You see those words a lot these days on posts and status updates and tweets and such. Trigger. Warning. It’s a caution. It’s a courtesy. It gets used so much it starts to mean nothing. It’s all the above.
I admit, even I grow occasionally weary of the expanding list of things that can trigger people, the warnings that need to be laid plain. And yet, I’m exactly the person who needs them. But maybe that’s why they irk me — just a bit. It’s this idea that we can somehow be prepared for what lies ahead. But anyone who has ever survived a trigger — the free-fall moment you are undone to your atomic level — knows that more often than not the real ones blindside you as you are stepping around a corner on your way to no place special. You’re hurrying to pick up the dry cleaning before they close. You’re texting a shopping list to your partner for the umpteenth time. You just got a flu shot, because that’s what responsible grown-ups do.
Triggers are like earthquakes. They roll up unannounced and unwelcome. They unhinge you from your reality. And they unnerve you with aftershocks that you can never quite be sure are over.
Just like any other day, I took a Facebook break during work. I scrolled through cute baby pics, clever (and mostly not-so-clever) joke memes, and countless political diatribes. I rolled my eyes at the ridiculous weight-loss ads that crop up in my feed, as if I would think that anyone I know would put them there. Do men get these, too? Is this really what being a woman in my late-30s is about — ads for stylish flats, baby clothes, and weight loss secrets? And then it hit me. Right there in my daily routine and my routine thoughts about minor outrages. A photo of the man who sexually abused me for nine years. He had his arm around someone I know. Like … I don’t know. Like he’s just living his life and smiling for the camera because he’s fucking crazy smiling guy without a care in the world.
I ran to the bathroom and vomited.
Then, because my husband was at work and my child was in daycare, I gently folded myself into bed and passed out. Blacked out. Done. My body shut that shit down. Full stop.
It hasn’t hit me like that since I was in college. But I haven’t seen a photo of him or seen him in person in more than a decade, maybe two. I don’t want to stop and think about that, to add up the years. Because, really, that’s just too much time thinking about the worst person I can imagine. He’s the reason why when I’m in a conversation about some person who loses it and kills their lover or when Lorena chopped that guy’s dick off … this man is the reason why I have a moment of clarity about their hysteria. Because I know what it feels like to be treated with such cruelty and tortured for years, and years, and years until you feel like you can’t think straight. Until you feel like the sanest thing you could do is go into the kitchen, get a knife, and then go chop somebody’s genitals off. I’m not saying I ever did that. I’m not saying I would. I’m just saying, I understand that moment of crazy as perhaps a moment of salvation. I’m saying there are times when you’ve been pushed so far that prison sounds like a vacation.
But Lorena is the exception. Everyday people like you and me are the rule. We tough it out. We survive. In a world that could give two shits about sexual abuse survivors, we soldier on. We put up with a society that constantly tells us to just get over it. Like it’s some kind of bad breakup or disaster prom date story. That again? Can you just move on already?
My God, if it were that easy.
I can go a long time between triggers. Sometimes so long that I forget what a whirling vortex they are. It starts to feel like you’ve conquered something, like learning to fly an airplane when you have a fear of flying. But that is an illusion. The hardest part about being molested is the years and years afterward when you get triggered or haunted or fucked up by it somehow all over again. You experience the trauma on such a deep level that it embeds in your cells. It’s attached to your DNA for life. It’s like a disease that goes in and out of remission. Sometimes it feels like it’s eating you alive from the inside. It’s a blackhole. That’s a lot of cliched imagery. Because even now that I’ve been a professional, award-winning, respected writer for 15+ years — I still don’t know how to describe the sensation of being a survivor. I don’t have the words. That’s how bad it is.
I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read or how many therapists I’ve been to over the past 25 years. A lot. Not enough. Too many. Who knows? I’m a pretty intellectual person. I like to know the reason for things. I’m the kind of person who only gets how to cook something after someone can teach me the chemistry behind it. Oh, that’s why! It’s not because I have any kind of a clue about chemistry. It’s because I have the kind of mind that never stops whirring. And it just revs up all the louder when I’m confused or afraid or can’t find the words. How can I not have the words? That’s who I am! I’m writer. Everyone knows that. My whole family knew that before I was even in junior high. It was my destiny, as my old, superstitious grandmother used to say. My destiny to tell the stories of people who had no words. So I can’t NOT have the words! Ah-ha! Double negative. I do have the words! … Somewhere? We could be here all night waiting. … Moving on.
This is the intellectual side of me. This is the part of me that reads all over my face and makes friends smile at me and say things like, “I can tell you are always thinking.” Really? Is that actually a compliment? It seems like if you are really smart, then you wouldn’t have to try so hard that people see it all over your face. I mean, babies have a poop face when they are pooping. Is it really a compliment to have a think face? … This is the part that kicks into overdrive and spins out during a trigger-quake. But the problem with that is, it doesn’t take long for my brain to realize that there is no eminent threat. The danger is not real. Even though the rest of my body is saying that this is not a test. My brain is going, “Nothing to see here! Shut it down.” But the endorphins, and the body’s defense response (quick vomit!), and oh the heart … she is beating. You can’t think your way out of that. You can’t rationalize with emotions. And holy shit are emotions powerful. Crashing in on you. Burying you to your eyeballs. Shut it down. Shut it down!
After all this time and growth and learning and healing and breathing … I would have thought I was strong enough to take a photo by now. I wasn’t really interested in testing that hypothesis, mind you. I just figured I could take it. After everything else, that’s just pixels. Pixels never hurt anybody. They’re not even real. I mean, you can’t touch them. But my God, they can touch you. And I felt all my learning about meditation fly away. I felt all the hours and hours and hours I’ve sweated it out in yoga, chanting ohm, breathing into the wounded places, stretching past my limits — gone. I felt all the tools they teach you in therapy evaporate. I was left defenseless and bare. Alone. Guileless. There was no witty comeback. There was nothing in my head at all. My head was blank. Stopped cold. All I could feel was the rush of panic and then the eventual biology kick in. It was guts and heart and the rush of blood. Because that’s where the old cells are. The old cells don’t even touch the new cells with their evolved, therapeutic ways. The old cells are basic and primal and warrior. Panic. Sad. Vulnerable. And angry. Oh, my old friend Anger showed up just in time. You can always count on Anger to play bouncer to the rush of emotions that want to come storming through the gates.
When my brain did start buzzing again, two memories floated up simultaneously. I remembered that several years ago I had, indeed, talked to this man on my birthday. It was, of course, not by choice. But it happened. And it was terrible. Meanwhile, this other memory bubbled up. I remembered the night my friend offered to kill that man. And, as former military, he was every inch serious. He rather convincingly told me about how it would look like an accident. Just say the word. It was a dizzy feeling. We were driving far too fast down Las Vegas Boulevard. I felt drunk even though I hadn’t been drinking. I remember feeling a kind of fear that I could just say a word. I knew a guy. And it would be done. What was this? The Godfather? I felt fear that it was possible. And I felt fear that even for just the most briefest of moments, I entertained the fantasy. And for all that man tortured me, can i just tell you that to this day I feel guilty about that moment. I feel guilty that for just the space of a breath, I let myself consider what it would be like to say yes.
Why Anger would bring up these memories as the first semi-rational thoughts in my brain … I have no idea. Maybe those are just the ghosts in the machine. A bit of memory flotsam. Just some stuff that shook loose in the quake. A few broken mementos. I felt like somewhere inside my guts I was bleeding internally and for the next three hours I just tried not to throw up again. And then life came rushing in. My family was home and dinner was needed and life events were happening in real time. So time didn’t stop for you? And everything felt loud and bright and hurt. I couldn’t even tell my husband about it until the kiddo was in bed, because how do you even say stuff like that out loud with a three-year-old clamoring for you to color with markers together. And it’s trash night. And that one show starts in 20 minutes. I mean. Yeah.
It was a bad one this time. But the thing I can say is that I got through it. And the tools came back, like muscle memory, sometime while we were watching that show. Something funny happened on TV and I was able to laugh it. And I remembered how to take care of myself in a way that was beyond basic. Maybe I was reduced to my atoms for a moment there — scrambled up in a transporter beam. But eventually I came back to myself. The pieces reassembled. And faster than they ever could have in the past. Because, the truth is, I am stronger now than I have ever been. It doesn’t stop the times when the air gets knocked right out of me and I lose focus on the world for a few minutes (or hours). It doesn’t make it hurt any less intensely. But the duration and the aftershocks, those become less threatening over time. Because even when it is hurting, I know that pain is temporary.
When my daughter falls down, I go to her and if she is not hurt, I tell her to get up, brush herself off, and get back to it. Keep climbing or jumping or riding or running. Whatever it was. Get back to it. Don’t let hard knocks frighten you or stop you. Because life knocks us all on our asses from time to time. And it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way many times over. Triggers happen. The important thing is to get back up.
If you or someone you know needs help dealing with trauma related to sexual abuse or sexual assault, you can contact the 24-hour RAINN hotline at 800-656-HOPE.