Mental Health Recovery Spirituality Uncategorized

Dealing With Triggers (An Odyssey)

Alcohol became a problem when I used it to escape the emotional experience of triggered PTSD. When the experiences began to be more than I could stand, the liquor would numb it all down. I got hooked on that feeling of freedom. It was just an illusion. Not only was that feeling just a hallucination, it also kept me busy in la la land, and made it so that I couldn’t really make any substantial progress as a human, while that cycle kept happening.

It took my the pain of divorce to shock me out of that cycle, and get me motivated to change. Even after that, when she tried to return, my struggles with relapse went on long enough to kill any remainder of what we’d had completely for her, and even after that, and after nearly five years of good, solid sobriety, the devil came knocking, and I answered again, and fooled around with these demons for even longer.

I have struggled on and off with these things for most of my life, and so I don’t pretend to be some kind of expert when it comes to the topic of dealing with triggers. I have not been as solid and consistent in my recovery journey as I had hoped I would be, when I was young and envisioning the future. I am still learning.

But, here is what I have learned about dealing with triggers:

I have learned that triggers work on us because they point us back to a disturbing core belief that we have about ourselves — something ugly, something we are ashamed of — and we have to accept that these types of beliefs are distorted and incorrect, in order to make it so that those triggers can’t get us going. We may honestly believe, deep down, that we are repulsive or defective in some way, but that is not how God sees us, and so it is not the actual truth.

I have learned that these beliefs get formed in us by repeated experiences where we were given information to process. Maybe, as a young child, you were constantly told that you were bad, or that you were disgusting, or that you were stupid. Maybe you were told that you weren’t as good as the other kids, and that you needed to “learn your place.” These kinds of messages can be conveyed to very young children, even just through facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. Once the mind has processed this information enough times, that message becomes part of the way we look at the world. It becomes part of what we think about, every time we think about anything.

I have learned that the only way (for me, at least) to deactivate these false core beliefs about myself is to challenge them, when they arise — especially when they are all of a sudden in the spotlight, because of a trigger. Over a long period of time, as I challenge these beliefs and work to replace them with positive truth, these strongholds of thought can be defeated.

The preceding has all been general, basic stuff that I think can apply to pretty much everybody, but now I’m going to explain a little bit about my own unique battles in this area.

My own greatest challenge in this context has been that, within the framework of my own spiritual discipline of choice (Christianity), there exists one primary source of objectively recorded truth, and that is the canon of scripture which we today call the Bible. But the Bible (used abusively) was the primary source of most of my false core beliefs. I was beaten senseless with the most terrifying portions of Christian scripture until I finally crawled away, lurching and heaving into the remainder of what life I seemed to have left, and when I found that I couldn’t get away from what it felt like to be fully and finally damned-though-alive, I tried to just drown it all out with alcohol. And this delusion kept me there in that place for a very long time.

But the words in the Bible were never meant to be used on people in the way they had been used on me.

The story arc of the Bible, if we follow it through the primal Old Testament meanderings of late Bronze Age life, and through its records of prophetic and apocalyptic literature, right up to the events recorded in the gospels and New Testament correspondence, is a tale of redemption which ends in a form of truth that will, if correctly communicated, “make you free indeed.”

Ironically, the harsh and condemning parts of the Bible are intended to be reserved for those who inflict pain and suffering on others, without remorse — often in the name of religious zeal. The fact that the great crescendo and pinnacle of the whole narrative is the very Son of God being tortured and executed at the behest of Elohim’s most passionate devotees…this pretty much says it all.

One of my friends is a man several years my senior, who works as a counselor at a drug and alcohol treatment center where I spent many years working myself, in the IT department. He is one of those particularly healthy Christians who lights up the room, and makes everyone feel loved and appreciated, and whom you would never in a million years catch using scripture to make someone feel panicked and helpless, and I have been privileged to spend many hours in his company, dissecting the ugliest parts of this psychological complex that I’ve been attempting to process through, in maintaining this blog.

Whenever I was having a particularly rough day in my head, Tom would always seem to magically pop around a corner and say, “Hey, how are things? Do you have a minute to talk?”

Every time I would tell Tom about the negative and frustrating feelings I’d been having, he would help me to see how those negative feelings were connected to something disturbing (and untrue) that I had been believing about myself. So, for example:

  • Maybe I was feeling like I had failed some test of life, and that God was just going to throw me away now. Tom would remind me that Jesus promises never to reject anyone who comes to Him, and never to leave us, even when we fail at things.
  • Perhaps I had just heard or read some particularly abusive snippet of ministry somewhere, and it had gotten in my head, and was festering there. Tom would remind me that God is love, and God is about faith, and that anything rooted in fear, control, or insecurity had to do with the opposite of God.
  • Sometimes I would be caught up worrying about the damage I had done to others in my addiction, and how that would negatively affect everything, and make life harder. Tom would remind me that God sees the big picture, and that all things work together towards the best possible outcome, when we are actively walking in the love that He puts in our hearts to give to the world.

Tom is just one resource, but he has been a reliable and consistent one in my life. Over the course of time, by drawing on resources like this, I have found that my battle with those old, triggering thoughts has grown…well, I don’t want to say that the battle has grown easier, but it definitely is true that I have grown more skilled at successfully wrestling with those thoughts, and coming out on top. Progress has been slow and tough, but gradually I have found that, by confronting the negative thoughts as they arise, and reaffirming my mind with positive truth, I have been able to build a new frame of reference (the set of ideas that I take with me everywhere, and through which all new information is filtered).

Again, I have not arrived at perfection, but this is one particular thing that I do believe I have actually successfully learned.