This post is inspired by Trigger Warning the latest short story collection from Neil Gaiman.
I haven’t read it all yet, I’ve only got as far as the introduction and the first three stories and that’s all it took to remind me how much I enjoy his writing and the influence he has had on me.
As some of you may have already seen from earlier posts, his stories and way with language have stayed with me and shape how I view the world and how I handle my grief.
His collection was inspired by the much maligned phrase ‘trigger warning’. This isn’t a post that will go into the particular politics of the term. It’s more about my own personal triggers.
In the very first few paragraphs Neil Gaiman captures the essence of what it means to be triggered and in doing so makes it clear that we all have our own personal triggers:
“…images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much dark and less welcoming.
And what we learn about ourselves in those moments where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead. There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corridors of our lives. We think we have moved on, put them out of our mind, left them to dessicate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong. They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practising their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches to the gut, killing time until we came back that way”
Neil Gaiman – Trigger Warning
Critics of trigger warnings say that life doesn’t come with a trigger warning. To a certain extent that is true but it’s not a bad thing to think about the questions we ask and how we phrase them so we can at least minimise the potential for unleashing hell on the unsuspecting.
Some of the most innocuous small talk questions can strike me dumb on a bad day. The answer to the seemingly bland ‘how many kids do you have?’ will vary depending on where I am and who asks. Other times it may just be a thoughtless comment reducing something important to a punchline.
This Christmas I felt unaccountably sad hearing a cheery “bye boys and girls!” to my children. At the time it reminded me that our twin sons were not there with their brother and sisters. That’s on me and at any other time it would have been fine.
On that particular day though the trap door opened and I stumbled back into that dark place.
It’s not just grief though, triggers can be buttons and our closest friends and family can be expert at pushing them.
At reminding you that no matter how old you are, how resigned you are to your past and committed to putting it all behind you, all it takes is one word or even the smallest gesture to pull you through time back to the older days.
An unnoticed slip nursed into a hard edged grievance to be deployed when you least expect it. A simple catch up that morphs into an unexpected and unwanted performance appraisal.
Once pushed these are triggers that can either launch a furious (but always internal, these are things not to be voiced aloud) response or, as buttons, take time to slowly reset but still always primed to be pushed again no matter how many layers of protection are imagined.
Some of the worst triggers are when others seek to appropriate the most personal of losses. When your tragedy is flourished to generate sympathy not for the bereaved and the lost but for their own attempts to get attention.
It may be the crass use of tragedy to whine and beg for trinkets that inadvertently snaps the chain restraining the snarling, lumbering rage within me.
It could also be well intentioned but rage inducing attempts to assign supernatural agency to the boys’ stillbirth as a misguided attempt to reassure me (but in reality such attempts are about them, not me. It is not my faith they seek to reconcile) that the harrowing events were for a reason or part of a chosen deity’s plan.
It’s not just about angry. It’s the sadness of seeing twin boys or even a twin buggy. Hearing a particular song or melody associated with the funeral. Even an unrelated song or a riff at the right wrong moment can be enough to trigger a tsunami of grief that leaves me stunned. Perfectly fine images of open mouthed babies with their eyes closed send a chill through me and an instant mental slideshow of photos of eyes that never got to open.
The question then is how to manage these triggers. Knowing about them is a start to being able to attempt to manage exposure to them but what can we do when those triggers are pulled and buttons pushed? How do we climb out of the dark places? How can we persuade the demons that practice their punches to pull them, just once and give us the chance to recover before the next flurry of blows?