The unexpected trigger.

Big trigger warning: includes references to sexual assault and suicide.

I’m not a fan of triggered. The word, not the experience, though I dislike the latter as well. People use “triggered” the way they use “OCD.” It’s colloquial, not diagnostic, and they don’t mean it clinically. Usually, it means they’re uncomfortable.

To be uncomfortable isn’t fun. To be reminded of things we’d prefer to forget is miserable. I hate the memories that make me squirm. [i] But to be triggered is to be more than uncomfortable. To be triggered is to be thrown back into trauma. It means we’re turning on the PTSD.

What sets you off can make sense and seem logical, or it can seem random and utterly unconnected. You won’t know what your triggers will be until you encounter them. Luckily, once the knowledge is acquired, steps can be taken to avoid, mitigate, or fix.

I’ve been emotionally hot of late. I’m a live wire, an agitated exposed nerve. I’m on edge and quick to overreact. I’m reactive. My anger is near the surface, my PTSD is acting up, and I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve had explosion after outburst, overreactions to the mostly benign. It’s unusual behaviour for me in the general course of events.

And yet, I didn’t dig deep. I have PTSD, and that was explanation enough. I assumed it was something but couldn’t be bothered to pursue it, for all that I discussed my anger issues with my therapist each time I lost or nearly lost control.

Part of me likes being able to lose control.

I used to hate November. I considered the month to be bad news. Granted, here in the northern hemisphere, it’s a dark and dreary time. But things were bad even when I accounted for that. November started ugly and carried on to worse. My depression would become severe. My anxiety would escalate. My eating disorder and self-mutilation would crank up to the nth degree.

I’d puzzle over that fact while standing in front of the mirror in my black velvet dress. I’d put it on every November. It was the first adult dress I ever had, and it was beautiful. Form-fitting, sweetheart neckline, and an ankle-length taffeta skirt. [ii]  

I was raped in that dress. November 1989.

A lot of years passed before I realized it was the anniversary setting me off. That and the already-mentioned self-torture. When I finally threw it away, the relief was immense. [iii] Ditto when I realized why November was a challenge.

When you know why things are going wrong, you can fight back.

It was knowing that made things better. November still triggered me, but a little less every year. Eventually, November was just a month.

I snarled at my son a few days ago. His hair was greasy. His hair is often greasy, and that’s a problem for me. [iv] I immediately worry he’s depressed and headed for, at best, a breakdown and, at worst, self-inflicted harm. Because the haphazard personal grooming of a twenty-one-year-old male could have no other cause. They certainly aren’t a lazy, messy, and somewhat slovenly cohort. [v]

Anyhow, he responded with, “thanks for telling me I look like crap.” I snapped back and accused him of being so insanely overreactive that he’s impossible to deal with. Ever. My son is innately Stoic and even-tempered, with solid boundaries. He struggles some because of his ADHD, but he’s definitely not emotionally overreactive. I then locked myself in my room and stayed there until everyone had left the house. Because everyone hates me and treats me badly all the time. My thoughts were racing, aggressive, vindictive, and unkind.

I was glad when the last person left, and I was alone, but I didn’t come out of my room right away. I was feeling a little destructive. All I wanted to do was throw the dining room chairs off the balcony and crash the entertainment unit onto the floor. The chairs because my son never pushes them back under the table, and the television because, rage. As I can’t afford a new TV and didn’t want to clean up a meltdown mess, sequestering seemed like a good plan. Besides, it offered more time for sulking and reflecting on the ways I’d been done wrong.

I worked up a good head of steam. I had big plans to dump on everyone for their constant mistreatment of me. [vi] I turned off all notifications, blocked emails, and oddly, put a downstairs lamp into the storage room. I deny you light! I had plans for some shady, self-pitying, passive-aggressive social media posts, but unfortunately got smacked with perspective in the form of someone asking about their girlfriend and the pandemic “moustache” she’s refusing to shave. [vii]

Mind your business, I thought.

Crap.

Dammit.

I hate perspective. I hate it when I’m in the wrong. That’s the problem with acting when I’m lit. The lizard brain is in charge, and logic leaves the building. My amygdala is a pain in my ass.

I was one hundred percent wrong this time. It’s his life, his hair, and not my business. And, mentioning it in front of his girlfriend and grandfather? Even more wrong. All of which I told him in a message I sent right away. Never wait to apologize. Thank God my son has grace.

What the hell was wrong with me? I probably should’ve asked that question when I tried to destroy the kitchen counters with my now-deceased staple gun. I have, however, finally figured it out. It’s my son’s girlfriend’s fault. Sort of. It’s her age – she just turned twenty – and her life – she’s going to university. She reminds me of me, though I didn’t realize that until I started wondering about why I wanted to tear down my world.

You don’t always know when you’re triggered, especially when it’s new. I buried the emotional connections to the things that went wrong in late May and early June so many years ago. I don’t think about that period in my life much. I don’t talk about it either. No one in my family talks about it, and the friends I had from before all drifted away. Nothing clears an address book faster than suicide attempts.

Nineteen going on twenty was a bad year. My eating disorder was on fire, I had generated some serious debt, there was the aforementioned rape, mental illness was making daily life a hellscape, and I tried to kill myself twice. The first attempt was somewhat half-assed, though stitches were needed. The second attempt was not. I exist only because of a strange twist of fate that saw my father calling unexpectedly. Things after that are blank until the emergency room. I got pumped and charcoaled, and a forty-eight-hour trip back to the psych unit.

When you know why things are going wrong, you can fight back.

As soon as I realized what was setting me off, I calmed down. The rage-fire went out, and I felt lighter and more at ease almost instantly. I still have annoyingly crap to deal with, so that’s a bit of a pisser, but the emotional relaxation is a thrill. I don’t mind being damaged when I’m only hurting myself. I hate it when I start raining misery on the people around me. And the relaxation of the overly-tight chest is bliss.

At least I’m not starting from zero when it comes to laying the past to rest. I’ve journaled, shared, hugged, and cried my way through issues before. And although silence is the order of the day in my family of origin when it comes to most of my crazy, other people in the world will listen. I don’t think it will take long to resolve. Bad things happened, but the wounds are old, and the scars have mostly faded with time.

My reaction is real, built on remnants that responded with fear. Logic, however, can be applied. I’m not my son’s girlfriend, and she isn’t me. And my pain, though also real, is old. It’s time to let the forgotten remnants go.  

A lot of words to say that while being triggered sucks, leaning in, contrary to every impulse, is the better choice. Fleeing sounds like a good idea, but you won’t end up where you want to be.


[i] One day, I will run into the lovely young man who took me to prom, and who I treated very badly. I will explain and apologize. I hope, sincerely, he’s forgotten both the prom and my existence. I hope, probably futilely, that my actions didn’t cause pain.

[ii] I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before. I’d link it like a good blogger, but can’t be bothered to deal with the WordPress search engine. It kind of hates me (I’ll probably find the link anyhow, which makes this endnote moot).

[iii] I like donating to charity. I take good/obsessive care of my things, so what they get is of good quality. I binned that dress, though, and if I could have, I’d have burned it. That dress was bad karma.

[iv] The Grammarly suggestions of “smooth” or “slippery” instead of greasy amuse.

[v] I lived in co-ed dorms at university, boys and girls on alternating floors. The smells from the boys’ floors were horrifying. The maids were not paid enough. No money would have been enough. I hope they purified each floor with fire every summer. That being said, I’m aware, not all boys.

[vi] Yeah, that’s not a thing. Generally, my friends and family treat me well. Currently.

[vii] There was a picture. It’s the most minor amount of hair. It’s probably revenge because he never puts down the toilet seat.

By Em

I like writing. Words help me unpack my thoughts so things start to make sense. I suppose that once I figure out life, the universe, and everything (my thanks to Douglas Adams), I'll have nothing left to say. "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing, and learn as you go." E. L. Doctorow

10 comments

  1. I have mixed feelings about the word trigger. It can happen to anyone to have something only vaguely related trigger a reaction to something else, but what gets triggered in PTSD is entirely different. Leaning in sounds like a very good approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad you are able to fight back.
    BUT, I did want to tell you that it’s OK to want to help your son. Greasy hair can make for a not-so-good first impression and lead to a spiral with lacking hygiene care. Not pushing the chairs back after you leave is one of my pet peeves. It’s just common courtesy. Everyone should be taught that, I think. Heck, stop people from leaving a restaurant until they do that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. You are the first person on “team tuck that chair.” And, funnily enough, though I did apologize, he’s started showering more. You were right, I think. He needed the boot.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this post. I also took a long time to discover the triggers and that it was causing PSTD – something bad I experienced as a child. When the triggers are unavoidable, sometimes it’s hard as you have to live life. For most the normal things in life may seem effortless but it is not the case with me.

    Like

  4. It’s pretty screwy how triggers can exist subconsciously like how you can hate the month of November and not be sure on why exactly. I’m glad to put the pieces together and figured it out because like you said, once you figure out what the actual cause is you can take steps to mitigate the damage. Good post, and love the honesty.

    Liked by 1 person

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