Life According To Lenson
LOS ANGELES—(The victim’s name in this article was changed to protect her privacy.)
Alone in her upstairs bathroom, Maria hesitated. She heard a scratching sound outside her window, but since she lived in a gated community, she wasn’t particularly concerned. After all, she reassured herself, her dog would alert her to the presence of an intruder. Discounting the sound as being caused by the wind brushing tree branches against the windows, she proceeded to step into the shower.
To her horror, everything she had previously believed about her personal safety evaporated when she exited the shower. As she reached for the towel, she saw a man standing on a ladder, pressing his face against her bathroom window, watching her. Maria’s screams startled the intruder, who fell off the ladder and escaped.
Like victims of crime I have worked with for over two decades, Maria will be changed forever by this traumatic experience. The extent that her long term response will result in good or bad mental health will be influenced by the responses from the first responders, family, friends and community.
Typical immediate emotional reactions to being victimized by crime include shock, anger, fear, anxiety, depression, and sleeping and eating changes. Oftentimes, survivors ruminate on the incident over and over. Short-term cognitive changes also occur, including confusion, memory loss, and poor concentration.
The police are typically the first responders to a crime scene, and their role influences the well-being of the survivor. In addition to getting the facts about the crime, police can help the victim take back control of their lives by providing suggestions on how to assume responsibility for personal safety, such as better home security measures, calling a locksmith, preparing for any legal follow-up, and referrals to community crime victim support groups.
Crime victims can be victimized a second time, this time by police, if the victim is not addressed in a supportive, nonjudgmental manner. In Maria’s case, the police responded quickly, but the interviewing officer’s body language communicated boredom, and combined with the superficial investigation, it conveyed a lack of concern. Already traumatized, Maria’s normal coping mechanisms were not functioning well, and the police officer’s reaction compounded the anger and grief she felt following the crime.
Family and friends are the victim’s support system, and can help by being nonjudgmental, listening without interruption, and simply showing compassion. Caring friends and family often feel the need to dispense advice, or relate the incident to a personal experience, but this can inhibit the victim from being able to verbalize his or her feelings, and may be interpreted as being judgmental.
My goal as a life coach was to help Maria take back control of her life. The first task was to reduce her fear of being victimized again. By contacting a locksmith to install locks on her backyard gates, and blinds on her windows, she began to take control of her physical safety.
The second task was to address the anger Maria felt towards the police. She met with the commanding officer at the police station the following day to discuss the problems she encountered with the responding police officer. Several deficiencies were identified during that meeting. Remedies included the responding police officer being dispatched three days later to Maria’s office to apologize, CSI being sent out to dust for fingerprints, and Maria being interviewed more thoroughly about the crime.
The third step was when I helped Maria understand that ironically, she had to help her family and friends understand what emotional support she needed from them. Her support system is in shock and will react according to their own experiences and coping mechanisms. Maria learned that a friend minimized her crime because she felt vulnerable as well, and denial was a coping skill that worked for her. Another friend gave unsolicited advice, which felt judgmental to Maria. Rather than feeling angry, Maria asked her friend to simply listen, and give a supportive hug. Had Maria not done this, she would have felt an invisible barrier between herself and her support system, and her recovery process would have been complicated and taken longer.
The final step Maria took was to initiate a community awareness of the crime. Organizing a community meeting with the local police on personal safety gave Maria the opportunity to feel more empowered and no longer a victim of her intruder.
There is no guarantee that Maria will never again be victimized by a crime. However, with the tools she now possesses for coping with a crime, she is unlikely to suffer long term psychological trauma.
Eileen Lenson, MSW, ACSW is a Board Certified Coach in private practice. For inquiries about telephone sessions, email her at Eileen@LensonLifeCoaching.comor visit her website at www.LensonLifeCoaching.com.
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