Standing on the Trigger:
Artwork: “Om” by Jefferson Muncy
About a month ago,
I was standing in the kitchen sorting through an aging tub of baby arugula for useable leaves, when I realized I’d been at it for almost twenty minutes — and I was feeling all the symptoms of a panic attack.
We’re talking a 4 oz. tub; how had twenty minutes passed without my noticing? Why was I shaking, sweating, compulsively sorting slimy leaves when the whole tub should probably have been tossed?
I was fully in the throes of a trigger.
My mind, and as a result my body, were temporarily unable to tell the difference between “then” and “now”. I wasn’t remembering the frightening, shame-inducing feelings of starvation and compulsive food-saving; I was reliving them.
In a letter to The NY Times, quoted in this interview, renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk says,
Trauma is re-experienced in the present, not as a story, but as profoundly disturbing physical sensations and emotions that may not be consciously associated with memories of past trauma. Terror, rage and helplessness are manifested as bodily reactions, like a pounding heart, nausea, gut-wrenching sensations and characteristic body movements that signify collapse, rigidity or rage….
Rejoining the time-ticking world midstream from within that state was a disorienting struggle. I felt suspended in two worlds at once as I told myself the bodily sensations I was navigating did not belong in this current situation.
The mind identified for me what was happening so that I could take more notice of what the body was feeling. It took effort to drag my focus out of the arugula container into my surroundings, like trying to suck a thick, unyielding substance from a narrow tunnel. Part of me doggedly needed to finish addressing the food waste in front of me.
And yet, I was miserable.
My eyes felt forced into the shape of a pencil point. My stomach curled at the sight of green slime and the yellowing leaves of rotting saladstuffs. The smell curled it tighter: an olfactory dance of acid and rot. My shoulders were tightly screwed together, so I pulled them apart slowly, tried to breathe. I felt if I were able to see myself, it would not be pretty. I felt confusion, disgust, shame, fear; my body obliged with corresponding physical sensations.
What the hell?
How and why was I so intensely consumed by the basic act of sorting food waste that it had become a frantic twenty-minute compulsion? Had this happened before? (Yes, I responded to myself.) (Sure you wanna know?) Answers rose as fast as questions, a product of new-to-me self-awareness in the moment.
I’m almost fifty years old. In real time, I realized this might be the first time I’d ever slammed into awareness mid-trigger.
I was surprised; curious; filled with dread.
From far away, down that same tunnel in which I’d felt stuck, I seemed to hear shouted fragments, sentences. They grew in volume, given permission to wend toward the air of thought expression. Not somebody else’s voice, this wasn’t schizophrenia; the voice and answers were mine, from the past. And my present thought was, “Aw, shit.”
So I put down the arugula, avoided the broccoli rabe which awaited the same process. I rinsed my hands, picked up my phone and typed into the Notes page an awkward, keyword kind of poem, on the spot. I used part one of that poem to give me the flesh of this piece, so I’ll just share part two:
You can’t see anything when you’re standing on the trigger
You can’t do anything but pull or release
and 5 pounds of pressure has no time equivalent
But now I pull and release so that I may write
now I write so that I may pull and release
I get it, at least pieces of it.
For years I thought I was just punished by having meals withheld, but the truth is deeper and older than I have full access to. I now know I ate food out of the trash at school and church for years as a small child. I hoarded rolled bits of Roman Meal bread in my pockets and inside my pillowcase. I stole whole cans of corn and green beans from the kitchen cabinet in the middle of the night and ate them cold, with my fingers, under the covers.
Watching perfectly good food be discarded, even now, sometimes gives me anxiety. I now remember when I was small, seeing people throw away food when the situation was too public for me to retrieve and eat it, feeling my body swing into full panic. I needed that food. I couldn’t have it.
My mother would eat in front of me, sometimes gorging herself with exaggerated appreciation. I watched with rapt, light-headed focus as shiny juice from fruit or fried chicken gathered at the corner of her mouth, dripped down her fingers, dribbled onto her plate. She mocked me with savage amusement, calling me horseface as my jaw went slack and saliva gathered.
I know the feeling of eyes pressed into pencil points. It’s an old one, borne of the combination of taunting and hunger. I learned how to manage both. learned how to lie to keep the family together when CPS came a-calling (as it often did), til we could move again to some small Southern town where no one had heard of our family or the horribly fascinating things that went on within it. (“Can you believe it? Such a nice family, and him a doctor…” “No, dear, I just can’t. Those poor children, all that time…”)
I wasn’t completely blameless; as often happens I warped into the needs of survival and treated my siblings with scapegoating cruelty when, in their innocence and hunger, they told authority figures the truth. I learned how to cradle the oddly exquisite feeling of prolonged shame and dread. I understood my dry mouth, stomach cramps and bloody welts on the front side of my thigh were my own fault: as my mother reminded me, I was the wretched, selfish spawn of Satan.
As is often the case, for me food is just one layer of triggers — one topic of many. At times I trip over them on a daily or nightly basis, feeling a bit like Neo must have in his bullet-dodging Matrix scene.
The good news is, triggers no longer rule me. I work at a kind of mental and emotional inner Aikido, using the power of rising triggers to point to where I need to go next. I’m learning to get in front of them: to find and grab the sweet, quiet spot between current stimulus and past trauma and ride that quietude for just enough seconds to remember: I’m here, I’m safe, and I need not address this time or person from that place.
If you’ve ever fought triggers, I want the same for you.
The end of the story hasn’t presented itself yet, but what I’ve gained along this journey I’ll share in future posts and my upcoming book, Trigger Happy. The best thing about the arugula-sorting experience: it prompted a book that sprang, almost fully formed, into my head that same night. I’d been working on another book, a memoir-in-essays, but this topic decided it wanted to come first.
Thank you for reading my story. I hope you’ll share your stories; air and sunlight do a lot to dissipate the blind handicap of old muck. If you’d like to do so, I invite you to the Trigger Happy Facebook page.
PM me if you want to share a story but aren’t inclined to bare things in public.
Patrick Ness wrote in A Monster Calls,
“Stories are important,” the monster said. “They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”