A trigger can often be something innocuous that makes a trauma survivor remember a trauma or even feel like the trauma is happening again (or still happening), which is often called a flashback. An example of a seemingly innocuous trigger could be the sound of a door that makes the survivor think of a perpetrator entering the premises; it could be a smell that transports the survivor back to that same smell during a trauma.
What happens when the trigger is itself an actual situation with its own complications in addition to its significance or similarities to a prior trauma? Here is what happened to us yesterday:
We arrived at the building where we have therapy twice per week. We were about 10 minutes early (light traffic day) and so took a seat in the first-floor lobby. It is a spacious–many hundreds of square feet–well-lit area with seating for approximately 20 people in several clusters. We took a seat and waited quietly. A few minutes before the session was set to begin, we rode the elevator to the appropriate floor (it is a 7-floor building).
After the therapy session, we returned to the first-floor lobby and chose the same seat. We always sit for at least 10 minutes after a therapy session, and sometimes 20 or 30 minutes, in order to ground before driving (or walking, as we live only a mile away) and to process (sometimes via a journal and sometimes simply in our head).
About three minutes after we sat down, a man approached us. We recognized him from our years of visiting this property. He is employed by the property manager. He is probably an inch or two below six-feet tall, has a shaved head, wears all black, and is very muscular to the point that we presume he is a serious weight-lifter.
He stood a few feet from us and said, “You’ve been here all morning.”
We said, “No we haven’t. We just sat down three minutes ago.”
He said, “You weren’t here this morning? I’m the security guard. I’m allowed to ask.”
We said, “We got here a little before 9AM, sat here, went to an appointment, and then returned to this seat as we’ve been doing twice per week for the last four and a half years–”
He interrupted our last words and said, “So you had an appointment?”
“Yes,” we said.
He turned on his heels and strode away from us.
We were so shaken at the encounter that we immediately texted what happened to our therapist. Therapist replied that we did nothing wrong, he should not have been so aggressive, and that therapist will fix it. Therapist then called us on our phone and told us the same things. Therapist immediately contacted the property manager and explained the situation. Therapist was told there has been loitering in the lobby and that two high-profile tenants of the first floor (one a civic leader and one a vendor of expensive items) have felt unsafe.
The security employee was apparently looking for a threatening loiterer and treated us like a threatening loiterer.
This was 27 hours ago, and we are still shaking in a combination of fear, fury, and sadness. Having delusions about it. We spent all session today with another of our therapists on this topic. And it will be the topic of tomorrow’s session at the now-scary building, too.
We have been going over endless scenarios about what could happen to us tomorrow in that building. It is not just the security guard who is looking for dangerous people, but it is also the shopkeeper and the municipal leader and probably their co-workers, too.
If the security guard had approached us and said, “Good morning. How are you? I work for the building management company. Do you have business in the building this morning that I can help you find?” then we would likely have had a milder reaction. We would still wonder why he asked us this after four and a half years of our anonymity in this building. Still, if he had been pleasant, then the interaction might have been a conversation and not a confrontation.
In a perfect world, we would have controlled our reaction and shifted to gentle inquisitiveness. Instead, our heart started beating very fast and we felt threatened by his posture and false accusation (“You’ve been here all morning.”). We will try not to feel shame at our understandable reaction. It is hard to keep your wits about you when you have PTSD and a very, very large person claiming to have power is falsely accusing you of aberrant behavior.
In trying to make two first-floor tenants feel safe, he treated a guiltless person poorly and harmed a different tenant (our therapist). We did a great job of standing up for ourself under the circumstances. We were stern and not violent. We were direct and not loud. We felt indignant and remained articulate.
We realized after the event that we always prepare to be confronted: every time we are sitting along in public, we expect to be confronted. Most of our traumas include violence, including being targeted with hate speech and accompanying violence as a youth. We always felt like we stood out for the wrong reasons. Now that we present in a way that may be perceived as gender nonconforming or genderqueer (we don’t spend time on the nomenclature; we just spend our time trying to figure us out!), we feel targeted anew.
In reality, we are probably not being targeted for those details. People don’t even acknowledge our choices, except Spouse (who is trying to protect us) and therapists (who encourage us to find us and be us). Still, an interaction like the one with the security guard makes us wonder if our appearance makes us an easy target. And if so, would it be better to look different than our preference in order to keep a low profile? If we had been dressed more formally and in line with gender expectations, would the security guard still have accused us of being there all morning, when that was factually inaccurate? Maybe.
We have asked the therapist at the scary building to escort us from the front door to the appointment. Therapist plans to do that. Therapist also said the security guard has been informed we are not the loiterer, are not a threat, and will be seated in the first-floor lobby as usual before and after our appointment. That second point is a relief because it makes another confrontation less likely. If there is another confrontation, therapist said the main thing is to remember our biological age. People think we are in our 40s (because the body is). We can try to act like we are in our 40s, which means we can stand up for ourself with intellect, resourcefulness, and dignity! We matter!