Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sharing Our Trauma: The Pittsburgh Gym Shootings

As you all know, on Tuesday night a man walked into a fitness class at a gym outside Pittsburgh, turned off the lights, took out a gun and opened fire, killing three women and injuring many more before killing himself. I posted about this a few hours later from my perspective as a former Pittsburgher with friends in the 'Burgh.

As is often the case in highly publicized mass shootings, there's a lot of "woulda shoulda coulda" in this situation. The shooter had been planning this a long time, had done several "dry runs" of one kind or another, and had a blog that was pretty explicit about what he intended to do. It's hard to wrap our head around the notion that no one saw this coming. And would you want to be the gym employee who showed him, when he asked, how to turn out the lights? It's awful.

Because I came to this story from the perspective of a former Pittsburgher, I was somewhat surprised at how much of an impression this story made on the rest of the country. I had taken "ownership" of this incident from the perspective of my own history, but many more people identified with being in a fitness class. The most chilling thing I heard was a discussion on NPR's "Talk of the Nation." The host, Neal Conan, remarked that many women heard the news and said, "That could have been me." Rene Balcer, head writer for NBC's "Law & Order" commented,
But it's interesting, the reaction that could be me, because there are probably a lot of people who might be thinking of that gunman and saying that could have been me. . . Because, you know, one of the things that one of my detectives has said is, you know, bad men do what good men dream.
I don't know if I agree with Mr. Balcer on this one. It certainly doesn't resonate with me personally, but perhaps I'm simply not of the right background. Maybe women in this instance identify with the victims and men may identify with the shooter (and maybe not -- male readers, what do you think?)

But all of this got me to thinking. Incidents like this are a nationally shared experience. We aren't all traumatized as the people who were there are, but on a national level we have heard the same horrifying news and identified in a personal way with it. Perhaps the greatest example of this, of course, was 9-11, when the whole country suffered secondary trauma en masse.

When we do Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISD) with those involved in traumatic incidents, one of the most powerful and beneficial things that happens is that participants realize they can support each other. This small, homogeneous group has gone through a common experience, but often they have kept to themselves in trying to process it. CISD helps them realize that they went through it together and they can be together in dealing with it too. Because different people tend to struggle with different aspects of an incident, they can offer each other perspective from someone who has truly "been there."

Wouldn't it be nice if our society supported us in being able to do that with these shared traumas? What if the conversation could get past, "Wow, that was freaky" and into, "I'm having trouble with this, are you?" What if being freaked out wasn't just something to say, it was something to get help from friends and colleagues about. We don't really like to talk about our feelings in this society. It's seen as a sign of weakness and instability. And as a result, we deprive ourselves of the best coping resource there is out there -- each other.


Nick Arnett said...

I enjoy your blog... not sure if I've written this before, but I have a permanent link to it at - the Bay Area CISM Team's site.

I'm a former Pittsburgher, too. I've been on the streets of Bridgeville in an ambulance countless times, often taking people to Mayview State Hospital, which is long closed.

I've found myself making the same sort of wish you expressed here, but about the wars our country is in. As someone said, if often feels like the military is on its own and the rest of us are supposed to go with life as usual. That's impossible, of course, for those of us who have lost a family member in the war. But I think it really is impossible for everyone - we're just good at distracting ourselves and pretending it isn't affecting us.

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

Thanks, Nick. Gratifying to know someone other than my friends and family read this!

We are indeed masters of self-deception. Often that's a good thing, because it prevents us from constantly retraumatizing ourselves and cowering in anxiety. But when it keeps us from being human to each other and facing the reality of the decisions we make, we have a problem.

Fellow Quarterbackers, please check out Nick's site at (there's a link in my blogroll). It's got some great stuff from the fine folks of the San Francisco Bay Area CISM team.

Nancy Dubuar said...

Hi Naomi,
The "this could be me" hits me, because I have been to that mall many, many times. It's close to my friend, Susan's house, and we go shopping at Joanne fabric, eat at a Chinese restaurant, occasionally stop at TJ Maxx or Big Lots. It was in the places I frequent when I was hanging with Susan.

Also, one of my co-workers, who is currently on medical leave, was close friends of one of women who was killed. The woman who was killed helped take care of her children while she was hospitalized.

It all feels just too close to home.

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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
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