Scar tissue of the heart is an interesting thing. I was reminded of this today once I calmed down from an argument with one of my oldest friends. I don’t claim to be a psychology expert by any means, but I know me and my story. I know some of the things that trigger me, some scents, some actions, some ringtones, certain words, particular dates and scenarios. I have over a period of time been able to isolate and analyse some of these triggers, to understand how and why they affect me, and to develop strategies to cope with them. For example, the smell of coconut oil used to make my skin crawl and my stomach turn. There is a particular ring and message tone which immediately makes me hyper vigilant. While other triggers ‘sneak up’ on me – I don’t know some things are triggers until they are pulled.
I learned today that I am incapable of remaining calm when being accused of something I did not do. If I am asked if I did something, went somewhere or know something, I will answer honestly. If I am asked again, and again the same thing, I cannot respond calmly to this. It hits my stomach and makes me want to throw up. My blood boils past my ears and my skin itches. I become livid. Probably to an onlooker I will seem irrational, which is unfortunate. Yet I physically seem to lack the capacity to respond differently. I become heightened, and then after that I will shut down and not talk any more.
One thing about me is that I am fairly open about where I am and what I am doing most of the time – with safety in mind of course…. I don’t tell strangers of course! I do however tell my friends “I’m here, I’m with so and so, I am doing this and I will be home at this time.”
I remember my friend once asking me why I kept telling him stuff he didn’t need to know. Apparently me explaining step by step how I had been at the supermarket, why I was there, what time I would be home, and then what I intended to do when I got there wasn’t something he actually needed to know.
It took me a why to realise why I was doing this – why my immediate response to “hey, are you at work?” was a nervous and detailed explanation of where I was and a justification of why.
This was a learned behaviour from a past relationship in which I was constantly accused of sins I had not committed and was physically intimidated/threatened or emotionally run down until I would either confess to something that I didn’t do, to end the interrogation or was able to produce a detailed account of my whereabouts and doings at the time in question.
This former partner of mine, with whom I lived for a period of time, was both physically and emotionally abusive. One of his chosen ‘tools’ was gaslighting. I did not know this of course at the time – which is one of the reasons he was about to do it to me successfully. This may not be a term you are familiar with, but you may be familiar with the way it works.
For example, my x-partner would trivialise my feelings about my oldest son, dismissing hurt and grief I was suffering when I lost time. He would tell me that my friends or their partners didn’t like me,. He would say that they had indicated to him that they did not want to spend time with me, or see my child. He would tell me accounts of past events, and then change the details around later. Often he would tell me that I had imagined conversations/arguments that we had the day before.
He would wake me up when I was sleeping to continue arguments when I was too incoherent and tired to defend myself, and would berate me and insist I was wrong until I would confess things I had not done – just to make him stop. I spent years just wanting him to stop, to be peaceful – because then I thought we could be peaceful. Maybe then, everything could be okay. I “knew” I couldn’t leave because he had sworn to hurt others and kill me if I did. So I thought, let me just keep him happy. Then we will all be safe. Maybe he will just be happy if I say what he wants me to say. This happened until I had lost so much of who I was. I had buried myself so deep inside. I locked up my gifts, hopes and personality because I couldn’t use them in the life I was living.
This was many years ago now. I am thankful this time is over. A good friend of mine helped me to move out of the house he and I had lived in, and into a cute little apartment with a view of the river. I remember thinking it would be a good place to write from. My first night there, my friend and I were sitting on the floor in the living room and he asked me how I felt. I told him I felt free – like I could breathe again. A million years could pass – and I will forever be grateful to this friend for the feeling I had at that moment. A seconds peace after what seemed like an eternity of turmoil. A friend who does this for you is rare. Trust me, I know a lot of people. Only one person did this for me.
This freedom was short lived. The next day my x informed me that he found my address and that he would always be around. A week later he signed a lease to the apartment next door. I can’t explain what it was, but I knew this had happened. I had a premonition or gut feeling – and I was able to contact the realtors and ensure that he was not able to move in. This continued for over a year.
I am no longer afraid of this person – I understand they have moved on, and while I am concerned that they are allowed to walk freely and interact with other women – I have been able to heal a lot of the hurt caused by his abuse of me. I feel sometimes that I am ‘completely normal’ and other times like I am treading water in the bottom of a well and may drown before I make my way out. Today was more of the latter than the former, and I am now in the ‘shutting down and not talking’ part of my reaction response. No, I am not seeking attention or asking for sympathy – I am just thinking, thinking and writing.
Considering triggers and trigger management – and wondering how often I really need to stop and explain to people “Look, I am responding like this because I am extremely heightened because this situation is triggering a past trauma which is not your fault. HOWEVER what you are saying and doing is still not okay, and makes me feel uncomfortable. I am responding to this situation with all the trauma of my past and I do not know how not to. My body is doing it instinctively. I am sorry for my level of response – but this does not mean what you are saying or doing is okay now, nor would it have been if I didn’t carry emotional trauma. It isn’t. Stop it, or go far, far away from me.” No part of any of my education or life training has equipped me for that conversation. I am going to assume also that I am not the only person who has this problem with triggers, responses and conversations.
We push people’s buttons and trigger their past trauma by accident sometimes. It is likely that we have all been the accidental trigger puller for other’s at some point also like my friend was for me today. Now, when triggered I get defensive and hurt, but I do not become violent or vindictive or nasty. I add this because while I firmly believe that it is not a person’s fault they were hurt in their lives – it is not my fault I was hurt, it is each person’s responsibility to ensure that they do not transfer the hurt we feel to other people.
That said, if you repeatedly accuse me of something I didn’t do, I will not remain calm. I won’t hurt you, I won’t hurt anyone else. I won’t try and seek revenge, I am not vindictive. I will escalate however. My heart rate will increase, my temperature will rise and I am highly likely to shout and swear and then cry. I don’t have the coping mechanisms to respond.
I just realised two things:
One, I would be an appalling defendant in court….. Let me now add that to the long list of reasons why I haven’t and won’t do anything that might land me in court!
Two, I don’t know what the appropriate response to having your integrity repeatedly questioned is. Maybe it is politer than me, but I don’t think it would be with less hurt, offense or outrage.
Gaslighting and repeated questions about things I did not do are still triggers for me – and I know this. I wish I could remain calm when this happens and maybe one day I will – however, a piece of my brain wonders how I should be responding. I think another person may be able to shake it off like water off a duck’s back, but I cannot.
I really wish I could. More than that however, I wish I didn’t need to. Most of the people in my world – well most of the people in the whole world (men and women, mostly women) are fantastic at living and let live. Be nice to people, Do anything you can to make the world better for your kids or mine – and I will do likewise. So more than wishing I wasn’t triggered day to day – I wish that people did not do the things that caused others trauma.
Can you imagine a world where everyone was just nice to each other? She says radically? I mean yes, floods, famine, disease would still happen… but false accusations, gossip, lies and manipulation – they aren’t natural, they aren’t necessary and they aren’t helpful. They just hurt.
They cause new wounds for some people, and they reopen old wounds in others. People are strong and fragile and hurt takes a long time to heal – and scar tissue can stay forever. Be kind to other people. You don’t know what harm you are doing.
Be kind. Be honest.
It is that simple.