On October 22, 1999, six months after the Columbine massacre, Carla Hochhalter committed suicide. She went to a pawn shop, asked to see a gun, loaded it with bullets, and killed herself inside the store. She apparently sought to free the family of her illness's burden and give them more time to focus on Anne Marie. Until Hochhalter heard of her mother's death, she had hoped that things were finally starting to turn around for her. The family had moved into a new, wheelchair-accessible home a few weeks earlier. Hochhalter had accepted her injury, returned to school, and was doing well in physical therapy. "On the day of her death, I thought she was at her own therapy," Hochhalter says. "I wanted so badly to believe that it was an accident, but when they said suicide, my mind went blank. I felt helpless, alone, confused. More so than anything, I longed to have her back."
When Hochhalter returned to school, no one knew how to approach her. Students stared at her. Teachers gave her A's even though she expended little effort. She remembers little of her senior year at Columbine or the following summer other than major milestones like prom and graduation. Hochhalter's counselor once described this as "losing time."
Unlike others who had been wounded during the massacre, Hochhalter found herself incapable of moving forward. She took classes at a local community college the year after graduation, but she couldn't muster any excitement about transferring to another college or a career. Though she didn't think it possible, things got even worse during the summer of 2001 when her father moved the family to a mountain home about an hour away from their old home in Littleton. Neither she nor her brother, Nathan, wanted to move. Nathan continued attending Columbine High School in spite of his hour-plus commute each morning and afternoon. Hochhalter, scared to relearn how to drive, had no means of escaping from the mountain's isolation.
"The time I spent living in the mountains was one of my darkest hours. I say this to give others hope that it's possible to rebound from such a dark place, but I contemplated suicide in the mountains," Hochhalter says. "I was no longer able to attend school, and I was not working. I sat around watching TV all day, and it was awful, but I realize now that I had to go down before I could go back up."
A year later, with renewed faith in God and her own capabilities, Hochhalter turned her life around. During the summer of 2002, she bought a townhouse of her own, using some of the money she and other victims received in an insurance settlement from the shooters' parents. The area to which she moved was near a Christian church that Hochhalter had begun attending with the help of a friend who shuttled her from her family's mountain home to church and back each Sunday. Hochhalter learned how to drive again, re-enrolled in college, and got a part-time job at Bath and Body Works. "Even though at one point my new townhouse did not have a working shower, I chose to live there anyway and drive back up to the mountains each day just to shower because I knew I was ready to be out on my own."
Hochhalter's friendship with Sue Townsend is another piece of what helped her feel ready to regain her independence and start a new life. The two women met when Sue volunteered to drive Hochhalter to physical therapy once a week. Sue was mourning the death of her stepdaughter, Lauren, one of the students killed at Columbine, and saw helping Hochhalter as a way to give back in Lauren's honor. Though neither woman could replace the family members they have lost, they have been able support each other as survivors of the shooting and its repercussions.
"When I first met Anne Marie, she was shy and introverted, and now she is a capable, confident, beautiful young woman who has overcome more in her young life than some face in an entire lifetime," Townsend says. "Anne Marie once asked me, 'Do you think Lauren and my Mom had something to do with this?'—the word 'this' meaning the relationship she and I share."