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Burglary Can Leave Emotional Scars : Anger, Fear May Be More Damaging Than Material Loss

SAFE AT HOME: Local Crime Prevention Efforts. Third of three parts

January 02, 1994|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Davis is free-lance writer who lives in Orange

While Carol Willis enjoyed a vacation out of town at her parent's house, burglars went through her Orange County apartment and took everything of value.

"When I discovered what happened, I was horrified," said the marketing executive. "Before that, burglaries were just statistics I heard on TV. I never dreamed it could happen to me."

Willis' surprise at having her house broken into isn't uncommon, said Lt. Ross Moen, commanding officer of the West Los Angeles detective division. Despite the fact that 186,000 burglaries occurred in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties in 1992, according to the California Department of Justice, "people generally don't think that their time has come," Moen said. "Instead, they are usually very shocked that their safe haven has been invaded."

When they hear the word "burglary," many people think of monetary loss. The truth is, those who have been burglarized find that the emotional damage can be much more devastating than losing material possessions. After a burglary, it's normal to experience a variety of emotions, including a feeling of being violated, helplessness, anger, sadness and fear. The key to healing after a break-in, experts say, is to let these emotions run their course.

Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with after a burglary is the realization that your private space has been invaded by a stranger, said psychologist Mory Framer, who is with Los Angeles-based Barrington Psychiatric Center, which has a division that treats individuals involved in traumas such as bank robberies and explosions.

"People who've been burglarized used to believe that their home was the last safe place, but that security has been breached and they feel violated," Framer said.

Most burglary victims take this intrusion into their private world very personally. "For many people their home, which they see as an extension of themselves, has been penetrated and defiled, and that which was valuable, brutally taken," said Dr. Louis West, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.

This feeling of being violated is more common among women than men. "Some psychoanalytic studies show that many women identify their homes with their bodies," West said. "They tend to decorate their homes in the same manner in which they dress. So, when their home is violated, they feel violated."

Another common feeling that burglary causes is helplessness, Framer said. "If the police come and can't find fingerprints and don't seem to have many clues, you may think no one cares," he said. "Even though logic tells you they deal with a lot of burglaries, emotionally you feel like yours is the special case."

Accompanied by this feeling of helplessness is often a fantasy about seeking revenge on the person who stole from you, Framer said.

Anger is also common, said Amy Stark, a Santa Ana psychologist who specializes in child and family therapy. Her office was burglarized three times before they installed an alarm system.

"You are usually angry at a lot of people," she said. "The jerk who stole from you, the police (where were they, anyway?), society (what's wrong with everyone?) and yourself for not having safeguarded your property well enough."

It is especially heart-breaking when you lose irreplaceable items during a burglary.

"Items such as artifacts, pictures and jewelry that were given to you by your parents or other significant people are links to your past, and it is very painful to lose them," said Framer, who had a rare and valuable watch given to him by his father stolen from his home.

"Personal, nostalgic items, whether they are valuable or not, are irreplaceable," Stark said. "Their sentimental value is immeasurable, and you will probably always be sad about losing them."

After that first burglary, Willis' home was broke into three more times. "The first time, I was younger and hadn't accumulated much," she says. "They stole my television and stereo, but insurance replaced them. What was really upsetting was the third and fourth burglaries when they stole irreplaceable jewelry that had been given to me over the years."

Now Willis keeps all of her good jewelry in a safe deposit box.

Perhaps the most unsettling emotional reaction to being burglarized is fear. "Most of us think of our home as a safe castle, and it's very frightening to have that last bastion of our security breached," Framer said. "It's not uncommon for burglary victims to feel unsafe and have trouble sleeping."

For some people, sleeplessness can last a couple of weeks, while others will remain extremely vigilant and easily startled out of slumber for many months afterward. "There's no definite timetable (for recovery), Framer said.

Whatever you do after a burglary, never minimize your feelings. "People may say to you, 'Thank goodness you weren't home.' Although it is fortunate you weren't harmed, it doesn't mean you shouldn't feel anything," Framer said. "You've been intruded upon and it's OK to feel badly."

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