Triggers Due to Trauma: A Journey of Recovery (in Progress) – by Deborah
[July 29, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
The following personal account was written by a friend who has survived years of horrific abuse. She hopes her experience in dealing with trauma will help others who read it:
My therapist and I have been down this road of healing from abuse for a while now. I have to be honest, I have had more than one therapist, since leaving my ex. In the beginning, it was the Houston Women’s Center, and then the books I read and later, a private therapist, specializing in abuse. Now, I am back to my books, until I can get brave enough to try again on finding someone who can help me go as deep as I need to right now, to deal with the gauntlet of emotional aftermath and navigate the slow and difficult healing from abuse that I have yet to do.
Triggers, triggers, triggers. My world is full of them. Those looks, sounds, smells, tones of voice, similar phrases, body language and situations that take me right back to the place of being pummeled, until I can’t recognize my own heart anymore. But it isn’t real, what those triggers are telling me. I’m not really in danger every time someone sends me a questioning look. People aren’t going to use my past mistakes like a laundry list, to pull out when I mess up again in life, just because he did.
What’s real is that when I experience these things that would be normal life interactions for anyone who hasn’t been under the evil of abuse, and I don’t react in a normal way to them. I want to crawl into a hole and hide. If someone says a phrase he used to use, uses a tone of voice that he did when I was about to really get it, touches me how he used to….it all triggers. I hate triggers. They scare me, they confuse me, they drive me into an emotional corner and when I am overtaken by them, I’m like a scared animal. It’s fight or flight at that point. I have to leave or I have to defend myself. I can’t get hurt that way again.
My life used to be full of pretending. Pretending the abuse wasn’t happening. Dissociating is what my range of therapists call it, because whenever the abuse would happen, I would mentally and sometimes physically just run away. Sometimes that meant losing myself in a movie, or books or into focusing completely on caring for my children or those that I worked with at church. Sometimes it meant imagining I was somewhere else, often retreating into my childhood memories, where things were safe. Dissociating was all about finding a place to be safe for a while, until he calmed down. It was my survival. It meant I didn’t have to face the abuse anymore. It covered for my abuser, denied the existence of abuse and kept me there, in it for 17 years.
But one day, a few months after I finally did leave, I had my first trigger. And then came another, and another and another, until I was so overwhelmed with them, I thought I was going crazy. What made it even worse, for them and for me, is that it has almost always been the people I am closest to, that trigger me. They got and get the brunt of my pain and fear, and as I deal with the aftershock and evil of abuse, so do they.
My team of therapists called that the beginning of healing. Huh? How in the world is that healing??? They told me that my mind finally felt safe enough to allow the memories of the abuse that had been blocked for so long by my old friend, dissociation, to surface, so that they can be understood (processed) and dealt with, to allow me that to heal. Once I began facing the abuse and dealing with it, the triggers would gradually disappear. This was the promise and the hope. So, I wasn’t going insane? Evidently not. But it did mean that I had a lot of work in front of me.
I have spent the past year and a half since then, learning to identify my triggers, and recognize new ones, as they come up (usually accompanied by new memories from my trauma). I have been able to deal with some of them and others, the hardest ones, I am still struggling with and battling hard to handle.
When they come, I flood with overpowering emotion (therapists appropriately call it “flooding”) and I can’t think straight. I am terrified, and I go right back to that fight or flight, like a cornered animal who has been hurt by humans all its life. Now at this point, I have a choice. I can choose to get defensive, and over-react to whatever or whoever is causing my trigger. I have done that, and wrongly so. I don’t want to react out of my pain, and cause the people I love pain, in the process. That is wrong.
It’s like teaching a dog, who has been abused all its life, to trust again. That dog needs to express feelings and you should not deny that dog’s past pain and current struggle, but at the same time, the dog has to learn not to lash out and bite, out of fear. Its fear can not be used to justify the biting, but the fear is very real, and it has to be healed, if the dog is to ever trust again.
My ex tried to manage my fear, by beating me down further. Some people since then, have tried to cage it up and restrict all of my emotions, in hopes that the fear would not be able to surface again. Both were not good. Like that dog, I need to be able to have and feel my feelings and emotions. Emotions aren’t bad things, like my ex-husband used to tell me they are. But when they become so dominating that they cause me to bite at someone else, that’s when they need to be managed, until I can calm down, and think clearly again.
What I have realized, just recently, is that it’s not in the weak moments, those trigger filled bonfires of emotional times, that I can heal. In those moments, I just need to rein in my emotions and learn to manage them. Those are the times that I just need to find a way to tell my loved ones that I am triggering and then walk away from whatever or whoever has triggered me and breathe, and read my Bible and pray, until God and I can calm the flood that has overtaken me. Those are not the times to talk through my trauma. All that does is exacerbate the emotional tidal wave that has already swept me under the water and makes it impossible for me to surface and breathe or come out of my trigger without biting.
I have to learn to hold off on dealing with the trauma, until those strong times, when I am not triggering. Those are the times when the work of healing happens. It’s in working through my trauma when I am strong and able to face the ugliness of the abuse, that I can reduce my triggers when I am weak, not the opposite way around. The work that creates positive change happens in the strong times, and the change flows through by decreasing the amount and intensity of the weak, trigger consuming times. So when I trigger, I have to hold to God, find His strength and rest in it, and then use the courage that He gave me when I left my abuser, to work as hard as I can in my strong times, toward healing, understanding and resolution of my trauma.
The sea of trauma is huge, the waves are rough and I often feel like I will drown, but I have a God who can walk on water and I know that If I keep my eyes on Him, one day, I will be able to walk on it too.
(Judges 5:12a ESV) “Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, break out in a song!
[July 29, 2022: Editors’ notes:
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