Chelsea Sobolik, 29, Fort Collins, Colorado. Aurora theater shooting, July 20, 2012.
Chelsea Sobolik had just come off a double shift at a Red Robin restaurant when she decided, at the last minute, to join a group of friends for a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado. After the shooting, Sobolik took a year off to rest and recover, something that would not have been possible without Red Robin’s Giving Fund ― a charitable donation her colleagues made with every check to support workers during tough times. Between this fund, the free mental health care she received from the Aurora Mental Health Center and help from her family and friends, Sobolik feels grateful for all the support that has helped her cope, but she considers recovery a lifelong process.
It was really scary when we walked outside [the theater], because we weren’t sure if he was still around. I remember feeling really scared that he could be around any corner, because we weren’t sure exactly where he was. We ran out of the theater, and the entire vicinity was surrounded by police cars with their lights.
Police lights were actually a trigger for me for a long time. Whenever I would see police lights, I would flash to that moment and it would give me a lot of anxiety.
My mind had a hard time getting pulled out of everything that I had seen and experienced in the theater, and I was having severe PTSD symptoms.
I didn’t feel like it was safe to drive for me to drive for a few weeks, so my mom, who lived in Colorado Springs, came up with my brother and she drove me wherever I needed to go. And she drove me back home to the Springs, because I didn’t want to sleep alone.
It was also really hard for me to be in crowds or with large amounts of people. I was really emotionally exhausted. I had a hard time going out and doing things. I was in a lot of fear of something else happening, which made me not want to partake in certain things.
The only people I kind of wanted to be around were my really close friends and my family, but mostly my survivor friends -- people that experienced it with me or were closely linked to everything -- because they just understood. I think without their strength I probably would have maybe collapsed, and maybe not have gotten back up for a while.
I took about a nine-month leave from work. Luckily Red Robin had our backs with that too. We have something called the Giving Fund, where employees and CEOs and managers and stuff basically donate a very small portion of each check that they get. So everybody that couldn’t return back to work actually [was] able to live off of that for a while, which was super helpful for me.
As a survivor who wasn’t physically injured or didn’t lose a family member, I wasn’t included in a lot of the community fundraising. All of that went to people that were physically injured and spent time in the hospital, as well as families of people who died. People who experienced just psychological trauma, or didn’t have any physical injuries, weren’t included in that at all.
Without Red Robin’s Giving Fund, I don’t know what I would have done. I was still able to receive checks and take a lot of time to heal. I mean, it took almost a year to heal [enough to be able to return to work]. I went back to work for about three months after that, and then found a different job that was a lot more therapeutic for me.
I actually started therapy in August, which was I think was a solid month after everything happened. Luckily we were provided with resources through [the Aurora Mental Health Center]. So anybody that had survived the shooting, or had a family member who was there, or was closely tied to what happened at the theater, [we] were able to receive free mental health care for as long as we need. So it’s basically lifelong free mental health services.
I still don’t know where I’d be without that. That was a huge, huge thing for our recovery. Some of my friends didn’t get into therapy until much later ― particularly my friends who were physically injured, because they were dealing with their physical injuries, healing from those, and doing check-ins with hospitals to make sure everything was OK. So their mental and psychological health kind of got put on hold because of their physical injuries.
But because I didn’t have any physical injuries, I was able to get in right away and take advantage of the resources that were available. And I’m still in therapy. Not as frequently, but I still see a therapist when I feel like I need to.
As told to Anna Almendrala. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.