Just last week, I walked into my new office – I had moved down the hall – and our secretary had arranged some chairs and a coffee table in the corner of the room for students. Simple enough. I knew this already as I walked through my door. Then I saw the chairs and stopped dead. Fear, intense fear, slithered up my spine. My heart pounded in my ears. The white walls, the floral patterned cushions, the coffee table: they looked just like a doctor’s waiting room. I’ve been in those hundreds and hundreds of times. I hate doctors; I hate waiting rooms. More importantly, I hate what the image of those chairs and that blank wall reminded me of: painful, miserable abuse. Or rather, waiting for it and knowing it was coming.
Triggered. The chairs triggered me. For God’s sake.
I didn’t have a flashback. (I’ve had those.) Nothing in particular came to mind. I knew where and when I was. But I was on full alert, adrenaline racing through my bloodstream as the mess of feelings I once had in those situations surfaced and played through me again. Physically, emotionally, it was like waiting in that quiet room when I was small.
“These are chairs,” I thought, angry and jumpy. “Just chairs.” So I sat at my desk to see if I could endure them, even tried to make fun of them in a picture, wanted to find some way to live with them. They’re just chairs, after all. But they were right across from my desk, haunting my line of sight. I felt sick, scared. I got up and moved them around. Nothing helped. Finally, I gave up dragged the two chairs into the hallway. Took them out and just left them there. I walked back into my office and nervously took a look at the coffee table. Without the chairs, it didn’t bother me. I sat down at my desk and felt as if a sliver of iron had been pulled out of my chest. I could breathe again.
It took me a long time to calm down.
Our poor secretary was so confused. I didn’t explain much, didn’t know how to explain. Professors are strange and fussy anyway, so I tried to think of it like that. Another random quirk in the ivory tower.
I felt angry and helpless, you know. They’re just chairs. It’s just a wall. A stupid coffee table. But they aren’t just that to anyone, let alone me: they mean what they resemble in our minds. In my case, the similarity is wired up to ugly experiences and painful feelings.
I’m by no means a psychologist, but I have been taught a few things about myself. I’ll try to explain.
Triggers come from something hardwired into our brains. A common analogy is baseball: if you get hit by a pitch, you might flinch at the ball the next time you’re up to bat. Your brain remembers the danger and hurt from last time, instantly recognizes the shape of it, responds using reflexes meant to protect you.
Our brains love patterns. Sometimes I think of the brain, especially the parts always sort of “on” in the background, as this complex and active copyist constantly trying to organize itself. Our brains want to create patterns so that we can recognize similar things more quickly. This can be hurtful (stereotypes, racism, rigid categories, etc.), but mostly it’s helpful (interacting with people, reacting to danger, etc.). So the thing with the baseball is a “copy” in your head of the thing that hurt you. If something like the copy comes up again, you and your brain react accordingly. You flinch. If the copy stops working, your brain drops it. (You’re not afraid of the ball after a while.) If it keeps working, the copy is reinforced. (You swear off baseball.)
We do this with food: if people get sick with food poisoning, sometimes they can never make themselves eat that food again. It just looks disgusting, horrible. Your brain says: I’ve been here before, and no way am I returning. The food is gross now. Which is great, actually, because being poisoned is not in your best interest.
Trauma and triggers are formed out of this instinctual neurological process. Sometimes – not all the time, or perhaps not even most of the time, I’m not sure of the numbers – something bad happens to your brain when something bad happens to you. Sometimes when something really bad happens, the brain doesn’t know what to do with it. One of the DSM-V manual’s requirements for trauma is that the person has to experience a fundamental threat to their safety, especially to their identity or the identity of someone they love. Sometimes people don’t have strong social networks or good environments that help them cope, and the likelihood of our brains being hurt increases. Those sorts of conditions make an experience “too much” to be interpreted.
Interesting how important it is for someone to be cared for even long before they’re ever hurt.
Once a therapist of mine explained trauma as a moment the brain hasn’t make sense of, and reminders of that moment gets the brain repeating through the memory again and again, trying and failing to making meaning of it. And I hate this analogy, but: it’s sort of like a computer that keeps restarting, can’t finish running through the code, and it keeps starting over and trying again and again. As long as the code is the same, it won’t work. It continually not-works.
Lots of people go to war, are sexually assaulted, injured, and so on and do not develop PTSD. The people who do lack one or several of the conditions that would’ve helped them interpret and integrate the experience. In fact, the experience can be objectively less violent – if we want to go there – and still leave a person traumatized if they lack support, affection, and safety.
I have many, many traumatic experiences. These are from when I was very young and stretch sporadically in intensity until young adulthood. Most of the experiences revolve around doctors, coercion, submission, sexual violence. Things like that.
To be reminded of the pattern awakens the response. These are triggers. They’re somewhat specific, but they’re also an especially heightened version of instincts we all have. Triggers are complex, vary in intensity, and encompass a whole range of possible similitudes.
I couldn’t have predicted the chair thing. (Yeah, I’m pretty miffed over the chair incident.) I see chairs all the time. It still happened, caught me sideways and unprepared. I hate when I can’t predict it. I know, for example, that this specific beep claws my ears to pieces and makes me profoundly agitated. (They remind me of monitors and such.) Since our campus is perpetually under construction/repair with those freaking machines that beep so no one runs into them, I bring headphones. Listen to music. Try to avoid the sound.
Today beeping gnawed on me as i tried to help a student with a schedule. I struggled to focus, felt very distracted, worked to maintain a soothing voice. Had I no filter or control, I’d have reacted to everything with the agitation I felt.
It’s complicated. I can’t control the universe, so I can’t control all triggers. I don’t attend the student information session on assault and dating violence because that’s an easy one to predict.
The thing with the chairs wasn’t so much about chairs as it was the whole gathered visual experience, the Gestalt (form) of the corner of the room is what caught my heart by a metal hook. Sometimes the emotional situation will remind me profoundly of an experience. If I think you’re trying to force me to do something I think would hurt me – even if you’re not and I’m just seeing a false copy – I instantly become angry and afraid. I won’t show you that I’m scared. I learned not to do that, and I definitely don’t want you to see another “weakness.” I’ll survive the situation, probably by agreeing to whatever so you go away, and then freak the hell out. Cry, or rage, or what have you. The feelings are intense, very difficult to understand and soothe. Mostly I feel like I’m drowning and it won’t be over ’til the flooding stops.
I knew I wasn’t in a doctor’s office. Sure seemed like one. Sure kept looking like one. Just knowing isn’t enough. The pattern is still there. I’m slowly learning how to find new patterns, and deal with my feelings when something does happen.
Triggers are real and they are serious, and I have offered a relatively mild one in this space. No, I don’t like that people use the word “trigger” all the damn time for tiny things and “trigger warning” for everything. I also think they’re trying to describe something real. “Trigger” is the best word they know, and really it’s not at all the best. Maybe they want a single word for “this might hurt.” (As if life could always have such signs.) Still, I do want to be allowed to use the word “trigger” and I want it to be considered perfectly legitimate. I want to be able to say that I hate those chairs that were in my office, the chairs that reminded me of waiting rooms, and that my responding fear and anger were real. No, it wasn’t really a waiting room, but the reminder is as real as my bones. It’s my damn brain, and I was reminded. That’s real. The reminder is real. I don’t want to be called afraid of chairs or weak or something. How is it weak to be afraid of a thing so horrible it never quite goes away?
Back off. Given all that, I’m brave to wander around the world at all.
So then, it’s true: right now the words “trauma,” “trigger,” even “abuse” are prevalent, and there is an understandable reaction against this usage. Either way, I have written this because I’m concerned that the debate itself encourages us to lose sight of a few things that are very, very real.