years later.

I’m angry, but I hope I never stop caring. I hope I never stop being vigilant when out at night. I hope I never stop checking on my friends to make sure they’ve made it home safe. I hope I never stop being a shoulder to cry on for many of my friends. I hope I never stop.