Triggers

One thing I learned in recovery is that sometimes being upset at a current negative event isn’t really about that event so much as it is about something that happened years earlier that was similar. For example, if you were previously married in a domestic violence situation with a partner who had anger management problems and was prone to obscenity directed at you but today you are married to a healthy behavior partner who loses their temper at something one day (a perfectly normal human trait) you might over-react as it triggers you back to a shadow memory. This too, for someone who had been in this type of previous relationship, is perfectly normal. It’s almost an automatic reflex action that you don’t even realize is happening.

Everything that happens to us is in our memory bank. Nothing is lost even if it might never be accessed again. As much as we would love to be able to erase all the painful traumas that’s not always possible. Sometimes we can train ourselves to look at them with objectivity as we distance ourselves from the actual event. Other times we feel we are buried in all the old pain we thought had healed. It’s a life long commitment to a child sexual abuse victim or to any type of abuse victim to keep from knee-jerking back in time.

There are ways to deal with this. One, recognize what has just happened. Then communicate with your current partner about it. (and this can happen with a sibling or friend as well) what they had just done, innocently, was to remind you of an abuse you went through many years previously. Sometimes it isn’t that long ago and other times it may be decades before something is triggered that you thought you’d deleted from your brain years ago. That doesn’t mean it isn’t manageable. Another way to deal with triggers is to find a safe place to sit and close your eyes. Picture what just happened. Then picture the trauma that resembles it that happened previously. Look at them side by side. Are they really that similar? Is the previous event primarily a shadow that, while time has erased the sting, current events can cause the shadow to take a frightening shape again? Take deep breaths and try to be objective and truthful about the two happenings that seem the same, but in reality, aren’t. A former experience with an abusive father may resurrect in our memory again just by an odor that is the same as what was in the former experience. Maybe your mom was baking a chicken when your dad began beating her. Perhaps the smell of a similar chicken being baked backed by other similarities in sight, sound or smell can cause time to catapult you back decades when in reality there is nothing traumatic happening in today’s events. A current partner who accidentally snaps his belt while dressing can take you back in time to a severe beating by your parent with a large leather when you were very young for a wrong of which you were innocent.

Once you look at both events with clarity and common sense you can take the former painful memory and move it gently once again in to that closet in your mind where all events linger. You can close the door and lock it. You and your mate can discuss with love and understanding what just happened and you can both be watchful for it in the future.

This happens with humans in pleasing events as well. To this day the fragrance of lilacs takes me back in time to when I was 12 and a lilac bush bloomed outside my bedroom window and woke me with its tantalizing odor. Birds splashing in their bird bath added even more. Since my father’s rapes began when I was 13 the association of the two cannot be coupled together with any pain.

Even the saddest of family histories have their joyful moments. Somehow, we can all recall times when we played trucks in the dirt, swung on swings, sang songs with schoolmates and Mom hugged us maybe just once. Even when taken away, those memories never really leave.

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