Triggers, Trauma, and Implicit Memory

(Audio version available here!)

Last month I got a job as a ghostwriter.

Ghostwriting is a lot like being a doula. Only for books not babies. It's a long term, semi-intimate relationship based on delivering something new. I'm there to make the process as smooth and easy as possible.

The author I'm working with is a behavioral and family therapist with a specialty in children's play therapy. She has over 30 years of experience in her field and came to the point in her career when it was time to put the pen to paper (or fingers to keys, as it were) to share what she's learned. But she wanted help. So she hired me.

One of her stories is intense. It involves a repressed memory of an early childhood kidnapping flooding back into consciousness and overwhelming the woman 20 years later. Like I said, intense.

Three psychological concepts are central to her story: traumas, triggers, and implicit memory. As a writer, not a therapist, I didn't have a great grasp of what these ideas were and how they were related. Here's what I've learned…

  • Traumas are anything in our lives which impact us greatly and are beyond our control. Note how broad a definition this is: Uncontrollable events, which happen, regardless of our wishes and wants, and have a large impact. Yeah, that's another name for “life.”
  • Triggers happen in the present. They are circumstances which relate to traumas from our past and activate (or trigger) our implicit memories.
  • Implicit memory is what it's called when our bodies store emotions from events in non-brain places like our hips, shoulders, digestive tracts, skin, etc. It's an unconscious process and usually the result of experiencing trauma. Our implicit memories can surface in a number of different ways when triggered.

Basically, it goes like this. Things happen to us which we don't like and can't control (traumas). Our bodies, unbeknownst to us, store our emotional reactions to these events (implicit memory). Then, when we encounter similar events in our current life (triggers), our implicit memories activate.

Sometimes the symptoms of this activation are physical. Joint pain, abdominal distress, skin rashes, and full-on sensory flashbacks are all possible. Sometimes the symptoms are emotional. Outsized or extra reactions to seemingly innocuous events is another example.

In order to shine a little more light on how these three idea are related and the havoc they cause, I'm going to use my own life as an example.

My Trauma IMG-0745

During and after college I was in a serious relationship with a woman named Gwen. Things with Gwen were great. Until they weren't.

When I was 26 my relationship with Gwen fell apart.

She loved to travel and decided to go study yoga in India for three months. Two-thirds of the way through her trip, we were going to meet in Nepal and hike in the Annapurnas.

About a month before I was supposed to fly around the world and meet her in Katmandu, things got weird. Communication faltered. Our normally consistent email chain became infrequent and sparse. Instead of her usual ashram rhapsodies, she started writing a lot about her new friend, Scott.

I was in agony. My insides were in knots. I barely slept. I hardly ate. I was working sixty hours a week, saving what money I could, and probably drinking more than I should. All the while I had a not-so-good feeling about what was happening in India.

And, I was right to. Upon landing in Nepal, after what amounted to about 40 hours of travel, I learned the truth. Gwen explained to me how she had sleeping with Scott. How we were done.

I was shattered. And stubborn. And stupid.

Instead of believing what Gwen told me, I thought I could save our relationship. I thought I could win her back and force us to be what I wanted. I went far as to get down on one knee and propose.

With tears in her eyes, on New Year's Eve 2007, she shook her head and said, “No. It's too late.”

Implicit Memory

I didn't take it well. But instead of mourning the dissolution of my seven-year relationship, I forged ahead with a brave face. I told everyone who asked I was doing fine.

But I wasn't. I was tamping down my emotions. I refused to admit the bitterness, anger, or even sadness I felt. And the more I denied my feelings, the worse I got physically.

There were days without eating. There nights without sleeping. Eventually there were shooting pains assaulting my abdomen regularly. Then, one day, all my symptoms disappeared.

At the time I thought it was because I had worked through all I needed to. But I was wrong.

After weeks of trying to pretend they didn't exist and bury the mess of my emotions, they finally got the hint. Since I wasn't making room for them consciously, they decided to go underground. My emotions sought refuge in the only place available to them, my unconscious.

All the feelings I refused to feel became implicit memory.

Gwen 2.0 Swift_Fox

Fast forward 10 years.

I'd spent the last decade looking for love. I dated a couple girls, none very seriously. I slept with a couple more, none for too long. Anytime things started to feel too real, I'd bolt.

Anytime anyone asked if I was over Gwen I'd answer, “Of course! It's been X-number of years. That's ancient history…”

Then, one day while tending bar on a slow afternoon, in walks a fox. Blonde hair, blue eyes, legs for days, quick wits, and a headful of smarts. I had no chance.

We chat. We laugh. We flirt. At some point I offer my hand and say, “You're fun to talk to. What's your name?”

She shakes my hand and smiles. “Gwen,” she says.

Gwen 2.0 and I date for the next 18 months. Things are pretty great. We have a lot of fun. There's a lot of love and an easy vibe between us.

But she's a teacher and couldn't find a permanent position with any of the schools in the small town where we lived. So she started looking elsewhere. She eventually found a gig in a different state.

“Ok, Max,” I said to myself. “Last time you dated a Gwen and she wanted to leave you did everything in your power to make her stay and it didn't work. This time, do the opposite. Try everything you can facilitate this move and see what happens…”

And I did. I tried to work with what was happening in my life instead of against it.

So, we got into a car and moved Gwen to her new home. I can honestly say I figured this would be the end of my Gwen 2.0 saga. But it wasn't.

We stayed in touch. She came to see me on all her breaks. She got a summer job where I live. Things were working. Mostly.

Triggers

See, Gwen 2.0 is great. I love her. I do. But she has what I call a hypothermic stress response. When she gets stressed, she pulls all her energy from the non-essential and re-routes it to the crucial.

Usually this means the communication between us degrades as she pours everything she's got into being a fantastic teacher. I know this about her. She's told me as much. But every time it happens I freak out.

“Holy shit!” I think. “She's got another dude down there. I know it.”

That's the story I'd tell myself, automatically. As soon as there was any lapse in communication, a single unanswered text (trigger), my mind would spin tales of infidelity (trauma).

My body would react too. My appetite would vanish. Sleep couldn't be found. The entirety of my digestive track would feel like there were needles passing through it (implicit memory).

Things came to a head in February. Scared and confused by what has happening, I went to the doctor. They ran tests. A couple days later they called to say there was nothing physically wrong.

After a long heart-to-heart with Gwen 2.0 I began to feel better. My appetite returned. I started sleeping again. My innards stopped hating me.

A few short weeks later it was Spring Break. Gwen 2.0 and I spent a lovely couple days together. But, as our time together drew to a close, I witnessed myself behaving strangely.

I was short and on edge. Innocent questions like, “Hey, do you want me to make more coffee?” were met with petulant responses of, “Why? Did you drink it all already?” That's not normal for me.

The morning she left was worse. It was like sadness and anger were playing catch and I was the ball they were bouncing back and forth. One minute I was in tears because I felt like I'd never see her again. And the next I'd set my jaw, glare, and seethe.

It wasn't until landing the ghostwriting gig a couple months later that I began puzzling out what was going on with me.

Putting The Pieces Together Puzzle

The circumstances of my relationship with Gwen 2.0 were a triggering traumas from my relationship with Gwen 1.0.

The visceral reactions I felt in my body – the digestive distress, the sleep disruptions, the outsized and unregulated emotions – were fossils. They were leftover relics from an earlier time in my life when similar events transpired. They were implicit memory.

Every lapse in communication (trigger) between Gwen 2.0 and I was met with suspicion, worry, and fear (implicit memory) courtesy of what had happened with Gwen 1.0 (trauma).

And that is profoundly unfair.

Gwen 2.0 is not same person as Gwen 1.0.

36-year-old Max is not the same person as 26-year-old Max.

Yet, my reactions to what was happening now were based entirely on what did happen then.

Wrapping Up

I wanted to share my story because I thought it might help. Lord knows, had it not been for getting the job I did, I'd never have put any of this together. Fortunately, I did.

The take away here has to do with reactions. Sometimes the way people respond to the situations they face has a lot more to do with their past than it does with what's actually happening in their present. And, as I said before, while common and understandable, it's also profoundly unfair.

Now is different than then. You are a different person. The situation you're facing is different. Even if it involves the same person, that person isn't the same as they were before. They can't be. Because Bowie was right.

Time changes us all. Our job is to appreciate the uniqueness of what is happening here and now, especially when it reminds us of a previous then. Allowing triggers, traumas, and implicit memory to run roughshod over our lives keeps us from doing that important job.

A couple hours ago I texted Gwen 2.0. The schools year is starting and she's stressed. I doubt she's texted me back. But it's cool. I know she's busy. So, I'm going to check my phone, make a sandwich, take a nap, and not worry about some dude named Scott.

*****

Max is a ghostwriter, evidently. See his work here. He also makes people think and laugh on a weekly podcast called Ignorant and Uninformed.

*****

Photo Credits – Fox – By en:User:Cburnett – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1236077

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