Marriage from hell: the happy ending (III)

Continuing my series about healing from abuse.  When I left off, I had just finished discussing the second big area of focus that I had.  Moving on –

3) Address my triggers

Certain things would set me off and send me into an irrationally angry, crying fit.  I learned recently that this is actually normal for people that have been through trauma.  Margaret Vasquez says that because trauma doesn’t affect the logical parts of the brain, you can’t address it through logic and talk therapy.  And because the passage of time is an abstract concept, understanding of which is driven by the logical centers of the brain, until the trauma is healed, triggers will bring back all of the emotions as if the victim is living through the trauma again in the present. (I hope I’m not misrepresenting anything she has said.)

All of which is consistent with my experience, as I found that I had to basically reprogram myself into responding differently to certain of my triggers.

It’s been a few years, but the main triggers I remember having are Days Inn, the movie “Moulin Rouge,” and John Mayer.  Now, the reasons for these particular triggers are a bit of a long story, and in any case are not really relevant to the focus today, which is on healing.  So I’m going to skip the “why.”  What I did to address these was to purposely associate each of these with pleasant experiences, so that the dominant association in my head would be the pleasantness rather than the ex and the rage.

Everyone’s process to address their triggers will look different, but here’s how mine looked –

1) Days Inn – A friend and I took a trip together to get out of town and show the kids some new scenery.  We stayed at a Days Inn.  During this trip I purposefully took the time to stop and sense how good I felt, look at / think of the Days Inn logo, wash, rinse, repeat.  Even after we got home, I would take the time to immerse myself in the good feelings while visualizing the look and feel of the hotel room and the Days Inn logo.  A little bit of alcohol (but not too much!) helped amplify the good feelings, limber up my brain, and enhance this process.

Writing this now it sounds so silly to make such a big deal about something so mundane as a low-level hotel chain logo, but that’s what I did, and it worked.  I no longer sink into a quivering, blinding rage whenever I happen to drive past a Days Inn.  Yay!  Go me!

So if you EVER feel like your triggers are “stupid” just remember how that weird lady Athena from the internet had to work to address her hang-ups with a low-level hotel chain logo.  Think about that and allow yourself to feel more normal than me.  You’re welcome.  Happy to help.

2) Moulin Rouge – Whenever I had a date, I would invite the guy back to my place to watch a movie.  Most guys go for this.  Most guys also let me pick out the movie.  At this point in the evening, my line was, “Oh look!  I seem to remember this one (holding up the DVD case for Moulin Rouge) being a pretty good movie – haven’t watched it in a while, though.  How about it?”  Guess what the answer was?  (Most guys are pretty agreeable to anything you suggest on a first date.)  So, similar to #1 above, as we were watching the movie, I would work to focus my mind on how good I felt, how attractive I felt, how much I was enjoying the company of the guy sitting next to me, and at the same time be present in enjoying the movie.  If there was kissing, cuddling, and handholding, so much the better – more warm fuzzy feelings to capitalize on.  I think I did this about three or four times, this exercise of forcibly mashing emotion and sensation and memory and music and movie all together.  And it helped quite a bit.  Just like my Days Inn trigger therapy, a moderate amount of alcohol (but not too much!) worked to make this process a bit easier.

But I really made a breakthrough when I fell in love.  I had been spending time with one of my neighbors because we both had kids about the same age, and as we started talking we figured out that we had quite a bit in common.  Next we figured out that we were attracted to each other.  And after that we figured out that the sex was great.  So as I’m enjoying that rush of infatuation and the thrill of falling in love … in the middle of that I decided that this would be a great opportunity to watch Moulin Rouge together and help me work on this particular trigger.  So I told him what I was going through with this movie and that I was trying to fix myself so I didn’t get irrationally angry whenever I watched it.  So he held me and we watched it together.  It was at that point that I first thought to myself – “This is it!  I’m doing it!  I might actually be free someday.”

Just to make sure this conditioning stuck, I made sure to watch Moulin Rouge at least once with every subsequent boyfriend, up to and including my husband.  And you know what?  I haven’t watched it in several years.  At this point, I don’t obsess over it one way or the other.

3) John Mayer – This one I didn’t have a really easy answer to, mainly because I think there’s an underlying issue that I haven’t yet found a direct counter to.  And it probably doesn’t help that in general I never really liked his music in the first place.  But.  The fact that I would get irrationally angry whenever the first few notes of a John Mayer song came on the radio was reason enough for me to work on this one.  Even though the music is mediocre at best.

And you know what? Honestly, I ended up just avoiding his music for a handful of years.  I got really good at switching the radio in the car to a different station within the first three or four notes of any John Mayer song.  I wasn’t really motivated to work on this one, not when I had more pressing things to do.

With my other two triggers above I didn’t have much choice.  Days Inn – I had to work on that one because I see them all the time.  Moulin Rouge – I had basically been robbed of the experience of watching a movie I enjoyed.  It was important to me to get those things back.  But I wasn’t really missing anything by cutting John Mayer out of my life.

Until one day, quite by accident, I heard Say all the way through for the first time.  And I actually liked it.  Catchy.  Happy.  Somehow it made me feel very different than the specific songs I had heard before that I hated.  Great!  Something I could latch on to.  Fast forward a few years – at this point, I still enjoy that one song.  As for the rest of them, I’m still not a fan, and as a rule I still change the station when one comes on, but at least I don’t rage anymore.  I’d call that progress!

Whatever your triggers are, if you can find a way to associate them with happiness instead of trauma, that will put you on the right path.

I want to finish up this section by saying that despite what expectations others have for you, there’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t just “get over it” as if by waving a magic wand.  It takes work.  Also, don’t beat yourself up over having triggers that seem “silly” or “stupid.”  There are no silly / stupid triggers.  They just are and they need work just the same.

To be continued.

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6 comments

  1. That’s really interesting. I’m so glad it worked for you.

    I had heard about therapy that had people become immersed in whatever had felt threatening to them. You added an extra point with adding pleasure. So glad it worked for you. I hope it will help others, too.

    1. At first I did try to just immerse myself in the things that bothered me, but without that additional focus I found that all I was doing was just immersing myself in anger and tears. So that’s how I came up with the system that I wrote about.

      I have talked to quite a few people over the years that have various triggers, but far too many people either don’t seem to be aware that they have triggers or it doesn’t occur to them to try to do something about them. So I’m just doing my part to get the word out.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. This makes a lot of sense, but I have an advanced-level question about it: what if your trigger is your (former) abuser?

    My husband finally turned himself around when I threatened to leave him, but by that point, the emotional and relational damage had been done. The problem is that, even though it’s been two years, I still react to him and to his actions as if he was still a threat. He struggles to understand why, when he hasn’t done any of that stuff for a long time, I still haven’t been able to recover the emotional intimacy that we used to have.

    Do you think it’s possible to recover from abuse and rebuild a relationship with the person who caused the damage in the first place?

    1. That’s a great question – I can tell you that for me it was instrumental to my healing to not have to see my ex for a few years, but I think the main reason was that he wasn’t sorry and he refused to accept that he had hurt me at all. His entire focus was how my anger and pain made him feel.

      But on the other hand I have seen some people rebuild marriages from some awful things, and they actually succeed! They are in no way settling or staying together for the kids.

      I think the mission-critical question is – how committed is your husband to rebuilding your marriage with you? If he is or becomes committed to doing whatever it takes to help you feel safe and to help recover that emotional intimacy, then there is hope. But he will have to accept that your feelings and triggers are yours and the fact that they are real; he doesn’t have to understand them for their impact on you and your relationship to be real, and they cannot be reasoned away. Some people are better with this than others.

      If your husband is committed to your marriage and is flexible enough to accept that he needs to do things for you that he may not understand, then I think it’s possible. If not, then I don’t think it is possible.

      Hope that helps!

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