How do you deal with triggers?

TW: discussion of triggering events, what it means to be triggered

When you have abuse in your past, you usually end up having triggers. Some of them are known and pretty obvious, but sometimes you can be surprised by what triggers you. I recently found myself triggered by the mention of a children’s book.

The book is called ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein.  You may recognize the cover:

The book is basically about a tree who slowly gives up pieces of itself for a boy as he grows up, and is left a lonely stump. Then, when the boy is old, he comes back and needs the tree again – this time for a place to sit and rest. It was posted on a forum I follow about abuse, and the crux of it was that this particular book is sort of a narcissist’s dream.

I had somehow managed to bury that book’s existence somewhere deep in my unconscious mind, because when I read that  post, I was slapped in the psyche with a memory. My mother used to read me that book, and keeps a copy of it because that’s exactly how she perceives herself. During one of her many attempts to guilt trip me, she brought out the book and talked all about how she identifies with it, how she gives and gives but never receives anything in return.

So what happens when a trigger is hit? It depends on the person and the triggers – there’s no ‘one size fits all’ as far as how people react when something triggers them. In my case, it brought back a memory that I’d somehow squashed into the forefront of my consciousness, and that cascaded into remembering other situations, and how I felt about those situations.

And then you feel all weird and shitty, and you’re stuck, for a little while, in the past. I’ve found that for me, the only way to get through it is to just put on a pair of boots and wade through the muck, so that’s what I do. The feelings never completely go away, but I find that they’re easier to handle now. And I look at the unpleasant stuff that triggers dredge up this way: It’s a reminder of why I cut my parents out of my life, and a validation of sorts. I did the right thing. My mental health is much better when they aren’t a part of my life. So in the end, despite the muck, that’s a big shiny positive.

The other thing that happened is it inadvertently reaffirmed my commitment to feminism. The tree in this book is gendered female, and the child is male. The tree gives and gives and gives until it’s literally nothing but a stump with nothing left to give, and is only unhappy about this because the boy goes away. When the boy returns as an old man to use the tree again, the tree is happy.

That’s so astoundingly unhealthy. I don’t like the idea that anyone, but women in particular, are supposed to give and give until there’s nothing left, and find happiness in that. I don’t want to destroy myself for someone else. It’s possible to give to others but still have healthy boundaries. And it’s possible to be happy without constant self-sacrifice. I don’t like the idea of teaching kids that destroying yourself for someone else is noble and will make you happy.

It’s so easy to see why narcissists tend to be drawn to that book, especially narc mothers. “I give and give and give until I can’t give anymore, then you leave me because I have nothing left, but eventually you’ll come crawling back.” This book is just super gross on many levels, and I wish people would stop giving it to kids. I have some rage fleas I’m working through over the messages of this book, and now my abuser sees herself as a great self-sacrificing saint. (But again, my mantra is validation.)

I’m curious about other people’s stories. How do you deal with triggering events? Have you ever been surprised by something that triggered you? (I see comments even on old entries, so if you stumble upon this in some future time, feel free to respond.)

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