Tuesday 11 November 2014

About Those Pesky Triggers.

Hey, what's up?

It's been awhile since the last post, and for good reason too.  After being out of the teaching biz for a year, I had forgotten just how busy the school year can be (like, go to work at 7:30 AM and get home at 5 PM, eat some food, do more work from 6 PM to 10 PM.  Repeat. I must be doing something wrong - how are other teachers so efficient?).   Add to that some mental health issues, such as the depression and anxiety that accompany PTSD, therapy, and, oh yes, a personal life - well, you get the point.  I mean, I probably shouldn't even be writing this.  I should be doing some marking or planning or something.  Or probably sleeping.

This post is about triggers.  As I write this, selfishly, for my own personal therapy, I also write this for others who have experiences similar to mine in the hopes that they, too, can maybe find a little comfort knowing they're not alone, and that their feelings are 100% a normal response to what has happened to them.

A trigger, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is anything - an event, a smell, an image,  a sound, a phrase, ANYTHING - that causes someone who has experienced trauma to relive or remember a traumatic memory, causing (at least, in my case) a heightened physical and emotional response and a desire to GTFO of where ever I currently am.  Basically, a panic attack. Trigger events are sometimes obvious, but are other times more subtle and surprising.  They can happen any time, and any where.  As for me, I do not only experience triggers of my rape, but also of the invasion of mine and my family/friends' home by three scumbags with armed weapons in the dark.

The forefront of my healing and of my therapy was tackling the big personal triggers that I would likely face; hearing the sound of a belt unbuckling, having my arm grabbed, or my neck touched, for example. I had read early on how important it was to recognize the triggers when they happened, and rather than avoid them, embrace them for what they are, and basically tell them to eff off, because I am stronger than they are (I also had a lot of help and encouragement from the most incredible person in the world - my husband).  For the most part, that worked for the obvious triggers I was able to identify, which is fantastic.  I've also become incredibly good at not letting my triggers overtake me; I can outwardly appear calm, even when I feel like I'm exploding inwardly (this is mostly to avoid freaking other people out. It'd be pretty awkward otherwise).  Other triggers took me by surprise, but made sense - hearing unfamiliar sounds at night, muffled talking outside of our kitchen window.  I'm still trying to cope with these on a daily basis - it's emotionally and physically exhausting work.

As the school year began, I tried to anticipate the things that might trigger me in the hopes that I could confront them productively early on. Really, the only thing I identified as a potential trigger was lockdown drills.  Nothing says "trigger" like practising hiding in a room imagining someone with a gun walking around the building.  The mere thought of sitting quietly in my room in the dark while people checked to ensure all classroom doors were locked was enough to make me sick.  I'm fortunate enough to have an incredibly understanding and accommodating administration, who gave me leave to be out of the building while the lockdown occurred in my prep period.  I've promised myself that next time we have a lockdown drill, I'll stay and confront the trigger. (Wish me luck!)

Other triggers came unexpectedly and unanticipated. One morning, I was working with my students when I heard a shriek come from the hallway.  Normal, non-PTSD Jo, would have shrugged it off, attributing the noise to a rambunctious student in the hallway.  Non-PTSD Jo would have either ignored it, or requested the source of the sound to "take the noise-level down a notch, we're trying to work in here." Instead, my heart rate shot up, my mouth became dry, and I felt the same terror I felt on June 11th at VOTOLandia in Kumasi when Caroline screamed as three cowards forced their way into our home.  Not wanting to alarm my students, I stood up from where I was, pretended to get a tissue and blow my nose, and quietly shut my already-locked classroom door while I discarded the tissue into the dustbin.  A couple of students expressed some concern regarding the shriek - "It's probably one of the grade nines - nothing to worry about." I reassured them. Every fibre of me wanted to turn off the lights and gather my students into a safe nook in the room. I managed to outwardly keep my cool for a solid fifteen minutes, until the bell finally rang, signalling the end of class.  My heart rate didn't settle down until well into fourth period, about four hours later.

Another time, I was attending a professional development session.  The previous night had been a fitful sleep, punctuated by nightmares and flashbacks, so I was already a bit sensitive and jumpy.  In an objectively good activity to illustrate the concept of cultural perspective, a presenter asked us to take different physical positions in the room (standing on a chair, crouching on the floor, etc.) and reflect on how our visual perspectives change each time.  I liked the activity; it broke us from the monotony of sitting in our chairs, while making us reflect on our personal cultural perspectives. It was cool.  What I did not expect was when we were all crouched on the floor and being asked to take notice of what we saw, all I could see were faces of people I love and care about  - Sean, Caroline, Albert, Suhyini, Zair, and Mark - with guns pointed at their heads.  Logically, I told myself that this was not the reality.  What I was really looking at were the smiling faces of colleagues and professionals engaging in an activity for professional development.  However, that wasn't what I saw.  The familiar physiological responses returned, and I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to calm down.  This trigger was truly unexpected and the most illogical of them all.

So, yeah. Triggers - predictable, and at the same time, unpredictable bastards.  I've only mentioned a few instances where I've been triggered, particularly in the public space, but the actual number of instances where I've had to cope with triggers is way higher.  I think the biggest thing for me beyond identifying triggers is learning how to cope with them when they happen, because they can happen at any time - or not at all; one really perplexing thing about triggers is that a potential trigger doesn't always trigger anything at all.  I can watch a violent scene in one film and not be affected at all, while a similar scene in another film might cause a physiological response.  It's totally weird, and since I don't always know when to expect them, learning strategies to cope with them seems to be the best course of action so far.

I realize these things may sound silly to those who do not suffer from any kind of trauma.  I know that I'm a logical human being.  I know that I can rationally tell myself that I am safe, that I am only in a lockdown drill, that nothing that is currently happening is threatening;  sometimes, though, my body begs to differ.  My pulse will tell me otherwise, and my throat closing in is my body's way of completely disagreeing with my logic.  It's like having a drop-down menu with a number of options, but the "chill out" option is gray and non-selectable.  It totally sucks, but I'm working on it one day at a time with the help of awesome family and friends.

Thanks for reading :)



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