Everything’s a trigger

By Caitlin Kelly

For me, most recently, it was a near-miss accident in a suburban parking lot after seeing a movie.

No big deal, right?

Not for me; in 1996, at a stop sign, my new car tapped the bumper of a man, while driving three blocks from my home. In his car was his aged mother. They sued me for $1 million, a lawsuit that scared me for years. They eventually got $60,000 from my insurance company — he was a lawyer and I was a young woman in a red convertible. Alone, working from home, with few friends in the U.S., I found the whole experience deeply frightening and absolutely dread another car accident of any sort, let alone another lawsuit, easy enough to trigger in the litigious United States.

I’d never been sued when I lived in Canada.

For my husband, it’s the smell of Ralph Lauren Polo cologne — a scent he and fellow reporters and photographers used to douse the kerchiefs shielding their noses and mouths while covering the aftermath of a prison riot that incinerated several dozen New Mexico prison inmates.

For some people, this image is simply unbearable -- 13 years later
For some people, this image remains unbearable — 13 years later

The term “trigger warning” is one most commonly used on websites read by women (and men) who have suffered specific forms of sexual assault and abuse.

Yet we all have triggers — a sight, sound or smell that can suddenly and powerfully and unwillingly thrust us back into a traumatic moment from our past. And they’re all different and specific and, because of that, you never know when or where they’ll hit you.

Life itself doesn’t arrive conveniently labeled with trigger warnings.

At a music service for the Christmas holidays of 1995, the year I was divorced after a brief and troubled first marriage, I sat with two friends. As a bagpiper came down the church aisle there I began to weep uncontrollably; a piper had played after our wedding.

When Jose proposed to me, it was at midnight on Christmas Eve after church service, as snow began to fall. He knew that the worst experience of my life, at 14, had occurred that night and, he said, he wanted to re-brand it with a happier memory.

Which he did.

We each need to be in the world and of the world, participating fully.

But there are times and places that are deeply painful for us — while the triggers to ancient and powerful feelings remain and invisible/unknown to others.

Do you have such moments?

How do you cope?


31 thoughts on “Everything’s a trigger

      1. I rarely have to deal with mine. There a few “strings” left uncut and I don’t know when (of if) those will ever be dealt with (like I’m still on the mortgage of our former house which he should have refinanced to my name off the mortgage by now, but hasn’t). He is entirely responsible for the house, but keeping me on the mortgage affects my credit rating.

      2. My ex husband stayed on the mortgage for many years — in case (from my POV) I had a bad month and he would have to pay. That never happened but he makes more in a month (as an MD) than in my worst years…

      3. Sounds like you had a reasonable arrangement. In my case, the home is dilapidated and now vacant. He owns 7 properties (I gave up rights to all of them just to get out of the marriage with my health in tact). And he just buys more properties rather than selling this one last thing that binds me to him.

      4. Wise woman! I don’t think pre-nups existed as a common concept when I got married. Even if they did, my ex would never have done one. He went mental when I suggested I keep my maiden name! I should have seen the signs back then…

    1. So true.

      It really made a difference for me. I’ve re-visited places with traumatic memories for me so I could re-claim them as my own in the present and not automatically retreat to a terrified past memory.

  1. Thank you for the triggering of a new blog post!!! And thank you for bringing to the forefront of my mind a lot of memories based on different senses!! Triggers can be happy ones as well and for me, that is what you have triggered in the writing of this piece. Thank you, Muse!!!!

  2. This probably won’t surprise you but there are a lot of times when I find myself triggered by my work, specifically by stories involving domestic violence or child rape. For the most part I can deal with them but occasionally I will read affidavits that contain details that are similar to what has happened to me, and then it’s hard to stop the memories from coming back. I deal with it by going and crying in the bathroom for a little bit, then talking a walk outside.

    That said I’m fortunate in that this happens very rarely, and that for the most part I have done well to come to terms with my trauma. I haven’t forgotten it but I have accepted it as part of who I am. It’s there but it doesn’t control me anymore.

    Oh, this reminds me – I read something somewhere once that said people who are more likely to have difficulty moving past their trauma if they make it a focal point of their identities. I can’t find the article but if I do find it I will share it with you. You might find it interesting.

    1. Thanks for sharing this….I would love to read that.

      I know that journalism, de facto, exposes us to stories and grim details that only cops and chaplains and lawyers and social workers (i.e. also trained in trauma) would normally hear. And we are expected to keep a tight rein on our emotions, no matter how powerful they are. Not easy.

  3. kowsdontski

    I was broadsided by a woman making a left-hand turn in a small car as I was passing through an intersection in my pick-up truck. My neck was stiff and sore for a couple of years, and both vehicles were totalled. I didn’t realize I had triggers until I noticed myself tensing up as I drove through intersections. We had another near miss with my husband in the passenger side, this time someone ran a red light. My heart was still pounding the next morning.

  4. My next post, in draft now, is on this topic. I was asked if I knew anything about how the brain works in this process of memory formation in trauma or stress… there’s lots of interesting research being done now. Indeed, we can overcome them through desensitizing ourselves. The mind is amazingly resilient.

  5. The movie “Little Shop of Horrors” with Rick Moranis was a trigger for me. When I was twelve my step-dad had been molesting me. That was hard. However, the soul shattering fear I felt in the exact moment that I told my mom, said the words out loud, was harder. And that movie (a family favorite, at the time) was playing in the adjoining when I told. The moments following the telling were challenging, and putting the pieces back together proved to be a lot of worthwhile work, but nothing compares to the feeling in the moment I admitted that what was happening was real, and was everyone’s problem.

    But I’ve re-branded the movie by renting it, watching it often, and singing the songs with my sons. The re-branding worked beautifully because being with my boys always makes me feel strong and put together, and watching them point out different favorite parts than the ones my sister and I had adored, encouraged me to see the movie with entirely new eyes!

    You have a lovely husband, Caitlin. How wonderful of him to help you re-brand a trigger so romantically!! Hugs!!!

    1. Thanks for sharing this…

      It is amazing how many things (and so unlikely) can be very painful triggers for us. So glad you have been able to re-claim it for yourself. It’s really helpful to be able to do that.

  6. Pingback: Journey into Memory | Play

  7. Interestingly enough, I didn’t start getting triggered until *after* I stopped researching and reporting on violent issues (I’ve done a lot of research on rape in war). I took a seminar with a psychology professor on the topic of trauma during peacework and it helped me look at passive trauma (that not personally experienced but experienced via listening to others’ stories) totally differently…. I thought I was crazy when I first started having nightmares about these stories I had been documenting.

    As a reporter, you don’t realize you’re being affected by these secondhand experiences and then, suddenly, it’s completely overwhelming and you’re crying in your car for seemingly no reason. For me, the only way out has been through — but that has meant giving up on the research I’ve done for a while, until I can sort some meaning into it and wait for me to be in a better place mentally.

    1. Thanks very much for weighing in….it’s also called secondary trauma and I have blogged about it several times here as well. I wrote my first book about women and guns — steeping myself (as you did as well) for several years in issues of others’ extreme violence (inflicted by them and/or on them and/or on their loved ones.) I had some brief insomnia and nightmares — and have since spoken about it whenever and wherever possible to fellow journo’s doing tough, important work. I went to a therapist and my minister. That helped a lot…and even knowing what it was helped…I did not have a name for it until later from, of course, a non-journalist.

      We are so not crazy!!!! We also work in a field that privileges macho behavior and the suppression of tender, softer feelings (let alone very human and normal reactions, like fear and grief!) to what we hear, see and report. We are not robots!

      Do you know of the Dart Center? Check them out, if not…They help journos working in every medium to recover from trauma. They have helped several friends of mine (who covered MRSA “Superbug” the book and rape victims in Haiti.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s