Trigger Warning: Discussion of things that can trip triggers.
It was a great party. I was young, not a mother, and had very little experience with parties but this one seemed good. People were dancing in place to 70s rock, beer and alcohol were abundant, a group was passing around weed, people were socializing, and the food was good.
I was standing by the food table when a couple came over and started talking to me. I shoot a look at my current boyfriend and reading my discomfort he heads my way. He makes it around the crowded room to come up behind me. In one easily practiced move, he starts to put his arm around me and all I consciously see is a backhand coming toward me.
I black out.
The next thing I know, Doug, is lifting the curtain made by the table clothe and asking if I was okay?
Stiffly I take stock. I am under the food table, which is an old 8-foot table someone had used plywood to make. The floor was hardwood. I was in a small fetal position sitting on my bottom rocking back and forth.
Then the embarrassment starts.
I force my body to move and climb out from under the table nodding. I couldn’t speak. The couple who had been so friendly looked really freaked out now and they just drift away, slowly, watching me try to right my dress and stand on my own.
I know it is a lost cause but then realize that everyone is watching. The music is blaring 70s rock but no one is dancing in place, no one is drinking, and a fat one is hanging between two people mid-pass. All eyes are on me.
My boyfriend looks embarrassed and confused. I am so young and I haven’t had therapy, so I just whisper, “Can we go?”
“Yeah, sure! I’ll take you home and then come back.”
He drives me to my biological parents’ place drops me off on the porch and hightails it back to his friends.
Last year I went to Pagan Spirit Gathering, I had been once before when I was still very ill and spent the entire time fighting off heat exhaustion. So I don’t remember much about it.
This time, I went to PSG with Cas, my service dog, my husband, my meta, and my coven brothers and sisters. The weather is hot but not unbelievably so. And I am having a good time.
I am sitting next to an older woman to my right and Cas is between us. We are in a workshop about ethics with a lively conversation going on when it sounds like a large round of ammunition goes off.
I am startled by the sound and turn instinctively toward Cas, as my neighbor also startles and her hand comes flying to my face. I am much older and have had a ton of cognitive behavioral therapy so I don’t black out. I force myself not to drop to my knees and cling to Cas…barely.
Slowly through the tsunami of panic, I am awash in I hear a confident, calm, in command voice talking in a steady stream of words so I tune into it.
“We are by a live round ammunition range. You are safe here in this pavilion shaded by the sun. No one here is going to hurt you. Feel the chair you are sitting in, and look around you at the structure. It is brown. The floor is concrete…we are by a live round ammunition range..”[ I am supposing this is what she said, as my C-PTSD keeps me from remembering exactly what she said. This is, however, things that should be said to someone in the midst of a full-blown C-PTSD episode caused by any trigger.]
I grasp Cas’ neck and bunch his familiar course hair in my grip. I completely tune into the calming words being spoken by our presenter.
In one part of my mind, I was very impressed that she knew exactly what to do to keep me from spiraling out of control.
In another, I am aware that the woman next to me must be a Veteran and the round had more significance to her than to me. That means that the presenter would realize I had a C-PTSD [Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] response but probably was confused as to why. The embarrassment slowly overtakes the panic.
I brazen through the event and the Vet jumps from her seat to wander in the vicinity to get the adrenalin out of her system. I absently pet Cas.
I am at work with my back to the door of our workroom, facing the copier. I am copying pages and scanning some things to my computer in the next room.
“Lydia?” my boss inquires.
I jump what feels like three feet off the ground throwing papers in the air while giving off a panicked short scream. I land and turn to face the intruder to find my boss mortified that she has scared me…again.
“Shoot! I know better than to sneak up on you, I am sorry,” she says gathering up the thrown paperwork.
“No, no, no,” I jump in, helping, “It isn’t you. It’s an exaggerated startle response caused by Chronic Post Traumatic Stress. I can’t help it and you couldn’t have either.”
She still looks distressed so I asked what she needed to steer the moment away from what felt like a blazing spotlight shining just on me. She obliges, just as uncomfortable as I am and we dig into the familiar, safe work issue.
My partner and I are being intimate and enjoying a little playful slapping as we do so. He is above me and my eyes have been closed.
“Open your eyes,” he says.
I do so eager to see the lust-filled haze in my lover’s eyes. He has picked up a crop with a triangle leather head that we have used before.
He swings it in a sharp slap toward my breasts and I start screaming bloody murder. The croplands on my forearms as I defend myself from some past attack from my bio father.
My father is flinging the bed and swinging a belt wildly hitting everything. Then he grabs my arm and pulls me back to his front. I continue to try to fend him off. He is whispering in my ear now telling me what he is going to do to me.
No that isn’t right. He isn’t telling me what he is going to do? He is apologizing? So I tune into the voice and quickly realize that I am not in my bedroom at my bio parents’ house.
“I am so sorry, Dia, come back to me. I shouldn’t have done that. I just got caught up in the moment and completely forgot. Come back to me. I am so so sorry. Please forgive me.”
The sound of my lover’s voice soothes me and I shutter back into full awareness of the present place and time.
After he becomes aware that I am back, we talk through exactly what triggered me, watching the toy begin to swing down ward toward my body, and what we can do to mitigate that in the future.
We agree on how we are going to proceed and then move right on to finding our mutual pleasure again. I am so grateful to have a lover that doesn’t see this incident as an interlude ending, as my passion chases out the fear.
My son is a teenager and he has brought his first bottle of cologne. I do not know this. As he is getting ready for a date, a smell begins to permeate the house. I start gagging and panicking. Tony isn’t sure what’s going on but understands that I have been triggered.
Sam comes into the room and I ask, “Is that Old Spice?”
“Yes,” he says.
“Okay, you can’t wear that. Tomorrow I’ll take you to the mall and we will find you a good scent to wear.”
“I like Old Spice..”
I swallow reflexively, “Samuel, I will buy you a nice expensive cologne to wear. The Old Spice has to go.”
Tony walks to our son and drops his voice and talks to him. I have seen this happen a few times. My husband and priest explained to my son that I am damaged and certain things just can’t happen. Old Spice is one of them.
Sam finally says, “Yea, okay. I won’t wear it again.”
I feel a little weak-kneed, “That’s great. Tomorrow we will go to the mall.”
Some might not notice but I rub my first finger on my upper lip and past my nose breathing deeply when stressed. It is self-soothing from my childhood and a habit I haven’t been able to break.
Words, Words, Words
In this TikTok world, some words that used to be known only to a “lucky” few have become commonly used in mainstream media and society’s vernacular.
Triggers, Triggering, and Triggered is on the top of that list.
A trigger, the noun, is a series of physical, auditory, visual, oratory, or gustatory experiences that mentally teleport the person experiencing it to a distressing moment in the past where they viscerally experience the moment again. They disconnect from the reality they are in and connect completely to the past traumatic event. Time becomes skewed. (See my article for a larger discussion about time distortion for C-PTSD victims.)
Trigger, the verb, describes the complete external stimuli and corresponding response in a C-PTSD victim. Triggered is the past tense of trigger when it is a verb.
Triggering (an adverb) describes the experience alone that triggers (verb) the C-PTSD survivor.
I would add to this exaggerated startle response. This is when a common event, like someone coming up behind you, causes you to jump through the roof instead of just being mildly alarmed. Most people would just turn toward the voice. Persons’ who have spent a life where a back that isn’t protected is the back that is hurt are deeply affected by this. But it goes further than just that situation.
I have lived a life where a slamming door meant an incoming beating. Where a loud backfiring car was the sound of my abuser returning home. Where when my name was called, I was in trouble that frequently led to physical violence and always leads to yelling, and emotional abuse. This was so true for me, I legally changed my name from what my biological family called me. When that didn’t help because the name I kept was my first given name, a joke that led to me being called “Dia” by some friends, led me to keep the name because it has no association with being mentally or emotionally abused.
In my Pagan Spirit Gathering experience above, the triggering event is the live round explosion at the nearby military base’s live ammunition range. I have an exaggerated startle response, to the noise, but the real trigger was the women’s hands flinging in my direction during her response and the woman’s trigger was the sound of the live mortar round. I would argue that she didn’t have an exaggerated startle response because she was responding to the real sound of live ammunition firing a sound she already associated with trauma.
If these seem way more complicated than a few minutes of TikTok, you would be correct. Triggers can be all kinds of experiences, smells, and visual cues. It can be the feel of a certain fabric or the sound of heavy footsteps. They can evoke negative or soothing experiences. And sometimes you have to work hard to connect the dots between a triggering event and your response. These events can happen after any traumatic event and the severity of the event is irrelevant. All triggers are valid and I am grateful to live in a world where people are empowered to discuss their triggering events with their partners, work buddies, lovers, and friends.
To Be Continued