Orlando Torres adjusted his black ballcap and peered through a Plexiglass panel, at holes in the back wall of the Pulse nightclub, scars from shots fired three years ago.
He singled out a cinder block. That’s the one that stopped a bullet headed right at him.
Torres and others hid in a bathroom stall on the other side of that wall as a gunman opened fire on the club dance floor. He crouched on a toilet for hours, terrorized by gunshots and screams and a madman pledging allegiance to ISIS.
His cellphone rang. He worried it was a fatal mistake not to silence it. The shooter poked him. Torres’ heart was on overdrive, but he didn’t flinch. The shooter moved on. Why? He’ll never know.
The gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside the gay Orlando night club that early June 12 morning. Torres escaped the rampage, but not the mental torment of his 3½ hours trapped inside. Like many survivors, Torres has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Once a bus driver and club promoter for one of Pulse’s Latin nights, he now drives for Uber and Lyft because he can no longer work in an office with a shared restroom.
He knows it’s not sustainable — not for the Hyundai he has put 60,000 miles on in 16 months or for his own well-being. He wants to get back into therapy, maybe get a psychiatrist, if he can find the time and the money.
“I just need something to correct me or put me in a straight line or put my mind or heart at ease,” said Torres, 55.
Wounds still fresh
Three years after Florida’s worst mass shooting, the psychological wounds for many are far from healed. June marks a celebratory month for the LGBTQ community, but in Orlando, it’s the start of a trying time for survivors, families and first responders.
Frequent reminders of gun violence on the news don’t help. Nor do the conspiracists who harass victims online and call them hoaxsters. Some victims healed from their physical injuries, but not the rejection of their sexuality from their own families.
And then there’s this fact: Florida perennially ranks among the worst states in the country for mental health services and funding. Later this year, a key federal grant that has helped hundreds affected by the Pulse shooting will expire.
Orlando officials, survivors and mental health providers are aware of all of this as they prepare for year three after Pulse. They have studied past tragedies like Sept. 11, and what comes in the aftermath. The research says the milestone will bring new challenges and new feelings that are not always easy to explain.
In a word, they said, it will be “different.”
“It’s a really different kind of year — something else we learned from our colleagues in 9/11,” said Barbara Poma, the owner of Pulse and executive director of the onePulse Foundation. On Monday, Poma stood by Orlando-area members of Congress as they unveiled a new bill that would designate the Pulse site a federal memorial. She hopes to open a $50 million permanent site by 2022.
“They warned us that years three, four and five will be very different. They are. I don’t know how to explain it, but it really is a different feeling,” Poma said. “It’s hard to really wrap your brain around.”
Moving forward isn’t a straightforward path and that becomes more obvious in year three.
Someone who hasn’t experienced symptoms of PTSD may suddenly become triggered by another tragedy or event. It might be the first time they seek help. And some people are looking for mental health treatment after taking a break.
Still, some survivors may think by the third year they should be ready to move on, and, whether or not they are, pull away from counseling services, said Michael Aponte, director of the Orlando United Assistance Center.
“It’s the year where people disappear on us,” Aponte said. “Where you don’t see that much of the people coming and going as we did in year one or two.”
Survivors describe a close-knit community of people who have leaned on each other after the tragedy. They have created Facebook pages and swapped messages of support, especially around this time of year.
LGBTQ adults are more than twice as likely to experience a mental health condition and are at greater risk for suicidal thoughts. The general population doesn’t always understand how the shooting was a terrorist attack on people already at risk, said Sylvia Serrano, a Pulse survivor who also hid for hours in a bathroom.
“We clam up and we close up because we have no one to talk to who understands,” said Serrano, 52. “People think, ‘You didn’t get shot so you’re OK.’ But I saw my best friend die.”
Brian Reagan, 33, initially found solace in the friendships he built long before the shooting while working at Pulse. It wasn’t until months later that he realized it wasn’t enough to deal with the emotions that flooded him when he thought about that night, of who escaped with him and who didn’t. That’s when he started to open up to a professional.
Mass tragedies still trigger Reagan and Torres, but they also said it’s when they’re needed most. Many Pulse survivors reached out to victims after shootings in Parkland and Las Vegas to offer support.
They and other advocates also want to ensure mental health resources remain available for whoever needs them in Florida. Reagan and Torres joined other survivors in Tallahassee this year, calling for the state to make available long-term mental health care.
“This isn’t something that’s going to heal itself,” Reagan said. “We’re at three years and people still feel like it happened just yesterday.”
Not enough resources for help
Mental health advocates have long criticized Florida’s investments in mental health programs. At the time of the Pulse shooting, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute ranked Florida last among the states in mental health spending at $36.05 per capita. On the other end of the spectrum was Maine at $362.
A year after the shooting, then-Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature let expire a $20 million federal grant for mental health programs. Advocates said the state should have had a contingency plan. At the same time, the Central Florida Cares Health System, Inc., the nonprofit that oversees state-funded mental health treatment for the Orlando area, saw a 5 percent cut in its budget.
Scott “kicked us in the balls to add insult to injury,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat.
Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said it was a “shame that people would try to politicize these evil acts.” He said Scott increased the mental health and substance abuse spending to $1.14 billion. That’s about $53 per Florida resident, or $100 less than the national state average.
For the past two years, the University of Central Florida received one-time state cash infusions to expand its vaunted PTSD program for veterans to mass shooting survivors and first responders. But this year, that funding was a casualty of a UCF scandal related to misspent state dollars.
Most notably, an $8.5 million federal anti-terrorism and emergency assistance grant expires in September. The grant has helped pay for mental health care needs of the survivor community across several nonprofits. Some survivors and families who have received free mental health care since 2016 may have to pay for it through insurance once the grant expires.
The Orlando United Assistance Center, a collaboration between the city of Orlando, Orange County and the Heart of Florida United Way, is vowing individuals will not see a change in care. The organization has seen 1,187 people since 2016.
Others are concerned.
“The Pulse victims, they’re a microcosm of what is missed in our population that we deal with every day, every month, every year,” said Candy Crawford, president of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida. “There’s a few of them that can get help, and there’s some that say, ‘Where can we go?’ ”