Triggers. Triggers Everywhere
What is a trigger? That's a good question. It was not a term that I was familiar with before we lost Vail.
"A trigger in psychology is a stimulus such as a smell, sound, or sight that triggers feelings of trauma. People typically use this term when describing post-traumatic stress (PTSD).
A trigger is a reminder of a past trauma. This reminder can cause a person to feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or panic. It may also cause someone to have flashbacks. A flashback is a vivid, often negative memory that may appear without warning. It can cause someone to lose track of their surroundings and “relive” a traumatic event."
Triggers are very specific to a person's trauma. Even shared trauma. Something that might send me reeling won't affect Steve at all. And vice versa. There are so many terms I had never heard of and words that I have been familiar with for a long time that I never thought I would use to describe myself. But now, everything has changed.
"Post-traumatic stress- is a common reaction to traumatic or stressful events. Studies indicate 3.5% of the United States (U.S.) population will experience PTSD in any given year. Almost 37% of these cases can be classified as “severe.”
Maybe it was ignorance or just denial, but I mostly associated PTSD with veterans and assault victims. I never thought that PTSD would apply to me. I have come to understand that my assumptions about it were very incorrect. And that it absolutely does apply.
Everywhere I go, in common actions or experiences, there are triggers of our recent trauma. And yes, that is exactly how I describe losing our child. Not just the circumstances around her death, which were extremely traumatic for Steve and I, but the loss itself. Trauma is the only word that really describes the emotional and physical result of having our child ripped from our lives.
It can be as simple as going to the grocery store. The last picture I have of Baby Vail and I together, was taken at the grocery store the night before she died. Going to the grocery store, any grocery store, is a trigger for me. All of the places that Baby Vail loved hold so many memories and therefore are tied to so much of our pain. Gymnastics class, swimming lessons, dance class, even the car. I can barely look at the giraffes at the zoo without losing my mind. Vail loved those giraffes so much.
A few weeks after Vail passed, Steve and I had to remove the rug from our living room. It was where we placed her after we found her in her crib not breathing. The red rug in the living room was where we performed CPR. The custom couch, the one we spent way too much money on, was the last place we held our child in our home. She rested there while we spoke to the medical examiner and the police detective. We couldn't look at them anymore. Not when we came around the corner from the hallway. Every time we turned the corner, we could see her little sweet body laying there. So they had to go. If it had been up to me, I would have sold them or burned them. Steve is so much more rational than I am. It took us longer to take the crib down and put away her clothes. For a long time I just couldn't bear to even think about it. When we finally did it, we hurried and got it done as quickly as we could. Not pausing to smell all of her clothes or reminisce about how cute she looked in them. Her closet was full of Aspen's old things that she never got to wear. We had just pulled the 18-24 month size bin out of storage. Vail's room is now Aspen's play room. And while I think Vail would love her sister playing in there, I can still barely stand to be in the space. It triggers me. All I have to do is walk in and I can see her there, the way we found her that night.
Aspen had to start taking baths in our master bathroom. We couldn't handle putting her in the bathtub in the girls bathroom anymore. I couldn't sit there with her and picture Vail splashing her sister and laughing while on the phone with Grandma. It was the last happy moment of Vail's life. The last moments we truly spent together.
One of Steve's triggers is our little Frenchie, Luna. Baby Vail loved that puppy so much. She would grab her little wrinkly face and pull it to her lips and lay a big fat kiss on her. Luna followed Vail around and was never far from her. They were good friends. When Vail passed, and all the people were in our house that night, and Steve and I were so very distraught....Luna sat quietly in her crate. She wasn't locked in, but somehow she knew not to come out. After that night, Luna was very sad. She still is. She misses her best little friend. So when Steve looks at Luna, he sees how much Vail loved her. He sees the way Baby Vail used to tilt her head and smile at the pup. He sees her kissing that so ugly its cute little squished face. And it breaks his heart. In a true testament to the man that he is, Steve forces himself to hold and pet Luna every day. He can barely stand to look at her, but he does it anyway. Because Luna needs it and that's what Baby Vail would have wanted. Daddy to pay attention to her puppy.
For me, it's everything. I know that sounds crazy, but it is. I am triggered by Aspen's facial expressions...because I see Baby Vail in them. I am triggered when I go to the bathroom...every time I sit down on the toilet, I half expect Baby Vail to rush in and snuggle up to my legs. I can't hear that Taylor Swift song from the credit card commercial without hearing Baby Vail singing the "woo woo woos." Seeing any child that is her age, especially girls with pigtails...horribly triggering for me. My heart rate skyrockets, I have trouble breathing, and tears pour out of my eyes uncontrollably. Often I have to walk away. Sometimes I just have to sit still and force myself to breathe, close my eyes and in that moment, remind myself that she lived. That she loved and was loved.
I want to believe that over time these triggers will subside, at least in frequency and intensity. I know that some will and some probably won't. Learning to live with my PTSD and all of the things that trigger me, is going to be a long term process. The most difficult part of living with the psychological trauma is how the triggers are now tied so deeply to the memories. Just looking at pictures of Vail yesterday, with Steve and Aspen, brought about both a smile to my face and a tightness in my chest and lungs. I had to walk away when the hot tears stung my cheeks.
When you see someone like me...and you'll know who they are...if you really look at the faces around you. Someone obviously carrying unbearable pain, with deep sadness on their face and tears in their eyes. Don't stare. Don't judge. If you can, try to sit in that place with them. If you can't, do them a small kindness. By doing so, you acknowledge their pain, their grief, and in some small way, you acknowledge the person they have lost.
To all those mothers and fathers that live in the same deep dark scary place as we now dwell...I see you.
Taming triggers for better mental health. (2017, March 31). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/apa-blogs/apa-blog/2017/03/taming-triggers-for-better-mental-health