I’m going to get a little political here, but mainly in a mental health way.
Ever since Trump became the Republican nominee, I’ve been operating from a triggered place. Now, don’t stop listening even if you read “trigger” and get a case of the eyerolls. “Trigger” has been adopted by a lot of people who don’t actually apply the clinical definition, just like you’ll hear a lot of people say they’re “totally OCD” just because they like things neat. But if you’ve been reading me for any length of time you know that’s not me. I don’t take mental health lightly.
Being triggered does not mean being offended or unhappy or reading something unpleasant. It has a clinical use. Particularly in PTSD treatment. Being triggered means that something is pushing a button in you that brings you back to an instance of abuse or trauma. Some scent or sound or touch or something you’ve read reminds you of something. It triggers a memory, but more than that. You feel as if you’re still at risk. It’s a memory with consequences. It’s like when you have a nightmare and you try and explain it to someone and it makes no sense and you know the baby wasn’t really in the oven, or you no longer work waiting tables, or you haven’t had to worry about a math test for years, but all you know is that in that dream IT MATTERED and you still feel all those feelings.
Once you’re triggered, then the big horrible memories you are always running from have just been brought to the forefront of your mind. You feel the feelings you felt then. Your body reacts as if it’s still there – heart racing, hyperventaling, jumpy and on high alert. But of course you’re not there. You’re just living your regular life, but all of that horrible stuff is hanging on you and influencing how you act. The patience you have to extend to your family members, the energy you have by the end of the day, the amount of physical pain you feel. Whenever I say I’m triggered, it’s a way of saying to my family, “Hey, my current behavior is not about you, please excuse the mess.”
If you have never experienced clinical PTSD, think about it like this: You’re at work and the boss dumps all over you. You’re feeling angry that something unjust happened and insecure that something the boss said might be right and that you suck. Still feeling angry and insecure, you come home and your spouse or roommate or kid does something that you’ve asked them not to do a million times. Leave their shoes in the living room. Make a mess in the kitchen. And you UNLOAD on them. Say things you’ll later regret, react with a lot of anger, make connections from this event to their character and motivations – You left your shoes in the living room because you are a bad person and you’re trying to hurt me! You’re not wrong for being upset about the shoes in the living room, but your reaction to that event is motivated by all the crappy feelings you’re still feeling from work. It’s like that, only all the crappy feelings we’re reacting to are from some horrible thing that left a mark on us.
Ever since Trump was selected as the nominee, I have been reminded of the times in my life that I have been sexually victimized. These are obviously not things I want to think about so whenever I’m reminded I do my best to shoo them away. Don’t think about that! Think of happy things! Don’t dwell on the negative! Stop obsessing! Everyone has been through hard things!
#yesallwomen tells me I’m not the only one who does this. We all do. It’s a matter of survival.
It’s how women get through this world. We don’t talk about it. We keep our head down and we keep our stories to ourselves until something like a twitter hashtag or a presidential nominee gives us reason to bring it up and think there’s something that might come of it. Something besides the familiar feelings of sorrow and shame. If all we feel when we think about those times are sorrow and shame, of course we’re not going to try and think about it. We’re going to push it way deep down inside of our hearts until we convince ourselves it’s not there. Or that it was our own fault and it can’t happen again because we know better and that’s how we get out of bed each morning because it’s impossible to keep putting one foot in front of the other if we acknowledge the existential threat that sexual victimization could get us at any moment. It affects women of every age, race, socio-economic status, clothing choice, whatever. There is literally no way to ensure our safety and that is too psychologically terrifying so we ignore it all and paint a smile on our face and we go about our lives. Because what other choice do we have?
But we do have another choice. Horrible things that happen to us don’t have to FEEL horrible forever. We can talk about them, process them, accept that it happened and it made us feel horrible, we can grieve it, and then we can keep going with less of the horrible to drag around. This works. I am living proof that it works.
I have often been known to joke with friends about “Abused Child Privilege”. When my friends tell me about conflicts they have with their mothers, or some time their father disappointed them and how it affected their relationship, I will joke about being lucky that things with my parents were *SO BAD* that my only choice was to get into therapy. My choices were basically: Repeat the cycle of abuse, feel terrible forever and make life choices governed by that, or get in therapy and stay there. The kind of mother I am to Atticus is my greatest achievement and I know that is because of the dedicated work I have put in to recovery.
So to any of you who are feeling awful right now. Who are waking up from nightmares for the first time since you were a teenager. Who are finding yourselves breaking into tears and you can’t explain why. Who are feeling panicked and heavy and scared. You might not have Abused Child Privilege, but you do have Abuser As President Motivation.
You don’t have to always feel the same way you felt when you were victimized. One of my favorite recovery sayings is: The only way out is through. There is a way to be free of all the horrible experiences you’ve been victim to in your life. But it involves getting through them. It involves talking about them with a therapist or counselor, a trained pastor or caring friend, grieving that it happened to you, recognizing that you survived it, and turning all the shame you felt into pride in yourself. This process takes time. And it looks different for different people. Grief is a very personal thing.
Some people like to talk about letting go and I have very purposefully been avoiding that phrase because, like OCD and Triggered, in the wrong hands it makes a mockery of the process. I would describe it more like gravity. You process it and you grieve it until one day you realize that your own personal gravity has changed and the horrible thing can’t orbit you anymore. What you “let go” of is all the shame and fear. Take that horrible thing that happened, strip it of the horrible feelings, and then it’s just a thing that happened. The event will always be a part of your life experience, but you can sanctify it. Make it purposeful. Use it to expand your empathy, or spur you to working for justice.
You will have to do this with every horrible thing. And sometimes, as you dig, you’ll discover new horrible things that explain pains you didn’t understand.
For example. When I am walking in a busy place I have this instinct. Bear and I will be holding hands walking along and people are passing by me. Every single time it is a man that passes me, the thought crosses my mind that they will reach out and grab me in a manner our now President-elect bragged about. When I’m in a bad mental place I will actually find myself physically flinching as men pass me. When I’m in a better place the thought will cross my mind and I will just say “Oh brain, you poor silly thing.” and let the thought pass. But until recently I never knew why I did that. Why was I so afraid? Why couldn’t I let that thought go?
But all of this unpleasantness in our news, this state of perpetual trigger that I have been living through, brought up some stuff. It brought up memories from my third grade year. Not new memories exactly, I’ve always remembered the experiences, mostly, I’ve even told some of the stories, in parts. It’s just that now I can admit what they mean. I can see them with new eyes. I can see the stories next to each other, I can suddenly remember the endings, I can view it with an adult understanding of what is right and what hurts and I can acknowledge for the first time what those experiences really were and how they made me feel. In the past those memories would come up and I would shove them down. I would push them away and chop the memories in to little bits until they were small enough to live with (To be fair to me, I had a lot of ugliness to get through before I could get to this particular ugliness. The brain and it’s survival techniques are a true marvel).
So when new stuff comes up and new realizations hit you like the horrible stuff just happened yesterday, you have three choices. You can suffer, which I think we’d all agree is not a great option; you can shove it all back down where it came from and pretend it never happened, but that never works forever because the truth wants to be known and it will still come out in odd ways, like flinching every time a man walks past you; or you can shrug your shoulders and say “Welp, while I’m down here I might as well clean up a little.”
If you are going to be affected anyway, why not face it? Why not use the Abuser as President Motivation to get some emotional work done? The thoughts are haunting you anyway, you’re feeling the feelings anyway, the biggest hurdle to recovery is admitting that you need help and here you are needing help.
Look up a crisis center near you and see if they have group therapy or drop in options. Don’t listen to the voice in your head that says you’re not *___fill in the blank___* enough to qualify for that kind of assistance. Of course you are. And if that voice just won’t be still, know that centers like this have triage skills and will send you to the appropriate level of care. Seeking out professional help is one of the best things you can do in so many ways, but what it did for me is to give me a voice of authority that said: “You have been through painful experiences.” When they took my pain seriously, I could take my pain seriously.
If someone hurt you, I am sorry. You never deserved that. What you do deserve is a life free from the guilt and shame and fear that accompany the hurtful experience. I know it’s possible, and I believe you can get there if you will do the work.