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.

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