I wasn’t sure who would read my previous post on the experience of getting triggered (Getting Triggered). I can’t find much helpful information on it to be honest. The online article from 1in6 from which I cited was actually one of the best articles I’ve read on the subject. If you carry trauma with you, then you have most likely experienced a triggered response. Frankly, it sucks.
I didn’t expect the post to get so many hits. Over 200 on the day it was published. For my little blog, that’s a lot. Clearly, this is a topic worth discussing. So, let’s talk about it.
I went to my therapist after the triggered response was largely over–it lasted around five days. I thought that he might be able to help me understand it or give me words of wisdom. He asked me many probing questions. I answered. I explained the origin of the trigger. I always feel a little too vulnerable when I’m explaining things to my therapist. I think I’m waiting for him to say something like, “Well, it’s settled. You’re officially crazy now. You weren’t before, but you are now. And no, it’s not in the DSM-V, but I know someone I can call. Expect them to arrive at your house by 9 o’clock tonight. In a black suit. No one will see or hear from you again.”
He leans forward and stares at me. I hate that. And, then he assesses. It makes me itch.
“You’re okay. You did a good job.”
And this is the moment when I want to yell.
“What about that awful pain? The Event Horizon? What is that about? Don’t you know?”
I see a micro-shrug.
“Am I processing trauma?”
“Look,” he says, “I could tell you what you already know and give you coping strategies like distraction and self-soothing ideas, but will that make this pain in your chest go away?”
“What makes it go away?”
“Confronting it. Sitting in it. Fully feeling it. Not avoiding it. And then letting it pass. However long that takes.”
“Yes. There is no way around this one. The only way is through.”
And that is the truth. A hard truth. There is a special kind of pain that is borne of trauma. It doesn’t matter what your trauma is. You could have been in a car accident or survived a natural disaster. You could be a soldier returning from war. You could have received long-term medical treatment for cancer. You could be a healthcare professional and seen people die. You could be an emergency responder. You could have experienced incest, a sexual assault, or grown up in a domestic abuse situation. Perhaps you were married to someone with an addiction and were on the receiving end of their violence. The list is almost endless. Trauma can be a one-time incident, or it can appear suddenly after long-term exposure to the same crises day after day. This is why people from the same circumstances can report such different experiences. One person from a family may be highly traumatized by what occurred in said family while another isn’t at all. Each person has their own resiliency factor.
Once that trauma, however, becomes real, life is different, and PTSD is only one possible reaction to trauma. People can experience clinical depression, somatization, and various dissociative disorders. “No diagnosis captures the range and depth of suffering or the specific way that trauma can affect a person’s life.” (Trust after Trauma)
What does trauma feel like?
- Many survivors feel irrevocably different from others–deficient, undesirable, and permanently scarred.
- Some survivors are scared that their trauma “shows”.
- Some survivors feel alone even when they are with other people; some feel even lonelier in a group than when they are truly alone.
- Some feel condemned to a life of emotional numbness, loneliness, and superficial relationships.
- Some feel as if they are really living on the fringes of their family and society even though they have relationships. I call this phenomenon “being invited but not included”.
- They may resent the fact that their traumatic experiences robbed them not only of their peace of mind, physical health, and years of life, but also of the ability to be social and to initiate and sustain an intimate relationship.
- If symptoms of PTSD, clinical depression, panic disorder, or the like develop, then these often become another source of shame and stigma and another reason to be angry at the past and life itself as well as another reason to withdraw from and stay away from other people. (Trust after Trauma)
This is a very good description of what trauma feels like. I’ve met all the criteria for this list at various points in my life. A triggered response will put me back on this list.
What does healing from trauma look like? Judith Herman wrote in Trauma and Recovery that the first stage in healing from trauma involves making your world as safe as possible:
“This means ending abusive or exploitative relationships and situations; it also means learning to feel safe within yourself by learning how to control your nightmares, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, insomnia, depression, or any addiction. Feeling safe within yourself also means learning to tolerate strong feelings, such as rage, grief, and anxiety, without being destructive towards yourself and others.” (Trust after Trauma)
Learning to become safe within ourselves is big deal. Getting a handle on our own feelings and trusting that we can handle their “bigness” is key. This is the point when many people go for the the maladaptive coping strategies like their pet addictions whatever those might be. It works in a pinch, but it doesn’t teach you to become a safe person for yourself. I won’t lie. It is brutal.
Here is something else though–it never gets any worse than that profound pain you feel well up from a triggered traumatic response. That pain that feels worse than death. That is as bad as it gets from a psycho-emotional perspective. If you can ride that wave, then you are developing sound resiliency. I can say this now because I made it through that weekend by just facing it, sitting in it, and letting it pass. On the other side of it, I can say that it does pass, there is no other pain I’ve ever experienced that trumps it, and it won’t kill you. Oddly enough, I feel a bit stronger now for having made it through.
“Only when you’ve established a certain degree of internal and external safety can you then safely proceed to the second stage of healing which involves remembering the trauma and feeling the feelings associated with the trauma. The major feelings that need to be dealt with are anger, shame, powerlessness, anxiety, and grief. During this second stage of healing, you will begin to identify your many losses and, as much as you can, mourn.” (Trust after Trauma)
I can’t decide which is harder. The first stage or the second stage. What I can say is that you must have a therapist help you do this. Attempting to do this work by yourself is self-destructive. Friends are very helpful, but a therapist is vital. A therapist helps you stay the course and course corrects for you should you get lost. It’s easy to get lost when you’re doing this kind of work.
“The third stage in healing from trauma involves re-establishing human ties. When your life is dominated by memories of trauma, or by an addiction that serves to help numb you to the effects of the trauma, you don’t have time or energy to devote to relationships. Yet problems with your family life, your friendships, or love life may have caused you to turn to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, or sex as a substitute for meaningful human contact. When you have some understanding of your trauma and some control over your symptoms, including any addictions, you will be ready to begin to reestablish some old relationships, and even consider building new ones.” (Trust after Trauma)
In my experience, this is not a linear process. Sometimes all three are happening at one time. Sometimes you can be in the third stage and then be thrust back into the first stage. Life has a rather “suddenly-ish” quality about it at times. The unexpected happens, and that unexpected nature can be triggering to trauma survivors. My point of view?
It’s okay. Why is it okay?
Because you want to heal. A thorough healing takes time, and sometimes an unexpected event unearths a traumatic event that you buried. And, that buried event, while forgotten, is influencing you in ways that you never knew–and not for the better. Your free will, in a way, has been usurped by your trauma, and you didn’t even know.
This is why healing our trauma is so important. This is why leaning into the triggered responses is key. Trauma, if left to itself, will devour your life. Your free will and free choice will vanish, and you will have never built anything out of your ruins.
I am not a romantic about the world. I am much like Ernest Hemingway:
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. Farewell to Arms
There isn’t one person who will go through life and not suffer at least one break. Some of us are crushed. There is no room for magical thinking or even victim thinking. To be alive is to suffer. At some point, we have to understand that. We are in no way special in terms of our own humanity. You will be broken. It will be unique to you, but it will happen.
That isn’t the point though. The point is that you become strong in your broken places. Why? Because the very gentle, very good, and very brave need you. The world needs broken people who are strong again. The world needs you.
Why? Because you know how to heal, and the world is dying to know how to do that.
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