I woke up angry at you today. Not the average “Man that guy is a jerk!” angry, not annoyed. Full on anger, unabated and poisonous in its manner. Anger that is tip-toeing precariously close to the edge of “let me throw a glass against the wall so I can spend the next hour in desperation cleaning up the shards so I don’t get punished and then cuss myself out for being so stupid for forgetting I haven’t been tortured by you in fourteen months” kind of mad. Except when I get triggered so violently, I am still being tortured by you. You might as well be hanging over me with your jack hammer of a finger wagging in my face like I’m a spoiled child having an incessant tantrum in public. Like I’m a bad puppy that had an accident on the carpet in the living room.
For this is one of those Central New York mornings I dread. Winter, subzero temperatures, wind, snow. For this is one of those mornings where I wake up well before my alarm jolts me from my sleep, wanting to scream in agony, but much like I did with you, I held it in. Silence. That endless, unforgiving void where everything goes to die in memory only brought back to life by a trigger.
Perhaps I should explain to you how the violence of my triggers works before I continue. Many people who experience attacks of PTSD and react do so in a very sudden way that is physically visible to the world. It makes it hard to miss that the person, when reacting to a trigger in this manner, is having anything else but a stress-induced reaction to something they were traumatized by at some point in the past. Maybe even something they are still going through.
Mine are definitely not like this. My triggers and my subsequent reactions to them, are dangerous. To who? You? Him? Her? Them? Ah, no. Only to me, even though when the reactions happen, they are do not manifest physically. Mine like to get in the bouncy house in my brain like a brood of 5 year olds junked up on sugar. And how is this dangerous to me if I never act out physically? Well, one of the things I learned how to do the most successfully with Kevin was to stuff the most humiliating, frightening, panic-inducing things into the pit of my bowels and hold it there like a vice, never once letting one crack of emotion split the mask. When I was angry, I was smiling and appeared happy, even when I felt the vessels in my head throbbing and pulsing, warning me they could burst in protest at any moment. When I was on the edge of desperation in my head, and my entire world was caving in around me, burying me alive, I was smiling and appeared happy, even as I devised new and creative ways to end everything. It all looked perfectly in place. No one would ever guess every day of my life could have been my last.
This is dangerous. Maybe not for any of you, but for someone like me, who has learned to spend so much time inside her head, this is perilous territory to reside. For this is how some like me snap. Crack. Jump like a wind-push inferno into madness. Think about it, if everything about me that matters and is important is a matter of the heart or of the mind, and I lose them, is this not death? Is this not a traumatic way to end? For me, this is danger at its ugliest. Not even the brutality Kevin inflicted upon me can compete.
Imagine, then, my anger, frustration, ire, and disgust to wake up from a dream that because of the pain being severe enough that my brain worked it in, included one of my worst beatings I endured while I with Kevin. Imagine the fire shooting through my legs and hips up into my lower back, not being able to move, and then realizing that it was reality. That it was this way because it was zero degrees, 15 below with the wind chill. Because of injuries from him. Because his favorite form of punishment was using a metal bar an inch and a half thick. Solid metal. Probably because the board breaks.
It has taken eight hours to begin to get myself out of this incessant tidal wave of being angry at the world for something only one did to me. I have had to use every last one of my little tricks to overcome the anger, and even still, the annoyed sadness remains. Although, I have to say that I somehow have also managed to keep myself from going off on one of my trademark crazy-fests. There is mild amazement at that, because wrestling that bear into submission is an impossible task.
I am going to get you out of my head. I don’t care if it takes the rest of my day. I want you out. You have a bad habit of not paying your rent, and you can’t live here. And definitely not for free.
As an afterthought, I decided to come back to this post and add a few suggestions for ways you can help alleviate the triggers, their power, control, and the damage they can leave behind. Triggers can be distracting, sometimes causing unnecessary chaos, hurt, physical suffering, or worse, but over time you can learn to control them. Remember a few things, before you think maybe you are just not doing enough to combat them:
One. Remember that TIME is going to have a huge impact on your emotional stability, and accept that you cannot rush your healing. The closer you are to the end of the abusive relationship, the more difficult everything is going to be to handle and overcome. This is because you have spent an extended period of time being abused and you suffer amounts of damage that at this point you still cannot understand. Your brain is going to be working overtime trying to reconcile the sudden transition from being emotionally numb (for the sake of survival – where you push everything down just to be able to make it through, not dealing with ANY of the trauma you endure) to, at times, completely haywire. During this time, you should expect to be triggered often, and when it happens, you will NOT be prepared, and you will NOT (usually) be able to stop it. If you let this play out a little in the beginning and let your mind begin to decompress from the high pressure situation you were in, it will begin to lessen gradually.
Two. Having a circle of support is key. There are always going to be people who misunderstand, misinterpret, or act unkind and impatient. Remember not to let that attitude rub off on you and turn your thinking into self-blame. You should always have a group (online or off) to reach out to when you need them for support. A domestic violence advocate, counselor, a few close friends, and plenty of survivors in this circle are essential to begin to create the feeling of security and trust you are going to need to heal. These confidants, whether old friends or new, will soon be able to pick up mood changes and behaviors that alert them to a possible trigger and they can help your either get through it or stop it dead in its tracks. Never underestimate the power of love, compassion, and unconditional support.
Three. Learn to spot your triggers. You will begin to notice a pattern of things of occurring when you are triggered. The emotional response does not always have to be immediate, but for me, I can say that it feels like a switch is flipped when it happens. My triggers cause immediate reactions. Beware that if you felt particularly in danger during one incident that things like smells, sounds, and images in your mind can instantly pull you back into that moment emotionally. For example, a very specific ring tone, songs, electronic invoice images at work, also certain behaviors that are actually quite innocent but mimic something Kevin did, and even phrases he used can send me emotionally out of control. How can an electronic image of an invoice cause a trigger you ask? If I catch it at just the right angle when it’s magnified and I hear my extension ring at the same time, the first thing I think about is the morning I left when Kevin was calling me threatening me to come home, and I go into an IMMEDIATE panic attack.
Some, like ring tones, songs, commercials, etc., are immediately easy to recognize. Others will catch you off-guard. For example, you may notice that sometimes while cooking breakfast you break into a panic attack and flee the kitchen in fear so intense, you feel like you will die if you do not. You aren’t going to initially notice that maybe it’s a certain food and it’s aroma as it’s cooking. Maybe it’s the pot / pan you cook it in and you look at it at just the right angle. Or perhaps you find yourself watching TV and having a panic attack. Think back to when the attack happened… was it a particular show, an actor’s voice, maybe a specific commercial? The more you train yourself to look for the trigger, the better equipped you will be jam it or alleviate its power.
Four. Adapt behaviors that help you to first lessen your emotional response to the trigger. Simple but powerful things like averting your eyes, concentrating on your breathing, playing with a pet, reading a book, drawing, changing the channel. This will help your brain start to refocus its attention on something else, and the distraction will help to calm you down. Once one hundred percent of your energy isn’t focusing on the panic and fight-or-flight response to your trigger, the tension, desperation, and fear will begin to subside.
Five. Once you have learned to use subtle distraction as a way to help lessen the force of the trigger, begin to try different things to further reduce your focus on them and eventually ways to stop them altogether. These will be different things for different people. To give you an idea of where to start, I did some of the following:
Took up photography, first taking pictures of the things I feared. I can control them through the lens.
- Find a little thing I could wear to remind myself how far I have come. My choice was a pair of hoop earrings, just big enough and heavy enough that every time I move, I feel the weight of them and am immediately reminded of how not that long ago, I couldn’t even wear earrings. Also helps to refocus on gratitude when I have days that I feel angry at the world.
- Bought a laser light to play with my cat. And a mouse. And a mouse on a cord attached to a stick. It’s to stay caught in a panic attack when I see her playing. She is so carefree and so serious about getting that mouse from me all at the same time that I soon forget I was being triggered and laugh at her as she flies around the living room.
- I started actually LOOKING at all the nature around me. When you focus on how beautiful the rustling leaves are, how content that duck is to just bob around on the water all day, how lazily the clouds are as they float by, how the sun glitters on the water, how birds play, it’s impossible to stay panicked. Impossible I tell you, for me anyway.
- Find something you can get every so often to “spoil” yourself. I have many things, depending on my mood: buying a DVD of a movie I loved when I was a child, rings, office supplies (don’t hate!), downloading MP3s, books. And when you feel yourself slipping a little into a trigger, get it out and enjoy it.
- Reach out to someone and just talk about silly things. Make jokes, laugh, remember that I am now free.
- Chocolate. No, seriously.
Six. Sometimes, the only way to avoid a trigger is to avoid the connection with it. The song, the TV show, the food. If it’s something you can do without temporarily until you get a better handle on how to control your triggers, why subject yourself to it? Accept that your emotional response is too powerful at that time to handle the stress associated with it, and as far as you can, just stay away from it. The greatest thing about being free is that you can always go back later and see if the reaction to it has improved. For example, when my dear Kerwyn unknowingly says a certain phrase or does something that I automatically (and wrongly) connect with something Kevin did, I have to do one of two things. Either stop myself from speaking / texting (because it WILL and DOES come out), or tell myself repeatedly until the reaction subsides that this is Kerwyn and he is not doing what Kevin did. This is Kerwyn, not Kevin. Sometimes I have to say it a lot. Now after only a few times, the switch usually resets and I am okay.
Seven. For me the most important. I pray. There are times when the reaction is just so overwhelming, the only thing that helps me back away from the edge is praying to Jehovah. For what? Strength, courage, peace, patience, guidance, forgiveness for myself and maybe depending on the trigger, forgiveness for others. It fills me with peace and has a profound impact on my mood.
How many of the stops have I used today to stay in control? All of them. Today was a particularly bad day for me, but I have gotten through. That’s what matters when navigating these waters. Not that you have a trigger and temporarily lose control. What matters is that you get through another day and that you recognize more and more that you are taking back the power they stole from you, that you are rebuilding your life, that you are figuring out who you are, and that you can be happy, have hope, and feel love and peace again. What matters is that you rise. I don’t care how many times you fall, I only care that you get back up. And if you need someone else’s help to do that, so be it. It isn’t a sign of weakness. To ask for and accept help is a sign of courage and strength, because you are putting your trust and faith that those you reach out to are not going let you fall or make you feel less than because you have baggage.
This is what I did this morning, I fell. Hard. But combining the strength of Jehovah with my own and friends who didn’t even know they were helping me do it, I stood back up. I rose. I overcame. And in time, if this is something you struggle with, so will you.
The most difficult thing for me to control when my triggers strike is being able to keep my sense of time in the proper perspective.