CW: Contains graphic descriptions of abuse. This is also a long – but ultimately positive! – read, so settle in.
Those of you with PTSD know exactly what “triggers” are. Those of you without it? Depending on your experiences, you know them as “something your friend has and you’re never really sure about them” or “That thing that “snowflakes” yell when they demand “safe spaces”.”
A “trigger” – to someone with PTSD – is something that can literally snap you back to a traumatic event or series of events, just as surely as a trigger on a gun will send a projectile tumbling through your body, wreaking havoc.
When triggered, someone with PTSD can experience symptoms ranging from an unpleasant memory all the way through to a full-body flashback, where they literally feel themselves to be back in the trauma, reliving it through every sense they possess.
Triggering can be emotionally devastating; and when you’re trying to muddle through on your own without getting the help you need, can cascade into series of illnesses, into months of repeated nightmares and fear and a constant state of overwhelming adrenaline. (Raises hand sheepishly; I did that way too many years before I sought professional help 14 years ago.)
For me, guitar playing has always been one of those triggers. Not the sound of a loud guitar playing in a band, not the sound of an electric guitar or a steel guitar, but the sounds of an acoustic guitar being strummed into random riffs, the sound of a ring sliding against the strings as different chords are reached for, the experimental picking as new sounds are searched out and attained.
You see, my father – and later, my older brother – are both accomplished guitarists, guitarists who play by ear and who were often seen with a guitar in hand, picking up different songs, playing snippets of them.
If my childhood could be said to have a soundtrack, that would be it.
While there are sections of my childhood that are thankfully blank, moments when white static fills my brain when memories edge near them, I still remember far too much.
And the sound of the guitar, being strummed in the living room, was something I strained to hear, over and over and over as a little 7 year old girl, as I’d float away from my body.
My parents often hosted special “fellowship evenings” for the church elite, the ones they considered holiest and closest to their god. The children, of course, were shuffled off into other rooms; the tiniest put to bed early, the others confined to my bedroom.
By the time I was seven, I tried telling my mother exactly what happened in that room. Her smirk as she looked down at me and said “I won’t spank you this time, just pray and ask Jesus to help you not be a bad little girl like that again” is something that I will never forget.
I dreaded “fellowship evenings” – I knew that once the adults settled in and got ready to go through their routines, the awful “naked game” would begin in my bedroom.
My brother and our friend – only slightly older than me, themselves victims of abuse – would make me strip. My brother would hide in the closet, peeking out, and instruct our friend on which implements to use on me, literally etching the trauma into my core.
I would let myself drift away, far above my body, to the sounds of strumming acoustic guitar – only coming back when it was over, when they were bored with my non-response, when I could convince them that I didn’t mind and it was all just a game and surely we had better games to play, didn’t we?
Then I would sneak out to the dining room, where I could peek through the heater into the living room, and curl up and listen to the mingled sounds of guitars and glossolalia, of self-righteous adults singing praises to their deity while I wondered why that mattered more than protecting their children.
That was many years ago; years in which I’ve grown and I’ve severed ties with any of those people and I’ve gotten professional help and appropriate medication and created an amazing life for myself with the help of my husband, son, a few close friends, and caring medical professionals.
Times when I’m triggered are fewer and further between these days – both because the people in my life love me and are aware of things that can cause me pain and so they avoid them, and because I’m determined to heal, to pursue health as fiercely as anything I’ve ever done.
It has been a deliberate path, this journey to wholeness; each year I’ve approached a different trauma, working out the effects it had on my psyche, taking the steps I need to take to heal each bit of me that was so awfully used.
Sometimes it’s required modification, a literal surgical carving out of brokenness and scarring.
Sometimes it’s required meditation, constant mental work to keep me inside my body, to no longer dissociate, to be both aware and present.
Sometimes it’s required medication – I’m grateful for the SSRI that dealt with the flight-or-flight adrenal response that I’d lived with all my life until that point.
There are times I don’t know what needs work next, times when something will completely catch me by surprise and I’ll call my therapist and say “So, this happened, and I need to deal with it” and we begin working on it, trying to calm the trigger, finding the path through it to wholeness for that part of me again.
But this last week? This last week, something entirely new happened.
I went away for a company retreat, for a company I began working for this summer, a company I’ve been totally open with about my PTSD diagnosis. (Seriously, employers, don’t underestimate what being truly accommodating for not just illness, but mental illness, will do for your employees. An atmosphere that makes it safe to disclose, that allows mental health days, yields people that will give you 100% effort every day!)
I noticed the guitars; it was Nashville, after all, and several of my colleagues are guitarists. In the evenings, various people would pick up the guitars and strum them, singing snippets of songs and finding chords and passing them back and forth as they learned new things.
It was so gradual that I didn’t even realize it at first; I sat there humming under my breath, listening to the sounds, knitting calmly and being present in the moment.
It took me until the 6th night I was there to realize it – I was relaxing to the sound of acoustic guitar music.
I was relaxing. Acoustic guitars were being strummed, and instead of a panic attack, instead of a flashback to violation, instead of consciously desensitizing myself by gradually listening to recorded guitar and then slowly being around a real guitar and then listening to someone play it, having nightmares, working my way back into being in a room with an acoustic guitar without giving way to the panic, slowly learning to tolerate it but never fully feeling safe…
I was enjoying the music.
Healing had happened without me being aware of it; without me having to identify the wound and seek to bandage it and minimize the scars.
I leaned over and told my new boss, “Hey! This used to be a problem for me, and it’s not now. I’m enjoying the music!” and he smiled and said “That’s great! And please let me know if it starts to bother you!” and I could honestly say “No, please keep playing.”
Why do I share this?
Because honestly, this was mind-blowing for me. I feel like I’ve turned a corner – not that I’ll be miraculously trigger-free, but that I’ve managed to shift to where my entire mind and body are actively healing, even when I’m not forcing them to.
This is the first time since I started seeking health that my brain got the message, and just went to work on healing things I hadn’t yet approached.
This is the day the music returned, and I am grateful.
The Ruach of Adonai Elohim is on me,
because Adonai has anointed me
to proclaim Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound,
2 to proclaim the year of Adonai’s favor
and the day of our God’s vengeance,
to comfort all who mourn
3 to console those who mourn in Zion,
to give them beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise
for the spirit of heaviness,
that they might be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of Adonai,
that He may be glorified. Isaiah 61:1-3