Tag Archives: trigger

There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.


Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.


The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.


I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.


I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.


If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.


I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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The brain is made up of tons of different neural networks.  We strengthen the connections between neurons when we learn to do something.  As a simple example, when a person is learning how to ride a bike, a neural pathway forms that strengthens the more a person completes the action of bicycling correctly.  If the person never has any desire to ride a bike, they will never form that neural pathway because they will never give the neurons a reason to connect.  And if a person doesn’t ride a bike for many years, that neural pathway will begin to fade away.  

Neural pathways do not only form for positive experiences such as riding a bike.  They can also form from negative experiences.  A psychologist named Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” after his experimentation on dogs.  He locked dogs into kennels with no way out and hit them with repeated electric shocks.  The dogs would try to escape by biting the bars or throwing themselves at the sides, but they couldn’t get away from the shocks.  Eventually, learning that there was no escape, the dogs would lay down in the kennels and just take the shocks.  Even when Seligman opened the dog to the kennel, the dog would continue to stay and take the shocks.  The neural pathways formed by the repeated electrocution taught the dog that there was no way out.  There are chemicals formed inside the neurons during adverse experiences that aren’t formed during happy times; these chemicals are what make the negative memories last longer.  The neural pathways formed by negative memories are stronger, and harder to break.

Post traumatic stress disorder is like that; it’s the formation of a negative neural pathway or pathways caused by exposure to something from the past.  For instance, there are certain things that just trigger a vise.   Like someone is squeezing the inside of the chest.  My chest.

It’s very difficult for me to explain PTSD to people outside of it.  Really, it’s my brain being scared.  My neural pathways sending me into fight or flight that generally transports me to somewhere other than where the “fight” occurred.  I think of my brain as a bit of a firecracker.  There is only so long that my fuse can burn before it blows up.  Over time, I have grown good at recognizing the signs of an impending blow-up in enough time to escape the situation.  It also occurred to me today that I have become better at managing said blow-ups when they do happen.

Example A.  Sometimes it’s especially bad, as in, something as simple as a touch can push me over the edge and trap me inside of a memory.  And it isn’t just thinking about the memory.  It’s being in it.  One hundred percent, in it.  Breathing it, feeling it.  Reliving it.  These are the ones I really don’t care for, the ones where it’s hard to come back on my own.  When I feel him and want to stab myself in the eye.

Example B.  Last semester, I was sitting in a psychology class doing group work when a guy I didn’t know came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.  He wasn’t trying to do anything inappropriate, the rational part of me knows that.  But the irrational part of me ruled at the time.  The snap that occurred was pretty external—I burst into tears and fled.  It took me a good 45 minutes to return to class that day, and what amounted to at least twenty minutes of discussion after class on the floor of another professor’s office.  Not my proudest moment, but I wasn’t lost.

Example C.  One thing after another.  Eyes and hair and hands and touching and noises.    One trigger after another.  Confrontation.  And boom.  I walked into a class to set my stuff down with my hands literally shaking and I felt my chest snap.  My fuse blew.  I walked out; I didn’t cry much.  I got a drink of water.  A second.  I did a loop around the middle.  A second.  And I went back.  I shook for a good two hours.  But I handled.  Somehow, I did that.  AND I opened my mouth and presented normally—because that’s how I roll.

There’s a part of me that wants to shield this piece of me from others, that views this as me not being able to handle my shit.  But there’s another part of me that sees the progress I have made and the battle that I have fought.  That really, it’s not me not handling my shit.  It’s me forming new neural pathways.  Associating my experiences with different things.  Learning that a memory or a trigger isn’t necessarily an electric shock I can’t escape.  What I did today I couldn’t have done last year.  So instead of saying “I can’t handle my shit,” I need to be saying “go me.”  Because I did handle.  I was scared, but I handled.

I’m not sure when I became that person who could almost handle.  But I like her.  

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Odd Girl Out


My classmate Lissa was having a party, complete with Lisa Frank stickers of fuzzy animals, crafts, and root beer floats.  The works to a twelve year old.  I sat in the cafeteria, watching as she made the rounds of all the girls.  Watching as they opened their invitations with glee, squealing over the pretty colors and talking about what they would wear.  Watching as she went to every girl in my class.  Waiting for my turn.

It didn’t come.  I didn’t get an invite.  I was the odd girl out.

As usual.

It started around fourth grade, I can’t remember exactly.  I had been fairly popular up until then.  The turning point came when I got head lice.  I had to leave school awkwardly one day.  My social life was never the same after that.  I got shunned by a lot of the people who had been my friends, and I never really came back from that.  I didn’t know how to interact with people my age anymore.

From childhood, to adulthood, I became the odd girl out. 


I learned a lot from being in a relationship, from being married.  I learned that it was not okay to think for myself.  I learned that my thoughts were not my own.  I let my ideas whither away into nothing.  I learned that I should not have my own opinions.  I learned that I was supposed to go along with the crowd, that I couldn’t be my own person.  I learned that it was never okay to have the wrong answer.  I took these things and incorporated them deep into my soul, into a place where it’s been damn near impossible to dig them back out.  I didn’t see anything wrong with these notions, because they were all I knew.  I still struggle with them.  I can never quite free myself.  

I’ve written often about the moment when I knew that I would marry B.  That moment when, exhausted after hours on my feet at work, I wanted to see him.  I wanted to go to his house and be with him over hanging out with my cat in front of the television.  I wanted it more than anything; I knew then that I would marry him some day.  But when I write about that moment, there’s a detail that I usually leave out.  

I married him because I didn’t believe that anyone else would ever want me.  I married B because I thought it was the only chance I would have to experience marriage.  I married him because I thought that I had no other choice.

And I stayed with him because I knew that I had no other choice. 


“Abuse is less likely to occur when partners can make each other happy.”

I stared over the top of my laptop at my professor, completely aghast.  And against my greater control, in tears.  

It’s been a struggle for me to realize that the dissolution of my marriage was not my fault.  That being torn apart was not my fault.  That his lack of happiness was not my fault.  That losing our son was not my fault.  That none of what happened was my fault.  

And here was this person with power over me telling me exactly the opposite.  When my undergrad career has been spent struggling to escape this person, suddenly I was her again.  Suddenly I was that girl letting someone else tell me who to be.  Odd girl out.  


I was sitting on my couch when B’s sister let him into the apartment we shared.  I stood up slowly.  “I told you, I don’t want you to come over anymore until after we’re married.”  

“You said you didn’t want to be alone,” he retorted.  “We aren’t alone.”

His sister had disappeared into the bedroom.  

I sank back onto the couch, as far away from him as I could get.

It had happened a week ago, the last straw, the thing that pushed me over the edge.  “You can’t come over anymore until we’re married,” I had whispered that night as he parked in my parking lot.

“What?  Why?” he cried.

“I just…I can’t do this.  It doesn’t feel right.”

His hand tightened on my thigh.  “How can it not feel right?  What does it even matter?”  His nails were digging into my skin.

I was the odd girl out.  The one who wasn’t normal.  Always.  The one who didn’t want to have sex before marriage.  Not normal.  

“You’re hurting me!”  I pulled his hand off my leg and he slammed back against his seat, sulking.  “Look,” I said, more quietly.  “I just think that if we can’t keep…If we can’t keep from doing things, then we shouldn’t be alone.”  I tried to be politically correct in my phrasing to keep him from getting angry, but really, it was him, not me.  I wasn’t comfortable doing anything.  I wasn’t sure I ever would be, especially now.

He shook his head slowly; he obviously didn’t understand.  “Just get out.  We can talk more about this tomorrow.”

I shook my head to clear away the memory.  B had sank onto the couch beside me, despite my efforts to sit separately.  “We should watch a movie,” he continued, as if nothing was wrong.  But everything was wrong.  He just didn’t see it.

I couldn’t tell if it was my imagination, or if he was eyeing the blanket draped over the back of the couch.  I didn’t want to watch a movie with him.  I realized then that I didn’t want to do anything with him.  I didn’t want to marry him.  I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with him; why should I, when he didn’t listen or even respect me?  “I think we should break up,” I whispered.

We fought.  He told me that he would never let me go.  It was pretty ugly.  I left.

Eventually, he would apologize.  I would come back.  We would get married.

That moment was the beginning of my end.

Things escalated.

We had a fight one day, when I came home from work and he expected dinner.  I wasn’t making it fast enough for him, and he started to call me names.  I threw the potholder in his direction and it clanged off of the guitar that rested in the papazon chair.  “You.  Are.  An ass,” I said as it fell to the floor.  It was the first time I had expressed myself in a long time.  I wished I had better aim.  I wished it had hit my husband in the head.  Not that a potholder would do much damage, but it would get my point across.

“What?” he asked.  “I just…”

“I worked all day, I’m tired, I come home, and this is how you treat me? Are you serious?”

“Well, it’s your job.  To cook.  It’s not my job.”

Nothing is your job.” I spit.  “Absolutely nothing.”

I turned around and stalked back to the kitchen, minus the potholder.  I stood over the pot of spaghetti, stirring it with my wooden spoon.  I thought about our marriage, about the unequal division of pretty much everything.  I kept my mouth shut.  My small explosion was the most I dared to express my feelings.  He didn’t work; I worked fifty plus hours a week.  He didn’t clean; cleaning was a woman’s job.  He didn’t do anything.  Except for what he did to me.

But, I consoled myself, at least he usually let me control the remote.

That was pretty much the highlight of our marriage.  I couldn’t make him happy.


“You’re not wrong.  The things that she said were wrong.”

I stared at my stack of papers to grade and my now empty bottle of apple juice before looking back up at T.  “You think?  Because I don’t know what to do.”

“You get someone to advocate for you.  Because some people don’t have enough sense of self-worth to realize the power that they have, which is why there are people out there that will fight for you.  And that’s okay.”

This was harder to hear somehow than the comment itself.  To know that there are people who see that I’m not that girl anymore, that I’m not that her.  That I’m weak sometimes and scared, but that I’m also strong.  And right.  Normal.  Not odd.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of what I thought the perfect life would be.  I pictured the ideal wedding with ice sculptures and flowers and a man that I loved.  I imagined that we would have two children, a boy and a girl, and that they would be just a few years apart—enough that they could play happily together but still have distance when they needed it.  In this fantasy, my family adopted a white German Shepard named Alfie who protected us and gave us fun and entertainment until the kids grew older and moved out.  As empty nesters, my husband and I would retire to Florida, where we would live out the rest of our days in the sun and provide a vacation home for our children and their children.  Happily ever after.

I believed in a fairy tale.  Absolutely none of these things came to pass.  

My life’s not perfect.  But I try to live it the best I know how.  I’m a words girl.  I’m quiet, but I absorb everything.  I notice everything; I take it all in.  My downfall comes from tendency to more remember the bad things.  I’m hypersensitive, and I know it.  I hear some things and they call up a pain, or a memory. 

A loud noise.

A touch from behind.

A word on a bulletin board.

Simple things, but things that can set every nerve cell in my body on fire.  Things that can make me feel like I’m electrified a million times over.  Things that make feel that which I don’t want to feel.  Triggers.  And it feels like I’m the only one who is bothered, the only one who is hurting.  Rational me knows that isn’t true; rational me knows that we all have our own pain.  But it doesn’t feel good to feel like the only one.  It doesn’t feel good to be the odd girl out.  It doesn’t feel good to feel like you’re in a cage, like you’re alone.  Like you’re not normal because of your experiences, because of who you are.

For a moment today, I didn’t feel that way.  For a moment today, somebody told me that it was okay.  That I was okay; that my feelings were okay.

For a moment, I wasn’t the odd girl out.  

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n. the lever pressed by the finger to discharge a firearm
n.  an event that precipitates other events

They come in droves.
There is a guy in my class who is completely obnoxious.  From the way he constantly talks over the professor to the way he blurts out his answers to the fact that he comes in twenty minutes late on a consistent basis.  His voice grates on my nerves.
The school mascot is an asshat.  He runs down the hall in a bear costume that probably reeks from those who have worn it before him, coming up behind random people to scream and hug them.  Because we like that.  Not.
Fireworks.  Loud, exploding balls of color in the sky.
A hand that drifts too low.
Certain words.
Enough said.
It is possible to be in one place, doing one activity, and then suddenly find yourself in a completely different spot, doing a completely different activity.  It’s sort of like what happens when you daydream; you temporarily lose touch with what’s happening around you.  This is called disassociation, where a person becomes mentally removed from their surroundings.  You have little to no memory of your body and what it was doing.  You are trapped inside of yourself.  You are in a flashback.
We are sitting in the waiting room.  I can’t remember how I got here.  I have always hated waiting room due to the massive amount of paperwork that generally comes along with them.  She tries to distract me; she seems to know.  We talk about shows, performing.  She used to be an actress.  I’m surprised; I shouldn’t be, but I am.  Anything and everything crosses the discussion.  I am focused, present.  This was the idea, I think.
The door opens and we go in.  Down a hall.
The therapist seems nice, but that doesn’t make any difference in my head.  “Why are you here?”
I shake my head.  I shrug.  I can’t answer.  Everything hurts.  I stare at her, hoping she will help me focus again.  Hoping she will say something, do something.  I’m not ready for this.  My eyes beg her to tell my story.  She does.  The conversation gets fuzzy.
I don’t remember the words she says.
A flashback is what is referred to as a re-experiencing symptom of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  A flashback is not a seizure; it’s a completely different entity.  In a flashback, it feels like the traumatic event is happening all over again.  Repetition to infinity.  A soldier who hears a loud noise such as a car backfiring could be taken back to a time when they shot someone during wartime.  A rape victim could begin to feel pain that isn’t there anymore or smell things that they smelled during the assault.  How it happens is different for everyone.  Some people will hear sounds, or see sights from the time of the traumatic event.  Other people will be completely sucked in, as if they are in the event and it is happening to them all over again.
I am in a parking lot, the parking lot, walking with my coworkers.  There is something behind the dumpsters, in the dark.  Close to my car.  The shadows obscure whatever it is.
My palms are coated with sweat.  My heart races.  I can feel the beat in my ears.
Someone says something to me, grabs my arm.  I have stopped halfway between work and the car.  I know what the shadow is.  He’s back.  For me.
I sink down to the ground.
I can feel his fingers on my arm.  His mouth on mine.  His tongue on my face.  His breath in my ear.  I am dirty.  Damaged.  And that’s all there is.  The outside world, the real world, does not exist.
I can’t hear or see anything else.
It is important to track the things you are thinking and feeling right before a flashback happens, whenever possible.  It’s good to note the things that were happening.  These are triggers.  Be it a loud noise, cracking knuckles, being touched in a certain way, or the certain way a person’s voice sounds, they can put you in a dissociative tailspin.  If you know they are coming, you have a chance to stop the flashback before it happens.
I am in class.
Peer review.  I am sitting next to this person I barely know.  I should know him, since we’ve been in the same class for the entire semester.  There are only eight of us.  We exchange papers; it is apparent that we are supposed to learn from each other, though I’m not sure how.  I stare down at his paper, clicking my pen on the desk.  I try to discern a thesis, but I am only aware of how close he is to me.
It feels like inches.  I can’t think.  I read the same sentence four times.  I look up at the professor.  I’m melting; I want to say something.  But I can’t.  So I try again.  The words blur together, but I manage to make a few corrections.  He doesn’t have an entire paper, and I’m completely lost.  I give it back.  I’m not me.  I’m not academic, I’m not smart.  I’m someone else, stuck somewhere else.
He asks me a question, something about the comments he had written on my paper.  Did I intend to use a certain source?  I wasn’t sure.  The professor asks if we are done.  I answer that I’m not sure why we were together in the first place.  I don’t mean it the way it sounds.  I wasn’t try to be mean.  I was trying to get through it.  I want to explain myself, but I can’t.  I fail.  I get up; I can’t remember what he says as I go.  I have gone back to my own desk, by the door, but I still feel like he is right next to me.  I’m pretty sure it’s not even him I feel.  It’s someone else. It’s him.
I push back out of the desk and out of the classroom.  I lock myself in a bathroom stall.  I cry.  Alone.  I can’t break out of it.
To break out of a flashback, you need to be grounded.  You can become grounded using the five senses of sight, taste, sound, touch, and smell.  Look around and make a mental list of everything that surrounds you.  Eat something with a strong taste, like a lemon or tabasco.  Play loud music.  Hold a piece of ice.  Sniff something with a strong odor.  It’s about redirecting yourself, finding something else to focus on.  But when you’re gone too far inside, it can be hard to do these things on your own.  You have to trust other people, in a time of your life when you don’t think you can.  You have to let them know.  You have to let them in.

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Living, After

(italicized song lyrics from ‘Blue’ by Angie Hart)

Night falls, I fall.

It’s dark out; I cross the parking lot.  I stay with the pack.  My car is right where I left it, in the front row, bathed in the light from the overhead lamp.  But there’s a shadow; something moving around the rear bumper.  Something is there.  I stop breathing and sink down towards the ground, my bag of supplies spilling behind me.  Someone catches me, an arm on the back of mine.

And where were you?

Trigger.  My eyes roll back in my head.

And where were you?

It plays inside my mind like a movie I can’t turn off.

Warm skin, wolf grin, and where were you?

The warmth, the teeth, the grin that burns like a predator about to feed on its prey.  Every nerve cell in my body alerts.

I fell into the moon and it covered you in blue.

To disappear inside my head is like being swallowed up by the moon, huge, all encompassing, and wild.  There is no way to know when it will happen.  There is no way to stop it; there is no easy way to come back out.  It has to happen on its own.

I fell into the moon.

I know nothing of the world around me.  No light, no sound, no touch.  Only darkness.  Only the movie that plays across my mind.  The movie that can not be articulated, that cannot be shared.

Can I make it right?

The only right thing would be the before.  There is nothing right about after.

Can I spend the night?

Reality is stripped away.  I yearn for my own place, my own being.  I will forever have to share with this other entity, this memory inside.

High tide, inside, the air is dew, and where were you?

People snap their fingers.  Try to bring me back.  They get scared at the lack of response.  They panic.

While I, I died, and where were you?

The experience prior to this after deadens everything.  They don’t understand that.  And why should they?  They’ve never been lost.  They’ve never lived after.  It isn’t their fault.  It’s mine.  Mine for not being better.  Mine for not being able to control it.  Mine for not fighting back.

I crawled out of the world and you said I shouldn’t stay.

It must be scary to be on the other end.  I can only assume, as I don’t remember.

I crawled out of the world.

When I wake up, I’m in the back of an ambulance.  Hell.

Can I make it right?

They can’t make me better.  I am not as crazy as I must appear to them.  But I can’t make it stop.  There is no easy fix; there is no magic button that will make what happened right.  That will stop it from happening again.   That will make it before.  The universe does not rewind.  We only move forward.  We are forever after.

Can I spend the night alone?

I’d pay for just one moment of alone-time in my head.  Just one.  One moment where I don’t think about it, about him.  It rarely comes.  These are the emotional ramifications that come with living after.  It’s hard, it’s painful, and it feels like it will never end.  It may not.

It would be easier to disappear.

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