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The Code Words I Use to Tell My Partner They've Triggered My PTSD

I picked a fight with my partner last night. Our disagreement was over something petty, no doubt exacerbated more by outside stressors we are both facing than the actual topic at hand. In the midst of our heated argument, I walked out onto my balcony to get some air and calm myself down. My partner walked out to join me a few moments later only to get a sad, puzzled look on his face and walk back inside.

“You looked at me like you were going to fight me,” he said sadly when I finally joined him inside. I knew the look he was talking about. In my triggered state I remember feeling like every nerve in my body was on fire with a fear that part of me knew wasn’t warranted but couldn’t be calmed while the rational part of my brain was taken over by panic. I remember feeling like a tightly coiled spring ready to unleash its energy at the slightest provocation. I remember him walking toward me while my eyes said “Try me, I dare you.”

It’s hard to explain to a new romantic partner that even when they trigger you, it isn’t really about them. “You know I wouldn’t ever put my hands on you,” he said, legitimately hurt by the intensity of my reaction. More so, he was hurt by the message my reaction sent him — you are a stranger, I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you are capable of. I told him what triggers are, and how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can override your logical mind and all of the things you know to be true about a person or situation. I explained how PTSD works, using the common example of military personnel with PTSD being triggered by fireworks. Your eyes can see that it’s just fireworks, but your brain is saying bombs and responds accordingly. “I know you’re fireworks,” I told him, “but sometimes my mind is still saying bomb.”

My PTSD stems from a sexual assault that occurred a few years ago. My mind and body are a mine field, and even I sometimes don’t recognize where all the trigger points are. The triggers I am able to put clearly into words, I tell him about. He knows why I don’t like people to be touching me when I wake up, but the more difficult triggers — the emotions and small factors that send my brain back to a different time — are hard to conceptualize and prevent. If he is a firework, my more specific triggers are the 4th of July. I can foresee and prevent them for the most part. Emotional triggers are more unpredictable, like when your neighbor decides to do fireworks in the driveway to celebrate a birthday, you cant always see them coming or prepare for them.

Learning a new partner is always a process, but learning a new partner with PTSD can be even more complicated. Open communication about triggers and PTSD responses can help those with PTSD experience fewer episodes, while reassuring a romantic partner they are not the problem even when they set off a trigger unintentionally. My partner is now aware of a few more things to be cautious of, and is happy to do so to protect my emotional health. It’s not easy for me to talk about my PTSD, but it is incredibly necessary in all of my personal relationships. After last night, my partner and I developed a new code for these situations to make it easier to communicate even when I’m triggered: Baby, you’re a firework. For us, these words mean I feel triggered and need a moment to myself to calm down. Equally important, it also says to him that I know you, I care about you and I trust you — I just need a moment for my mind and body to remember you are a “firework” and not the “bombs” of my past.

Follow this journey here.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Unsplash image via Timothy Paul Smith

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