The terrible thing about triggers
Is triggers are terrible things.
They remind you of unbearable trauma
And from anywhere, they may spring.
They ambush you when you least expect them
And from them you wish you could run!
But the most terrible thing about triggers
Is reliving the horror again.
(with apologies to Mr. Milne)
I used to be among those who never gave much thought to triggers, trauma, or even PTSD. I knew of them, but they were so far outside the scope of my life experiences that they fell within a catch-all box of detached sympathy: the whole thing sounded awful, and I’m sure I knew it was, but no one I knew personally had ever talked about (the experience of) trauma or recovery.
So I was especially unprepared when it happened to me. On page 9 of her book, Not “Just Friends”, Sharon Glass writes that
The revelation of infidelity is a traumatic event for the betrayed partner. Understanding it as traumatic has important implications for healing. People who have just found out about a partner’s affair may react as if they have been viciously attacked. Where they formerly felt safe, they now feel threatened. In an instant, the betrayed spouse’s assumptions about the world have been shattered.
Shattered, indeed. And so I began to read. I first read Ms. Glass’s book, which gave me a framework to approach the overwhelming tasks of understanding and healing from my husband’s affair. That included the terminology and definitions we both would need to begin to comprehend the devastation that lay all around us. Trauma? TRAUMA? How could you? How could you do this to me? To us? If your partner has ever been unfaithful, you may even have a visceral response to that question: even now, at more than two years past DDay, that question – How could you? – occasionally bubbles up to the surface of my thoughts and I can feel a twinge of the agony that came from it, over and over again, in the earliest days.
In my mind, there are two types of triggers: there are the lower case reminders, and then there are the times when some seemingly random event takes you back to the scene of the crime, and you experience the surge of adrenaline, the fight-or-flight response, and the panic and fear and confusion of the moment. I still like fireworks, but I can more readily appreciate how they might induce a war veteran to believe that he or she has been thrust back into a war zone and are again in imminent danger. Except in my case, the enemy wasn’t someone from an opposing army – the enemy was the man who’d vowed before God and everyone to love, honor and protect me always, but who willingly snuck in the enemy through the virtual back door of my life and allowed her (well, them) to put our marriage and family, and my health, at risk.
There are plenty of little reminders everywhere, though they don’t hurt me like they did in the earlier days, especially in the first year to maybe 18 months. I guess that is part of the healing power of time and repeated exposure – you become inured to the pain and gradually, those reminders lose their power.
But big triggers? They’re an entirely different beast. The first time I experienced one, I didn’t realize what was happening initially; I just knew that it felt like DDay all over again. At one point, I was hyperventilating, and without thinking about it at all, I went and hid from everything, burrowing into my closet as if all a curtain of clothing provided enough of a barrier to keep me safe. Eventually, I texted a friend who is walking this journey with me, and she pointed out that this was a trigger, and helped talk me through it until I was calm enough to tell my husband what had happened.
So what was the trigger? Well, for one thing, it had nothing to do with his infidelity. At all. My husband and I, along with our daughter, were in our yard planting a few trees. I wanted the oak tree to be planted in one particular location, and our daughter wanted it about ten feet away; my husband agreed with me, so that was that. But then, when he thought I wasn’t looking, my husband winked conspiratorially at our girl and told her to go ahead and move it about half-way between the two spots. And without warning, I was suddenly transported to the first time I learned that my husband had convinced himself that what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me, and that it was okay to give in and allow someone else to do something directly counter to what he knew I would want.
If you’ve never experienced betrayal, that probably sounds silly. After all, it was just our daughter and planting a tree five feet over probably doesn’t seem like a big deal. But that is the thing about triggers: the reaction isn’t rational in the moment. According to PsychCentral, a trigger is “something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.” That means that the traumatized brain is processing the triggering event in a way that vastly different from a non-traumatized brain. So my husband agreeing with me upfront, but secretly “stabbing me in the back” by going against my wishes, apparently tripped the trauma meter, and away I went.
It helped me to think about that event and to deconstruct it enough to identify ways I might handle a similar situation next time. It also helped that we talked about it so that he understood how important it was to be true to himself – if he didn’t agree with me about something, then it was crucial that he own that instead of feigning agreement but secretly making a choice I might not like. After all, I’m not unreasonable – if he’d admitted that he wanted the tree in a different spot, I could have been given the opportunity to agree with him or make my case otherwise. But lying is not an option. Not ever. Own your truth, or leave.
Ironically, our dog dug up that tree and we’ve never planted another one. Maybe it’s time we did.
I’m curious about how others handle these big triggers. Is there some other tool I can add to my resource kit for when these things hold us hostage for a few agonizing moments? Please share!