Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Trauma of Being a Hero

The mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett, was attacked by a man with a pipe last night at the Wisconsin State Fair. That's the headline, at least. What it turns out is that the man was not after Barrett at all, but rather was attacking a woman when Barrett heard her calling for help and started to dial 911. The man then turned on him. He is in stable condition at a hospital in Milwaukee.

This is a good place for a reminder that one never, ever, ever tries to do early crisis intervention work with primary victims who are still hospitalized. If we keep Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in mind, physical needs come first, and right now Barrett needs to worry about getting well (some of the worst research used to try to debunk CISM, by the way, has been done on victims still in the hospital). So I'm actually not going to talk about how one works with someone like Barrett.

What I would like to talk about, though, is what happens when someone is hailed as a hero. It's not uncommon at all for someone who acted heroically during a critical incident, no matter how successful they were, to be particularly badly impacted by the incident. The two things we hear most often from the "heroes" are, "If people knew how scared I was they wouldn't be calling me a hero" and "If I were a hero, everyone would have been OK." In this instance, it wouldn't be surprising if Barrett is feeling ashamed of his fear and ashamed of having been beaten up. I think that shame is misplaced, and you probably do too, but this is not an issue of reason, it's one of gut emotion.

What even further complicates processing an incident in which you are the hero is that, well, everyone says you're a hero. If you are walking down the street and someone attacks you, people understand that you are impacted. They offer support and cut you some slack. If you are walking down the street and see someone else being attacked and intervene, and in the process get attacked, people call you a hero and talk about how great you are, but often they forget that you are still impacted. You still need that support and that slack, but you are less likely to get it.

This can easily become a vicious cycle. You feel ashamed of how you felt or of not having been completely successful. Everyone treats you like you're fine, because after all, heroes are strong. Now you feel ashamed of feeling ashamed, because the world is telling you you're not "supposed" to be. And on it goes.

So, Tom Barrett, you are a hero. You may well have saved that woman's life. And you probably were scared out of your mind. As it turns out, being scared was a good instinct, because that guy was dangerous. I'm glad you're going to be OK physically, and I hope you give yourself some time to heal emotionally, too.

As an aside, I really couldn't let go by the quotation in the article from Patrice Harris, the spokesperson for the State Fair. She said,
it's our understanding it was just a domestic disturbance and he had replied to someone's cries for help when he was attacked.

This is a wildly unfortunate choice of words. There is no such thing as "just a domestic disturbance," and someone who would attack someone with a pipe for calling 911 could easily have seriously injured or killed the woman involved. I don't care if you are married, or if it's your girlfriend or your child or whomever. When you get violent, it's violence, and there's nothing "just" about it.


Alian said...
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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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