What We Talk About When We Talk About Triggers

When survivors call a film “triggering,” we are paying it a compliment. Whether it’s a vet watching SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or a rape survivor watching HIGH LIFE, it makes no difference. If we say a movie was triggering, we are saying the director did their homework. They got it right. It means what you are seeing is so real that the brain of someone traumatized by a similar event cannot tell the difference.

*             *             *

It’s been years since I had a flashback. Years since I dissociated. Sure, I have nightmares, but not so many anymore than I’m afraid to go to sleep.

I thought I understood trauma triggers, both the general concept as well as my specific triggers. I don’t like being crawled or sat on, even by children. I don’t like weight on my body while I’m sleeping, whether it’s a cat curled on my leg or my husband’s hand on my back.

And this is where the language begins to crumble. This is where the understanding between people who aren’t trauma survivors and those of us who are starts to break down. “I don’t like” suggests distaste. Discomfort. Even moral objections.

People “don’t like” orange sherbet.

Some people simply “don’t like” the sight of blood. It can make them queasy.

Other people “don’t like” rape scenes because they find them offensive or morally objectionable or gratuitous.

These are all valid and perfectly acceptable assertions. But none of them are even remotely similar to being triggered.

*             *             *

On Saturday evening, I strolled into SIFF Cinema Uptown and flashed my brand-new cinema pass. I was there for Claire Denis’s HIGH LIFE, and my husband Josh was more than willing to join me. I love science fiction, and I love the voices of women artists. So I couldn’t wait for the projector bulb to flash on and its glow to suffuse the screen.

Before the movie, Josh and I had spent an hour or two in a coffee shop, and we had leaned over his phone, thumbing through reviews and ratings online.

Sexual assault.

Violent sexual assault.

Attempted rape.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I can take it. It’s not about the what so much as the how. I trust a female director to show rape honestly. It’s when someone mishandles it that I get triggered.”

Which just goes to show that I didn’t know shit.

*             *             *

We only have words to help each other understand what happened to me in that theater, so let’s start there. Let’s start with the most important word of all: trauma.

The APA (American Psychiatric Association) currently defines trauma as witnessing or experiencing an event “that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and which involved fear, helplessness, or horror.”

So let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page there. Getting your feelings hurt by your crush’s rejection is not a trauma. Neither is divorce. Neither is being fired or turned down for a job you really, really wanted. To be sure, these are painful, life-altering experiences that can redefine how you relate to yourself and others. But your bodily autonomy was never on the line.

However, witnessing a grandparent’s heart attack can indeed be a trauma. Being pinned down by a bully at school is a trauma. Witnessing someone gunned down by a police officer—on television or out on your own street—is a trauma. A child being threatened by a parent, enough that the child fears for their safety, is a trauma. Rape, warfare, child abuse, beatings, devastating earthquakes or floods, bombings, miscarriages, and other physical threats are all traumas.

Trauma is always of the body, in all its impossible, inconceivable fragility.

Many people are exposed to trauma. Out of those, not everyone develops PTSD.

And in order to be triggered, you must have PTSD.

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a psychological disorder associated with physiological and neurological changes consistent with a prolonged state of hypervigilance (Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, provides a detailed catalog of studies that have demonstrated these changes). If either the trauma or the PTSD goes on long enough, it can lead to chronic illness because the body simply isn’t designed to remain in a constant state of stress for years on end, steeping in cortisol. PTSD symptoms range from insomnia and nightmares to flashbacks, uncontrollable anger, and depression-like disinterest in everyday life. It can impair judgment, relationships, and day-to-day functioning. The traumatic event, in essence, remains ever-present.

And this is where triggers come into play. Any stimulus can be a trigger. All it takes is an association with the original trauma. The stronger the association, the more intense the reaction. A balloon popping at a carnival can trigger a vet with PTSD, tricking their brain into believing they’re back in the firefight. A trigger is not a dislike. It is not even a loathing or dread. A trigger is a door that swings open, a puncture in the present that slides you straight back into the past and into the moment of the trauma.

The definition of a trigger is not so different from our current understanding of a black hole. There is no part of you that escapes.

The difficulty with triggers is that you don’t, in fact, know what they are until you’re there. And then it’s too late. No one’s rapist ever handed them a list. So you have to find them out as you go.

It is a terrible way to live.

*             *             *

Denis’s HIGH LIFE is a masterpiece of dread. The film opens with a slow pan over a hydroponics bay, water trickling over the wide leaves of squash and tomatoes and greens until the sole of a black work boot emerges from the greenery. Denis lets you know, from the first minute, that this is a ship haunted by death.

The first rape begins near the halfway point. The viewer knows that it’s coming because a character who has already been aggressive and leering roams the hallway while the others sleep. What follows is filmed, appropriately and all too realistically, like the body horror that sexual assault is. It is terrifying, even if you have not been raped.

I have. It has taken me years to come to terms with the fact that I have. It took the #MeToo movement for me to recognize the rape as rape. And in this way, renamed, finally identified for what it was, it is still too fresh.

Once the attack onscreen began, my body shifted. I was no longer in my theater seat but instead in the scene. The actors were no longer characters but were real people, bodies alongside mine. It was not the actress’s body in the bed but mine that was strapped down and being raped. And when he climbed on top of women, slapping and punching them until their noses cracked, I raised my arms to shield my own face. When he climbed on top of me/her again, I kicked the theater seat in front of me. Because it wasn’t a seat. It was him. I was trying to get him off me.

I was 12 years old again, pinned under my father in my own bed and struggling to breathe as he beat me. I was 27 years old and held down on the linoleum of my brother’s bathroom while my ex raped me.

I was no longer in that theater at all.

The perceptual barriers that separate viewer and performer, theater and screen, reality and fiction, present and past, one body from another, no longer existed. Each permeated the other so completely that I could no longer tell the difference. When one woman drove a shiv into the man’s shoulder, I raised my fists to the ceiling. Yes! Kill him!

After the scene ended, I once again felt the theater seat beneath me. My thighs were clenched, the way they had been when I was raped. My hands were shaking. My breaths came tight and fast. I leaned over and told my husband I had to go. I had to leave. I had to take a walk. I’d meet him in the lobby after the film.

And then I took my messenger bag and I left, shaking so badly that I couldn’t walk straight but weaved, swaying like a drunk, my legs brittle from being clenched so tight.

*             *             *

I rushed into the public bathroom and locked myself in a stall and hung my bag on the hook and doubled over and clutched my stomach, knees bent, and wept. Openly.

I wept because that had just happened for a second time.

I wept because it had happened at all.

I wept because I hadn’t wept the first time.

*             *             *

You never get good at being triggered. It’s not a skill. The only thing you can do is be in it.

In the hours and days afterward, I have walked. I practice breathing exercises. I breathe into the shakiness, into the fear, into the rage. My breaths open a space for me to be sad. And so I cry again. I do whatever it takes to return to my body in the present moment. Again and again, I find myself empty, my affect flat as I stare at oncoming traffic, at drywall, at pages I am not reading. And I make space for that numbness, too. I listen for the other feelings beneath the numbness, waiting for when I will be ready to feel them.

Distracted, sleepless, overstimulated, my brain isn’t good for much else right now.

What I hate most is the helplessness. The fear. The clenched thighs, the tight shoulders, the churning stomach, the shallow breaths. That old I’m-not-safe-here feeling in my body. The at-any-moment-something-terrible-is-going-to-happen feeling.

I don’t know when I’ll return to normal.

I just don’t know.

But for those of you who have been following my story and may be wondering why it’s taking me such a very long time to get around to the next assault, this is why.

The next assault is the rape.

And to go there, is to go here.

The flashback that I cannot wake up from because it is not a dream.

It is not a movie scene.

It is my life.

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5 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Triggers

  1. This was such powerful writing I realized at the end that I was holding my breath. I’m grateful you’re writing this story and teaching the rest of us things we can’t truly imagine. My PTSD was diagnosed a year or so after trauma and I have it under control now. I sometimes get triggered and feel that cold panic squeeze my shoulders, but it’s not as intense as yours. In those moments, I think it’s awful. I now realize it’s not even half as awful as what you experience. I’m with you, Melanie. Keep telling your story.

    1. Oh Roxana, thank you for this. Your comments always mean so much. But please don’t minimize your own experience. I’m still learning this lesson, too. PTSD is awful in any degree, and every journey is different. ❤ Thank you for being with me. Thank you for reading. Thank you for inspiring me to take this journey. Thank you for being your own example of incredible resilience and power in the face of horror.

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