‘Katie, get off the couch!,’ was the last thing I heard before witnessing the shattering sound of the gun.’: Woman overcomes extreme trauma to marry love of her life

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“It’s been 12 years since I was shot in the face.

I was a freshman in college living in the dorms delighting in way too much stir fry and frozen yogurt at the cafeteria. I was suffering a very recent heartbreak from my high school and into-college boyfriend. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I was making new best friends in my sorority. I thought I was cool drinking Framboise and Hefeweizen with my fake ID. I remember deep feelings of insecurity and rejection. I drove a ‘98 blue VW beetle and it was always a mess, but I loved it. I was having the time of my life feeling like I was ‘so old’ because I could make my own rules. Silly me! I like to believe I was your average 19-year-old. So I thought…

You see, some not-so-friendly, non-college kids, crashed a house party I was attending.  Not in a ‘Wedding Crashers’ type way, rather, literally crashing, fighting, and well, shooting the party (me) down.

‘Katie, get off the couch!’ was the last thing I heard before witnessing the shattering sound of the gun. I’ll never forget looking down at my trembling hands as if I was a character in a war movie. Except, this wasn’t fictional. This was real and raw and urgent; no life experience could have prepared me for the intensity of what I was to see, hear, feel, and ache over. The shooting was that pivotal moment that created a timestamp of my life before, and my life after.

The blood was as red as a firetruck. It was warm like bath water as it flooded my fingers, wrists, and body; its velocity out of my face was as fast and fierce as an angry fire hose. I remember quivering, uncontrollably, as the side of my head felt like it might be lying on the floor next to me. The 45-caliber bullet tore through the right side of my face. Gliding along my jaw line, the smoldering hot metal came to rest in the fatty tissue in my cheek. No exit, only an entry wound. Shock granted me permission to feel and act like a helpless child, completely relying on my frightened friends to channel their inner pretend paramedic.

Woman who was shot in chin lays in hospital bed with bloody chin and bloody white shirt
Katie Rae Rios

The moments following were complete chaos. I remember fellow classmates running, screaming, and ducking. The room was dark and musty. I don’t have memory of how I got from the couch to the other side of the room, but I remember my legs marching in fear as I pressed my clammy back against a wall holding my face as tightly as I could. While pain was the initial sensation, in these moments to follow, I went into complete survival mode as I pleaded with God that it wasn’t my time. I could faintly hear my friends repeating, ‘Stay with us Katie, stay with us’ as my vision blurred to a pinhole size.

It was February. I was confused and terrified laying in the grass in the bitter cold weather waiting for the ambulance to rescue me. My friends were incredible first responders; shirts were removed to create a tourniquet, they carried me and held my head and stroked my face to calm me. Somehow, their emotions were calm until I was rushed away. They saved me and I’m forever indebted to their bravery and the hope they instilled during those tragic moments.

It was my mama’s 50th birthday. Unfortunately, she received a police phone call sharing the worst news you could imagine instead of a phone call celebrating her 5 decades. This story isn’t worth sharing without my mama in it. You see, she’s always been the spiritual rock of our family. I swear she has a direct line straight to heaven’s gate and God on frickin’ speed dial. This part of the story from my mom was revealed years later and it was crucial to my healing process.

‘The same day Katie was shot, I was on my daily walk when I was taken by an overwhelming need to pray for her. I remember asking God to give Katie a wake-up call. My hope was that she would begin to listen to reason, and develop a deep, abiding love for HIM. I recall pleading, ‘do whatever it takes to give Katie a heart for You.’ I reasoned with God that if she understood His love for her, she would grow the strength and wisdom to conquer whatever life may bring.

Little did I know she would receive a gunshot wound to the face less than 24 hours later…not quite the wake-up call I had in mind. The events that followed my prayer were clearly and creatively scripted, and carried with them a message of love more powerful than I could have ever imagined.

I believe there are a multitude of reasons why God allows painful things to happen. I choose to believe that my need to pray on that particular day for a ‘wake-up call’ was a type of preparation or warning for the sudden impact that was about to take place. I remember when I heard the words ‘there’s been an accident, and Katie…,’ my heart dropped and my eyes began to well with tears. Then, I recalled my prayer and all I can say is that I was overcome with a profound sense of peace and knowing that my prayers for Katie were being answered. I had the peace that passes understanding, and I know it was from HIM.’

For months my mama knew this was coming. It was like she gave God permission, on that very day, knowing and trusting him to teach me what I needed to be taught. Talk about a mother’s love! That’s powerful, (and scary!), yet, it profoundly helped guide my understanding of faith and trust.

The morphine raced through my bloodstream resulting in calmness and cooperation with the detectives. Lying on the operating table the doctors told me I was a miracle. They were in awe of this case. ‘This is the best gunshot wound to the face I’ve ever seen. It’s a miracle you’re still standing, let alone breathing.’ Family flew long distances to console me and friends gathered to spend long nights in the hospital. I was overwhelmed with cards, flowers, emails, text messages, and love. The large completely in-tact bullet was surgically removed that morning, just in time for my parents to see me, bullet-free.

Bruises and scars on woman's chin after being shot in chin
Katie Rae Rios
X-Ray of woman's head who was shot in chin
Katie Rae Rios

Transitioning back to normal life was near impossible for me. While it was a miracle that I was alive with little damage to my head, it was difficult to accept the stroke-like face I was left with. At 19-years-old, I longed to be accepted and beautiful and a one-sided smile and mountainous scars wasn’t exactly my kind of external beauty.

Six months after the initial impact of the bullet, I received reconstructive surgery to fix the keloid scars and break up the scar tissue. Physically I healed, yet mentally and emotionally, I was lost. The following days, months, and years were difficult…

Ever hear of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? How about grief? Very quickly I felt very alone in my world. Relationships were all failing, insecurities were growing, and confusion and chaos clouded my vision. I remember my counselor’s words, ‘You have been through a serious traumatic event. It’s okay to not be okay.’ I was lost, oh so lost. I spun into years of survival mode which turned into long seasons of depression, fear, shame, anger, broken relationships, and extreme feelings of panic.

I went from being a straight A student to losing my academic scholarship due to failing my classes that semester. My immune system tanked resulting in lifelong illnesses; eventually I was diagnosed with celiac disease and Hashimoto’s disease. I felt responsible for my life spiraling out of control yet had no idea how to fix it. You guys, I was angry. I was angry at the shooter. I was angry at everyone around me who didn’t have to deal with this. I was desperate to be understood, yet, I didn’t even understand myself. I was fine on the outside, yet inside I was screaming for an escape of emotional pain. To this day, I would take the physical pain over the emotional pain any day. It was exhausting, confusing, and trickled into every element of my existence.

After a year of trying to get back on track in school and be ‘normal,’ my parents demanded I come home. I was angry at them which jolted me into action to take a different look at my life. I was tired of feeling sorry for myself. So much so, that I packed my bags and took off to live in Africa in an orphanage, by myself.

My three months on African soil was an experience that completely shifted my perspective. It made me realize the shooting was FOR me, not AGAINST me. The mindset shift was more powerful than the weapon that tried to kill me or the emotional baggage I was tightly gripping. The lessons I learned in Africa were necessary. I was a new woman full of empowerment, intense GRATITUDE, and boundaries. Can I get an AMEN?! This was another turning point, growing more confident and more open to using pain as my teacher, and forgiveness as my power.

Woman crouches down outside orphanage in Africa surrounded by orphans
Katie Rae Rios

I fell in love after Africa. Not just with travel but with a man who became my husband and the father of our BEAUTIFUL little girl, Ireland. He was dreamy and we traveled the world together! We were determined to have an incredible marriage full of honesty, love, sex, secrets, and most of all—travel. We sat at the edge of an infinity pool viewing a dazzling sunset in Thailand when we decided to start trying for a baby. I was pregnant immediately! I gave birth to a little girl that I sobbed over just at the sight of her. While her birth was intense to say the least, the love for her and my husband that day was indescribable. She was my purpose, my joy, and she and my husband owned my entire heart.

Woman lays in hospital bed crying as she holds newborn while father stands over them
Katie Rae Rios

I decided to quit my job so I could stay home with my angel. This only led to a greater financial stress for our family. We were young and our marriage began to distance as we tried to navigate how to be parents as growing kids ourselves. Our marriage unraveled quickly – the complete and utter shattering of our hearts. Neither of us were equipped with how to support each other in our struggles, which, were completely separate from being parents. He relied on work to cope and I relied on nagging and smothering to cope. Without knowing how to protect ourselves, we both began to flirt with the idea of lust. We discussed this struggle together, but, didn’t know how to use the tools to protect ourselves. It was painful, scary, and stressful on our love.

Our love became faint, and my husband began to fall in love with someone else.

The day I found out about the affair, my husband and I cried together while we held each other. I felt his pain and it makes me ache remembering it. Deep in my heart I wanted to stay, fight for our love; divorce wasn’t an option because I knew it took two people for him to get to that point. Most people are confused by affairs but I wanted to understand it, support him in his shame, and move forward stronger and even more in love.

It would be normal to want to curse your spouse. While I did, I knew his hurting heart. He wasn’t THAT guy. He was an amazing guy who struggled and made a terribly confused choice. I loved him, seeing him at this core, not at his decisions.

A blur of four months later…I was sitting in a law office, puffy-eyed, with a pit in my empty stomach, absolutely drained and exhausted, listening to the kind yet cold, dark-haired attorney explain my rights and the process of divorce. It was absolutely heartbreaking; a torturing feeling, to be exact. How and when did this all happen? I imagine my once best friend, travel companion, kitchen dancing soon-to-be-ex-husband was asking the exact same questions. Somehow, somewhere along the way, there was a lack of intention, understanding, love, patience, trust, partnership and…attraction.

How? How did two good people, who were once a great match, end up saying yes to selling their home, giving away their dog, sharing custody, and literally saying goodbye to a life they dreamed would last forever?

Woman who struggles with PTSD with tears in her eyes and mascara running in selfie
Katie Rae Rios

The heartbreak that followed the decision to divorce was almost unbearable. We loved each other and giving up just wasn’t a part of my genetics, or his. Little did I know that it’s never giving up, it’s giving in to the greater path for each of us. The heartache that came with being a single-mama and mending a broken life (I thought) brought me straight back to the grief and trauma emotions of the shooting. They were parallel, yet such vastly different circumstances. So much of my patterns bubbled up that I hadn’t yet let go of. While it was easy to continually blame my former husband for the pain, it was years of pain I knew I had to dissect. Blaming him held me captive as a victim, and a victim I was not. We co-created this and the more cozied up to owning my sh** and only my sh**, the deeper into acceptance I became.

The nights and days were excruciating. I dated to dilute the loneliness. I was reading, journaling, traveling on several self-discovery retreats, and diving head-first into finding myself. I wished life were different. I cried. I was super lonely. I’d curl up on the couch and listen to the one depressing song on repeat. I’d scroll through Facebook and compare the sh*t out of myself. I’d check my phone 50 times in hopes of something exciting or someone to share life with. I’d question everything. I was human, through and through.

Yet, I committed fiercely to the work. I vowed to not give up on myself! I was a girl who once viewed herself as the victim who transitioned proudly into a (confidently flawed!) Viking. I was a proud single mama has the honor of teaching her little girl the power in owning your own story, the power of vulnerability, the freedom in forgiveness and grace, and the power behind seeing and loving our flaws. And mostly, that we are all capable of destruction. I began sharing my story, and witnessing the healing that occurred in others though my vulnerability. It gave purpose to my story, to our story, and to everyone elses struggles with being human.

Woman who struggles with PTSD stands outside with daughter swaddled to her chest
Courtesy of Katie Rae Rios

You see, divorce isn’t a curse for a miserable life. Neither are affairs, or shootings, or any evil. Divorce has been a catalyst for me to see all my flaws so clearly, and freaking love them.

Seems like an odd thing to say, right?

My dear ones, I’m a flawed human. They. Aren’t. Going. Away. No matter how many prayers, genie lamp rubs, or shooting star wishes I plead for…my ugly is not disappearing. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life fearing my flaws, feeling not good enough, confused, insecure, uncertain, and ironically…unaware of them. It wasn’t the flaws that got me here…it was the ignorance about them that did. The truth is, divorce, breakups, heartaches don’t just happen overnight. Ever. It’s never just one person. Ever. Two people create the situation. Always. It takes two to say, ‘I do,’ and two so say, ‘I quit.’

I stand by my former husband in respect, forgiveness and love as friends and co-parents. The BEAUTY in the mess of divorce is simply the capability to heal, gracefully. AND! I’m TRULY happy to announce that the women he fell in love with is his new wife, my dear friend, and a bonus mama to Ireland.

Can I get another amen?!

Woman stands outside beside husband, ex-husband and his new wife, while her daughter stands in front of them
Katie Rae Rios

GRACE is INCREDIBLE. I truly can’t wait to teach my daughter these lessons. Being bitter is a waste of time. Rather, I get to plan parties, share wine, laugh, cry, and HEAL with the two people that never intended to damage me. They shaped me into a better version of myself. The best part? They also dove into the work. They are wildly worthy everyone’s love and respect. They are willing and allowing me to speak of this because they believe in the greater good of their flaws. They have done the same work I have in owning their mess, extracting the lessons, making it right, and co-creating an incredible life for our daughter. While we may be scared for Ireland’s understanding of all of this I just know she’s seen absolute love, forgiveness, grace, and respect grow out of something that could have shamed us all. Her middle name is ironically Grace. Little did we know HOW meaningful that would be for her…

I’m also thrilled to say I found love again! After I swore off men for a while (after kissing a lot of frogs), suddenly a steamy, hot single dad appeared with an adorable little kindergarten girl ready to meet her teacher. That teacher was me. I don’t know how to describe what I felt when I stared at him, but there was a knowing. A knowing that this would be deep, intimate, and the epic love I had done all the work for.

Woman smiles in selfie while her husband stands smiling behind her
Katie Rae Rios

Months into the school year we were both single and bonded through deep discussions about life, his sobriety, my trauma, single-parenting, and our shared passion for helping people. He was different than any other man. He was the one for me, this I knew. Nine months later, we were married! Next month we will be celebrating our one-year wedding anniversary! Watching our two little girls become best friends and sisters has been such a blessing and an answered prayer.

Groom leans over to kiss daughter who is holding hands with half-sister at outdoor wedding
the light & the love photography
Bride crouches down outside with arms around her two daughters
the light & the love photography
Bride and groom kiss while holding plate with stack of pancakes on it
the light & the love photography

Our whole lives were preparing us for this marriage. This commitment is one of intimacy and vulnerability. It’s rich with honesty and a daily choosing of love. It is wildly graceful, imperfect, and a constant reminder to release fear. It’s granted me the uncomfortable space of healing. It’s authentic and supportive and often challenging and THAT’S the miracle. It’s the work to not hide my daily struggle with doubt, anxiety, and depression. It’s the reminders of choosing ourselves, first. It’s setting new goals, discussing dreams, and paying off debt. It’s adapting to being step-parents and balancing the constant transitions a blended family brings. It’s not ignoring the aches, it’s leaning into them, together. I’m just as emotional and chaotic as I always have been, but, I feel seen and still loved. By my husband, by my children, by my former husband and his wife. THAT’s the essence.

THIS is my story of pain turned power.

Mother smiles in selfie with her husband and two daughters
Katie Rae Rios

You’re reading this, because, you DO love what matters. You may need to take the leap to transition from victim to Viking. If so, I gracefully and lovingly encourage you to trust the process and lean in.

I forgive the shooter. I forgive the pains of the divorce. I lean into the teachings of what aches in order to find the love, the grace, and the freedom that comes with that.

The happily ever after isn’t running off into the sunset, at least that’s not how my story ends. The happily ever after is standing firmly in love, in your truth, no matter the tornado around you. It’s the nudge to become deeply rooted in the desire to allow pain to be our guides and our teachers. To listen more. To invite gratitude into our deepest secrets. To devoid ourselves of guarantees. To dive confidently into committing to do the work on YOU. And ultimately, to remember you are a magical human being full of untapped potential, should you allow it.

Thank you for the space to share my story of learning to love the journey, even when I still have days I want to give up. Connection and graceful love; It’s truly, all that matters.”

Woman stands outside holding her daughter beside husband and other daughter
Katie Rae Rios

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Katie Rae Rios, 31, of Las Vegas, Nevada. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read Katie’s follow up story:

‘I had no one to call. This was a pain even greater than getting shot. Yes, you read right. Right in the in the head with a .45 bullet. WORSE THAN THAT.’

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