Triggers and triumphs

It’s so easy to forget how far you’ve come. But every now and then, the universe plants little reminders to remind you of your strength and resilience.

A week after everything happened, I remember sitting in a cafe, perusing the menu, when I faintly heard a song in the background.

It was Mr Brightside by The Killers. Suddenly, just like in a movie, it was like someone had cranked the volume from 0 to 100. The barely audible background music was now blasting in my ears. The lyrics were clouding my head. I couldn’t breathe. I had to escape, I was reliving everything again, except in fast forward. My heart was pounding, my mouth dry. I fumbled my water and stuttered a few words to my mum before running out of the cafe. The sharp autumn air hit my face. I took a deep breath and started to process what had just happened. I’ve never suffered from anxiety, had I just suffered an attack? What had just happened? As the adrenaline began to subside, I wept. I was at the mercy of my emotions. I couldn’t believe the person I loved most in the world had hurt me so profoundly I could breakdown at the sound of a song. I didn’t recognise myself in that moment. It was such an overwhelming feeling, was this going to happen all the time? 

I now know I had suffered my first trigger. Anyone dealing with emotional trauma is sadly all too familiar with this crippling concept. The worst thing about a trigger is you have no control of what will cause one to come on, when it will happen, or why. It could be a song, the sight of a car similar to your ex’s, the sound of someone yelling, a movie with a storyline you identify with, or the sight of a young, happy family. But when you encounter one, there’s no mistaking it. On that first occasion, I was powerless as I had no idea how to combat my body’s flight or fight response. It was frightening. And although I wish I could say this was an isolated case, it’s happened a number of times since. From a reminder of the holiday we were supposed to be on, to a TV show we both loved, to eating our favourite food. The trigger differs, but the overwhelming emotion that follows is the same. My psychologist is helping me work through them and to understand triggers are sadly part and parcel of the healing ‘journey’.

There's a number of techniques I've picked up since to help deal with a trigger. Coping mechanisms such as deep breathing, meditation, exercise, going for a long walk, focusing on the present moment, keeping busy, and limiting exposure to the trigger (i.e. by turning off the radio/avoiding your favourite restaurant) help whenever I feel one coming on.

It’s now been three and a half months since my world unravelled. Some days are great, some days are terrible, most lie somewhere in between… one argument/trigger/negative thought away from another bad day, but conversely one positive affirmation, catch up with a friend, or Oliver reaching a new milestone from a beautiful day. 

Today started out like any other. The radio was playing and I was preparing Oliver’s breakfast, when the opening riff of Mr Brightside started blaring. I froze. I hadn't heard it since that initial episode. I bolted over to the radio, fumbling to find the remote to switch it off, when I realised… I felt okay. So I let it play. The universe was testing me, and I accepted the challenge. I promised myself that if it got too hard, I would turn it off straight away. I wasn’t going to needlessly torture myself. But as it continued, I remained calm. I went back to preparing Ollie’s weetbix, and I relegated the tune to nothing more than background music. Then, before I knew it, the next song was starting, and I had made it through. 

So although yes, while they can be crippling, and they require a vast amount of help from a qualified professional, on the other hand they can also serve as a barometer of how far you’ve come when you encounter a previous trigger. I never thought I would be able to listen to Mr Brightside again. I’d banished it to the list of Nickelback, overplayed top 40, and new Katy Perry.

But instead, a few months later, I could listen to it in its entirety and proceed with the rest of my day. It was a small triumph, but it was a significant one. It was there to test me, and I passed with flying colours. I needed a reminder of how far I’d come, and this was what the universe granted me. It can be so easy to get caught up in the emotion of the situation, where days blur into weeks, which blur into months, and all the while you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall over and over again, forever in a cycle of taking one step forward and two steps back. But anyone navigating the choppy waters of emotional trauma should take solace in the fact as every day goes by, your body, mind, and spirit are healing. It’s a slow and steady race, but with every day the sun sets, the sun will also rise, and you will too. Except you’ll wake as a slightly stronger person than you were the day before. Scar tissue is filling the crevices of your broken heart. And while every now and then another crack may appear, it's crucial to remember the latest blow will heal too. All you have to focus on is putting one foot in front of the other. And in the meantime, expect small reminders along the way to reaffirm you're on the right path.