“Trigger: A word used often by idiots on Tumblr to justify their bitchy attitudes, most of whom don’t know what a real traumatic experience is.”
– Urban Dictionary
This happens a lot when I perform a google search on anything pertaining to my Disorder. Many of my symptoms, as well as Borderline Personality Disorder itself, tend to be steeped in stigma, rely heavily on stereotypes and are, more often than not, pretty damn offensive.
Which is nice. Because us Borderlines have such thick skin and don’t give a flying fuck what other people think of us and how our disorder manifests. Sarcasm much? Let me give you a heads up with a few words from the most awesome (and Borderline, I might add) Dr Marsha Linehan…
“Borderline individuals are the psychological equivalent of third-degree-burn patients. They simply have, so to speak, no emotional skin. Even the slightest touch or movement can create immense suffering.”
And she’s not wrong. Triggers are something those of us with BPD (and all manner of other mental health conditions) have to deal with on a daily basis; from being in too crowded an area to seeing images of people cutting to having someone speak in a tone of voice that takes us right back to that time we were thrown across the room by a loved one for simply asking what was wrong. My boyfriend triggers me nearly every time he gets in an arse and throws something in frustration. Because there was a time those objects would have been aimed at me. Of course, I know that he would never do such a thing but that doesn’t mean the voices inside my head won’t tell me repeatedly for the next five hours that I’d thought the same of my last boyfriend.
It may seem silly to anyone that doesn’t experience feelings of extreme panic and fear at the mere mention of a certain something or the look on someone’s face but to someone as familiar with those feelings as I, being aware of triggers and, at the very least, having others respect them can avert a week long meltdown or perhaps worse.
‘Trigger warning’ is something we’ve all come to see quite regularly in internet land and it seems to be the general consensus, that this is nothing more than ‘molly coddling’ and ‘avoidance tactics’ and that, really, we all need to stop being babies and get over it.
“Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.” – Richard J. McNally, Professor of Psychology
Because everyone knows that the best way to deal with mental health issues is to suck it up and get on with it ‘just like everybody else has to’.
Now, whilst Professor McNally does indeed have a point, having a whole load of mentally disordered individuals being triggered all over the place is a little less Russian roulette and a whole lot more machine gun alley. Whilst exposure therapy is indeed a very productive form of therapy, browsing the internet in an attempt to cure insomnia or perhaps distract ourselves from the seemingly never-ending pit of despair we are currently residing in isn’t really what one might refer to as a therapeutic setting. Nor is being sat at home with a loved one screaming at you because you flew off the handle about something seemingly minor but which actually felt like an emotional landmine just laid waste to your brain. Being aware of your own triggers and recognising when you’re not in a fit state to take any kind of exposure therapy can actually save you (and your loved ones) a whole world of pain.
Know when to stop and respect your limits
Imagine that you’ve just given up smoking. Or drinking. Or a drug habit. You’re feeling pretty confident in yourself, you’ve been clean a while, you’re thinking about maybe going and hanging out with some mates to celebrate. Sounds like a plan, right? They suggest the pub. You’ll be fine, you can handle it, you need to get used to being around this shit, you can’t hide forever. But then you get there and everyone’s stood by the door with a fag. You walk inside and all you can smell is stale beer and jager bombs. There’s a dude in the corner gurning his tits off but clearly the happiest he’s been in a long time. And all of a sudden, you don’t feel quite so confident in yourself. All of a sudden you’re reminded that the things that used to keep you afloat are no longer a part of your life. All of a sudden, you’re drowning and you just need to get the fuck out.
For me, images of self-harm do the exact same thing. I see pictures of wounds on peoples’ arms and legs, even someone drawing a blade across their skin on a tv show, and all of a sudden that little voice in my head is there whispering to me. “You remember how good that used to feel?” “You remember how the blades would soothe you like nothing else ever could?” Suddenly, all I can smell is blood and steel and all I can think of is digging out my blades and carving trenches in my arm. I’m not saying that I will but the struggle to resist can become overwhelming and has the potential to drive me spiralling into yet another pit of depression. At the bottom of which, I WILL find myself giving in to those urges and all those days, weeks, months, even years of recovery will go right down the pan.
Talk of suicide is another inevitable trigger. And I’m pretty certain I’m not alone on either of these. Rape, violence, child abuse, domestic abuse, these are all very obvious triggers that many people would find upsetting, let alone those of us with personal experience of such things. And for those of us that ARE triggered by them, it’s a whole lot worse than just “Oh, I really miss that unhealthy coping mechanism I relied on so heavily.” We’re talking flashbacks to horrific trauma that may have happened only yesterday or may have occurred in childhood. High-quality video playback of every nasty thing anyone ever put you through accompanied by every ounce of fear and panic that gripped you at the time.
Suddenly trigger warnings don’t seem quite so silly, do they?
But what of the triggers that aren’t quite so obvious? What of the seemingly harmless everyday occurrences that drive us Borderline folk into emotional overdrive? I would imagine that for someone living with a loved one with BPD this can not only be quite horrifying but also immensely frustrating. The term “walking on eggshells” has been thrown around far too many times when referring to people with BPD, to the extent that those fateful words have actually become a trigger of mine. And I’m not even joking. The minute they leave someone’s mouth, my blood will start to boil and the rage that lurks within will threaten to rear its rather ugly head if I don’t leave the vicinity immediately. It sounds unbelievably unreasonable, believe me I know, but when you take a look at the bigger picture it maybe makes a little more sense.
Borderline Personality Disorder can be caused by a whole plethora of both environmental and biological factors. Many of us suffered trauma in childhood and most of us grew up in a household that (not necessarily intentionally) involved us being neglected, dismissed and invalidated, particularly from an emotional standpoint. Lots of kids will go through the exact same treatment and come out relatively unscathed, others not so much. And, as we reach adulthood and our Borderline tendencies really start to shine through, this treatment will undoubtedly continue. Because people don’t ever really quite know what to do with us besides tell us that we’re over-reacting or making a fuss over nothing, that we need to stop being so sensitive, that our loved ones feel as if they’re constantly having to walk on eggshells around us.
Having people dismiss my feelings, misunderstand my intentions when I’m trying desperately to express myself, call me an attention seeker or suggest that I’m being silly will send me right back to every conceivable moment in which I was made to feel like a useless, childish, idiotic waste of space for suggesting that I maybe needed some help and support. Which will quite probably lead to me hating myself, hating the person that made me feel that way and hating having to exist for one minute longer in this horrible world that I clearly have no place in. It will make me suicidal.
Ridiculous, isn’t it? Imagine living it.
Life is hard when you are surrounded by people, media and situations that could trigger you at any moment. Many of my triggers I am acutely aware of and I can usually rationalize my way out of blowing my stack before my shit starts hitting everyone else’s fan. Others will catch me completely unawares and I’ll suddenly find myself curled up in a ball for three days straight sobbing my heart out and wishing I was dead.
I know not to watch certain movies when I’m feeling delicate, I know to avoid social media and I know to take myself out of situations if they look like they’re going to lead to me having a complete Borderline meltdown, but it’s not always that straightforward.
Certain songs have had me running from bars and nightclubs in a fit of despair. Gotham, Supernatural and Grey’s Anatomy have all set me off. Filth was fun. As was Welcome to Me. Not to mention the horrific idea my boyfriend and I had of going to see 50 Shades of fucking Grey, just to see what the fuss was about. All these films fucked me up and each of them for very different reasons. Every single one of them had me wrapped in a blanket of drama for a completely unnecessary length of time and, to be honest, I’m pretty gutted about Filth because it was an amazing movie, just way too close to home.
My boyfriend looking at me a certain way, using the wrong tone of voice, exhibiting certain behaviours or just being in a bad mood. Each of these has, on occasion, led to me dissociating, raging, self-harming, sinking into a deep depression or drowning in thoughts of suicide. None of this is his fault and I feel dreadful for associating any of his actions with traumatic events from my past but if I had a healthy amount of control over my emotions and my reactions to certain situations, I wouldn’t have Borderline Personality Disorder, would I?
Knowing my limit.
One of the most important things I have learnt in managing my Disorder is that it is imperative that I know my limits, and that my boyfriend knows them too. I am more than happy to push the boundaries of my comfort zone but knowing when to quit can be the difference between life and a trip to A&E when you’re dealing with BPD.
Obviously I can’t ask him, or anyone else for that matter, to tread lightly in every aspect of their life so they don’t set me off, nor would I want them to. Not only would that be unhelpful, it would be almost impossible to carry through and more than a little detrimental to our relationship. However, him recognising the signs and symptoms of me having been triggered means that he is at least able to calm or soothe me without aggravating the situation. Him caring enough to do so also allows me to feel comfortable in being open with him about the root cause of each individual trigger so that we can explore ways together in which I may deal with things better in future.
Many times in my life, my being triggered has led to disastrous consequences. I have been yelled at, belittled, ridiculed or made to feel horrendously guilty for behaviour which, at the time, has been completely beyond my control. Being faced with such negative consequences, my maladaptive behaviour has simply been reinforced, escalating the situation and destroying any chance of the blow being lesser the next time round. These days I find myself in a position where I can talk about things freely in an open and honest way without fear of judgement or invalidation and this has become a form of exposure therapy in itself. The more I talk, the more I learn and, the more I learn, the more I come to understand myself, my thought processes and my reasons for being the way that I am. And the more I understand myself, the more comfortable I become within myself.
I was not born the person I am today, I was made this way. By cruelty, pain, neglect and disdain. People don’t ask to be mentally disordered. They don’t ask for trauma. They don’t ask for a skin so broken that it drives them to scream in pain at the slightest touch. Yet others are often more than willing to contribute towards making us that way and loathe to make allowances when our fight or flight mechanism starts firing distress flares left, right and centre.
We’re not asking that you wrap us in cotton wool, we’re not asking that you pussy foot around us lest we crumble in your wake. We’re simply asking that you respect our occasional need to wear kevlar when attending a potential shootout. And that you at least be ready with the gauze if we get caught in the line of fire.