I’ve not really ever liked that word.  I am a pacifist, anti-gun, and besides, it seems to put power into the hands of someone else. It feels like something that is completely out of control over which I have no power. Someone pulls the trigger and BAM!! there I am back at some horrible scene or feeling. But I don’t get to name this stuff and, recently having a couple of experiences that can only be described as BAM!!, I find it is, after all, very apt.

First of all, I do not have control over what someone else chooses to do or situations that cannot be helped—they are a part of life, as much as I really dislike saying that.  Anyone who has read our book knows that one such situation was described—going to the dentist.  The poor dentist cannot help the fact that he must stand over me and put his fingers in my mouth to work.  I cannot help the fact that my teeth need care, something I managed to avoid for over a decade, at least, and so, there have to be ways to manage without the need to crawl into bed for 24 hours to hide and cry.

I used to believe that when I was “all well,” whatever that is, I would not be bothered by “triggers” ever again.  But, indeed, the BAM!! effect is truly out of my control. Gretchen has spent a great deal of energy and time reiterating that. I won’t ever be “all well” as far as the effects of PTSD are concerned and my apparently unreasonable expectations only make it worse.  Not only have I received a direct hit, right in the stomach, my sudden response is to be expected.  Brain changes that occurred a very long time ago don’t just “pop back into place” no matter how much therapy I’ve done and medication I’ve taken. It also occurs to me that the illusive “place” I imagine is long gone.  It’s been absorbed into the complex web of experiences that we all have over the course of many years. 

The event that brought about this most recent hit and subsequent discussion was something that has already received a whole chapter in our book under “Security is not Safe.” However, the USA’s TSA Cares program is not replicated in other parts of the world—perhaps any other part of the world, for all I know. Thus, heading to Europe a few weeks ago put me in direct contact with TSA-types in Japan and Austria who definitely do not care! Oh woe and misery!

It’s not as if I do not know what to do! I take off every possible thing, even jewelry, if there is any chance at all it might set off an alarm.  I worry that the fear they see in my eyes makes me suspect. I walk through the sensors holding my breath—all to no avail in Tokyo and Vienna.  The first time, though I did not handle it well, the very polite Japanese lady apologized as she ran her senor and hands over me.  It seemed clear to me that my bra, specifically the underwires, must be setting of the alarms.  You can imagine that the only way to discover that sort of hardware is to try to feel what it is.  By the time it was over, I was a complete mess. Fortunately, I had time, before passport control, to text Gretchen and tell her I was in trouble.  As we discussed in therapy, a big part of what happened was the complete shock of setting off alarms that had never gone off before.  Little did I know then that Vienna could and would be worse.  There a security Officious Official I called “Brünhilde” who not only ran her wand and hands everywhere finding that it probably was bra hardware, she also pulled up my shirt and pulled at my pants while travelers continued to walk through and a male guard seemed to stare.  By this time, I had gone into a freeze mode that Gretchen explained later has to do with the “Flight, fight, or freeze” responses we have learned in order to survive. She explained that each response is probably related to the time of first harm.  The “freeze” response does not, as I thought, indicate idiocy or cowardice but rather that the hurt occurred very, very early.   Of course, in these situations, either of the first two responses could get me locked up in jail! The “freeze” response also comes with some dissociation, which helps, momentarily. (No professional I know thinks that’s such a good solution, ultimately.)  I suffered flashbacks for several days following, each diminishing in intensity. In her discussions of PTSD and the effects of childhood trauma Gretchen references the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. who states,       

Two primary adaptive response patterns in the face of extreme threat are the hyperarousal continuum (defense -- fight or flight) and the dissociation continuum (freeze and surrender response). Each of these response ‘sets’ activates a unique combination of neural ‘systems’ (2003, “The Effects of Traumatic Events on Children,” www.[1] 

Part II of “Triggers” will tell as much as I can about what Gretchen has taught me, or tried to teach me, and how I might be able to recover more quickly the next time.

Briefly, in the meantime: returning to the present, reminding myself I’m OK (even when I don’t feel at all ok), doing something that will involve my physical senses—hot, cold, sour, prickly, rough can help to bring me back and, even if I’m angry about having this reaction, it does not have to be paralyzing.  Sometimes I wonder if I let myself suffer longer because I am angry. Who am I punishing?















[1] See also: Perry, B. (2004). “Maltreatment and The Developing Child,” The Margaret McCain Lecture Series.