Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Triggers and New Experiences

I couldn’t get the images out of my head, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the fire and the text messages I'd received Monday evening from friends. 

“You might have heard already but castle playground is burning to the ground right now,” said one. “Twin Lakes playground is on fire!” said another, with a crying emoji and a dramatic picture of the conflagration.

Almost immediately, I felt something involuntary happen in my body.

Like “journey” and “movement,” the word “trigger” gets a bit abused these days. It’s become sort of a new-age catchall for upsetting experiences, and it’s kind of overused in the sense that if everything is a “trigger,” nothing is, and the entire concept loses meaning and exposes itself to exasperated eye-rolling.

At the same time, it’s clear that “triggers” are real, trauma and PTSD are too, and certain sights and sounds can quite literally “trigger” a physiological response of some kind.

Frequent visitors to this blog have probably read about my experience on 9/11 in New York City, which I won’t repeat here. My point right now is that I never felt consciously “traumatized” or impacted by 9/11 beyond the two hours in which that sequence of events actually took place and perhaps a year afterwards.

At first I would startle at sudden noises, but that faded with time. Although my asthma worsened over the years, and I enrolled in a 9/11 health study, there is no way to prove whether a year of working in close proximity to the smoldering ruins of the WTC aggravated my asthma or not. Basically, I’ve gone about my business in the 16 years since 9/11, and I don’t think about it much except for its anniversary, which I dread each year.

But something about the playground fire put me back into that space.

Maybe it was the familiar, dramatic orange flames, or the fact that the fire was intentionally set. Maybe it was the unexpected and sudden destruction of a treasured, heavily-used, and highly visible community asset, in which so many memories were stored. Perhaps it was the response of the firefighters, or the initial uncertainty about the degree and nature of loss.

Whatever it was, it immediately made me feel a grief that was logically disproportionate to the event.

After all, nobody was hurt, much less killed. It was "just stuff,” which is what my mom used to say every time our car would get stolen (which was often). Plans are already underway to rebuild the playground. We now know the fire was intentionally started by two thirteen year-old boys, and because of the nature of the juvenile justice system, that’s all we are ever likely to know, at least officially.

Yet somehow this didn’t make me feel better.

Amid relief that we did not have an adult serial arsonist to blame for this fire, I instead began to feel mournful for these boys and their families. This quickly spiraled into images of Paige in the baby swing at this park at nine months and Isaac swinging off the monkey bars just last week. I wondered how I would feel if Isaac had set this fire, what I would do, and then sank into a more generalized anxiety about our community, which has been besieged lately by property crimes and thefts tied to the opioid epidemic.

I couldn’t think about anything else.

I started to feel despair and I called a friend to have lunch. I cried into my bowl of stir fry about the playground fire, and about how absurd it was that I was this rattled by an event in which no one was physically harmed. She validated my feelings as a friend, and offered her professional services, which is something called somatic experience therapy that I had never tried before.

I’m pretty skeptical of alternative therapies and medicines, probably too skeptical. Like I hear the words “cranial sacral” and I secretly stop listening. At the same time, I also recognize that there’s a fine line between healthy skepticism and self-defeating close-mindedness, so I decided to take my friend up on her offer and keep my mind open to new experiences.

I laid down on the massage table in her office and she put her hand underneath my lower back, over my kidney, first on one side and then the other. We made small talk and I felt a self-imposed pressure to report some sort of dramatic response. But when she asked me to concentrate on what I was feeling, I definitely felt a weird tingling sensation in my hands and became aware that I was hyperventilating, which I suddenly remembered I did a lot as a kid but have not experienced in years.

Heaven and earth didn’t move, but I left feeling a little better than when I’d arrived. I began thinking less about loss, and more about how good it would feel to help a new playground rise from the ashes of the old one.

Photo: KTOO

1 comment:

  1. “cranial sacral”. The word 'segue' has the same effect on me.


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