This Is What It's Like To Be Constantly Triggered

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

Triggered: we overuse the word. Technically, it’s only when something causes a response via a “particular action, process, or situation.” But if you have a history of trauma, it isn’t just “responding.” It’s a particular kind of response: a trauma response. Sometimes, something that reminds a traumatized person of their trauma can make them feel as if they’re living it all over again. That’s being triggered.

And it sucks.


I have CPTSD: complex post-traumatic stress syndrome, which often results from childhood trauma. Mine comes from growing up with narcissistic parents. I was generally scapegoated; while my mother lived vicariously through me, she punished me viciously for it. I was unable to have a life of my own. In order to survive, I developed a coping mechanism that made my mother always right, me always wrong, and internalized my own scapegoating. I was bad, wrong, and a failure at everything. Every compliment was a lie or a mistake.

But nothing I did was ever enough for my mother. I was never smart enough (I’m Phi Beta Kappa with advanced degrees). I was never attractive enough. I never worked hard enough (apparently Scary Mommy staff writer is “not a job”). My kids, despite being smart, were always behind somehow, their education (because as a homeschooling mom, I was responsible for it) always in question. I was only praised for being thin. Surprise, surprise: I developed an eating disorder that recurred as an adult. When my mother moved to town. Talk about being subconsciously triggered.

As a child, I was told, “You have no common sense.” I was asked, “Don’t you think it’s your fault you don’t have any friends?” when I was mercilessly bullied. In so many words, my mother said, you will never be as pretty as (insert name here). My severe mental health issues were never treated because she believed it would have looked bad to have a depressed, anxious child.

Pleasing my mother was so internalized that, for example, I always desperately wanted long blonde hair — because, my trauma therapist and I discovered, my mother had always hacked my hair short and let my brother’s (then sister’s) grow to his butt — then showered him with praise about how beautiful he was. I was forty years old and unaware I was still making choices I thought would placate and please my mother, grasping at some kind of love I’ll never have.

Fuck that noise.

I’m In Trauma Therapy To Treat It… Which Is Inherently Triggering

So I’m in trauma therapy to learn to make my own choices (like my short dark hair) and live my own life. It is really fucking hard. I thought it would be talking about big moments, like when other kids bullied me and my mother didn’t step in to stop it, or when I was labeled an ungrateful brat because a deal went wrong with a horse they bought me.

Um, no.

I can write about that without freaking out. It’s a familiar narrative. Trauma therapy is rewriting a narrative: it’s realizing exactly how fucked up everything really was. Your therapist doesn’t look at you and say, “That’s really fucked up.” It doesn’t work that way. I’ll be thinking about something, and it will slam me: that’s abnormal, and horrible, and oh my fucking God I lived through that oh no oh no oh no…

Then I’m in bed crying while David Bowie sings “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox on YouTube. We all have our coping mechanisms.

Being Triggered Constantly Can Look Like This

I sort of started feeling bad for my mom one night, because sometimes I make the mistake of thinking that she really doesn’t understand what she did. I told my husband I felt guilty. He was rubbing my back at the time and went off: we have tried over and over to make peace with her, and you’re in therapy, and you know now what she did to you, and you know how she controlled you, and I feel so guilty because I never really believed how bad you said it was, and it’s more awful than I ever imagined… and on and on.

I cried and couldn’t sleep. This is being triggered a little bit.

I had therapy a day later. I mentioned feeling bad for my mom, and we talked about it, but mostly everything was uneventful. The next morning, I accidentally clicked on and read this essay, which is the best clinical description of narcissistic family dynamics I’ve ever read. So good, in fact, that I felt my eyes getting bigger and bigger. I couldn’t stop reading. When I reached “What is not allowed by the mother, the daughter suppresses, represses, and denies, for defying the narcissistic mother would mean prolonged abuse and punishment,” I knew I was going to lose my shit, but I kept reading. I finished the essay. I set down my computer. I was walking out the door — children? what children? I only thought of them as a vague “I don’t want them to hear me” — when my husband walked in with breakfast.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Read the essay on my computer,” I managed.

I walked out to the car, opened the door, sat in the driver’s seat, and screamed as loud as I could for five minutes. Afterwards, I went to bed. I had an emergency therapy session that night, complete with tons of tears. Then I messaged my best friend. You are coming to get me and I am getting drunk.

That was a pretty big trigger.

The next day, my husband got very, very angry (not at me). I have issues with men yelling, since my father screamed at us all the time, and if he was angry at anything, I was eventually going to get it. Because he was so angry, and because I had next to no mental reserves left after the day before, I lost it. Before I had gone into fight mode (screaming, then drinking, which actually was good for me at the time, since I had fun rather than sitting home and crying with Bowie). When my husband’s anger triggered me, I froze. I didn’t talk. I hid. I stopped writing, went to the bedroom, tried to pack for a vacation, couldn’t, and only shook and cried when he came in.

It lasted for several hours.

The day after that, I picked up Anne Rice’s “The Witching Hour” at Barnes and Noble, since I’d been dying to re-read it at the beach. I started it. I recalled the rampant incest and the demonic ghost passing from mother to daughter.

I had to throw the book away.

But I didn’t cry or freak out. I thought about it way, way, way too much. I laid in bed and contemplated similarities and differences, analogies and similes. It was a very quiet, slow-moving triggering that left me wrung out. But I was triggered nonetheless.

Three days later and I’m still trigger-free. Giant sigh of relief. Triggers tend to come in groups like that. They start and then don’t stop. And my therapist swears that trauma therapy won’t be like this forever. It’ll calm down. But in the meantime, I’ll have to live with this. It sucks. It’s really, really exhausting. My back and legs are still one very large, tensed knot. But it’s worth it to learn to make my own choices.

So if you lose me, I’m probably hiding somewhere with David Bowie.

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