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She survived a mass shooting in 2015, and she's sharing her story in a graphic novel

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For artist and author Kindra Neely, serenity could be found in part of the Umpqua National Forest.

KINDRA NEELY: There's this little bit of a steep ravine, but then you're, like, right on the river. There was this huge, like, rock cut out on the opposite side that, when the sunlight hit it, it was so beautiful. It just had this really beautiful shine about it. And the water was always, like, crazy crisp and fresh.

SUMMERS: It's one of the places that she loved to draw, to get inspiration for her work.

NEELY: What I love about drawing is that it can do so many things for you mentally. When I'm doing things like comics, especially in the early production of them, it's more of a puzzle to solve 'cause you're trying to tell a story the best way, and how can you make the characters and background work for you?

SUMMERS: And in her debut graphic novel, "Numb To This," the puzzle that Kindra Neely is trying to solve is her own. Neely is a survivor of the October 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. Nine people were killed, and eight were injured that day. In her book, Neely tells not just the story of the shooting, but also what it's like to work to heal from trauma even as a steady stream of mass shootings in the United States continues.

I spoke with Neely a few days after the seventh anniversary of the shooting. And a note - our conversation includes discussion of suicide. I started by asking Neely how she was doing.

NEELY: I'm doing a lot better than I thought I would. There were certainly a few moments that were a little rough with the anniversary. But it's been seven years, and I have definitely gained the skills I think that I need to not move past it, but live with it in a way that is, like, still functional.

SUMMERS: You know, there are a million things about this book that I want to talk to you about. But one of the things that jumped out to me is the way that you wrote about feeling violated after a national newspaper published a photo of you hugging your friend Josh after the shooting. And it strikes me that that happened seven years ago. And now you and I are having this conversation. So I guess I want to ask you, what can we as journalists do better? What could have gone better in that moment for you?

NEELY: After a lot of reflection and also hearing from journalists who were there that day, I think the answer is both, and how can we take care of our journalists and also how do we take care of the people that they are, you know, talking to? Because there were several people there that day that I understand they were kind of, like, new to the field, and they didn't receive any care afterwards. They didn't receive any debriefing. And they weren't really instructed on how to go about this kind of thing in a sensitive and caring manner. I think the best thing is kind of the golden rule of like, hey, if you were in this situation, would you want someone talking to you the way that you're talking to them?

SUMMERS: One of the themes that comes up over and over again in your book is - there are these scenes where you're inundated by text messages and alerts every single time there is another mass shooting in this country - the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando; the shooting at a Las Vegas music festival; Parkland, Fla. And when I look at the pages of the book the way you've illustrated it, you're just surrounded by all of these tweets and messages and alerts. And it looks chaotic. But I want to ask you, what does it feel like for you? What is that like?

NEELY: It feels very chaotic in the moment when it happens, and it can be very overwhelming. I think now - in the book, I - it was a little bit more chaotic just because I wasn't really dealing with my feelings very well. And now that I have more tools, it still hurts. I mean, Uvalde especially really felt like the wind got knocked out of me. It's not always like that with every single one. And I do kind of take precautions now just so that way I'm not overwhelmed by it.

I think I've been lucky, with not having a lot of resources, to be able to afford constant counseling, that the free resources that I have had access to - I've gotten very lucky with the people that I've talked to that have been really precise. It's just about recognizing when I do feel that way and kind of just being like, oh, it is OK to feel bad. These are things you should feel bad about. And that helps because then you're processing the emotion, and you're not just holding on to it and letting it fester and get worse.

SUMMERS: You wrote about those struggles openly in the book, as well as your suicide attempt. And I notice at the end of your book, you list a number of resources, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is 988, and others. What would you say to someone who has perhaps gone through something similar or someone who might be struggling with thoughts of ending their life?

NEELY: I think I would tell them that I don't necessarily know that it gets better. I still have those thoughts. And that's OK because I have ways to deal with them now. It's not - you're not a bad person for having those thoughts. And - but there are a great many people, people that you would be probably really surprised about that, that would be very upset if you were gone. And there've been so many moments that I'm so happy that I didn't miss. And I just can't express how much joy you will feel in the moments when you realize that you didn't miss them later.

SUMMERS: In the book, you write about when you and some friends came to Washington and went to the March for Our Lives rally on the National Mall. And you quote one of the speakers who says, "this march is not the climax; it's the beginning." So, Kindra, I want to ask you, what comes next?

NEELY: I think a lot of work. A lot of work, but it's important work. It's work worth doing, not only with, like, gun control measures. I think there's a tendency for people to say, you can't really care much outside of your own community; there's, like, a certain, you know, bandwidth of compassion that people are capable of. But I don't think that that's true. I think that people are capable of a great amount of love and that we can work together to improve the situation for everybody in this country.

SUMMERS: You and your book, with the idea that listening is a tremendous act of love, it requires patience and humility. And that's a really beautiful thought. And I would just also like to add that sharing your story so that others can listen to it sometimes takes a lot of courage. So I'd just like to thank you for sharing yours with us.

NEELY: Thank you so much.

SUMMERS: That is Kindra Neely. Her new graphic novel is "Numb To This." Kindra, thank you for being here.

NEELY: Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Just those three digits - 9-8-8. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.