There’s a broader understanding of mental health issues online than off. One of those issues is the idea of triggering. When I describe being triggered, most people don’t understand. My therapist understood context without an explanation. My best friend knew before I’d even said the words. A couple of people who shall remain nameless gave me a blank look and offered to cheer me up. This is not their fault, which is why they’re nameless.
Much like depression and anxiety, triggering is an individual response. In my case, it was the skilled nursing facility my mother in law is in.
The difference between being anxious and having an anxiety disorder is the distinction between nervous about flying and after taking a Xanax still not being able to board without a dead frog in your pocket. (Individual talisman may vary.) To be honest, it was close.
There is also a difference between simply being uncomfortable in a place or situation and being triggered emotionally (and sometimes physically) by it. Not to mention that triggers can change over time or come out of the blue for something that never bothered a person before so they’re unpredictable.
And so much more fun.
I didn’t expect a problem at the skilled care place. My Dad was in one in 2001 and it was a nice place. Everyone had been friendly and helpful to him and his family. They treated him well, his rehab was good and for the most part it was okay. There was every indication that this place was just as good. My mother in law’s place was also physically similar – the same curving driveway; the small lobby for visiting in groups, no parking. The interior layout was even the same. Comforting, I thought.
And then the automatic doors opened and I was not expecting it.
It wasn’t a bad smell, but it was a face full of – not déjà vu – but a repressed memory and I practically gagged on it. The comforting floor plan now became an Indiana Jones obstacle course of wheelchairs, walkers, food tray carts, blood pressure machines, even a bed.
A haze settled over my eyes and I swallowed hard, trying to keep it all in. After all, I’m the grown up. The kids were in a strange place, we were visiting my husband’s mother. I’m the caretaker; I need to keep everyone okay, and still none of these thoughts were conscious ones. I reached for my phone, but put it aside. I’m not the only one in the world. It would be better tomorrow.
The pressure only felt heavier, a tightening of throat and chest, mind trying to remember every clichéd mantra, using different words to repeat it’s going to be okay. By day three, I was picking fights and I knew it. It was the only coping mechanism I had regardless of how unhealthy it was. I went through a list of people to ask for help. Whoever I would reach out to was unavailable so I didn’t even try.
I couldn’t lay this on my husband. He was already balancing his siblings, his kids, and me plus our money issues and his childhood home clean up.
I would have called my best friend, but he was helping someone move, he’d just started school and was working full time on top of having an actual semblance of life. I wanted to call, and it would have helped, but without the guarantee of the call being answered and a couple of short conversations promised, not calling and being angry was still better in my mind than calling and getting a ringing phone.
The next person I’d call was helping the same person move and arranging a call to my therapist would inevitably come at an inopportune time.
Eventually, there was a midnight phone call and words not coming and weeping and misunderstanding and stammering and more crying and phone hugs. I didn’t feel better, but I could get through the rest of the week, continuing the twice daily visits to the skilled nursing facility and planning to see my sister and brother and nieces, arranging those schedules enough of a stress builder, but tolerable.
Suddenly, there was a plan, and then another plan, and then I was buying a one way ticket to Penn Station at 9:30 Monday night. I should have been anxious; it’s in my DNA, but I wasn’t. I’d be back in less than twelve hours and I hadn’t realized how much I needed this until the train pulled out from the station.
This saved my sanity. Literally.
There was a lot of walking, a lot of stairs, J took pity on me and paid for a cab to the subway we needed – Penn Station was a ‘can’t get there from here’ place. I had no idea where they were staying; I just followed.
When you meet up with people, there are hello hugs. They’re quick. When the quick hug normally would have been over, A held on and I literally felt him absorb all of the stress, all the anxiety, the memories, the everything bad that was weighing me down. I heard the whoosh and then it was gone like a wall had been put up to keep it out.
I had anticipated more stress than the visit was worth – the energy of the city does that to me, being in a strange place, not even able to pick out the apartment on a map (I probably couldn’t find it today), not even sure if there wouldn’t be a phone call saying get on this train and meet us here instead, but sometimes, actually more often than not, my friend knows me better than I know myself and surprises and spontaneity are provided incrementally so as not to shock my system and that toe in the water testing is what gives me the strength to say yes, to know my feelings and what I need and to always move forward, even through the difficult. The lack of that is what paralyzes me, why when my depression hit me in the face after the birth of my second son, it was largely ignored, but when this trigger happened last week, I was able to recognize it and grab it, maybe not to cure it but to control it for a couple of hours and then a couple more.
The difference between arriving in New York and leaving the next morning could not have been more unalike. The 11 pm bustle feels like New York to an outsider, but the morning brings the wonder and amazement at how everyone and everything flows – they just know how to go and where to go and when to go, and nothing shall get in the way of their rhythm. Out of rhythm, I stumble crossing the street, not in step with the rest, slower than a city’s pace. While my friends kept my pace the night before, the city that never sleeps keeps walking by and around me in the morning, never making eye contact.
Breakfast of fried plantains (from A) and a tamale (from a street vendor) only made this excursion that much better.
The car ride is stereotypical, brakes and horns applied liberally and equally. Cutting off and being cut off at regular intervals. The only thing that couldn’t have been predicted was a building crew dropping (intentionally) a dumpster in the road – a single lane road – blocking traffic. Two blocks from Penn Station. During Rush Hour. It was the only picture I got of my New York adventure. I had thought talking until 2am, up again at 6am was all good time to get me back when I was supposed to be, but then an unanticipated shower, a missing claim ticket for the car, NYC traffic, aforementioned dumpster (but that came with traditional construction crew swearing and I thought I was an extra in a movie for a second) and on time was not to be.
An illegal drop off in the taxi lane, pseudo hugs and squeezes all around, see yous in October and a love you called out as I stepped into the cool rush of a Manhattan weekday morning. I had barely exited when the car seemed to vanish into the traffic, almost a dream, but taking my trigger reactions with it.