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When an Unexpected PTSD Trigger Made Me Dissociate in the Grocery Store

Last night, I went to the grocery store by myself to pick up some items for the week. A few minutes after I entered the store, I was circling around a produce table that had grab and go snack options on shelves below. The first side contained all sorts of nuts, the second side contained dried fruit, and the third side contained chocolate covered items. My eyes stopped on the bag of malted milk balls.

I froze.

My heart started racing. One part of me thought to buy him a bag, another part felt so left out and betrayed, while another became enraged. Why didn’t he ever share his malted milk balls with me? His grandma always sent him a huge bag in the mail. I remember asking him for one, just one, and he told me no, that mom told him he didn’t have to share. This principle of not having to share was clear with his personal belongings as well. He only likes to share when he gets something in return…

I don’t know how long I stared at the malted milk balls before noticing that an employee was having to wheel a huge produce cart around a tight turn to avoid me. Embarrassed, I wheeled my cart away and began walking down a random aisle that was void of people. I spoke aloud to myself quietly while white-knuckling the grocery cart:You’re OK. We’re in the grocery store. We are safe. He isn’t here. We’re an adult. We are buying groceries. You are OK. You are OK.” I walked down another aisle just breathing before grabbing my phone to return to the shopping list. My head was fuzzy. As I looked at the items on the shelf beside me, I noticed that I was next to an item my wife wanted, but my brain couldn’t decide between the two flavors. Usually, these decisions are easy, but not so much after being triggered.

People were walking by me, likely wondering why I was starting at the mac and cheese for so long. It’s all processed crap, what’s so hard to decide? There I was, beside a free-standing product display hugged to one side of the aisle, trying to make myself as small and out of the way as possible while struggling to keep my mind in the present reality. Someone walked by while talking on the phone. It hadn’t occurred to me to simply call my wife for help. I looked down at my phone, opened up the call screen and clicked my wife’s number. She answered quickly. It was reassuring to hear her voice. She told me which flavor she’d prefer, then we got off the phone and I returned to my grocery list. I called her for help once more when I got to the bread section, finding myself overwhelmed when they didn’t have the single brand and flavor in stock that I had written on my list.

As I made my way to the front of the store, deciding that the last item I couldn’t find wasn’t worth the stress or another phone call, I looked at the multi-cart line of people at two open registers on the far end of checkout lanes. I hate when people in line try to talk to me shortly after I’ve been triggered because I’m trying to focus on staying safe and calm. I circled back to the other end of lanes where the light above the last register indicated it was open. I approached slowly, and quietly asked the young man if his register was open. He nodded and quickly cleared the belt of cleaning supplies to ring out my items. As I unloaded my items onto the belt, I noticed that his silence mirrored my own, and I felt compelled to ask in a genuine tone how his night was going. Before I knew it, he and I were laughing and I could tell he felt the same comfort that I did. I thanked him, and made my way to my car while smiling. Sometimes a little kindness from others goes a long way in reminding us that we are indeed safe despite the things that tell us otherwise.

It’s impossible to know what little thing is going to trigger us and when. It’s impossible to be prepared for every little situation that might arise. It’s impossible to predict how we will react. We can try to be as prepared as possible, but sometimes the trigger is too powerful or too unexpected when paired with our current mental and emotional state. Despite feeling confident in my ability to go to the store alone, and having my grocery list ready and organized precisely by the layout of the store, the trigger was able to transform me into that small child again. Scared, alone and confused; weary of trusting others; unsure of what to do next aside from finding comfort and safety.

None of us have a way of knowing what another has endured or is currently going through. You might become irritated having to walk around someone who is zoned out and in your way, perhaps staring at a bag of malted milk balls, clearly unaware of others around them. You might think they’re stoned and hungry, “just another lowlife pothead.” You never really know why another behaves the way they do.

The inappropriate outbursts at an innocent store clerk. The frustration with long lines or items being out of stock. Those with piles of coupons. Those who never stop talking to others around them. Those who keep their head down, refrain from eye contact, and respond with minimal words. None of us really know why another does these things; they might not even know it themselves. What I can guess is that these people have gone without something for long enough that it changed them… just like it changed me. I am not a “lowlife pothead,” zoning out on mac and cheese or malted milk balls because I have the munchies; I am a person with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) who often dissociates when triggered. We act out of survival to protect ourselves and to stay safe, even when others around us don’t see the present danger or threat that we know is there.

None of us really know what we’re doing at first, maybe ever at all, but we’re learning as we take each step into the unknown. While you learn to navigate these muddy waters, give yourself some grace. Be patient as you notice each trigger, and be kind as you find your way to comfort and safety.

Getty Images photo via VLG