A little while ago something extremely triggering happened. It wasn’t one of the everyday triggers, the smells and dates and accidental interactions that I am better at managing these days. This was a monster of a trigger.
I was helping an older man with something on the canal while I was out walking my dog early one morning. The task led me to be crouching while he stood in front of me, and when I looked up, I realised he was wearing a horribly indecent pair of shorts and no underwear.
His penis was right in my face.
He didn’t intend this and I don’t think he even noticed. But I was completely freaked out, and couldn’t get away as my key was stuck in the jammed lock we were trying to deal with.
For some people, that would’ve just been a bit gross and might have even been a funny story to tell. But for me, it kicked off a spiral of hideous flashbacks, body memories, shame and self-disgust. It was over a week ago, but I haven’t even been able to write about it until now, for fear that it would bring all those feeling back to the surface.
This was especially triggering because it had a lot in common with one of my worst memories of the abuse. The way he and I were positioned, and my feeling of not being able to remove myself were painfully familiar. I felt sick, frightened, shaky. I felt all the things I’d felt as a child when my brother abused me.
My system responded to this in an odd way. I knew I’d been triggered. But when I got home and told my wife what had happened, I became hyperactive. I had a productive, busy day and although I was agitated, I was in quite a good mood. I guess I’d gone into some avoidance overdrive for self preservation.
The shit hit the fan when I woke up the next day. I had completely dissociated. It felt like I’d left my body. I was listless, with this dull, empty feeling. It was like I had no substance anymore, like I’d turned into a ghost. My wife had gone out for the day, and I knew I needed to try to ground myself if I was going to stay safe. I tried so many things; playing music, making food, watching comedy, yoga, cleaning the boat. None of it shifted anything.
I didn’t want to resort to harming myself, but I got desperate. I knew if I did I’d feel something real, I’d feel like I was real. I sat and took my time over cutting myself and it was the best I’d felt all day. It made me feel like I was still alive.
By the following day, I was still just floating. Usually this kind of detachment dissipates overnight. But when I slept, I dreamed of my brother, so there wasn’t any relief in sleeping. Waking up for a second day feeling so terrible was hard to handle. While I felt disconnected from myself, I was still having constant intrusive images and awful body sensations.
While my therapist tells me she’s OK with contact between sessions, I try not to email her unless it’s about some practicality, like session timings. I tried to manage this situation without bothering her in her time off. But after 48 hours of feeling so bad, I emailed to tell her what was going on. I just needed her to know.
She responded with kindness and empathy, like she always does. It already felt like some of what I’d been suffering was relieved by her knowing what was happening for me. And she offered to arrange a short call the following day if I thought that would be useful. My instinct was to decline, and tell her I’d be fine without it. But when I stopped to think, I realised that was my old pleasing others behaviour kicking in. I told myself that she wouldn’t offer if she wasn’t OK with it. That’s quite new for me, overcoming my fear of upsetting other people.
So we did have a chat the next day, and I was really glad I didn’t say no to that. The little parts of me that had been so activated were soothed by hearing J’s voice. It was reassuring to talk to her. It helped me get a grip on myself and start feeling a sense of containment again. I guess that the compassion and patience and openness J offered was what those small parts needed and didn’t get all those years ago. It felt good for the young parts to have that.
Even though the trigger happened over a week ago now, I’m still feeling the impact. My system did settle a bit in the days after I spoke to J, but it took a huge effort. Then I had all the somatic stuff; diarrhoea, headache, neck pain and stiff shoulders. It is incredible, the chain of reactions one unfortunate event like this can cause in me.
While a lot of that has calmed down, I’ve got so much pain in my neck and back that I’ve got to go and see a physiotherapist today. I was putting it off, but after several days of the pain being so bad I couldn’t figure out how to get myself out of bed in the morning, I am biting the bullet. The physio is a stranger. And the only one with availability is male.
So in dealing with the impact of a trigger, I’m going to have to go and face yet more triggers.
Image credit: George Carter, Creative Commons.