Understanding Triggers

By Lisa Dietz

When I was on the verge of adulthood, I came to be living with a man named Frank in a farmhouse in the countryside of Spain. The farm had no running water or electricity so fetching wood and water were necessary labors.

I had gone to the cistern to get water, pouring it into the orange plastic tub with dish soap to clean the dishes. It was a hot day, sapping the energy from my bones. My exhaustion was compounded by the 8 days, or was it 9 since I'd eaten solid food? I couldn't remember anymore, so Frank counted the days for me while conducting the experiment to see just how long I could fast. Tossing away the dirty, used dishwater, I flung myself on the wooden bench that surrounded the inside of the patio area.

Frank exited the bathroom from the opposite side and said, "Get me some water to flush the toilet."

I looked at him sleepily and replied, "Get your own water."

I knew it was a mistake immediately because his face took on that stern, authoritative, "how dare you question me" expression. "My how lazy you've become," he said, eyebrows furrowed darkly across his forehead and his piercing eyes glared at me.

Before he could raise a hand and become violent, I said, "Okay, okay, I'll get you some water."

All the way to the cistern I was angry that I should have to do HIS job, but fear overran all other emotions so I completed the task. As I approached the patio steps, bucket in hand, he came toward me, walking with such forceful intention that I stopped, adrenaline rushing through my body, trying to prepare for what might come next. My mind stalled as I recognized the expression on his face - stern, unyielding, distant. When he looked at me like that, I felt small and insignificant, like an amoeba sucked into the jaws of a whale, already doomed, but not yet aware of it.

Swiping the bucket of water from my hands, he dumped it over, pouring it onto the flower bed.

"What did you do that for?" I asked.

He regarded me with a glowering smile, "You will fetch water until the water is fetched!" he declared.

I was on shaky ground here and I knew it. I dare not argue or complain lest I be beaten or humiliated or forced into some degrading act of submission. So I spoke timidly, "What do you mean?"

"You'll see," he said. "Go fetch the water."

I huffed back to the cistern, confused, angry, afraid. Like the first, he poured the next five buckets of water onto the plants. And still he insisted I continue while the heat dripped down my face. The next bucket of water did not even feed the flowers. Down it came, splashing helplessly at my feet.

Extending his hand toward me, I flinched unconsciously.

He poked my forehead. "You will fetch water until the water is fetched - until you are nothing."

I looked at him in terror. With the flaming sun baking my body and muddling my mind, I couldn't understand what he expected from me.

"Fetch the drinking water now."

Fetching drinking water involved carrying a large round glass jug that held perhaps five gallons of water. I carried this morbidly the 1/4 mile down the side of the cliff on the other side of the house into the rock cave that contained living spring water. Balancing precariously across the flowing pool that led further down into the earth, I immersed the jug into the spring's path. After it was full, I took a long drink before embarking on the journey back up the cliff and to the patio where Frank waited.

I watched, as if in slow motion, as the cool, crystalline water drops scattered the sand below the steps until the dusty particles could part no farther, absorbing the wetness to form dark islands of congealed mud. Then he spoke to me in slow, deliberate words. "Nothing you do means anything. Nothing you say means anything. You are nothing."

My mouth hung open, unable to decide what I should feel.
"Do it again," he growled. "Do it until the water is fetched and you are nothing."

Away from his presence, I sobbed as my body, now aching from exertion and my mind, raging in confusion, hiked back to the spring to refill the jug. In this weakened condition, I don't know exactly how many times I managed to haul the weighty burden back up the cliff, each time losing more of its contents in the process due to tripping and splashing. My hands and arms shook with the exertion.

The screams of cicadas in the olive tree echoed the tortured draining of my inertia. The task became the task - a thoughtless, numbing act - something to be endured. On the trip in which he didn't dump the water, I no longer cared. I was incoherent, vaguely hoping he would let up.
What I didn't know then is that he would not let up for another year and a half. Every task, every movement was preceded by the unending reminder, "Nothing you do means anything. Nothing you say means anything. You are nothing." Eventually, I believed it. Eventually, I became an empty vessel to be controlled and manipulated. Eventually, the water was fetched.

My reaction to being ignored since that time, whether obvious or subtle, has been the most common and debilitating behavior that I can link so directly to my traumatic experience. The issue is an inappropriate and devastating response to being ignored or to any event that bears similarity to the trauma of "fetching water." I have struggled and continue to struggle with this trigger more than any other outcome from my past. Therefore, I have had to work hard at identifying what the trigger is and finding a means of coping with it before my behavior escalates to self-harm, suicidal thinking, flashbacks, and/or hospitalization.

I have learned that if I can become aware of myself at any given moment when I'm reacting with intense emotions, it becomes quickly apparent that my behavior is inappropriate to the situation. Certainly, it is horrible to have gone through the trauma, but I can't change that. All I can do is find a way to cope with the consequences of it. Long after I'd escaped from Frank, I started noticing a pattern of my overly dramatic reactions.
I had become acquainted with a couple, Marshal and Wilma through a charismatic church near where I lived. Marshal and Wilma were nearly my parents' age and they had taken on a somewhat authoritarian relationship with me. Although we were technically "friends," they really considered themselves my mentors, in no way equal. They felt God had called them to love me and help me to find a path of healing and to teach me the proper direction to follow. Patronizing as it seems, I felt I needed all the help I could get. I was still in the midst of therapy, still "surviving" from day to day in an effort to cope with the years with Frank.

One night Wilma called me because she was having a problem with her computer and wondered if I might come over and take a look at it. I said okay and drove to their beautiful mansion in the prestigious hills of Woodbury. They had two teenage daughters and apparently they were preparing to be part of a wedding.

I arrived at the door, toolkit in hand, happy to be useful. I rang the bell, but there was no answer. I rang again and finally Wilma came to the door, out of breath and huffed, "Oh, do come in, come in. Take off your jacket and I'll be right with you."

Wilma was a tiny woman, no more than five feet tall and under 100 pounds. I was sometimes intimidated by her delicate frame, it seeming so socially acceptable compared to my overweight condition. She was always upbeat, flighty, energetic and smiling. She wore perfect makeup with her bleached blond hair, always styled correctly. Her clothes stated in a loudly subtle tone that she wore only designer apparel.

As I entered and slipped off my jacket and boots, Wilma whisked herself up the long white spiral staircase of her fairy-castle home, up to the balcony from whence the bedrooms exited. I could see her entire ascent as the main floor lie open to the tall ceilings that domed above both floors with elegantly engraved grapevine carvings over white interior. All was white in this house, the carpet on the stairs and upstairs rooms, the tile floors and walls. Directly ahead a fireplace formed the central living room attraction, surrounded by plush white leather couches and easy chairs. The dining table off to the left was a large wooden antique, covered by a handmade antique white lace tablecloth. If I were to venture beyond the dining area, into the kitchen, I would face a room surrounded by windows and decorated in white cane furniture.

Somehow, I always felt dirty when I entered this house. Looking over my shoulder to see if I'd left any signs of my passing, I found the softly padded comfortable leather "guest slippers" in the entryway and placed them on my feet, letting my things fall to the floor. Unsure of whether I had been invited up into the private living space of the home, I waited by sitting on the steps.

At first I was distracted and awed, as I always was when I entered this house, by the ornate furnishings and luxurious style of life. I wondered again why life was so unfair. Why did it choose some people to be rich and others poor? Why was it that some had to struggle with terror and abuse, while others faced so little and seemed to gain so much? And ultimately, I ended my speculation with that question that I never seemed to have an answer for, "was it because some people deserved better than others? Were some people really just better, more worthy? And if Frank thought I was worthless, why would anyone else ever believe differently?"

When I emerged from my dark musings, I realized that I had been there for several minutes and still Wilma had not invited me upstairs. I observed Wilma flying excitedly from room to room with brief interludes in which one or both of the girls came out on the balcony to display one of the various bridesmaid dresses being considered for the wedding. They were excited and energetic.

Although I called to Wilma to ask what I should do, I knew I was an outsider here - a blot on this homestead of perfect beauty and would not actually be asked to participate in the joyous occasion.

"Go ahead to my office," Wilma yelled from the bedroom, "I'll be with you in a minute.

I climbed the staircase and took my place at the computer desk in the office at the top of the steps. The computer was not on. There were no program disks sitting out waiting for installation. I would have to wait for her to tell me what she needed, so I sat on the floor (uncomfortable in the too-small desk chair) and waited.

I was being ignored; therefore I was nothing, I told myself. It did not take long for the darkness to fill my mind. I was nothing to them any more than I was anything to Frank. Despair and self-loathing clutched at my insides like a vice-grip on my soul. The joyous echoes from outside the office walls were voices of mocking. I would never be one of them. I could never be one of them. I was nothing. They didn't care. Wilma probably already forgot about me.

Wound tightly in emotional despair, I began my own litany of "I am nothing. Nothing I do means anything. Nothing I say means anything. I'm nothing." The litany had become a mantra; comforting in its familiarity. With no one arriving to challenge my inner muse, my mind became an increasingly darker refuge of pain and suffering. Perhaps half an hour passed before I began to dissociate. I could feel myself leaving my body. I was becoming too pain-filled to live with myself. I saw myself as separate and hated what I saw. I was on the edge. I was going into a flashback and I knew it. But my survival self warned me that it was unsafe to enter a flashback in front of people who would not understand, who did not care, who would only mock me. I had to run, to go back home where I could complete the cycle that had begun.

The situation was awkward and I was not thinking clearly. I gathered my things together, and ran back down the stairs. Before leaving, I called to Wilma, "I'm going now."

"Wait," she said, and I stopped, obediently, trapped between two worlds. She rushed down after me.

"We haven't even started," she said, bubbling with enthusiasm. "I'm sorry I got sidetracked. I didn't mean anything by it."

At this point she reached the bottom of the steps and looked directly at me. My affected disposition must have been obvious since she reacted suddenly. "What's wrong?"

"I have to go."


"You don't need me here. You just left me waiting for a half hour. I'm tired of waiting and I want to go home." My voice was shaking with emotion. I forced myself not to cry, not to step into the emotion and feel. I must keep back, hold on for a few more minutes.

"You can't leave," she declared. "Why didn't you come out and look at the dresses with me?"

"It's not my house. I wasn't invited."

"Invited? Don't be silly. You're one of the family. You're like a daughter to me."

he was lying and it made me hate her. I would never be her daughter. What did she know of me? How could she be so arrogant? I was ready to burst.

"I have to go," I declared and walked out.

I had put on a pretty good act. I hadn't let it loose while I was there. By the time I opened the car door, tears were flowing. Shakily I drove home until I could crouch on the floor in my closet with the door closed hugging my knees tightly against my body, rocking, and let the memories bleed through me until they'd exhausted themselves.
It's true that Wilma's behavior was rude. However, it did not warrant a "life and death" type of reaction. If I talk to somebody and they ignore me or don't acknowledge my words or even my existence, it doesn't mean that they think I'm nothing. I'm reading that into the situation because of my past experience.

After experiencing this response repeatedly, I realized that this "nothing litany" occurred so quickly in situations where I felt "blown-off," and it escalated to such an exaggerated response, that I sought a way to recognize the reaction and dispel it before the crisis. At first, I could only recognize the response in retrospect, after the crisis occurred. Therefore, I had to dig down deep (with the help of my therapist) to intentionally relive the emotional trauma that I felt, in this example, when I realized Wilma was ignoring or forgetting about me. I had to remember the thoughts that went through my head at the time. After that, I had to analyze it all so that I could recognize the trigger response sooner.

Going back, I could see that the first thing that would happen is that I would feel abandoned and betrayed, then devastated by what I thought was the person's utter disinterest in me. Very soon after this feeling came the repeated litany, "Nothing I do means anything. Nothing I say means anything. I'm nothing." I saw that this litany was so ingrained that I no longer repeated it in long form in my mind. It had become a flash of thought that represented the litany. But I knew what the flash felt like and sounded like. Then my mind would cloud over with a tangible darkness of self-loathing. Reliving this was not pleasant, but I knew I had to do it in order to familiarize myself with the response.

Having broken it down and identified the precise thoughts and emotions, I could stand back from it and, in my mind, "package" it into something like "the nothing trigger." I wrote in my journal about all the times when I could remember the nothing trigger occurring.

Now I recognize more quickly and more often when that feeling and way of thinking occurs, so that before it goes too far, I can realize that this is the trigger, not a reality. I can observe myself wanting to take the dark path that became so natural, so instinctual, but instead pull back and force myself to use another tool or skill to take me in a different direction. I had many opportunities to practice changing my behavior.
I was walking with a friend through the park one warm Autumn evening at dusk. The sky was orange with the setting sun and the trees were just beginning to do the flip from green to yellow and brown and gold and red. My friend and I were determined to enjoy every bit of warm weather available to us before the long, cold winter frost.

We were doing one of the end of the day "downloads," telling about the events, traumas, and triumphs in the course of the day. I had spoken with a coworker about the possibility of going into business together, training people on computer software. I was excited and spoke rapidly, giving him all the details of our newly planned operation.

"It will be a great way for me to get out of this job and finally do the work I've dreamed of doing all my life, and be working for myself besides!" I told him enthusiastically.

He looked at me and smiled, but his heart wasn't in it. His eyes were glazed over and his mind somewhere else. "Aren't those pretty clouds?" he said.

Disappointed, I asked, "Did you hear what I've been saying?"

"Sure," he answered and then proceeded to explain to me how he'd found a technical bug in the software program he'd been working with at the office and how superior he felt to the other programmers.

Didn't he hear what I said? Didn't he care? I decided he didn't care and more, he never cared about me and never would care about anything I did because I was nothing to him.

Suddenly the feeling hit and my mind started to fog. I stopped where I was. This was it. This was the trigger and I was heading down the path of the nothing response. I felt bad. I couldn't immediately change the feelings that accompanied the response. I could just identify it. "No. I won't go there," I told myself. I knew, at that point, I wasn't ready to talk about it with him. I just had to do something different. I took three deep breaths while he looked at me, bewildered by my silence.

It didn't matter. In that moment, I just had to do whatever would work to prevent me from reacting inappropriately. "Look at those beautiful leaves," I said, indicating the rich display of colored carpeting on the grass. I bent down and picked up a leaf, focusing on the intricate veins running through it. It seems so simple, really, to check in with myself and find a distraction away from the darkness. Nevertheless, I practice every day.

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