Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Devil You Know

There's a wonderful young lady I know, a senior in high school whom we'll call "Hannah," mostly because being a senior in high school is hard enough without having your personal stuff splashed all over an adult friend's blog. At Hannah's school, on Monday, a threat was found written on the walls of the boys' bathroom. There's been no official word on what it said, but rumor has it it was something about how the school was going to "pay for this with lives." Parents were notified, and the school said they were sure there was nothing to worry about.

On Thursday, all afternoon activities were canceled, and before long word got out that another threat had been written on the bathroom walls. This time, people who saw it were asked not to tell what it said. Students were forbidden from bringing bags of any kind to school and had to walk through a metal detector on their way in on Friday morning. About half the students just didn't come.

Last night, my phone rang at 10:45 PM. That can only be a bad sign or a wrong number, and in this case it was the former. It was Hannah, calling to say that police had arrested a friend's boyfriend, a boy she knew but wasn't close friends with, on multiple felony counts for writing the threats. She was a little freaked out.

This turns my usual experience with crisis intervention on its head. Usually, I'm working with the people whose lives or whose loved ones' lives have been disrupted by the "bad guys." In this instance, that was true, but with the added layer that Hannah liked the bad guy, and didn't think he was bad, and didn't know what to think.

There's plenty here to overwhelm Hannah's usual ability to process information and "put it away," as we do with most things that upset us on a daily basis. If he did this, does that make her a bad judge of character, or a bad person? What about her friend, the suspect's girlfriend? And how must she be feeling? How can Hannah support her? What would it be like if Hannah's boyfriend had done this? Is the suspect really violent, or did he make a bad choice? How could he have ruined his life like this? If he could do this, and he seems like a regular person, does that mean that any regular person could do this? Could Hannah? Was she ever in danger from being around this guy? Is it OK to feel relieved that the scary situation at school has been resolved, if the way it was resolved hurts people she cares about? What happened to the sense of security she had about her school? About being with friends? If this guy was dangerous, how would she know who else was?

And this was before the shock wore off.

As we rush to help the victims of trauma and their families, it's sometimes easy to forget that the perpetrators have families and friends, too. Their trauma exposure is different, but it is there, and it is complicated. I told Hannah that she was asking all the right questions, and to give herself some space to not have the answers right now. We also talked about the disturbing realization that if this boy could make such a bad choice, she could too. I encouraged her to remember that while she could have, she didn't. In the words of Albus Dumbledore,
It is our choices that show what we really are, much more than our abilities.

Post-script: Amusingly, in the middle of our conversation, Hannah said, "I'm supposed to be drinking water, aren't I?" I had once told her about a colleague doing an intervention on the phone and telling the person to drink a lot of water, both to help flush out the stress hormones and to give the person something to do. Hannah remembered -- it was a case of unintentional pre-incident inoculation.


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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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