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How one Parkland school shooting survivor turned her tragedy into triumph

Maddy King, 17, survived a horrific school shooting—only to be haunted by anxiety and depression. In this deeply personal account, Maddy shares how she found confidence, calmness and clarity.  

On February 14, 2018, my world was shattered. 

On that fateful day, an angry and deeply troubled 19-year-old former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., entered the school armed with smoke grenades and an assault rifle. He carried out the deadliest high school shooting in United States history, brutally murdering 17 students and faculty members, and injuring 17 more.

I was in room #1255 for creative writing, one of the classrooms that received direct gunfire. The number of dead and injured certainly would have been higher if not for my incredibly brave teacher, Mrs. Stacey Lippel. She saved so many of our lives by being fearless and strong—pulling kids into her classroom, locking the door at the very last moment and shielding students with her own body.

I still don’t fully remember exactly how everything played out. I probably never will. And I’m OK with that—I’m OK with my brain protecting me from what my eyes and ears were forced to witness. But every now and then an unwanted memory will blitz its way out of the darkness and into my conscious mind: the crack of gunfire, a pool of blood, the screams of my classmates, the cries of my friends.

And then everything will just go dark and quiet.

I prefer the dark and quiet.

At first, I tried to go back to MSD. To go back to normal. But the second I heard a fire alarm go off, I was immediately transported back to that horrific day, and I found myself reliving the nightmare all over again.

I was afraid of everything around me. I was afraid that at any moment, the terror would come rushing back all around me. I constantly scanned the classroom for signs of danger. Any little noise could send me over the edge. I’d start crying...and my anxiety would send me home.

Switching my school schedule was the first step I took for my mental health. Now, I keep up with my studies remotely as an online student. I’m still on pace to graduate with the rest of my classmates, which I’m proud of, but I really miss being with my friends in a classroom. That’s something I once took very much for granted.

Before the shooting, I dealt with the typical teen drama of high school. Things like avoiding annoying fights with friends (most recently about a guy) and ignoring a bully who was posting snarky Snapchats about me. (My advice? Just accept that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and ignore it.)

But above all else, I wondered what I should do after high school. Go to college—but where? Get a job—but doing what? Those were my most crucial concerns.

After the shooting, everything was different. I was still alive, and so grateful for it, but I wasn’t living. I was just existing. I couldn’t feel joy anymore, and I thought I might never feel it ever again. I wasn’t happy or sad. I wasn’t bored or busy. I was nothing; I felt nothing.

This went on for weeks. And then one day one of my closest friends called me, totally flustered—she was going to a wedding and was having trouble getting her look right. She asked if I would do her makeup. And suddenly, it was like I found the light switch in a dark room.

All because of eyeshadow.

We grabbed all my stuff and hauled it downstairs, where I filled an empty table with colorful palettes and blending brushes and makeup sponges. We talked about a few options for her look, then ended up going with a neutral smoky eye in ombre shades of taupe and chocolate.

As I tapped and blended a contour and highlight across her face, I could feel her happiness building—as mine did, too. When I was finished, she looked in the mirror and smiled. She left my house feeling amazing. And for the first time since the shooting, I felt amazing.

Not long after, I took a trip to California to see my aunt and uncle, who’s a screenwriter. I thought I’d do some sightseeing for a few days, but I had no idea how much this trip was going to change my life. While I was visiting, one of my uncle’s scripts was getting filmed and they needed a makeup artist. I took a chance, applied for the opportunity…and got the gig.

Working on a real Hollywood set with a professional cast and crew—even though it was a small one—was exactly what I needed. Everybody there was counting on me to do my job perfectly. There was no time for me to feel anxious or ambivalent or numb, like I had for so long. I had to be fully present and work hard. And I did. When the film wrapped, everyone hugged me and thanked me and praised my work. My smile could have broken my cheekbones.

I went to L.A. for a vacation and came back with a purpose. With a plan. Now, I’m dedicated to learning the artistry of makeup—and making it my craft and career.

Thinking about my future again keeps me feeling positive and hopeful and focused on what lies ahead—but that doesn’t mean I can just cover and conceal and blend away all the terror and trauma I’ve tried so hard to leave behind. I wish it were only that simple.

I’ve always loved makeup. I have this picture of myself when I was 2 years old with lipstick smeared all over my face (I always got in trouble for getting into my mom’s stuff!). But now I’ve learned that makeup isn’t just something fun or frivolous. Makeup gives me confidence. And it’s not just confidence in my looks, but in exerting some control over my face and my life and the world around me. Confidence to cope with whatever comes my way next. Confidence to positively touch the lives of others. Confidence to find calmness in the chaos that surrounds us.

A year ago, I didn’t even think about my tomorrows. Today, I’m so excited about my future. My ultimate career goal is to become a makeup artist for the Ellen show, surrounded by light and laughter and devoting my days to helping other people feel great about themselves. Living fearlessly, spreading love—that’s what makeup has given me the power to do.

Maddy shows us that there's always a light at the end of the tunnel. What's one thing that always keeps you going? Let us know.

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Girls' Life magazine.

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by Maddy King | 5/29/2019
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