Separation of Self: Learning to Cope

A trauma trigger is an experience that triggers a traumatic memory in someone who has experienced trauma. A trigger is thus a troubling reminder of a traumatic event, although the trigger itself need not be frightening or traumatic.

But I set myself up for it, I really do. 

Let’s get one thing straight:  I love my job, even if I don’t love some of the organizational aspects of where I work.  I love what I do.  I love helping people, and empowering them, and seeing little light bulbs go off in their heads when I help them come to a conclusion about their issues or their own personalities.  You could say, I suppose, that I have something of a “Hero Complex” because yes, I do want to save people – sometimes from themselves.  Do I always?  Nope.  But the potential is always there, and it’s the potential that I reach for.

But then there are days like today…

The trigger is always real. By definition, a trigger is something that reminds you of something bad or hurtful from your past. It ‘triggers’ an association or memory in your brain.

When I’m in session with a client, my personality changes.  I’m no longer the slightly introspective, intensely reclusive individual who likes nothing more than to curl up with my dogs and cats at home with a good book and some beer or wine.  I no longer think about what I have to do later that day, or bills I have to pay, or the latest episode of True Blood.

Okay… maybe I do that last one a little bit.

You may find yourself depressed and retreating from any contact with friends, or drinking a lot more every night, or smoking way more cigarettes than usual. You may find yourself getting lost in TV, video games, or pornography. Days later you may wonder, ‘Woah, how did I get back into this?’

The point is, I’m a different person when I’m in session.  I’m a professional.  My facial expressions are neutral for the most part, and it feels like I always seem to know what to say and do for each individual person. Yeah, I shove my foot in my mouth on occasion; but it tends to work out regardless.  I’m good at what I do.  And I know on a deep, cellular level that no matter where I am or who I’m working with, I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to do.  Fulfilling my purpose in life.  Extending the joy. 

Having triggers, or reacting to them, does not mean you are crazy or defective. However, when you are blind to what you are feeling and why you are feeling it, you may be driven to act in ways that do not serve you well.

Trust me, I know my triggers.  But so far, I’ve never been so triggered in any capacity with a client or patient that I was not able to serve them effectively.  I might have needed to process later with a supervisor or co-worker, and there might be times that I drink a little more heavily than others in response to stress, but I know my limits.  Maybe not as well as I know my capabilities, but I have a general idea.  Like now, for instance – I’m focused on drinking this beer, eating this chocolate, and watching some bad TV.  I did what I had to do at work, and now I’m nurturing myself… something I tell my patients to do just about every day.

Sometimes I marvel at some of the things my patients have experienced – yeah, I went through a shit-ton of stuff as both a kid and as an adult, but some of their stories put mine to shame.  And the fact that they’re still upright and functioning on some level is impressive to the max.  I’m maladaptive and crazy and not the nicest person on the planet, but at least I trudged through and got somewhere there toward the end.  Some of these people can’t, and never will.  All I can do is give them a few tools and teach them how to use them to get by on a day to day basis.  Sometimes, that’s all they need.

Basically, if you’re reacting to someone or something much more intensely than seems to make sense, then the situation has triggered something deeper and older in your brain. You’re not reacting to what’s actually happening in the here and now, and you’re certainly not acting freely.

Some simple examples of triggers and the ‘conditioned responses’ they unleash:

  • Someone criticizes something you’ve said or done, and you instantly get defensive and angry, then verbally go on the attack.
  • Someone criticizes something you’ve said or done, and you instantly feel crushed and defeated, then go silent and try to ‘disappear.’
  • Walking into your childhood home, your body suddenly tenses up and your eyes scan for threats.

Today, I got triggered.  Badly.  Unfortunately, I made the mistake of trying to reach out to a supervisor who had neither the time nor the patience to help me.  I’m thankful that I was able to turn to two co-workers who helped me process the session I’d just had and my reactions to it, and gave me professional advice on how to proceed with the patient in the best way.  Oh yes, and they also made sure to tell me to go home and take care of myself.  Because honestly, that’s the best thing you can do when you’re just not feeling life right at the moment. 

Being a survivor of assault and abuse while working with some patients who have the same type of history is challenging.  But at the end of the day, no matter how pissed off or disillusioned or afraid I might be, I always end up going back to where I belong – helping people.  But I have to always be cognizant of balance – the person, the professional, the survivor, the counselor, the friend, the roommate, the mother, the daughter, the sister.  And I have to wear each hat exclusively because piling them all on all at once doesn’t work. 

So for this evening, this moment, I’m doing me.  Regardless of what else I might be, I’m a spiritual being in a human body, and have to nurture that, honor it.  Everything else is secondary.

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