Veronica remembers the day vividly; she attended Columbine High as a Junior. She recalls not even hearing the guns shooting at first – only what sounded like birds chirping.
When it comes to violence – whether domestic abuse, assault or a larger-scale targeting of a collective, like a school-shooting – rarely expected, it always leaves an indelible imprint on our psyche. Seeing the brittle underside of life at its closest range has a way of throwing you completely off of your trajectory, even dismantling the way you engage with the outside world.
Even if you get lucky and sustain no physical injuries, the emotional and mental harm can follow you for the rest of your life and affect those around you. It becomes an unsolicited responsibility for you to now deal with the terrible decision of somebody else – on top of life’s everyday spread.
Just as love and a supportive community can feed and elevate us to higher spaces of our evolution, trauma, violence, and fear take away our power.
Easton student, mom and Columbine shooting survivor Veronica Fuller shares how the tragedy at Columbine High affected her life and how she ultimately took control of its outcome.
At approximately 11:19 am on April 20, 1999, two shooters opened fire in the cafeteria of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Thirteen people died that morning, with 24 more injured in what would go down in history as one of America’s first major school shootings, before they became so commonplace.
“When it happened, it was almost like shell-shock,” says Veronica, “like what happens in war. You’re just frozen and you just can’t believe what’s happening in front of your eyes. Everything paused, and then it became slow motion.”
Once one of the pipe bombs went off, Veronica woke up and ran back inside in panic mode. “I wish BJJ was available at the time so I could have learned how to control my emotions.”
She got lucky that day to emerge with no physical injuries, but the experience would continue to echo within Veronica for decades.
While collective tragedies hit the heart a certain way, sometimes the events themselves can seem remote. Then, the otherness makes a story feel strangely severed from real life. We draw a line between life and others’ suffering.
But life has to go on. Despite the suffering, people all around us – in our lives, our classrooms and our communities – have overcome personal hells to heal, grow and co-create a better future with us.
Bandaids on deep wounds
“Afterwards, I was a mental mess,” Veronica tells us. “My parents didn’t know what to do.” They opted to let her process and leave her alone, but what she really needed was therapy.
Nothing helped. Veronica tells us that after that event, from 17 until the day before she turned 21, she was smoking meth, doing cocaine and severely depressed. The unilateral feeling of helplessness compounded until Veronica didn’t feel safe in her own body.
Unfortunately, in addition to the Columbine shooting, Veronica was also processing some heavy family trauma – being sexually assaulted by her grandfather from a very young age.
Veronica’s mom had her right after high school, and her dad left at a young age. This meant that growing up, Veronica spent a lot of time with her grandparents while her mom was clubbing and going to the gym or on dates. While she raised Veronica as the primary parent, she was never there.
Feeling unsafe in a space which by design should offer safety twists your instincts and intuition, makes you employ coping mechanisms like dissociation in self-preservation.
For Veronica, this manifested in losing a sense of ownership over her autonomy — who she was and could become. She would view herself as undeserving of finding a good person, feeling too tarnished, and the cycle would continue. She made toxic choices with men, including exes who would choke and throw her and surrounded herself with people who would take advantage of her malleable, raw state. Luckily, because her grandfather was a heavy alcoholic, she never became much of a drinker.
“That was the thing that was so easy for me,” she tells us. “I didn’t have to go to rehab… it was easy for me to stop once my uncle was like, ‘Come live with me, let’s get you clean.’”
Healing through BJJ
Years later, Veronica has dedicated her life to making sure she doesn’t repeat the same pattern as a mother with her own daughter, Araya.
The two go to the gym together and practice Jiu Jitsu together. Veronica places a great deal of importance on never making her daughter feel abandoned, alone or unloved.
Tired of the constant impending panic attack at sending her to school every day, when Veronica and her ex-husband got divorced in 2022, they decided to put their six-year-old daughter Araya into Jiu Jitsu at Matrix Martial Arts in Castle Rock.
“I was like, I’m not gonna let Columbine affect me and keep her sheltered,” Veronica says. “Let’s put her in a sport that will benefit her in multiple ways.”
About six months into Araya’s training, Veronica recalls being the mom sitting there on the sidelines trying to coach when Matrix AOD Luma suggested she try a class herself. She was hooked. The owner of her own cleaning company, Veronica offered to clean the academy in exchange for training.
Veronica began to read Transforming Trauma with Jitsu Jitsu by Jamie Marich and Anna Pirkl, and more and more, it felt like confirmation of what she needed to be doing.
While directly after her divorce she threw all her attention at her daughter and her work, she realized you have to take care of yourself first if you want to help take care of others.
Since beginning her Jiu Jitsu journey, Veronica has begun feeling more healed, inwardly focused and comfortable with her body and transformation – which includes working out with a personal trainer for the past year.
“Taking back my power in Jiu Jitsu,” she says, “and really being able to fight men off if needed, it’s a big thing. Compared to a year ago, I’m walking with confidence, shoulders back. Let a mother f-cker come up behind me!”
Through repetitive practice in a safe space, BJJ can work wonders to rewire the body’s stress responses to touch, but it takes first facing and confronting these responses. Through the academy’s controlled environment, you develop trust in yourself, your intuition and your choices, and can reclaim a feeling of safety within your body.
BJJ also frequently puts you in uncomfortable situations, and you have to get comfortable with that discomfort. That means you’ll have people you don’t like to roll with and people you love. You have to learn to deal and adjust. Eventually, Veronica says, that discomfort gets easier.
Today, Veronica tries to take four to five classes a week. This October, she did her first competition at the Easton Open!
“It’s just an amazing world – Jiu Jitsu and martial arts,” says Veronica. “It goes beyond learning the moves; it’s so mental. I eat, sleep and drink Jiu Jitsu everyday.
It’s where I want to be because it’s the most positive environment for me. I’ve met a new family and I can’t thank them enough for accepting me. It’s life-changing.”
Rewiring your experience
When you experience something shattering to your nervous system – physical, emotional or psychological, it can take over your mind and life, becoming the lens for your entire life.
Veronica’s story stands as a reminder that no matter what happens, we can rewrite our own through what we choose to build and grow with the rest of our lives.
Reclaiming a sense of security, safety and presence within your own body can change the entire trajectory of how you approach life.