A single bullet forced Thomas McElderry on long road to healing

Thomas McElderry was 19, a language and literature lover at Bard College at Simon's Rock, when Wayne Lo opened fire in a 20-minute spree around campus Dec. 14, 1992, killing two and injuring four.

GREAT BARRINGTON — The bullet came out, but the pain did not; not for a long time.

It took years of searching mind, body and spirit for Thomas McElderry to overcome what beset him after he was shot by Wayne Lo in a college library.

McElderry was 19, a language and literature lover at Bard College at Simon's Rock, when Lo opened fire in a 20-minute spree around campus Dec. 14, 1992, killing two and injuring four.

A hail of armor-piercing ammunition from outside the library doors killed student Galen Gibson and wounded McElderry, whose femur was broken by a single bullet.

McElderry's leg eventually healed. The college brought in counselors, but it wasn't easy dealing with a precocious group of teenage liberal arts students, he said.

"We were very full of our own knowledge about the world," he told The Eagle in a phone interview from San Francisco, where he lives. "There's a kind of arrogance of youth that prevented me from really wanting to engage in conversations with professionals about what happened."

In his view, the professionals didn't always know how to deal with trauma generated by such a complex event, which also killed McElderry's professor, Nacunan Saez.

One social worker, he recalled, tried to help by asking him what had happened.

"I sobbed, and she wrote that I vented, then said goodbye," he said.

The brevity of the interaction angered him. " `She thinks she helped me,' I thought, `when in fact I feel worse.' That was influential in me feeling like ... I wasn't sure that I trusted older people."

So, when anxiety and depression crept in, and later, panic attacks, McElderry over the years would work his way though a number of therapists before eventually finding treatment that helped.

But before that, the panic symptoms were terrifying, he said, and things like balloons popping or cars backfiring would set him off.

"At a movie, if there was someone with a gun, I would start sliding down in my chair. Certainly, I didn't go to fireworks."

Then there are the dreams he still has, "of people chasing me and trying to murder me."

The bullet

He never saw who shot him.

"I didn't even know who it was at the time ... there's a strange anonymity to being shot by a gun because [the person] didn't touch you. What touched you was the bullet."

Not long after the shooting, Edgar Chamorro, a Spanish professor at the college, put "La Balla" ("The Bullet"), a poem by Nicaraguan poet Salomon de la Selva, in McElderry's mailbox.

The first line, translated, begins, "The bullet that wounds me will be a bullet with soul."

The poem, McElderry said, "describes how it feels to be injured by a gun ... and the relationship between the poet to the bullet."

A friend wrote the poem for him in calligraphy, and it hangs framed on his wall.

McElderry, 44, a finance manager at UCLA San Francisco, said his panic attacks are gone. But this was a long, mysterious maze of learning how trauma can enter the body. He found a therapist who helped him understand this.

"Trauma is not just in the mind, but stored in the body and in your muscles and everywhere. I remember I thought he was a little crazy because he would ask, `Where do you feel that?' It took me a long time before I even knew what he was talking about. I had shut that off. I tried to protect myself by cutting myself off from the places where I was storing the trauma in my body."

It helped, but panic attacks did come back, and he found another therapist who used Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, developed during the Vietnam War to help veterans with trauma by creating new pathways in the brain. This, he said, allows new memories to replace the old ones.

Then McElderry went to an acupuncturist, then an osteopathic physician. While all of this helped, it wasn't until he went to a spiritual healer, a Buddhist nun who was also a licensed hypnotherapist and biofeedback practitioner, that his panic attacks stopped. His sessions with her were on Skype.

"I was deeply skeptical, as always, and it didn't make any sense, but it was extremely effective. She was actually able to take away the things that trigger me the most."

He can now watch fireworks, hear loud noises, go to violent movies.

"And, honestly, I can talk about what happened and don't feel triggered by it, but I still don't push that. I don't want to test that," he said.

A dream

As McElderry began to heal, he had a dream in which he was being chased.

"I was climbing up this web, a net of ropes, and at the top of it was Wayne Lo and he was hanging on the ropes like he was crucified like Jesus, and he apologized and he said `I'm sorry.' In the dream, I felt like I forgave him, and there was very much this understanding that he was truly sorry."

McElderry told his therapist it made no sense, because "I don't forgive him — I'll never forgive him."

The therapist said it was a way to resolve a story with a terrible ending, and that this is "part of the healing process to let it go."

McElderry did not go to the college for Thursday's Day of Remembrance, though he did return for one reunion almost 20 years ago.

"I'm sending my love to those attending the memorial on campus, but to me, the anniversary is just another day, and I'd rather not put energy into trying to make it a day people should remember," he said. "I support strict gun controls, and working toward that is the best gift that anyone can give to victims of gun violence."

McElderry said he wants to encourage anyone who is wounded in some way to seek help, even if they didn't take a bullet, like many students who were there that night.

"I always say, `The fact that I have a physical injury doesn't mean that my trauma is any worse than anyone else's.' "

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.