Today I was efficiently moving through my to-do list, sitting at my desk and occasionally thinking about what I’d be making for dinner and trying to recall the last time I’d taken my dog out, when my phone started vibrating on the desk. Barely giving it a glance to see if it was someone I needed to pick up for, something in me froze when I looked at the screen and everything about the calm, just-another-day afternoon evaporated.
The number was unfamiliar, with an area code from the city where my abusive ex lives. Possible coincidence, except I’d just changed my phone number a week earlier…so it was strange that I’d be getting any random calls yet. I haven’t even called my various doctor’s offices or other vendors to give them my new number. Hell, I haven’t even managed to pass out the new number to the majority of my family and friends!
So it was more than just a little unsettling to be receiving a call from an unfamiliar number from that city, of all places.
My blood pressure spiked and my heart began thumping wildly in my chest, palms turning sweaty, and as I picked up the phone I realized my hands were trembling. Taking the phone to my mother, I showed her the missed call and asking if she thought it was possible that he’d gotten my new number. Though perhaps asking if it was possible was the wrong question…because I already knew it was.
Blanche, an older woman Randall had cheated on me with and then continued to inappropriately interact with for the duration of our time together, had long since proven courtesy of her job that she was able to pull up the current addresses and phone numbers of pretty much anyone very easily. (I didn’t know exactly how she did it, but she worked in collections so I’m assuming given the nature of the industry it’s some tool they use to track down those who owe them money.)
It was something I’d seen him use her for many times, and whether it was kosher or not to use her job this way (I genuinely don’t know the answer to that question), she always seemed to do it willingly and quickly. Whether it was tracking down a guy who’d stiffed him when buying weed, or reaching out to people he’d been in prison with, or by the end of our relationship vowing that he could find everyone I loved and do them great harm as payback for “ruining” his life……Blanche was always there to help Randall pull it off.
So yes, it was possible.
Better question to ask was if it was likely. Logic suggested not; because that would mean Randall had Blanche basically looking up my name for new contact information on an almost daily basis…and I seriously doubt he’d be doing that at this point. If he does any checking up on me at all, I imagine it’s only when he’s bored, and I’d guess he doesn’t ask Blanche to help because he won’t want her knowing he’s even doing it. So no, it wasn’t likely.
Likely or not though, I was now officially triggered. Mind racing. Heart pounding. Feeling as though the walls were closing in around me. Didn’t matter whether or not Randall was actually behind the call, because triggers are never logical, rational, or reasonable.
Seeing this, mom declared she’d call the number back from her phone and see who answered. My stomach lurched at the thought, terrified for reasons I couldn’t even begin to explain…because really what she offered to do made complete sense. That’s what you normally do if you want to know who just called you.
Ultimately she called the number four times, and each time the call dropped before it even rang. Gradually the triggered reaction started to fade and I was able to go back to working through my to-do list…but now instead of thinking about what I’d have for dinner, my mind was haunted by memories and thoughts I didn’t want. The anxiety had faded, but the pain had only just begun, and I know from experience that now I have to ride out the wave of haunting, painful memories until they run their course……which can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
(Mercifully this time it seems to be brief…even as I’m typing this, I’m feeling a thousand times better.)
The whole incident sparked the need to write out this post, however, as it reminded me of just how frustrating triggers can be. Like unwanted guests at a party, they saunter into our minds and set off all kinds of mental and emotional alarm bells before walking out and leaving in their wake a steaming pile of stress and anxiety. Just like what happened today. They give no warning – no precursor that they’re coming around the bend – and all you can do is take note, try to process it or, if you can’t yet, find a way to avoid it going forward.
But no matter what, it’s important to remember one thing: triggers aren’t your fault. They aren’t a sign of weakness. They just are. And the strongest people are the ones who actually acknowledge them and deal with them appropriately, rather than pretending they don’t exist in order to appear “tough”.
Anyone can have triggers in their lives, even for seemingly mundane things. They aren’t only born out of trauma and negativity. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, for example, an advertisement or a smell or a conversation about eating may trigger you into craving a food that’s not currently allowed on your diet. If you lost a loved one, a smell or a sound or a sight might trigger you into remembering.
But while they don’t require trauma to get started…I have to acknowledge that the worst kinds of triggers usually have a traumatic backdrop. Addicts, for example, understand triggers as the little gremlins that will sneak out and bite us if we’re being too complacent in our recovery; get us craving our drug of choice and potentially starting down the road of reckless behavior leading to a relapse. It’s why in rehab about 80% of my time was spent focusing on triggers; identifying them, understanding them, and coming up with plans to cope with them.
So given all that, it’s no surprise to discover it’s also quite common among survivors of abusive relationships to have plenty of triggers from the trauma of it all. But even so – even knowing this, and knowing I’m not alone in experiencing it – it still shocks me every time it happens.
The triggers dredge up all the intense emotions of that relationship, reminding me all over again that yes, it was real; I really went through that. I really was abused. I really was traumatized. And that’s hard. I haven’t yet fully come around to accepting it as part of my personal history without additional feelings of shame or disappointment. It’s a work in progress.
It also pisses me off, because in a sense it makes me feel like Randall is still winning this game of cat and mouse he started between us; his little mental land mines still going off as planned and leaving me with the negative/painful reactions and feelings. I don’t want him winning. I don’t want him in my head. And I know this is a common feeling for survivors of abuse, because I hear the same sentiments echoed over and over again by the women in my support groups/networks.
So by talking about it in a space like this – by processing the struggle openly – I hope to not only help my healing journey, but also encourage others to talk about their own triggers rather than being ashamed of them; accepting them for what they are so they don’t control the course of life ever after. Because while the triggers themselves can’t be controlled, how we choose to cope with them can.
I’ve learned that for me, talking about it in the moment is helpful; gets it out of my head and allows others to help me brainstorm ways to feel better and move forward. And then I’ve started keeping a list of all the triggers, simply because somehow writing them down gives me a goal: to start whittling that list down over time until ultimately I am healed enough to have very few triggers left. Periodically I’ll review the list, and see if any of the triggers are gone.
So far I’ll be honest…I’m still primarily adding to the list, and have only removed one item. But it’s a start. And in the meantime, I accept the triggers…and all the emotions that come with them. It’s part of the healing process, frustrating though it may be. And having them doesn’t make you weak…it makes you human.
Meghann Andreassen is a businesswoman, author, and personal success coach who contributes to this and other blogs on a regular basis. To learn more or to work with her personally, contact her through her website for a free consultation.
**Names and other personal identifying information of some individuals referenced throughout this blog have been changed to protect their identities