I’ve always found this advice rather vague, especially during difficult times. As a trauma survivor who gets triggered, I need more specific guidance.
When things happen that trigger my deepest wounds, what am I supposed to do with that? I used to focus on finding relief as soon as possible: “I cannot bear this–I want to feel better!”
When things are intolerable, that is still my go-to response.
In fact, learning how to consistently change our triggered states and “feel better” is the foundation of trauma healing work.
But more often these days I realize that my triggers are here to help me wake up. I am less concerned with “feeling better” or “getting what I want.”
Instead, I want to deepen my trust in Life and practice co-shaping each moment. It’s a bigger container from which to work, and a permission-granting approach to life.
This is well and good, but still not specific enough! Not when I am dealing with an in-your-face, painful trigger.
I had time to reflect on what is specific enough while on retreat. As any good retreat will do, it presented me with situations that triggered me profoundly. <Sigh>
One of them was an invasion of bugs in my room at night. To me they looked a lot like the cockroaches I had lived with decades before.
Cockroaches are not the worst thing. But I have a history with persistent, invasive bug infestations.
These experiences were amplified by landlords and neighbors whose negligence caused the infestations, and who refused to take responsibility for them.
I was left to suffer and struggle on my own for weeks or months.
In one case, I lived with 30-90 fiery-itchy new bites each day and little sleep each night, for six weeks.
In the other case, I endured 7 months of bites, sleeplessness, expensive and exhausting treatment protocols, and the loss of beloved and useful possessions.
In both cases, I had to research, gather samples and repeatedly consult with my county’s vector scientists to identify the source of the problem.
Finally I was able to compel my landlords to act like grown-ups and protect me, their tenant. All this while I was itchy, paranoid and sleep-deprived.
So, cockroaches in my retreat room? Compared to bedbugs or rat mites, not a big deal! Smaller scale and less worrisome in every way.
Yet I slept badly that night. In the morning, I felt undone, defenseless.
Bugs were invading my space again–the kind of bugs I could take home with me!
While my heart pounded, I worried and strategized: would the caretaker believe me? Would she act like a responsible grown-up and protect me from bringing them home? An all-too-raw, familiar dilemma.
Indeed, she did not believe me at first, and refused to let me use the washer/dryer or give me garbage bags to protect my stuff. She compared the one (squashed) sample I was able to show her with internet photos and confidently told me “that is not a cockroach.”
I was not convinced.
But it was my birthday, during a much-anticipated silent retreat. I decided to let it go and accept her verdict for now.
I devoted the day to doing what I love: spiritual practice, cooking, hiking, journaling, hanging out with trees, critters and the music of what happens. I gently made room for my highly triggered state.
My body felt over-the-top scared, isolated and trapped. I walked the trails on the land, sobbing my heart out. The bottom fell out, and I was taken back again, but deeper this time–
-Back to the time my caregivers would not pick me up at night for three months straight, dismissing my cries of distress until my ear infection was diagnosed (that ear has been fragile ever since).
Back to when I was a toddler being physically and sexually misused, and never rescued.
Back to those early lessons of how futile it was to ask for help from all-powerful, oblivious adults.
I listened to my younger self and held her as she/I wept. I witnessed the despair my body carries.
There on those sunny, dusty pathways, I made a resolution. I refused, absolutely refused to make myself worried, scared or miserable about the current situation or my response to it. No more blame or shame. It stops here.
Instead, I moved swiftly to soothe the dread and contraction in my body. “Things are scary, and I don’t know what’s next, but you are going to be okay, and you are doing fine.”
Now I was the responsible grown-up. When that young one cried and asked for comfort, I simply gave it. I wandered the straw-gold trails and sat in the sun-dappled forest, singing to my little one. I immersed us in green beauty until we were saturated.
The day became a sweet journey, a rebirth-day brimming with love. As night fell, I rested in ease and stillness.
(And I caught some bugs in a jar which I gave to the caretaker the next morning. She called an exterminator and allowed me to take the necessary precautions.)
The outer support that showed up on my birthday came from the land and the animals. Everyone gave my miserable little one friendly greetings. Mobs of quails appeared everywhere I went, warbling quizzically. Lizards sunned themselves close to me. A chipmunk popped out of a bush to eat her lunch with me. Sunlit trees swayed above; the oldest ones let me lean against them.
I get it now.
Whatever shows up in my life, *especially* things that trigger my early traumas are truly, exactly what I need. Each trigger is a precious opportunity.
When I can turn my body toward the discomfort and stay awake, old wounds begin transforming, slowly but surely, into beauty and potency.