People catch colds because they were exposed to a virus or infection.
Some people get cancer because cells have begun endlessly dividing in their body.
We get itchy because an irritant has affected our skin.
We get hungry because our body needs nourishment on a regular basis, or thirsty because we aren’t sufficiently hydrated.
I could go on and on … usually the things that we experience in our daily lives are a cause and effect thing; this happens because that happened, and so on.
PTSD is similar, but also so very different. It happens when someone has experienced a traumatic event and their mind and body are having a difficult time recovering from the experience, whether it was something that happened TO them, or they were witness to it, or affected by it in any way. But the difference between PTSD and other cause and effect things as mentioned above is the unpredictability of it. It doesn’t happen immediately, it doesn’t always have one specific cause, and it can reoccur at any time after the event, as often as it pleases, for as long as it pleases.
One of the main oddities with PTSD is the triggers. You would think that if someone was in a car accident, then they would be triggered by riding in a car. If they went to war, then maybe guns or explosive noises would set them off. If they were raped, then sexual innuendo would give them problems. And likely all of those things are possible and/or true, but not necessarily and not only those things. That’s the tricky thing about triggers, they can be the obvious, and they can be completely unrelated and unexpected.
Take me for example. I’m a survivor of domestic violence. I experienced physical, sexual, emotional, and mental abuse for many years. He tortured me and tried to kill me many times and, when he wasn’t doing it, he was threatening to do it. So you would think that anything along the lines of what I went through would be my triggers. And you’d be absolutely right … but not completely, and that’s what gets me in trouble.
I’m very careful of what I watch on tv, where I go, who I spend time with, who I let in, because I know that certain things will cause me problems … if not immediately, then most definitely when I go to sleep. This makes sense, right? Stay away from what bothers you and you’ll be OK. So what about when the thing that triggers you has absolutely nothing to do with your trauma?
Take snakes. Actually please take snakes, all snakes, right off the planet forever. I’m petrified of them, can’t even look at them without the absolute 100% guarantee that I will have nightmares of my trauma that night. Even now as I’m writing this I know that it’s entirely likely that it’ll happen tonight, and I haven’t even seen one. It’s just words, and they’re my own words, yet it will trigger me. Usually the nightmare starts out innocently enough, then one slithers in and morphs into my abuser, then I wake up screaming. To the outsider that would seem odd and unexpected, but to me it isn’t totally out of this world because I’ve always been afraid of snakes, so it would make some sort of sense that my two greatest fears would combine in some way at some point.
But then something happened last night that came right out of left field.
I love hockey. I have season tickets to all of my team’s home games, I gear up in no less than 4 team items (hoody, hat, socks, jersey, etc) for every game. I cheer loud and proud, even when they suck. I watch the game from my awesome seats with my radio earphone in one ear so I can experience the game sounds with one ear yet still hear the play-by-play in the other. I’ve gone out of my way to meet all the team players, have multiple things signed, I’ve met the management and even the local broadcasters. I am a true fan. This is something that makes me happy and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Last night was the season opener and I was ready. I had on my team t-shirt, hoody, jersey signed by my favorite player, hat, tickets in hand and through the gates ready to enjoy a great game. I had my usual plan in mind to get started … get my 50/50 tickets, popcorn, beverage, then go watch the pre-game skate. I’ve been doing the same thing for 5 years, it’s ritual and common now, automatic and normal. This is my happy place. Then as I was standing in the concourse ready to get started a marching band of drums walked in behind me, lights flashing, drums pounding. It was loud and right there and all of a sudden I was no longer in my happy place. I was instantly and unexpectedly triggered and falling through the rabbit hole into a state of panic. It was total sensory overload and I was trapped. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t talk. I knew what I was supposed to be doing but couldn’t do it. Someone touched me and I nearly screamed. My heart was pounding and I was nearly hyperventilating. I was moving inexplicably towards the sound, yet unable to stop. I felt like I was going to be sick.
My partner was confused, he didn’t know what was wrong with me and kept asking if I was OK, why was I acting this way, why was I not doing what I was normally supposed to be doing. You’d think this would help, he was concerned and trying to help. It made it worse … I couldn’t explain what was wrong because I didn’t know, I was trying to focus and bring myself back and figure out what happened.
Eventually I managed to get myself back to a functional state, did my ritual things, and got to my seat. I told him it was a sensory overload problem, and that I was OK. He tends to push and wanted details, but I couldn’t elaborate without making it worse so I just told him not to worry, it’d be OK.
The pre-game skate music that normally gets me (and the team) fired up for the game was no louder than usual, but in my heightened state it seemed unnaturally loud, but I breathed my way through it. Then as a “treat” for the crowd they had a live band performing before the game and at intermissions. This is rarely a good thing, they tend to get crappy bands and this one did not disappoint in that way, but they were even louder than the normal music and I headed for the rabbit hole again. It didn’t help that he kept watching me and asking too many questions. Once I knew they were going to be a problem for me I went to the bathroom at intermissions so I wouldn’t have to listen to it, problem solved. This also gave me a bit of alone time (if you can call inching your way through a packed concourse to spend 2 minutes in a crowded bathroom “alone time”) to breathe and collect myself. The rest of the game I was fine.
Some say that if you see that someone with PTSD is being triggered that you should ask if they’re ok. When I’m triggered and someone asks if I’m ok, it makes it worse. I’m not going to talk to you about it, I’m not likely to tell you why I’m not ok, and I’m more likely to start crying just from that one small question of concern. I know you want to help. I know you’re worried about me. I know it makes me sound ungrateful or rude, but to tell the truth, I really don’t care.
Triggers are weird. They make no sense at all. I’ve never been triggered at a game before, but since April when my PTSD was kicked into overdrive apparently this is something else I get to deal with. I have tickets for 40 more home games and I will be going, but I’ll be wearing an extra layer of armor for each one just in case. Now that I know that my happy place could be turned into my worst nightmare, I will do everything I can to prevent that and hopefully it won’t happen again.
PTSD is a bitch. Go, team, go.