Saturday, October 3, 2009

Abnormally Normal

Yesterday, I spent the day training crisis team members in Group Crisis Intervention. A big part of the material for the first day of the class is learning to distinguish normal stress reactions after a traumatic event from those which may require more intervention. Sometimes, the difference is pretty obvious (shaking is normal, bleeding is not). Sometimes, however, pretty disturbing symptoms are considered normal. For example, it's not at all unusual for a traumatized person who is usually quite calm and collected to jump at even relatively small noises. I think about 80% of the benefit of early crisis intervention comes from telling people that they are normal.

However, I never use the world normal to describe these things, because they don't feel normal. Someone who cannot concentrate for 30 seconds on the simplest task does not like to hear that he or she is normal, because that seems to be saying that they should feel OK about it, and they don't. I prefer to tell people that their reaction is a typical reaction of a normal person to a very abnormal event. That sits easier with most people.

Traumatic events feel inherently random. They disrupt our sense of order in the universe. So it's hard to imagine, sometimes, that either the events themselves or our reactions to them could possibly fall into predictable patterns. On the face of it, that implies that the events themselves are predictable and, by extension, preventable, even though often they are not. The fact that you can make predictions about an event or people's reactions to it once it has happened does not mean that the event is any less horrific or that it could have been foreseen.

I thought about this last night as I read the news that a suspect has been arrested in the beating murders of five members of the Gee family in Beason, Illinois last month. The suspect is the former son-in-law of one of the victims. In other words, a man is suspected of beating his former father-in-law and his family to death. The fact that the suspect is a family member is predictable. Family annihilation murders are often committed by male family members. In fact, I actually predicted that this was committed by a family member when it first happened. This pattern is typical. But I still find it hard to call something so awful by the label "normal."


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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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