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Forgive, Never Forget

For Heather Cameron, the road back was a long, hard journey.

And then on April 20, 1999, three years to the day after her mother was murdered, two teenagers named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold rampaged through Columbine High School, killing twelve students, a teacher and then themselves, and all the feelings Heather had suppressed boiled over. She became obsessed with Columbine, watching every second of coverage on television. Her grandmother had a gun hidden in the house, and Heather would search for it. She never thought about shooting anyone else; her anger was pointed inward.

"I just hated myself," she says. "I knew I was screwing up my life, but I couldn't change. And after Columbine, I started thinking that there was nothing good in this world. That if I grow up and have a family, I'll just screw my kids up and it will be this horrible cycle. I was feeling like nothing was really good or worth it in life."

Heather's grandmother kept a framed portrait of Duncan Cameron above her son's ashes on the mantel in the living room. One day soon after Columbine, Heather was listening to the radio when Everclear's "Father of Mine" came on the radio. "Father of mine/Tell me where have you been/You know I just closed my eyes/My whole world disappeared," the song begins. "Daddy gave me a name/My daddy gave me a name/Then he walked away."

 
Bryce Boyer
 
Debbie, Heather and Duncan Cameron on a family trip 
to San Francisco in the early '90s.
Debbie, Heather and Duncan Cameron on a family trip to San Francisco in the early '90s.

Heather snapped.

"That stupid Everclear song was playing, and I walked into the living room and I started screaming at the picture of my dad. I was like, 'Look at me, look what you've done to me! I didn't do anything, and now I have nothing!'"

She collapsed to the ground, weeping. Later that night, her grandmother found Heather passed out in the garage with the car running. Family members agreed that Heather should go into a drug-rehab facility.

She hadn't even finished her freshman year.

Heather landed at Shelterwood, a Christ-centered residential-care facility in Westminster that provides counseling and support for teenagers and their families in times of crisis. "The place seemed like prison," Heather remembers.

"She was just pissed off at the world," says Fran Eckhardt, a "big sister" at Shelterwood who met Heather when she checked in. "She was callused and hardened and pissed off. She seemed very detached from the world."

"I remember that she was young, I think fifteen when she came in, and you could just read in her body language the internal struggles of her identity, the issues of abandonment, the trying to conform to peers," agrees Mike Wilson, a former Shelterwood administrator. "At the same time, she was hostile and rebellious. She didn't want to cooperate; there was just attitude coming out everywhere."

Shelterwood was highly structured, with residents earning increased levels of freedom in their day-to-day routine for responsible behavior. After running wild for three years, Heather was shocked by the change. "I was totally addicted to cigarettes at that point, and I had to quit," she remembers. "There were no freedoms at all. I couldn't talk to boys, couldn't have conversations with other people my own age without supervision. It was like Girl, Interrupted. There were all these messed-up girls. It was very disheartening."

Even worse was the requirement that she attend church on Sundays. "Every time we were forced to go to church, that's when I would get in the most trouble," she says. "We got work hours for whatever we did wrong, and when they tried to take us to church, I would talk back and be so ridiculous, and the hours would just pile up. Because I was like, this is bullshit, this is brainwashing. I was so angry, and something about it really offended me. Being around people who are so good and all weird about certain religious things, it's offensive to be in their presence sometimes."

So she did her best to avoid their presence. For the first time since her parents' death, she found herself without any outlet of escape -- no drugs, no boys, no parties. She was alone. Heather took a long look at herself, and she didn't like what she saw. She began thinking that she wanted something better for her life, that she wanted to become a better person.

Then, finally, she allowed herself to mourn, not necessarily for her parents or all of the terrible things that had happened to her, but for how she'd chosen to respond to those events. She mourned her poor choices.

"I realized that people are very resilient," she says. "Horrible, horrible things can happen to you, but you have a choice, you are capable of becoming better, and in some ways, the pain makes you better. It doesn't have to make you messed up. That was a huge realization for me, because for years I felt like I had the right to throw my life away. I thought I could do whatever I wanted, that things happened to me that were so terrible and sucked so bad that no one could judge me. For the first time, I started thinking that maybe that wasn't the right way to be."

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