Trigger Awareness

This is a post for everyone—especially those who do NOT have a mental illness. It’s one that has been on my mind for a while, but I’ve struggled with how to present it because it is a very sensitive topic, for me and for many others. It keeps cropping up however, so I’m going to do my best.

This is not a post to make you feel guilty for anything you have already said or done. This is not a post to add one more thing to the list of “things you can’t say without offending someone”.

This is a post to bring awareness to “triggers”. A trigger is anything that brings back a memory, event, or emotion.   Typically they are related to some sort of trauma. And a trigger can be just about anything—image, sound, smell, taste, you name it. But there are some topics that are pretty consistent trauma triggers because most of them involve the very thing that caused the trauma to begin with. I’d like to keep this post relatively safe, so instead of discussing all of them (although I will discuss one briefly later on to illustrate a point, so proceed with caution), please refer to this site that has a pretty comprehensive list. If you do not deal with triggers yourself, please check this list. You can probably guess several of the topics, but I can almost guarantee you that others will surprise you. I know this because even my husband, who has been dealing with my triggers for years, is still sometimes surprised by what sets me off.

What happens when an individual encounters a personal trigger? The response varies person-to-person, day-to-day, circumstance-to-circumstance. For me personally, it can be anything from struggling to catch my breath while I deal with a minor panic attack to contemplating carrying out whatever traumatic event the trigger may have reminded me of.

I would like to make a couple requests for the general public with this post.

First, please stop joking about these issues. I am constantly blown away with how often people joke about suicide. At the very least it initiates one of those minor panic attacks for me. If I’m going through a rough time, it can result in weeks of me struggling against thoughts of the darkest kind.

This isn’t to make you feel like a jerk if you’ve been guilty of this. I know that the people joking about it don’t mean any harm by it. Once, years before mental illness entered my life, I was walking across a bridge over the Hudson River in New York when I encountered an emergency phone accompanied by a sign reading, “Desperate? Life is worth living – Call helpline 24 hours a day.” I thought this was so funny I made my mom pose for a picture next to it, trying her best to look desperate. The idea of someone being out on that bridge actually needing that helpline was so far from my reality, I just couldn’t understand it.  Now when I see this picture, it brings up an entirely different set of emotions. But I keep it to remind myself that unless you’ve lived it, you cannot understand it. That is true of all of these trauma triggers.

So please, read the list and don’t joke about any of those things.

Second, think twice before discussing, re-posting or sharing stories involving these subjects in conversation and on social media. I know some people believe more awareness about these subjects will help prevent them. I don’t know. I’m not an expert. I just know how a flyer for an awareness walk for one of the issues that is a trigger for me affects me. And it’s not in a good way. So, just pause a moment before bringing one of these topics up. Is your purpose really to help?

I think a part of human nature is sometimes to be drawn to things that are sensational. That’s why the term “morbid curiosity” exists. But then we don’t always know how to process trauma and tragedy—even when we haven’t personally lived it. A natural part of this processing is to share it with someone else. Or, in the case of social media, everyone else.

So I’m asking that you stop the next time you’re about to share one of those stories and ask yourself what your intent is.

If you do think there is good to be accomplished in sharing it, then share it. But consider issuing a warning first. Give people a chance to decide if they want to immerse themselves in a potentially traumatic topic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked a link after a friend posted a story to Facebook saying that it was “This is so powerful! Must read!” Apparently, these stories are motivating for some people. But I’m back to dealing with weeks of darkness.

My last request is only for those with a close loved one dealing with mental illness. I specify “close loved one” because my personal trauma triggers are things I only share with those I am closest to. Although it’s best for me to avoid these triggers, it’s also a very painful and scary subject for me. Not one I want to have with just anyone, or even with good friends, really.  And there can be danger even in talking about them in order to avoid them in the future.

So, if you consider yourself in this category, find a time when your loved one feels safe and ask them what their personal triggers are and then do your best to avoid them.

Scary Fan

When I see this fan I think it’s a cute butterfly fan.  My youngest daughter calls it the “scawey fan”.  I’ve stared at it and analyzed it and I’m still not exactly sure what about it terrifies her.  But it does.  Not in a trauma-inducing way, but it’s still “scawey” to her.  What is cute or totally insignificant to you might be something very different to someone else.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that a trigger could be pretty much anything. After returning home from the first time I went to the hospital, I felt so broken and horrified that it had happened. Anything that reminded me of my stay brought up feelings of failure and fear and hopelessness and I would instantly be a sobbing mess. This included a dent in a kitchen cupboard from where I had thrown a spoon the night before. It also included finding a receipt from when my husband stopped at Arby’s for dinner on his way home one night after coming to visit me in the hospital. Believe me, a trigger can be anything.  For anyone.  Obviously, you can’t avoid everything for everyone.  But you can be supportive.  During a group conversation last week a woman started talking about a couple of my triggers.  My husband just reached over and gave my hand a squeeze.  Simply knowing that he was aware of what I was going through internally and that he was there to love and support me through it made a big difference.  Not feeling like I’m fighting this all on my own is often the best gift he can give to me.

Again, I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty for anything they’ve said and done without being aware. Or overwhelmed by the thought of trying to avoid all triggers for everyone. Just read the list from the above link and be more conscientious. And help make other people aware. Don’t think that you can be selective based on who you are with. If you and I met on the street and had a casual conversation, I can guarantee you would never guess that I struggle with any of these issues. You cannot know what personal battles those around you have fought in the past, or are currently fighting.   Just know that they will be forever grateful to feel safe around you. I know this because that is how I feel towards those who steer clear of these triggers for me.

-Cheryl

This post appeared first on Real Imprints.