By Annie Gebel
Some triggers cause a gun to fire. Some sizzle and glow until a bomb explodes. And others prompt even more immediate, sometimes unexplainable, and often gut-wrenching reactions from those of us who have been through harrowing experiences that have changed our lives forever. Triggers are stimuli that cause extreme reactions due to previous traumatic experiences. They could be scents, songs, voices, dates, or just about anything else. Sometimes the reaction might be unpleasant memories or reliving the experience. Other times, that’s only part of the reaction that’s triggered. In my experience, triggers have led to feeling like the rug was pulled out from under me and momentarily, or sometimes for longer periods, I had no reference of what was up or down. More than once I’ve ended up in a ball, sobbing uncontrollably. Like with a victim’s initial response to a horrific experience, there’s no right way for a survivor to feel or react during the aftermath of a trigger.
I don’t remember hearing the word trigger, to refer to the activation of those very emotional and sometimes physical memories of an ugly incident, until just a couple of years ago. However, two decades ago, my therapist warned me of them anyway. I was raped as a teenager. As a young adult, when I was really dealing with my life as a survivor, she counseled me to be aware of my reaction to the anniversary of my rape each year. She even cautioned me to steel myself for when my children got to be the age I was when I was assaulted – that it could stir something up.
Being ready for memories to force their way into your consciousness can help lessen the impact of any of these stimuli, but triggers tend to sneak up on me. They don’t play by rules and don’t limit themselves only to the times I’m expecting guttural responses to the things my counselor warned me about. When they strike out of the blue, as they often do, a triggered response can explode your world and leave you in an angry, brawl-worthy rage or a weeping, snotty pile on the floor. You may not even understand why until later.
So, what do you do, how do you live, when you never know when your rug might be pulled out from under you?
There are probably as many answers to this question as there are survivors of war, rape, natural disasters, automobile accidents, child abuse, kidnapping, physical abuse, or some other extreme traumatic situation. I cannot tell you the way I live my life will work for you, but I can share with you what does work for me. I can encourage you to be honest with yourself about what you’re struggling with. I can urge you to figure out your own coping strategies, and try, try again if plan A doesn’t work so well. So, let’s do that. I try to live my life as Annie as normally as possible. Daily I live with the fact that I am a rape survivor, as well as so many other things – mom, homeschooler, Navy wife, writer, optimist, hugger, woman. I embrace all these things where I am emotionally for that day or moment. With the experience and education I have as my guide, I don’t live in constant fear of being set off, but rather with awareness that anything can happen. I can’t predict when the car in front of me will stop unexpectedly, but I still drive. I do watch my mirrors, keep a safe distance from other vehicles, and try not to be distracted by the kids arguing in the back seat. But I still drive. And I still live.
Likewise, I don’t read articles or books that might act as triggers while cuddling with my kids, or even while they’re around. I give myself space and time to weed through things like that and digest them. This is a lesson I learned when my oldest was only a few months old. I was nursing him in the middle of the night, watching some made-for-TV movie in which a rape occurred. I choked up before I realized what was happening. Crying wasn’t all that unusual at that time – hormones were all over the place – but I knew this felt different. I was bawling in seconds and having a hard time breathing. After a bit, I realized that I was overcome with the fact that I had to raise this little boy to be a teenager and a man who respects the right to say no. So, while he slept in my arms I talked to him through sobs. I told my beautiful boy what happened to his mama and how not to be a rapist. A decade later I still encourage respect for all people, in all situations. It’s the best I can do for now. The time hasn’t come, yet, to share my story with him – with his eyes open.
I give myself a break when a movie or news report catches me off guard. I even let others, those I trust, take the lead sometimes. My husband, our daughter, and I were watching the news one night. Our beautiful, innocent, inquisitive little girl is just eight years old. I was on the computer and only half paying attention. She pulled me to reality with a jolt when she asked, “Mama, what’s rape?” My everything stopped. A story on the news had prompted her question and I froze on the outside while starting to panic on the inside. Thankfully, my husband answered her with something age appropriate and she was satisfied and I was able to remain frozen and didn’t boil over. I’ve had to field some questions on my own, after several slow, deep breaths. My preference is definitely having someone who loves me, respects me, and knows my story give those answers. It’s like a hug that reminds me that I’m ok without actually touching me. This is good, because I’ve learned that in those moments, I don’t want physical embraces, but the emotional support is greatly appreciated.
Aside from living my life with awareness, not fear, and trusting myself and my support team, I cannot stress enough the importance of taking care of you. For me, I write, sometimes publicly, other times in a journal, and talk to professionals when needed, medical doctors or mental health professionals. I advocate for myself and others when possible. Working out is a great way to rid your body of toxins – both physically and mentally. I am open and honest with others about the fact that I was raped. It is a part of me, as much as becoming a mother or any other life-altering experience. And it does not make me less. I remind myself that I am loved and worthy of love, daily.
Still, with all this said, sometimes I just need to give myself permission to mourn what was taken from me all over again. I take baths or hot showers to wash away the tears. I let the rage subside through retelling my story – victim to survivor. I remind myself that I’m ok, like it’s a mantra for life, and it has been.
This has worked for me, keeping triggered responses at a minimum – journaling, writing, advocacy, self-care as therapy. For you it may be volunteering at a crisis clinic or an animal shelter. I like to get massages. Maybe you like manicures. Whatever it is that helps you feel good about you, do that thing. You are worthy. You are loved. You deserve to feel good. And seeking out a therapist is a perfectly acceptable step, showing strength and the desire to keep healing.
Hopefully you’ve found a spark of inspiration to help you ride out the waves of an unexpected trigger, or even keep them at bay. At the very least, maybe you now know that you’re not alone. It may sound like I’ve got it all together, and some days I do, but not all days. It’s ok to have off days. Keep in mind that I’ve been a survivor for 23 years. And surviving has been a learning experience for me, as it will be for you. One foot in front of the other. One last thing, if the rug gets pulled out from under you – pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and beat that rug with a broom.
If you don’t know where to turn for help, try a member of the clergy or do an internet search for support groups in your area. Here are a few sites that could help, too:
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network: www.rainn.org or 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 1-800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness: www.nami.org or 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Anaïs Nin