Last Friday I was scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook and started seeing friends post tributes to a young woman in Louisiana who I quickly realized was in the Cajun music scene. The friends I saw posting about her are Cajun musicians. So is my husband, which is why this story got my attention. I was curious if he knew her so I clicked on the link.
As I read the story, it revealed there was another mass shooting attack (I can’t believe I even have to say “another” because one is too damn many). After reading the story and coming to some conclusions, I’d like to create somewhat of a picture of connections. I got to the end of the story and read some comments from TV news anchors that used to work in my hometown. They remarked how the shooter used to call them at the news station to complain about politics and I realized the shooter was from my hometown.
I moved to Columbus, Georgia when I was ten years old. My first night on the air at Lite 107.3 alone in Columbus was in July of 1994. I was 17 years old. About an hour into the shift “Henry” calls me and tells me he is going to put snakes in my mailbox. Henry sounds drunk and Henry sounds not very stable. I did what any paranoid 17-year old stuck in a really old cigarette smoke-filled radio studio all alone might do. I called the cops. When the police arrived I told him what happened. This is about 3 am and I’m exhausted and stressed out from making sure I cue the CD’s and commercials at the right time and remember to read the liner cards on the air right. Here’s what the officer said: “Have you watched the movie Play Misty For Me?” I said no so he decides to continue by telling me that it’s about a psychotic radio fan. I certainly felt completely safe and at ease by this new information. Despite the officer completely freaking me out for the next year of my career, it was nice to have some company. Henry called back a lot that night. Henry was a staple of my radio career for the next three years that I worked in that market. After a while, I stopped being frightened by Henry’s calls and started seeing him as a sick man. One that I hoped was harmless.
When I read the Louisiana movie theater shooting story and realized that John “Rusty” Houser had been known to call TV personalities in Columbus, my mind raced. Had he called me during my radio days? Was he like Henry and the countless others? I did some research. Turns out he once ran for office in Columbus but left the race after he was accused of stealing opponent’s yard signs. He’s a man with a law degree and a long history of mental health problems. Columbus is a small town so I imagine that our paths crossed at some point in some way. I did see on Facebook that my close friend Matt from high school was Rusty Houser’s neighbor. He posted about them having an argument on his porch. I (perhaps selfishly) thought, what if he’d pulled the gun back then and hurt my friend or others that I know and love in Columbus. Instead he would go on to become increasingly ill over the years and eventually cause tragedy.
Here is the second part of the picture. In the beginning I mentioned that my husband is a Cajun musician. He traveled to Louisiana to learn from the best and he played in a band where we live. Jillian Johnson, who was 33 and deeply entrenched in the Cajun music scene in Louisiana, knew many of the same people my husband knows and it is clear that she touched every one of their lives in a deep and meaningful way. Jillian, along with Mayci Breaux who was 21 and about to start nursing college, were gunned down by Rusty Houser.
There is a reason I’m sharing these details that aren’t seemingly important. A man drove from the hometown we share and took the innocent lives of two women and wounded many others. One of which was deeply connected to the music community my husband is part of. Let’s go back to that word: community. It’s a big word. WE ARE ALL CONNECTED. How can we not be? I lived in a community with the shooter. My husband and many friends are part of a music community with this young woman. We live nowhere near where my hometown is or where the shootings occurred so that kind of connection proves to me that we’re all woven together somehow.
Rusty had been institutionalized in the past. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He wasn’t getting better. Why? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know where community failed him. Possibly it was long before he was born.
I know what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder everyday and to choose to be well, but not everyone even has that luxury. I believe WE CAN DO BETTER. I believe it’s going to take everyone working and wanting to have a part in making it better. We HAVE to make stronger communities and we HAVE to learn empathy. We MUST END THE STIGMA of mental illness, addiction, and bipolar disorder and truly help those of us who fight our demons every single day. My love goes out to all of the victim’s families. Rest In Peace Mayci, Jillian, and Rusty.