Facing Triggers Makes You Stronger

I hope this entry doesn’t trigger anyone, but I wanted to talk about triggers. So, it may be triggery. Prepare to be triggered. Is this a good enough trigger warning? Trigger.

I think it’s time in the mental health/addiction/abuse survivor communities that we talk a long, hard look at triggers and figure out – on an individual basis – what are actual debilitating triggers and what are excuses for us to not live our lives and face the challenges everyday life brings.

I was talking to a therapist recently, exchanging emails about my book, and they expressed something that I’ve often felt but never thought was safe to say: Some people use their mental illness, addiction or past abuse as a crutch and excuse to sit on the sidelines of life and “triggers” are the doctor’s note that excuses them from gym class. Sometimes, you actually can’t participate, but a lot of the time, you just don’t want to…it’s hard, it’s too much work, it makes you tired, you might not be good at, you don’t like it, people might laugh at you and you may just be lazy.

I was glad to hear this, because I agree. As somebody who is in recovery with a couple of addictions, was the victim of some childhood abuse and tries to keep a couple of diagnosed mental illness issues in check, I could easily throw myself on the floor and take a pass on living life. I know I could also easily create the kind of enablers who would let me.

I don’t want this article to come off as cold or unfeeling. I understand we’re all at different phases of our recovery, but it feels like the more I become part of a recovery community, the more I meet people who have never had an identity in life until they became “addiction/abuse/mental health survivor.” It wholly consumes them and it just doesn’t seem healthy. They use “triggers” as excuses, crutches and ways to draw attention to themselves.

Why not look at triggers as challenges to our recovery – good challenges. Recovery means nothing if we’re not overcoming something. Those drug addicts sitting in prison are not in recovery. They are just being denied their addiction, and not by choice. Triggers allow us to use the tools we develop in recovery. Isn’t that why we learned them in the first place?

My alcohol triggers

I don’t want somebody to put alcohol in front of me and I don’t want to be around drunk people. I have had both happen to me since I stopped drinking almost four years ago and it comes with a combination of jealousy, anger and irritation. I haven’t always been able to immediately remove myself from the situation. When this first happened several years ago, it was that I wanted to drink. Now, it’s more about not being around the assholes that people turn into when they are drunk, because it reminds me of the kind of asshole I was. It’s still triggering of strong emotions, but they have evolved…and I don’t have to run from them. I think it’s actually better to sit with them and figure out what they are about.

I try to avoid alcohol. I don’t have any need to go down that aisle at the grocery store, I won’t buy it for other people if asked and I don’t keep any in my home. I could avoid family gatherings, where drinking happens and I could never go to a restaurant again to keep away from alcohol. That would reduce trigger-causing situations. It would also mean I don’t spend Christmas with my family or enjoy quality food made for me that I don’t know how to make at home.

My porn triggers

I have Cinemax and HBO and whatever other cable channels are part of the massive introductory package for DirecTV. They show plenty of late night skin. I use the Internet for my job as a freelancer writer. Nobody knows more than me just how much porn can be found on the Internet. Almost every convenience store has Playboy, Penthouse and other adult magazines. In the past, I turned on HBO specifically for the dirty stuff and went online with porn as the only item on the agenda.

Yeah, if I happen to be up at midnight and I’m cruising through the preview guide and see something like “Lust Island” on one of the pay channels, it piques my curiosity. I know my favorite porn sites are only a couple keystrokes away at any given moment and when I see a porno magazine as I’m buying gas or coffee with a particularly intriguing cover behind the counter, I wonder what that woman looks like naked on the inside.

And then I just keep going. I don’t watch the movie, look at the websites or purchase the magazine. Is it hard? Not nearly as much as it was when I first started addressing my porn addiction, but there are still times where I have to actually tell myself “No. Walk away.”

I could get rid of the cable channels with one phone call. I could find a job that never means I need to be on the Internet again. I could only buy gas or coffee at places that don’t have pornographic magazines.

If I did that though, I’d miss out on a lot of good, non-pornographic movies and shows. I’d have to turn my back on a career I’ve spent over 20 years building and I’d have to drive further for gas and coffee. Why would I want to deny myself these things and make my life even more complicated? Because of triggers?

My abuse triggers

As somebody who suffered from various forms of abuse from a non-family caregiver when I was a kid and has had to deal with all kinds of repressed memories surfacing in the last few years, I get how hard it can be if you’re an abuse victim and don’t have addictions.

For 25 years, I could drive by this babysitter’s house without even thinking about the amount of time I spent in terror in that home. When these memories started to be unlocked, I couldn’t ignore her home when I drove by. The proximity to my parents’ house makes it almost impossible to avoid, although I could drive 2-3 miles out of my way and get to their house from another route.

I probably had a visceral reaction to her home for over a year. I would bet that’s 100 times at least. I could say the positive is that I didn’t drive 200-300 miles out of my way, which isn’t cheap when it comes to gas. I drove by that house earlier today. I saw it, said to myself “there it is” and kept on driving. She’s dead. She hadn’t lived there in 10 years before she died. But if I went a different way, it’s like she won.

Summing Up

I think for real recovery, we need to face our triggers more than we do. We allow them to act as anchors, as hurdles and as impediments to a better life. We’re scared of the emotions we’ll feel or the actions we’ll take facing them, but if you can get through, you’re going to be stronger on the other side.

I don’t think I’ll ever get myself in a situation where somebody is pouring booze down my throat, holding my eyelids open to look at porn, or forcing me to tour that home and tell the stories of my abuse. So as long as I learn to control my own actions, triggers are actually little exercises in making me stronger over the long-term.

If you’re incapable of facing your triggers, I’m sorry. It must be horrible. But for every trigger you honestly can’t handle, are there one or two that you can but choose not to deal with? I could let all of my triggers run my life and make my decisions for me, but I don’t. I choose to be the one in control now. Ask yourself if there’s more control in your life by facing your triggers head-on and defeating them. I think you know the answer.

12 thoughts on “Facing Triggers Makes You Stronger

  1. I mean what really pisses me off about people overusing “trigger” if that if they are just using it as an excuse. Mostly because I do suffer from mental illness and I know many who do – so why water down the meaning of the word? Triggers can be severe and debilitating, cause panic attacks, flashbacks, relapses, etc. They’re not something people should be using lightly. Even worse there’s definitely people who self-diagnose themselves with things they don’t have. I don’t know why it was ever cool to fake mental illness (that should be a sickness in itself). But the thing that I may have to disagree with is triggers being challenges. Not always. If I talk about/see something/etc something that can cause panic attacks and I don’t panic then, chances are it will build in my subconscious and cause a panic attack later. Not so much a challenge as it is a bad idea.


    1. I think there are just a lot of bored people out there who don’t have mental illness and somehow romanticize it, like it will give them some kind of depth of soul. But I agree, it seems like a sickness unto itself. I see your point on panic attacks…but aren’t you kind of in a no-win situation there either way?

      1. Well frankly, I’m having a hard time with panic attacks and it’s becoming a long process for me to control me. So currently, I have to avoid the topics while in the long run I’m working through therapy to get a better handle on them. I have to play the long game because it’s better for my functioning.


  2. Interesting thoughts. As someone who hasn’t had any particular addictions in my life I can’t say much regarding avoiding triggers but I do know I have certain things I intentionally avoid in my life, not always because there hard, sometimes it’s simply because I don’t find they add value or because they don’t align with my core values. Definitely a different circumstance but there are times where I definitely do go out of my way to avoid these things, sometimes miles out of my way even.

  3. Please explain to my my husband’s “triggers” and rage and running out the door and hiding and not being tuned in to his family’s needs, and only his own? He is the addict, he broke the skin line. So why is all of a sudden so raw and needy and weak?

    1. Hi Anna,
      I don’t really know the situation so it’s hard to say. Your husband likely has very deep wounds where shame, judgment, fear and sadness act like vinegar on the wound. He may not be in a place where he can mentally tend to the needs of himself, much less his family. Unfortunately, this almost always looks like selfishness when it actually comes from a very sick person.

  4. Joshua,

    I’m currently going through recovery and found your post regarding this article. I agree with the perspective you provide us in regards to triggers. Granted, stepping back, I do understand how some situations and individuals will need to completely avoid triggers. Every situation is different, and some situations have greater pain embedded in them. For others, I feel that avoiding triggers completely will define who you are in life. Instead of simply saying no to it, and enjoying life in the moment (dinner with family at a restaurant, a night out with some friends), you’re driven to think about the negativity and urge to run away from the trigger. As you mentioned, I think it’s an important tool for some people to show themselves they are recovering and strong by seeing triggers in front of them and not acting on them. To me, it’s a form of resiliency and being able to bounce from bad situations. Those who avoid triggers completely will completely break down if one shows up in front of them and will not discipline themselves towards stronger self resilience of future exposure. Even those with deeper pain in their abuse and personal demons, I feel that there is still a road for them to cross eventually to confront their triggers and have the strength to not let that aspect of their life be their only aspect in life.

    Anyways, don’t mind my droning words. Thank you for this post and insight into your life’s perspective.


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