I’m 20. I’m sitting on a bus on my way home from trauma counselling, and I open up the book on healing my counsellor has lent me. The first page has a graphic description of someone being molested. I slam the book shut, and ball my fists up to my eyes and choke back a howl that seems to come from nowhere. The book falls to the floor and I hear it only distantly beneath the thunder of fear and pain and a blind, almost animal panic to flee from my own brain. Seconds pass, then minutes, the wave roars through me and leaves me a gasping, blinking mess on the number 9 to Partick.
I’m 32. I’m sitting on the floor of my comfortable living room with my husband. We’re writing a post about the paedophilia scandal festering all over the upper echelons of the British establishment. I make a suggestion, and my husband, intent in a paragraph of his own, suddenly jerks to his feet and wheels away, his brow furrowed. His body language stirs something, and suddenly my brain is bullrushed by the same wave that sucked me under on that bus. I can’t get air in for the sobs, my one good hand clenched to my face, the other attempting one despite the cumbersome cast I’m wearing. I’m terrified, incoherent, lost under a foaming sea murky with the broken detritus of old trauma. My poor partner sits with me, a hand on my shoulder, gently calling to me as I kick towards the surface.
This is what I talk about when I talk about triggering.
But let’s review. Trigger warnings, and the idea of triggering itself, has become something of a button issue in the last few years. With the rise of tumblr and awareness of mental health issues, more publications are advising their readers of graphic content. As with every attempt to make life easier for people, it’s met with substantial backlash from people who will fight to the death for their rights to make life more unpleasant or harder for others. The argument has spilled over into academia, literature and even into some spaces one would assume to be safe, where “Trigger warning!” has become its own punchline. But, in amongst all of the chin stroking and glib jokes, something seems to have been lost, which is what triggering actually is.
I’ve been the victim of sustained sexual assault as a child and domestic violence as an adult. Despite this, I’ve managed to become a reasonably successful, functioning adult. I am a parent, I hold down a career, own a house, and have a fantastic husband. Given that twelve years ago I felt like I was dissolving in the poisonous solvent of my childhood trauma, this comes as something of a nice surprise, if one built out of a lot of hard work. Part of that work has been recognising, and dealing with, triggered episodes.
People seem to be of the opinion that triggering is reading about or seeing something bad, then feeling sad or upset. To some, it’s a sign that as a society we’re too damn soft and need to harden up and just deal with it. But it’s not that. I can read umpteen stories of battered partners and abused children and whilst my heart aches for them, it’s not triggering. It’s the equivalent of someone putting on the song you had on endless repeat after your first breakup. You remember the feeling, maybe get a little wistful, but you don’t suddenly throw yourself on your bed and weep into your pillow about how Brent was The One and how you’ll never love again.
Triggering is to remembering what being drowned is to having a paddle and it’s not always by the obvious. Sustained trauma can affect how the brain remembers, and how these memories can be retrieved. The old trope about the war veteran having violent flashbacks when they hear a helicopter is closer to how it actually is. This trigger causes the brain to become swamped by the traumatic memory, or parts of it. In my case, it’s a feeling of complete and utter animal terror. I lose sense of where I am, what I’m doing. I don’t know which way is up, or out. If I’m lucky, the tide sucks out moments before the tsunami hits and I can hit all the techniques and tricks I’ve learned that keep me above the rushing water. In those cases, I go real quiet, I breathe, I focus, I let the flood pass and then I have to spend a good few hours picking up after it, grateful that I had the warnings and found something to cling to. Sometimes I don’t get the warning, there’s no siren, no tide. Just airlessness, and the dark, and the terror.
I can never say with 100% certainty what will trigger me. Sometimes, it can be as abstract as the linoleum in a bathroom reminding me of the floor in the bathroom of the house I was assaulted in as a child. Others, it’s as obvious as the opening chapter of the book on the bus. Now of course I can’t ask for a trigger warning on the flooring section at Bunnings, but if there’s an article on child rape or scenes of a disturbing nature in the film I’m considering watching, it’s nice to have an early warning system so I can decide for myself if I want to keep to the high ground or risk dipping my toe in.
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