Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Trigger Is Not Just A Horse

We had a smaller group yesterday for my women’s therapy meeting. It was just us old-timers, those of us who’ve been there a year or so. We talked about old issues, new issues, and triggers, and I don’t know if anyone reading this blog has had experiences like the ones that have so profoundly affected us, but I thought I’d bring up some of the things we talked about, just in case, so you know you’re not alone.

Noise: Too much noise is a trigger. For some of us, it starts as sensory overload, which then leads to emotional memories, and it becomes an emotional overload, too. I can handle moderate groups, but when group size hits about 15 or 20, there are loads of conversations going on, the noise level ratchets up, and I start getting an itchy feeling along the back of my neck. If there’s drinking going on, too, like at a cocktail party, I can feel my adrenal system kicking into early alert because subconsciously my reptilian brain (or a part closely related to it) is thinking, “drunk people are unpredictable and unpredictable people can be dangerous”.

I can still handle cocktail parties, although I’m at an Orange Alert level, but if a heated argument starts up, I need to be right next to the door. And if that argument gets physical, even just arm-waving and aggressive finger-pointing, I have got one foot out the door, or I find an excuse to leave the room – potty trip, call the kids, a sudden headache, something. It’s just too many triggers hitting all at once for me.

The weird thing is, I don’t get anywhere near that hinky if I’m the one involved in the argument – that’s a different set of triggers, if any. And, if there’s no drinking, it doesn’t bother me as much either; I suppose somewhere deep inside, I harbor the belief that sober people are more likely to get themselves under control during an argument than people whose inhibitions have been loosened by alcohol.

In a group situation, though, I will always have an exit planned, with backup plans if possible.

Conflict: Most of the gals in my group are working very hard to overcome their resistance to situations of conflict. For some, being disagreed with or even overhearing others disagreeing sets off a flush of shame, followed by fear. It’s incredibly tough for them to be in the same room with a debate, let alone a heated debate, even knowing it’s being monitored and proctored, and even knowing that whatever that triggers in them is no longer the case. They’re not in danger, but knowing that doesn’t make the alarm bells stop ringing. Sometimes I feel that way, but most of the time I don’t. This isn’t my first experience in facing the long-term effects of my childhood abuse, so I’m a little more immune to, or at least desensitized to this particular very hairy trigger.

Fear, Phobias and Avoidance: I’ve noticed that for everyone in my group there are specific fears and things they avoid that are directly related to the types of abuse and situations they’ve encountered. We also have some shared fears and phobias. I’ve noticed acrophobia is present, in varying degrees, for most of us, as are problems with driving – either feeling claustrophobic in heavy traffic or having a fear of driving to unknown places. Sometimes the distance to be driven is the problem.

We have become, consequently, very creative in avoiding situations that include things that trigger us – having someone else drive while we ride co-pilot while going to somewhere new, calling one another while stuck in traffic, or finding people to get things down from high shelves for us.

One of the things I avoid is wrought iron stair railings. When I see one, I start gritting my teeth, and it’s all I can see. I will walk around the block, defy rules and walk across a pristine lawn, split from the group I’m with to take a stairwell instead or an elevator, or do any number of things to avoid being anywhere near a wrought iron stair railing. I have tried to desensitize myself, and, if I really address it, take a deep breath, and grab hold of it with will power and fierce determination, I can walk down stairs with wrought iron railings, but it will be the only thing I’m thinking of the whole time I’m on the stairs. I can’t hold a conversation, I can’t look away from the part where the stairs and railing join, and I’m mentally cataloging all the sharp edges and places where an arm, a leg, a foot, a hand, an ear, or other body part could get caught if I were to stumble or get pushed and lose my balance. It’s not impossible, but it sure is damned hard for me to face one. And for each of the women in my group, there is a distinct set of similar triggering items. Sometimes, we haven’t even consciously identified them yet. It does make things interesting. Ahem.

Nudity: I know this issue is not unusual for women in our society. We grow up with the subliminal message that if our bodies are not perfect, they are so imperfect that we need to keep them under wraps. It goes to a whole new level when there has been some form of abuse in many cases. I knew one gal, not in my group, but from years ago, who could not even bathe herself or take a shower without wearing a t-shirt. She was terrified that someone would break into the bathroom and begin shaming or abusing her. She took a lot of sponge baths, part by part, too. I lock the door when I’m in the tub or shower, and it was a real eye opener to find that the other ladies in my group do, too. There’s too much vulnerability there – nude and wet, and complete unarmed in case of a threat. I didn’t even take showers in high school because they were group showers. Couldn’t do it. Still wouldn’t.

Doctors and Medical Care: Huge issue and frequent trigger. One thing that abusers, particularly if they were parents, do is change pediatricians often. That way, the kid’s doctor doesn’t get a feel for how often the child has been injured, doesn’t learn to read the nonverbals of a given child, and will take the parent’s word for why an injury or problem has arisen, rather than probing further with the kid. This was much more the case when I was a child than it is now, but I doubt abusers have changed their general strategies much. Consequently, we often view doctors as part and parcel of the abuse cycle – they didn’t listen, they believed the lying abuser, they didn’t care, whatever – and we avoid them, often to our physical detriment. In essence, the medical system becomes a secondary abuser to us. This is one hell of a thing to try to get over. For some people, they can’t even speak clinical words referring to body parts that may be in pain or malfunctioning because it sets a whole chain reaction of shame going inside of them, or they fear additional abuse or belittlement or rejection of what they’re trying to say.

I don’t have a problem with clinical language. I think I was enough of a science nerd in my school years to get past that, and I wasn’t sexually abused, so I don’t have that hindrance blocking my way either. I do, however, avoid doctors, especially new ones. I get a whole series of objections and ridicule going on in my head, a truly detrimental sequence of imaginary conversations that have nothing to do with probabilities, that cause me to feel an immense reluctance to “expose myself” literally and figuratively to an unknown doctor. One thing that helps me is to research the living daylights out of my symptoms to get some idea, in advance, of what language I might be hearing, to have an idea of the body systems I’ll be discussing, and to look at treatment options or therapies in advance. When I do that, I feel like I’ve “armed” myself a little and can ask questions, which opens up the potential for dialogue, which, in turn, changes the dynamics of the power structure in an examining room. Then, I can cope. Being helpless and voiceless is too scary, so I work to pull the power of the situation back to myself as much as possible.

That probably sounds strange to people who routinely go in for annual check ups, pap smears, mammograms, when they have the sniffles, a cough, a swelling, or indigestion. I envy those people sometimes; I wish it could be that routine for me, too.


So, I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. The things I’ve mentioned above do not cripple me, but I know some people are seriously hampered by them. I do have issues, I have triggers, and I work on all of them as I can. It’s all I can do about them.

I can remember, as a child, feeling so alone. Feeling isolated in my unloveableness, so shamed by having been abused, so alien from the kids I went to school with and from other families I saw sharing laughter and fun together. In my teen years, after I moved in with Dad and Ellen, I started reading books written by survivors of child abuse, and I didn’t feel so alone any more. I could cry for them, in the quiet of my room, and I could cry for myself as well. I felt a kinship with them that I had never felt with anyone in my family, with any of my childhood acquaintances, or with anyone I had ever met. Between the pages of those books lived my brothers and my sisters, and I wasn’t alone anymore.

When I write something like this, it’s not because I want sympathy or pity. I don’t; it would freak me out and make me feel uncomfortable. I do, however, want to reach out to those who’ve been there, regardless of the degree to which they were forced to live on the dark side as kids, and let them know, too, that they are not alone. They may have been alone then, but they are not alone now. Neither am I, and I will never feel that way again.

Damn, that’s depressing! Time to go eat pork rinds and make motorboat noises in my cranberry juice!