Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting Back on the Horse

The L.A. Fitness in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania reopened yesterday, 18 days after a gunman opened fire on a fitness class, killing 3 and injuring 9 more, and then killed himself. Reports say that the room where the shooting occurred is already being used for classes. The floors and mirrors have been completely redone. Apparently it looks pretty nice.

Upon reading about this, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a member of that club. I tried to imagine going back into that club, into that room, knowing what had happened there. And honestly, I'm not sure I could, not after just 18 days. But at the same time, I know that I go into rooms where tragedy has occurred all the time. As tourists, we often go to see the place where someone famous was assassinated or something terrible happened. My own daughter, who was visiting relatives in Washington, D.C. this week, took a tour of the Ford Theater, where Lincoln was shot.

How can we reconcile the idea that it would be hard to return to a space where someone was killed with the fact that we seek them out without a second thought? Two factors come into play: time and emotional distance. There is no doubt in my mind that it would be easier for me to go to that L.A. Fitness than it would for someone who was injured in the shooting. It's probably easier for me than for someone who is a member but wasn't there that night. I have a cognitive association, but I don't have any sensory connection to that space. When I open up the file drawer on that space in my memory, I have newspaper stories and web photos, but I don't have any visceral associations. What's more, I have no doubt that as time passes that space will become less "loaded" for those who were there.

That having been said, there are probably victims who will never set foot in that building again. When the shooting started, their brains flooded with chemicals that heightened their senses and their memory, a throwback to our days in the wild when it was very important to be able to remember everything that was associated with a danger so you could avoid another one. The sight of that space may well be a trigger for them or, alternately, they may find it distressing that the room doesn't look the same. Over time they may feel better about going there, but maybe not.

The earliest studies on post traumatic stress (which is not necessarily post traumatic stress disorder, remember) were done on soldiers in World War I. They found that if soldiers were removed from the front lines and sent to a hospital for treatment, they were much less likely to return to the line than those who had intervention off the front line but still in the field. Once you leave the place where a trauma occurred, it is that much harder to go back.

That's why, to the maximum extent possible, we always tell people not to send their staff home after a trauma until there has been some opportunity to give them information about critical incident stress and self-care. When they leave when things are still in a state of chaos, that is what they viscerally believe will be there to greet them when they return. When they leave after help has arrived -- help for them-- it's easier to believe that things may be manageable if they come back.

The space where a tragedy occurred holds power, sometimes forever. There was a car accident that killed both parents and a son half a mile from my house four years ago, and I think about it every single time I drive through that intersection. But holding power doesn't mean that power has to be absolute. Healing holds power, too.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle

Blog Archive