By Sarah Wolf
It is incredible how quickly a trauma can change the brain.
That which was once benign, normal, unnoticeable, perhaps even loved, can send the body into such a state of panic and alarm just upon sight or smell or sound or touch. The brain will tell the body to run or fight or freeze. The body will be unable to make a different choice.
That is trauma.
Many things can be the root of trauma — abuse, violence, a singular moment that “changes everything.” Maybe it’s the flash-bang impact of a car crash, maybe it’s years and years of verbal degradation. Once the brain and the body team up to “protect” you from re-living that harm, you may find yourself seizing up or reacting viciously to something as innocent as the smell of apple pie or a random song on the radio. It might not always be the “obvious” things, like revisiting the place of the accident or standing in the room where something violent happened to you or going to see the doctor that once had to give you bad news. Sometimes its very, very subtle. It depends on how deeply traumatized you were, I suppose. It depends on how your brain and body have determined to keep you safe. But what this defense mechanism — this stringent coping mechanism — does is flood you with the sense that something is not right — that safety is not this.
When I’ve been triggered, I’ve had reactions that range from shortness of breath to lashing out verbally to having full-blown panic attacks. Before 2014, a triggered-me probably froze in place or shouted back. I stayed. I fought. A post-2015-me runs the fuck away. Fast. It’s the only way to keep me safe, or so my brain and body determine. Run away, Forrest, just run away.
Forrest Gump knows why Jenny gave him that advice, too: Sometimes, there aren’t enough rocks.
Because of the trauma that came out of personal experiences, I am very very aware of my triggers. I can name them. I can explain them. And because of that, they are less threatening to me, especially the smaller ones. Because I am familiar with what it feels like to be triggered, I am also very aware of how this latest trauma — this pandemic — is impacting my brain and my body as it continues to try and protect me from harm.
When I knew, for sure, that this shit was for real — that this trauma was, indeed, a trauma — was last Sunday. March 29th. It was a gorgeous day. Sunny, warm — nearly 70. Perfect day. I went outside for my daily walk in the cemetery and noticed a heightened sense of uneasiness when I saw other people coming near me. Back the fuck off, my brain growled, while I tried my best to smile and not act like a total freak. Finally deciding it was just too populated in my favorite walking place, I left the cemetery and headed down the street towards a very small park where there was a Pokemon Go gym I wanted to defeat. As I approached the park, I saw a middle-aged man with a toddler-aged child in the swing.
And it filled me with rage.
Governor MiKe DeWine had issued a “shelter-and-place” for the state a few days prior, meaning that parks were fucking closed, motherfucker. I stared at that man with genuine hate in my heart. I debated yelling at him. I debated causing a scene. He needed to know how disrespectful he was being to the rest of us. Did he think he was the only one who deserved something normal? Who the hell did this jagweed think he was???
I saw other people staring at him, too, and none of them were screaming the obscenities I had in my head, so I defeated the Pokemon Go gym, spun on my heels, and went home to do mundane tasks like fold my towels and put away laundry, anything to calm down.
The next day, though, I walked by that park again and the city had come and taken down the swings so only the frames were there. Clearly, someone had reported that man to the city and the city had taken it seriously. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who’d been enraged by that man’s behavior.
But when I take a step back and I analyze my response — the community’s response — there is also a strong part of me that’s like, “Holy shit, woman. You felt rage watching a dad play with his toddler at the park on warm, sunny day? That shit ain’t right.”
That shit ain’t right.
It makes me uneasy about how all of this fear will reshape our humanity. How we will process things. How we will judge each other. What will make us feel safe enough to go back to minding our own goddamn business? What will allow this trauma to heal?
Obviously, no one should be looking to me for answers like that. I am not healed from the trauma I’ve experienced. The heat map of my triggers would probably be embarrassingly extensive if anyone ever created one. But, hey, it also shows my awareness of all of the varied collisions I’ve been involved in over the years. I know myself and what has created me very intimately. It’s part of the reason why I’m not fearful of being all alone during a quarantine. I like myself. I’m cool with me. I’ve spent a lot of time looking into the dark corners and making my peace with them.
Triggers are about how the external world — that which cannot be controlled — spring the brain and body in action.
In my case, those shields are always at the ready.
I suppose my point in sharing this all today is to give you food for thought about how this pandemic — how this lockdown, quarantine, massive social change — is impacting you. What do you differently now than you did before? And, more specifically, how are you reacting to stimulus?
Quick check: don’t think, just respond….
How do you feel when you see a person walking towards you?
How do you feel if you think you’ve got at least one symptom of Covid-19?
How do you feel when you know you have to go to the grocery store?
How would you feel if you were told to return to work tomorrow?
How would you feel if you were told you had to send your kids back to school?
When do you think you’ll be comfortable flying on an airplane again?
When do you think you’ll want to go back out to a crowded bar?
When do you think you’ll be OK to go to an outdoor sporting event, like baseball?
When do you think you’ll be OK to go to an indoor sporting event, like basketball?
When do you think you’ll be able to shake someone’s hand without giving it a second thought?
When do you think you’ll be comfortable hugging a friend?
If you’re single, when do you think you’ll be ready to date again? Kiss a stranger?
When do you think you’ll feel normal again…and what will that normal look like?
I could go on…and on…and on…
I had a very long conversation about all of this with my dear friend Emily last night. I could hear my proposition about this trauma dawn on her, like I’d heard it dawn on a few others I’ve started this conversation with. “Shit, you’re right,” she said. The massive social change we are all about to experience is beyond this moment’s comprehension. And that’s no April Fool’s joke. It will be hard to let go of the fear that your decision to go to see a concert at a packed venue could mean that you are responsible for infecting hundreds of people because you didn’t know you were a carrier of this deadly virus. You could also be the one contracting that deadly virus. The risk is real. What if you are the next Patient Zero and the history books talk about how you went to go see Beyonce and didn’t know you were sick and the next think you know, everyone is dead.
Dark, I know.
The obvious counterpoint is that really anything could kill any of us at any moment just as easily as nothing could. Adopting such a fatalistic viewpoint is just as detrimental as being entirely reckless. Normal would be the happy medium between these two: do what you can, intend no harm, and live your damn life. Eventually, we’ll get back there.
But I think it’s fair to say it may take awhile.
I have learned a lot from my response to trauma. Being able to name it is a big first step. So if you haven’t yet considered that you are likely experiencing trauma now — or if you don’t accept this premise as being your personal truth — that’s OK. How you feel is how you feel. But when and if you find yourself coming to terms with all of this, don’t think you’re alone.
You are not alone.
You know, one of my nephews flippantly uses the word “triggered” because his friends at school say it without really meaning it. There aren’t very many times I will speak up when kids say things that kids say, but with this one, I did. “I don’t think you understand what the word means,” I said to him.
“Yes, I do. It means mad,” he said.
“No, that’s not really it. Triggered means you experience something that reminds you of a really scary or sad event in your life and you react to it,” I tried to explain.
I don’t really know if he got it. He’s eleven, so why should he? Intentionality with language is hard to convey for an intangible like trauma. Like, why can’t I drink whiskey without gagging, why does the idea of going to see live music fill me with anxiety, why do I see a silver Honda Element and feel that fine blend of sadness and fear? On their own, whiskey and live music and whatever-car is completely benign. But when they remind us of things… when they become triggers… That’s when the disconnect begins between those who’ve experienced a specific trauma and those who have not.
So what will the result be when we’ve all experienced this Covid-19 trauma? The sooner we all start clocking our responses to “benign” things giving us anxious, fearful, or sad feelings the sooner we’ll be able to know where to focus our attention on our re-emerging as social beings.
Trauma doesn’t heal over night. It may never fully go away. But there are ways to cope and process and move through those trigger-moments. Maybe this will end up making us all more empathetic and compassionate people, better aware of how we feel, how our lives touch other lives, and how we react in the face of troubling or fearful times. My experience with trauma has made me love more: more openly, more specifically, and certainly more loudly. I can’t stop saying, “I love you” to friends and family. The aftermath of horrible experiences affords us all the chance to be a little bit more aware and hopefully a little bit better as a result.
We’re in this together, triggers and all.
This is an edited version of “Trigger Warnings” posted on April 1, 2020 in the I Spy in 2020 blog. Visit wolfstarpress.com for details.