Tuesday, May 7, 2019

This Isn't Fine, #2: What a Triggering Event Looks Like for Me



May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States.  I have been candid about my own mental health struggles over the years and I thought now was as good a time as any to share a post I've been meaning to publish for a while.  Own-voices narratives are an important part of breaking the social stigma around mental illness and, for the culture, here is mine.  Written several weeks ago, today's post discusses Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as I experience it and how, even though I am in treatment, the condition continues to impact my life.  

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a chronic illness that has been a popular subject of public discussion since the dawn of the new Millenium.  Often, these conversations consider the ways in which combat veterans, returning home from war, have been emotionally (in addition to physically) scarred by their experiences in battle.  The emotional wounds our veterans carry are extensive, and our governments doing precious little to provide them with the medical support they need (and were promised).

Our veterans are not the only walking wounded in our society.  According to the Sidran Institute, at any given time 5% of the American public, approximately thirteen million people, are dealing with PTSD.  It is further estimated that 8% of American adults will develop PTSD during their lifetime.  However, despite the prevalence of PTSD in American society and the term's frequent, if colloquial use, in conversation, PTSD is a widely misunderstood diagnosis.

The Mayo Clinic explains that PTSD is "a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event."  Common symptoms of PTSD include intrusive memories, avoidance, as well as changes in one's physical and emotional reactions.  Symptoms can appear within a month of the triggering event(s) or even years later.  Furthermore, The Mayo Clinic notes, "[t]hese symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in [interpersonal] relationships.  They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily activities."

I was diagnosed with PTSD in my late 20s after a traffic accident, but I had truly been grappling with the aftermath of trauma since childhood.  While I am not going to hash out the specifics of my own traumatic experiences, I am willing to discuss some of my triggers, which include: having my personal space violated, unsolicited touching, inebriated people who violated my boundaries, as well as any form of aggressive or abusive behavior (particularly from men).

For the most part, I am able to keep my PTSD in check with medication, psychotherapy, and a fair amount of self-care.  Even though I am usually able to keep myself safe, I periodically experience triggering events that that throws off my hard-fought, yet delicate, balance.

As a matter of fact, I am currently trying to find my grounding after a recent troubling event.  Since so few examples of contextualized triggering events exist outside of the sensationalization depictions in the media, I thought it might be a good idea to talk through a recent triggering experience I have had.



A few weeks ago, I went to see my favorite band play live at one of my favorite local venues.  I was excited to see the band, it had been almost three years since I had last seen them play and I was excited to share the experience with my significant other.  When I have seen the band live in the past (including at the same venue), the performances were energetic, the crowd was enthusiastic, but the show wasn't overly raucous, no one became violent, and the inebriated concertgoers kept their messiness within the party they came with.  This time it was different.

Perhaps the concert was poorly timed, at the end of Spring Break for several local colleges; perhaps some attendees had been on a bender since St. Patrick's Day (the previous weekend).  In any event, things went south very quickly after the main act took the stage.

My significant other and I were in the middle left of the general admission area.  Not long after the headliners took the state, several college-age young men took to dancing aggressively around us, pogoing wildly and catapulting themselves forward toward the stage.  One guy behind me kept dancing so close to me that he was rubbing his groin area against my backside; even if you are "caught up in the music" it should dawn on you that rubbing yourself against someone you don't know's backside is off-limits.  Again, we were in the general admission area so there wasn't any room for me to move away from the jerk without being trampled.  More than once, I turned around, shot the guy an ugly look and told him to back-off; eventually, I ended up donkey-kicking the creep . . . but he continued to violate my space.  Finally, I asked my boyfriend (who is well over six feet tall and rail thin) to stand behind me so I had a buffer between me and the booty brusher.

When space allowed, we tried to move farther away from the rowdier segments of the crowd.  Despite these efforts, a barrage of dudebros violently pushed themselves forward, nearly pitching me, my boyfriend, and several other people over in the process.  Then one of these frat boy projectiles proceeded to "dance" by repeatedly slamming into my right side, bouncing against my boob in the process.  At this point, I was already on edge from the booty bouncer and the flying dudebros, so this latest violent interaction left me feeling violated, and I just wanted it to stop.

My hurt, my panic, and my fear narrowed my focus.  I became a feral version of myself, fighting my way out of a situation where I feel trapped and in imminent danger, throwing elbows at my latest assailant and unleashing an eviscerating blue streak that would have made George Carlin blush.  At that moment, I felt outside of myself, shaking with rage and fear; I tried to move further away from the widening fracas, but the heaving crowd only gave way so much.

About half-way through the set, as I stood in a controlled internal panic a full-on mosh pit broke out on my right.  It was like the ground opened up and the inhabitants of a Hieronymous Bosh painting spilled out on to the floor.  All hell broke loose.

Mind you, this wasn't the Warped Tour in 1999 or a Limp Bizkit show in the early aughts, it was an indie rock show in one of the most gentrified corners of California.  My previous experiences seeing the band (including at THE SAME VENUE) did not prepare me for the bad dudebro mojo of this show.  I can totally accept fans getting caught up in the moment, or being overtaken by the music (or the booze).  By all means, jump up and down, throw your arms up into the air, just don't throw them (or yourself) at me.

A few weeks on, there remains a number of things about my concerting going experience that bothers me. First of all, I was surprised at the lack of security within the venue.  At other shows I have been to, crowd surfers and would-be-slam dancers were pulled by security and escorted away.  The only time I saw security intervene during the show was when a concertgoer smoking what I suspect was a PCP-laden joint took a faceplant right in front of me (y'all haven't seen Friday and it shows).  Otherwise, it was a dudebro free-for-all and I couldn't have identified security staff for love or money.

What bothers me most, actually, was the way in which my space and requests to be left alone and out of the fray were ignored.  This concept is hardly new to any woman who dares to occupy public space-- on mass transit, in a professional conversation, at a party, in line at the grocery store.  We can be present in a space, but it is not ours to occupy; we don't even have purchase over what is happening to our physical selves within public space.  While personal space at a concert is understandably diminished, it does not disappear.  No matter the context,  you should be able to tell someone "stop smacking my butt" or "do not touch my chest and refrain from elbowing me in the rib cage." It should not matter how caught up in the moment you may think you are, you are not excused from consent-derived contact.  Full stop.

After the show, when the crowd finally gave way and I was able to scramble out onto the rainy streets, I was inconsolable.  I cried most of the way home.  I felt physically violated, verbally threatened, and skittish about going to any show in the foreseeable future.  In the weeks since I have been actively trying to separate my favorite band's music from the behaviors of some of their fans.  I have loved this band for years and their music has been an integral part of my life for a long time; if their music were to become a trigger for me, that would be a major emotional blow.

This experience is characteristic of what triggering events look like for me.  One or (usually) more of my triggers are activated: I get scared/ angry/ panicked; I lash out verbally, or if the situation escalates, physically. I become emotionally numb with adrenalin until I am able to escape the situation. When the adrenalin wears off, and the numbness subsides, I am back in my emotionally wracked body, once again marooned on my historic traumatic landscape.

That's the thing about having PTSD, it isn't that you are "overreacting" to an upsetting event; rather, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, you become unstuck in time.  The new events set off old traumas like blast caps in your psyche.  And you're pulled back. Back through time. Back through past traumas.  Old wounds split open as new ones bleed.  PTSD is a palimpsest of trauma.

Living with the condition, like any other chronic illness, can place major limitations on your day-to-day life.  In many cases, the effects of PTSD are not visible and our suffering is not apparent until we are already in distress.  With thirteen million people among our ranks nationally, it isn't too much to expect civility, kindness, and compassion in public life. For many of us, our wellbeing depends upon this. 

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