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What It's Like When a PTSD Trigger Takes You Back to Childhood Trauma

Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s girlfriend.

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

The following post is about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggers. The idea was to revisit a trigger from the past and then try to articulate what the experience of being triggered feels like. The first few drafts failed to do this because I was trying to create more, and not less, distance from the experience. So, I did what I was trained to do: I rewrote it. When I still missed, I rewrote it again.

The problem was the closer I got to describing what a trigger feels like, the closer I got to re-triggering myself. This was something I didn’t anticipate. So, last night when I asked my girlfriend Linda to read the latest draft of my post, I was setting us both up for a triggering incident. Of course, I didn’t mean to. Of course, I wasn’t aware of it. Nevertheless, when Linda shared some thoughts about how I might improve the draft, my trauma brain interpreted her response as not being heard. I had worked myself into a pre-trigger state — what Linda calls fertilized ground — and her reception of the piece became the trigger.

The moment of being triggered is really like a light switch being flipped. One moment, I’m me. The guy with two sons, an amazing partner, a PhD; the guy who published a mystery novel; the guy who is a good partner, friend, worker; the guy who’s been sober for almost 14 years.

When the trigger switch is flipped, however, I become a frightened 4-year-old in a man’s body. I become irrationally fearful of things that aren’t really there. I say things I don’t mean. I want to run away. And I want to break shit.

So, I ripped up the draft. I stormed out of the room, knocking two pictures off the wall. I knew I was unsafe. Somewhere in my trauma brain, I always know my bed is safe. So, that’s where I went. This sucks. And I don’t want to share it. I don’t really want you to know what I’m like in a trigger. I don’t want you to think I’m a bad person.

But the reason I’m sharing it is because of what happened next: while I lay on the bed, all the trauma recovery work I’ve done in the past few years took hold and I was able to make a decision (in PTSD bubbles, there is usually no decision-making at all, just reacting in my opinion).

I wanted to break shit. I wanted to run out of the house. I wanted to disappear. I remember staring at the glass of water on the nightstand. I could imagine picking it up and smashing it against the wall. I could imagine doing it because I’ve done it in the past.

But the new neural pathway provided a tiny space for reflection, and I made the decision I don’t want to create more damage. So, I reached into my trigger protocol for some tools. I breathed in, slowly, counting to six, and then out, counting to seven. I repeated this pattern over and over until I started to return to myself. I couldn’t talk about what happened yet — that would be the next day — but I had worked myself back into a safe space, which at that moment, meant I was curled up in bed, not wanting to be touched. The next day, both Linda and I wondered if we should stop writing about our experiences. Maybe it was a one-and-done. But it didn’t take long for us to realize this is precisely why we have to continue. Too many people out there are struggling like us. To be silent because things aren’t going perfectly is exactly what PTSD does to those who struggle with it and their supporters.

So, fuck you, PTSD. You can shove it up your ass.

If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care and love. For us humans, it means as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn and pay attention to people’s needs. — “The Body Keeps the Score” (p. 76)

The suitcase is open in the bedroom. It’s black with green trim. Garment bags hang from the door. A load of laundry is on the bed. Shoes on the floor. Toiletries on the counter. She’s packing, and I can’t stop her.

I take a breath.

My insides are falling — that feeling when you’re going down the first big hill on a roller coaster, only this roller coaster never stops. It just goes faster and faster until I feel like I’m going to explode.

I take another breath. I’m pleading now.

“Please don’t go.”

“Honey, I have to,” she says. “You know that. And it’s only for a few days.”

Something about the way she says it. I can sense the disgust. She’s disgusted with me. She is questioning our relationship. She’s questioning us. I know I’m sick, I want to yell. I know my mind is playing tricks on me. But I keep it inside. Act normal. Just get to when she’s gone. Then you can fall apart. You can stay in bed. You can watch TV. You can get over it then.

The bottom line is the threat-perception system of the brain has changed, and people’s physical reactions are dictated by the imprint of the past. — “The Body Keeps the Score” (p. 67)

She’s perfect. She’s the love of your life. She wants nothing but the best for you. She has to go on a business trip. She invited you. You can’t go with her. She’s not doing anything to you. She’s doing what any person does. The next thing. It’s not an attack. Look at her. She’s amazing. She loves you. She’s putting up with you.

She loves you. She loves you so much. She tells everyone you are the love of her life. She loves you. She loves you. She loves you.

And I love her. She sees me. She knows who I am. And she still loves me. She’s patient. She knows I’m struggling.

But she’s leaving you. She’s going to New York without you. She’s going to party with friends, and who knows? Maybe she’ll meet someone better. Someone who can keep it together because you sure as hell can’t. Look at you. You’re about to lose your mind because your girlfriend is going on a business trip! What’s wrong with you? You are broken.

I leave the bedroom, calling over my shoulder, I have to get out of here. I can’t let her see my like this. I can’t. I can’t breathe. She’s leaving.

This is why she’s going to hook up with someone else. She needs a break from you. You are exhausting. You are not right in the head. What kind of a person feels this way about his girlfriend who is going on a trip? She’s not leaving you! At least, she wasn’t going to leave you until you started acting this way. You’re pathetic. And broken.

These reactions [to triggers] are irrational and largely outside people’s control. Intense and barely controllable urges and emotions make people feel “crazy” — and makes them feel they don’t belong to the human race. — “The Body Keeps the Score” (p. 67)

I’m in the living room now. I grab my keys. They’re heavy in my hand. Outside, I can see palm trees and blue sky. It’s the greatest city on Earth in the greatest neighborhood on Earth. Why am I freaking out?

I open the front door, but images of her leaving flood my brain. The suitcase, the shoes, the toiletries … she’s going to be gone for five days. I’m going to be in this space alone. She may not come back. She may decide to stay away from you. She may finally realize that you’re not worth the effort. I can’t leave.

I return to the room.

I can see the exhaustion in her eyes. Why are you back?

“I don’t know what to do,” I say.

“Baby, I love you,” she says.

“But you’re leaving me!” I respond.

CUT TO:

He’s leaning over me now. His face is flushed. He’s breathing heavy. I’m in the garage. His arms grip me tight. The door to the garage opens, and a teenage girl steps through it. She’s got long blonde hair, a striped shirt and pink pants. She’ll get him to stop. She’ll save me. She freezes. “Go back in the house,” he says. “Now!” No! I try to yell, but my voice is faint. And just like that, she turns around and leaves me behind. Forever.

CUT TO:

I’m in the bedroom with Linda. And the suitcase. She’s leaving me, too. I can’t believe it’s happening again. Please don’t leave me.

CUT TO:

The trauma that started “out there” is now played out on the battlefield of their own bodies, usually without a conscious connection between what happened back then and what is going on right now inside. The challenge is not so much learning to accept the terrible things that have happened but learning how to gain mastery over one’s internal sensations and emotions. — “The Body Keeps the Score” (p. 68)

Linda doesn’t know what to say. What is there to say?

CUT TO:

I’m being held down. I can’t leave. I can’t breathe. The girl left me with him. Roman left me with him — Linda’s leaving me here with him, too.

CUT TO:

The sun is warm on my skin. Roman and I turn the corner, and there he is.

“Who’s your friend?” he asks.

“This is Aaron,” Roman says.

“Nice to meet you, Aaron. I’m Cory.”

Let’s say he’s wearing a KISS shirt and jeans (I don’t really remember). His blonde curly hair is long, and his face is smooth.

“Why don’t you run along, Roman. Let me get to know Aaron, OK?” Roman screws his face into a ball.

“It’s his turn,” Cory says to Roman.

Roman looks me in the eye before he leaves me with Cory.

I take a breath.

Don’t leave me.

Cory grabs me by the arm. I sense the danger. I don’t want to go. But it’s too late. And then he pulls me along with him, toward the garage — while the world, and everyone in it, leaves me behind.

Two years have passed since this incident, and a lot has changed. I’ve been in trauma recovery for 18 months, and I’ve been learning how to deal with triggers.

I’ve also been writing about my experiences with trauma on my blog 72 Hour Hold. I was set to direct my first movie, Garage, about what it’s like to live with untreated trauma, but the pandemic put that on hold, and so now I’m writing the novel version instead.

The point is: I’m doing better.

Last night, the old feelings came back. Going through the pandemic with PTSD is difficult. Anxiety always burns beneath the surface, and living with so many restrictions invokes the sensation of being held down by my abuser. Sometimes, the only way I see through it is to explode. Hurl my laptop at the wall. Punch my fist through the wall. Break everything in sight. I know the release that comes with breaking things, but I also know the damage it does to my current life and the other people in it.

What did I do instead? I let Linda know I needed space. I retreated to our bedroom. I smoked a cigarette out the window (part of my toolkit). I listened to Radiohead. I attended my male survivor’s meeting on Zoom — thankfully, it happened to be Wednesday!

Gradually, the old feelings began to go away. Only a fraction at first, but that fraction created a bridge back to my true self.

Two hours later, I emerge. Safe and ready to be a part of things again.

Original photo by author

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