Being triggered isn’t being hurt. Its not being offended. Its not even being upset. Being triggered is a very specific, very definite thing. I’m going to try and explain it.
Here I am. This is how it feels.
My legs are disconnected from my head. My body is made of concrete. Its still. very still. Until I started typing, my arms felt heavy. Actually, my arms still feel heavy but now as though they have been manually cranked into a bent position. My shoulders are up and my back is tense.
I feel safer in this one room. I have a perception of massive imminent danger. I do not mean a kind of vague idea when I say ‘sense’. I mean a physical and emotional certainty that something imminently is going to cause me great harm.
My breathing is shallow – no more than half my lungs were filling before I started writing. At the moment, everytime I put a full stop in I am taking a deep breath. The rest of the time – its funny writing this because I am observing it happening – I breath in and then I hold my breath. My lungs empty completely and then I let in a little air. I hold my breath again. Every sound in the house is making me jump.
Emotionally I feel I am wrong. So wrong that I have to confine myself to the smallest, darkest place in the house. I feel as though if I move or make any impact on my surroundings I will cause harm. Not by doing things, but simply by being visible or audible. I feel myself as so toxic and yet at the same time so vulnerable that I have to make myself smaller and quieter and less obvious in every way.
This is the first time I have written about what this feels like. As I write it is changing.
So I can tell you now that I know I am not in imminent danger. I am however, still on guard. I know I am not toxic, but I still don’t want to move my legs.
I just did. They felt like they were not mine. Yet my brain moved them. My brain works and the muscles in my legs work. I am still not breathing in the right way. I still want to be in this small space. I do not want to turn round and look at the window. Right now it is like I am inside an egg. Its the eggshell that’s keeping me safe. No one can touch me as long as I remain in the shell but the shell is so fragile that if I move at all I will break it and somehow, this is the odd thing, somehow cease to exist. I cannot conceive of being outside the shell.
Its over now – my stomach has relaxed The first thing I feel is a breath that is going all of the way down into my lungs. The pain in the place where my heart is goes. That form of words – the pain in the place my heart is – is quite deliberate. It is not a pain in my heart. It is heart-ache. Grief. I think probably lots of people feel it like that – a physical dull ache in the place where Americans put their hand when they stand in front of the flag. An ache that spreads and reaches into everything. And – here we go – I’ve moved my legs a tiny bit. And I didn’t die.
About half an hour before I started writing there were other things going on for me. My thoughts were uncoordinated. There was panic. There was also blankness and the two states kept swapping places. I could not sit in one place. I could not properly move around. I couldn’t focus my mind and when I tried to focus it on the thing that switched all of this on, I had no thoughts at all. Then I resumed what I like to think of as control. Its a false state. It is in fact a further pushing down of what I am feeling so that I cannot feel it at all. The thoughts about the thing that has triggered me are wiped out and erased. I still can’t move.
How did I make it stop? In the middle of writing this, like someone shouting from the opposite terrace at a football game, I heard a song. Its not a song with any great symbolism for me, though its one I like. And I didn’t hear the song. I heard the words from the chorus. And of course I didn’t actually hear it. It wasn’t an ear worm. It was, I guess, the idea of the song. The sense of the song. The message of the chorus of the song. In the act of writing to you, I woke up that part of me that thinks this is nonsense. The part of me that isn’t 8 years old. And that part was screaming at me – though the voice was distant – “Get up and Dance”.
There is no way of doing it gradually. No way of feeling my way to this. It has to be a massive extraordinary effort. I have to try and switch off the fear and the sense of my own toxicity and disappearance. Its like reaching for a light switch in a dark hotel room. or worse trying to get the keycard in the slot by the door. You know its there somewhere and you know when you find it that you’ll be able to navigate the room. But until you do it is pitch black.
I found the light switch. I switched app on my laptop and I played the song. When he started singing “Oh I never knew you, we both went to separate schools … “ I started to cry. Tears streaming down my face and breath catching, I moved my feet. I flexed each ankle in turn. And then I swivelled the chair round and I stood up. I felt like I was going to fall over. And then the chorus started.
“Get up and dance
Get up and smile
Get up and drink
To the ones who are gone in the shortest while”
And now apart from being embarrassed, I feel like me. I am sad. But I am capable of thinking and I can rationalise this. But just ten minutes ago, this big tall 52 year old woman was dancing in her slippers – very badly – crying her eyes out while Ocean Colour Scene told me to sing my sorrow
I am not going to tell you what the trigger was – because I want to keep some stuff private. Kind of ironic as I spill my guts here, but you know, allow me something. I hate the word triggered because it is so ill used. Being triggered isn’t being hurt. Its not being offended. Its not even being upset. Being triggered is a very specific, very definite thing. I’m going to try and explain it.
A trigger could be a smell. It could be a taste. It could be a sound. It can be a sight, or a cast of the light. My triggers are generally emotions. The things I experienced as a kid frightened me a great deal. I can remember, clearly remember, sitting as a child terrified. Something would have happened – you would be upset, or Grace would be kicking off. The might have been a letter or a bill you couldn’t deal with. Or you might have just gone off somewhere and left me. Or I might have been shouted at or hit by Grace. There could be a fierce row going on. A fierce row in our house involved stuff being thrown through windows, stuff being smashed up. Screaming and shouting. Violence. Anger. And I could do nothing.
When I feel fear or a threat now – however slight, it has the potential to arouse again the emotions I felt as a child. but they don’t come as memories. They are immediate. It is terror. Profoundly intrusive. It crashes into my mind and there is no room for anything else. I am the beaten 5 year old, the isolated 8 year old trapped in the back room. I am not me, I am not adult. When I cope with it I do so by orienting myself in the present. The sort of stuff I wrote to you at the beginning of this piece. Describing my body. The present. The weight of my arms.
Today was something of a breakthrough believe it or not. In terms of not being able to move – and that feeling that if i did I would break or disappear. I was able to connect it with something real that used to happen.
I’ve written before about being stuck in the back room and how it was one of the difficulties I had as a kid. We had two sitting rooms when I was young. The front room and the back. After you married your second husband, you had the front room as an adults sitting room. I don’t know where you thought we lived – its certainly wasn’t Downton Abbey – just a semi in St helens. But two sitting rooms it was. In the front room was a new turquoise three piece suite, my stepfather stereogram and big colour TV – which we weren’t allowed to touch and turquoise curtains. Myself and Grace had to sit in the back room and we weren’t allowed in the front unless there was an emergency.
When Grace lived at home there were quite a few emergencies and you would be in and out of our room. Sometimes you’d even sit and talk or watch the TV with us. And when Ken was away or out, you would always sit with us. But once Grace left that changed.
From 6.00pm when Ken – your husband, my stepfather – came home from work, the back room was mine alone. I would go into the kitchen and say “good evening” very formally and he would say “good evening” back. Sometimes he would speak a little more – ask me a question. And I would make an appropriate response. Though these were not conversations. In my minds eye I can see the scene. me with my back to the wall. You two sat at the table. Its like the picture in the Walker Art Gallery – “And when did you last see your father” only I’m not wearing blue silken pantaloons.
Then I would go back into the back room. When he finished dinner – which you ate with him – he would go upstairs to the bathroom and then into the front room where he would put the TV on. I would then go into the kitchen and get myself a drink while you were washing up. We’d exchange a few words and then I would go into the back room again and switch on our black and white TV. I would sit and watch alone the shows we used to watch together before he came.
I was so lonely, so sad. I can rememebr it like it was yesterday. In my head often it is. I would sneak into the kitchen and get food and I would eat. I ate until I felt sick and then I would sometimes be sick. That counted as an emergency so I could come and get you. If i wasn’t sick I would sit up and hold myself as quietly and as stiffly as I could until the sick feeling passed. And by then Coronation Street would have finished. Sometimes I even got all the way through World in Action.
If I needed the loo I would go to the door and listen to see if he was out in the hall or wandering round. If he wasn’t, I would open the door and look both ways down the hall – right to the kitchen and then left towards the front door and if there was no one there, I’d go up to the loo. If he was out there, I would stay behind the closed door until i heard the door into the front room close. Then I would wait a little longer and slip out, checking again – and checking again when i came downstairs. If i did see him I would move as fast as I could to get either back upstairs or into the back room. If I couldn’t avoid him, I would try to slip past him.
I never knew what would happen if I went in the front room without there being an emergency. Or if I walked out of the room when he was out there. or if I made a noise that was too loud (another rule). I never knew where these rules came from. I still don’t. They were just how we lived. It was just what we did. I want to ask you Mum – were you fucking mad? I couldn’t would ever even treat my dog like that. And not a child. It was so wrong
The breakthrough today wasn’t the dancing. It wasn’t the moving. Clearly I’ve got out of that state on many occasions now – one way or the other. The breakthrough was that I understand now what the motionlessness is about. I experience that fear. And I react as that lonely, sad, broken child. I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I cannot be seen. I cannot be heard. I must not have any impact on the world at all or there will be trouble. Knowing this is what is happening changes everything – and nothing. This will not be the last day that has a hole in it created by the intrusion of grief. It won’t even be the last time this week it happens. But I hope knowing what it is means I will be better able to deal with it next time.
I’m exhausted now. Really really exhausted. But I’m going to go to the loo – without looking twice. I’m going to get a coffee with loads of sugar. I’m going to put on my music. And I’m going to dance.