(A special trigger warning applies to this post. Please take care of yourself.)
Survivors speak a lot about triggers. We use trigger warnings on everything we write, we say something triggered us, we apologize for triggering others. Trigger is both a noun and a verb. And triggers are the bane of our existence. For those of you lucky enough not to know, a “trigger” is something that brings out our memories of the trauma that we went through. It can be anything and it draws us back into the original traumatic experience. A trigger can bring on a full-blown flashback, or it can just set off a series of emotional and physical responses. Because they are so common an experience for survivors, I thought I would attempt to write a piece about my triggers to help others understand.
Triggers can be anything. Seriously, anything. A smell. A sound. A seemingly innocuous object. A place. An action. A time of day. Our friends and family are often baffled by our reactions to what appears to be “nothing” to them. Whatever the trigger is, for some reason our mind associates it with our rape or our rapist. When we are triggered, it is a very distressing experience. This is why we post trigger warnings. The last thing we want to do is cause our fellow survivors distress. A rape survivor sees the warning and can judge for himself/herself whether they are feeling strong enough to read on. It’s a “spoiler alert” of sorts.
I do not have as many triggers as I used to, although new ones jump out at me unexpectedly sometimes. A huge trigger for me is my rapist’s name or picture. I had some pictures of him at one time, but I got rid of them for obvious reasons. Luckily, I do not have any good friends or family members with his name. And thank heavens I have never had a student with his name. Unfortunately, even though I have purged the photo albums, he bears a strong resemblance to a particular singer who was popular back in the day. That man’s photo triggers me. As does seeing anyone who looks like my rapist. Once, I saw him at the grocery, and that set off a flashback and panic attack.
My biggest trigger is the feeling of being held down or restrained in any way. Now, people rarely hold me down. But, the triggering feeling has come up in normal romantic relationships. A hug that lasts too long and makes me feel trapped somehow. Tickling. Having someone, especially a man, get too close to me or block my way. Having my husband (in a move of affection and love) pull me back into the bed when I get up in the morning. It should be a romantic gesture…”Come back here you beautiful thing. I cannot bear to have you leave my side!” But not for me. It’s very triggering, even now.
Other odd things: the light fixture I described in an earlier post and any light like it; being coerced into playing the piano in public; V-necked shirts on a man; a certain tone of voice. And of course, hearing stories about other survivors’ rapes. News stories about assault and rape. Those are very upsetting for me.
I do not know exactly how other survivors feel when they are triggered. I used to flash right back to the event and I got to watch it play over and over again in my head like some kind of sick horror movie. Luckily, that rarely happens anymore. Now it’s just a feeling I get. It’s emotional and physical at the same time. I have two types of “triggery” feelings.
The first is what I call my “normal” trigger. How sad that I have a normal trigger. This is similar to what I expect people refer to as “panic attacks”. For me, my heart races and pounds. My breathing gets very shallow and fast. I get a tingly feeling in my arms and I wish for all the world that I could jump right out of my skin. I often will physically leave the room. I will cry and sob loudly. The emotions are panic and fear. Sometimes anger, but mostly terror. I pull away from whoever I am near (especially in the case of the hugs I described above). I get cold and shaky. This can last anywhere from just a few seconds to a half an hour. Sometimes the emotions linger on longer, but the physical aspects usually fade if I can get away from the trigger.
Lately, though, I have been getting a different kind of trigger. It’s my survivor story trigger. The downside of sharing my story with others is that I have been hearing theirs–and it breaks my heart. It’s very therapeutic and wonderful to find people who understand me. But their stories can be so very awful. And it’s brought out a new trigger feeling.
The first time was after reading a very young girl’s horrible, horrible story of abuse. It was heartrending. This time, the emotion was not fear. It was overwhelming sorrow and grief. It just washed over me and would not leave. My heart was not racing. Instead, there was a nervous, fluttery feeling in my heart. My arms were tingling, numb, and heavy. So very heavy. It was as if they couldn’t move. I got a huge knot in the pit of my stomach. Instead of the rapid, shallow breaths, I was taking deep slow breaths. Even breathing felt heavy, as if it was a great effort. It was the trigger of empathy and shared suffering.
I know this was a very long post. I am sorry for that. It’s been a long time in the writing. But I felt it needed to be discussed. What triggers you? Do your triggers feel like mine? When people say they were “triggered” I always wonder if it’s the same for everyone. And if you have any other words I can add to my word art, I would love to make it a collaborative piece to help others understand this difficult aspect of trauma and recovery. Most importantly, how do you handle the triggers? What helps you?
Thank you for bearing with me tonight.