On Trauma, Triggers, And Thanksgiving

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IMG_0934You’d think that by age seventy-one things would be different.  But, no, there are triggers that still get me wound up so tight I could burst.  Take Friday evening for example. I was on the phone talking to my friend, Sharon.  We started having weekly conversations back in 2010. She lives in Florida and I live in Virginia, so we can’t talk over the fence the same way I can chat with my neighbor, Harmon, who is also a dear friend.  Sharon has been traveling of late and we haven’t talked in almost a month.

I was sitting in my new chair (an early Christmas gift), enjoying Sharon’s musings about her travels. Both of us agree that life is tempestuous and both have a growing number of people we know who have been diagnosed with cancer.  It just doesn’t seem fair to either one of us, but then no one ever said that life would be fair, or a bed of roses, or without pain and unhappiness.

I’m at the age where I know better and have decided that I can’t worry about what is going to get me …an asteroid falling out of the sky or being hit by a dump truck full boulders, rendering me paralyzed from the neck down.  Life is what it is.  It has cancer, asteroids, boulders, dump trucks, along with a gazillion other things that could kill us or make life totally miserable.

Mind you, I always have and will probably continue to cry, carry on, and complain with all my might if and when something awful does happens to me.  But I’m working hard at being grateful for everything that I have, including the best family and friends in the universe.

So it took me by surprise that as I sitting in that cozy chair, talking my heart out, that I was being triggered by Bill’s sudden dash through the living room and out to his car. He looked befuddled and mad. He tore out of the driveway as if there were an emergency.  I started feeling my old companion, anxiety, arriving on the scene. My gut started feeling jittery and filled with rocks. Though I was still listening and talking to Sharon, another part of me was trying to figure out what I had done wrong to make Bill so mad.

Then I realized that Bill’s behavior had brought on a reaction in me that became ingrown years ago. My father was a tyrant.  To him, talking on the phone for more than two minutes was wasting time.  Staring into space was a mortal sin and taking naps was not acceptable.  When my dad was around, my brothers and I always had to be doing something “constructive.” If he caught us doing nothing, his face would become hard and frightening.  He would  yell at us and quickly gave us jobs to do. We were never relaxed when he was at home and it got to the point that one of us was always on the look-out, warning, “Here comes Dad.  Look busy.”

Had I been ten or twelve as I chatted with my friend, I would have quickly hung up the phone, charged into my bedroom, and pretended to be doing homework.  We all got pretty good at pretending and I’ve always been amazed that none of us ended up acting on the stage.  But it sure developed into a pattern in our lives. I’m beyond thankful for being able to recognize when I’m being triggered. Most of the time now, I may feel some anxiety or fear at first, but can quickly acknowledge that I’m safe and that no one is going to hurt me or tell me that I’m doing something terribly wrong.

Bill popped back in the house waving a bag of fresh Italian parsley in his hand. He was wearing a wide grin on his face as if he’d been out fishing and caught the biggest fish in the pond. I was still talking to Sharon and by then had calmed down.  I hadn’t hung up and hidden in my room. Bill had been preparing our dinner and when he discovered we had no parsley he went out without interrupting me to get some.  And yes, he had been a bit mad when he realized we didn’t have what he needed. But it wasn’t about me. It was about the inconvenience of having to rush out during traffic hour.

Life is all about things like that. I don’t enjoy being slammed back into my childhood by someone else’s behavior, but I’m accepting and grateful for being able to recognize when my cells and nervous system are simply reacting to something they remember from long ago. If you’d asked me five or six years ago if I thought I’d ever recover from the trauma in my life, I would have bitterly said no. But working with a therapist brought me back to my senses and I’ve learned to be mindful of my own behavior.

So yes, I have changed. Life is all about typhoons, tornados, friends dying, and not getting what I want. But it’s also about red roses that fill the air with their sweet essence, dear friends, and a husband who shares the cooking of meals and holds me tight when I’m scared.

 This Thanksgiving I’m especially thankful for you, dear readers, for the sun that rises daily, and my wonderful family.  May the holiday find you all filled with peace, love, and happiness.

And if you’re driving watch out for the weather along the East Coast.


  1. So glad that you shared this experience, Joan. You demonstrate that our old anxieties never disappear but that we don’t have to be held captive to them. Love the image of Bill’s triumphal return, waving the parsley. That’s a good one to remember when the old fears pop up.

    Love the new chair. Glad you have Sharon. And glad you have found story to be a way to heal from trauma. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • Thanks, Shirley. It was quite an eye-opener to catch myself reacting and taking care all at the same time.

      I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your sweet family and that we’ll get a chance to get together after the craziness of December is over.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you!


  2. Joan – As I become more “seasoned” with time my desire is to stay sharp, focused, exercise my mental faculties, and retain my memory.

    HOWEVER, there are some memories that trigger knee-jerk reactions at the cellular level (cellular memory) that I’d prefer to forget. It’s taken time, but I’m learning to respond (thought-filled) rather than react.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

    • Laurie, “Seasoned.” I love that. I’m with you on the same trail and hopefully we’ll both stay sharp until the end.

      Memories on the head level are just memories. It’s the cell memories that are harder to deal with. I’m finding that allowing them to visit, their power gets weaker and weaker.

      You have a happy holiday, too.


      • “allowing them to visit, their power gets weaker and weaker” So true! The more we fight and resist, the more they persist. When we can let them in, listen to them, and hear what they have to teach us, they begin to no longer have a reason to be.

  3. Joan, you could have been describing a scene from my life. Your anecdotal depiction of the the adult child of an overbearing, or abusive parent is perfect. More importantly, the mental gymnastics such triggers provoke and our subsequent coping skills show how much a person can change and grow. Finding a good therapist, and a type of treatment that is effective is often a matter of luck, but it can be a life saver and make all the difference in our ability to go from reactive and protective to engaged and relaxed. Thank you for sharing this “bit” of your life. It’s always good to know we’re not alone. I also can relate to the deep sense of gratitude you shared, just for being alive and in the midst of people who care. May the warmth and power of love grow ever stronger within you this holiday season, and always. Happy Thanksgiving.

  4. Dorothy, Thanks so much for both of your comments. I’m also happy to know that I touched you with my writing. We all too often feel alone in our lives, surrounded by people who don’t understand. The more I write about those “bits” of my life, I find healing and the knowing that there are others out there just like me who have been through some very rough patches.

    I send the same wishes back to you for” warmth and the power of love to grow ever stronger,” and a most happy holiday season.

  5. Joan, I don’t have anything deep to say today, but that chair sure is snazzy!

    • Oh thanks, Valerie. I absolutely love that chair. I’ve never fallen in love with a piece of furniture so deeply. As you say, it is snazzy but it also keeps my back from hurting! Hope you had a wonderful thanksgiving!