Creaking into life like the knees of a geriatric acrobat; slow but determined, fortified by the muscle memory of aeons of stoic practice. After a few false starts, usually characterised by you caught at the bus stop in your Primark ditzy-print frock when a thermal body suit would be more appropriate, it unfailingly arrives in all its glory to defy the grumbling doubters. Much like humans, nature remembers.
For most, this is a season that epitomises renewal, hope, the emergence from the vitamin D-deprived doldrums of hibernation. Even the most miserly spirit can’t help but feel lifted by the big thaw of winter as longer days unfurl with potential. Alike inviting stories waiting to be read, and the world suddenly seems swollen with light, colour and sound. Spring is an assault on the senses and the soul. It refills what was empty and rekindles what was dormant. In a sense as it returns, we return; rejuvenated, optimistic, dazed and blinking into the sunlight of restored possibility.
I, however, fucking hate Spring. Not so much hate perhaps, as fear, though the two tend to be happy bedfellows. Let me explain…
In 2013 I was sectioned for the first time at the age of 23, and rightly so. I was enthusiastically suicidal. If the brutal, systematic alcohol abuse hadn’t got me indirectly, then the effect it was having on my pre-existing mental health problems would certainly have driven me to the Kingston Bridge before long. That, I grimly hear, has a more direct route to its finality and there was little ambiguity in my mind that any other solution existed. The end point was the same, and it was one I was determined to arrive at regardless of the means by which I travelled. After a spectacular full-blown mental breakdown in a well-known sushi chain (nothing to do with the maddeningly tiny portions, I promise) the Crisis Team thankfully worked their interventional magic. I was medically manhandled up to Stobhill Hospital’s psychiatric ward, possibly kicking, certainly screaming, and woefully ill-equipped to question this drastic and sudden amputation of my legal right to freedom. However, as I have come to learn, often the best decisions made in our lives are by those capable of caring for us when we are incapable of caring for ourselves. At this juncture, the ownership of my sanity was not best placed in my own hands and so, to give myself a fighting chance of its future reinstatement, I gave it away in its entirety.
I woke up alone, disorientated, drugged but, ultimately, alive. So that was something. Not something I was entirely convinced at that point was a cause for celebration, but a fact I was reconciled to. Whatever came next could not be worse than where I’d been mentally, physically and emotionally for the last 2 years. So, whatever beleaguered parts of my brain still possessed the capacity for rational thought diagnosed that this was a positive scenario. This was the start of my relationship with mental health services; a merry dance with more contact points than a bouncy ball in a lift but one that progressively restored my status of sanity from ‘on hiatus’ to ‘functional’. However, without humorous sugar coating, this first experience of sectioning was brutal, disturbing and violent. It was vividly traumatic.
So, why and how does this relate to my loathing of Spring? And how, more importantly, does either relate to the bigger picture of trauma? Well, to clarify, I landed on that ward in May 2013. Hello psyche ward, hello Spring. Every year, without fail, Spring’s return takes me back to gurney restraints, the nausea of diazepam and the disinfected spearmint green walls of Broadford Ward and this has instilled a lasting effect. For me, Spring is one big rosy-cheeked spectre of a traumatic past. Spring is a trigger.
Upon reflection, this insight into my foreboding of Spring has brought me to several realisations on the fascinating truth and nature of triggers, and it has also led me to ways of navigating this dangerous minefield. These I wish to share with you.
Firstly, held in isolation and from an outsider’s perspective triggers can seem absurd, almost comical. How on earth could a daffodil reduce a grown woman to a melting slagheap of tears – they’re the rays of sunshine of the botanical world?! This is because triggers are entirely subjective. They exist specifically to that person because by virtue of our individuality as human beings, experiences can only ever be specific. Pull them out of context and they cease to be. Your life is their context, logically without you they cease to exist at all. If you are real, they are real. It’s dark simplicity at its finest. This realisation gave me a valuable starting point in confronting the rascally devils; never question the total validity of your triggers or the validity of the triggers of others. The sooner you stop doubting your right to feel them (however superficially absurd) the sooner you can stake your right to own them. With ownership comes the space required not only to respond rather than react, but it also provides the opportunity to begin building mechanisms into your life that can help you manage those responses. You become a master of your triggers rather than a victim, and that is progress at its finest.
Secondly, triggers are broadly defined as anything that generates an adverse emotional response i.e., emotional pain or discomfort. This could be fear, embarrassment, anger or a whole gallery of other unpalatable psychological twangs that we all know and hate. For those that have suffered trauma, that emotional pain has more potency and depth of course, so its potential for causing escapist or avoidance tactics such as addiction or self-harm is higher. Trust me on this one; trauma-survivors triggers are not toys to be played with. They’re potentially loaded double barrelled shotguns and should be approached with the appropriate level of diligence this risk entails.
However, the truth of the matter is this; life is painful. It is risky and it is unfair, and it does not care if it discomforts you. Life is persistently and indiscriminately full of situations and circumstances over which we have little to no external control because life does not work to your precept of safety or order. This unpredictability is what makes life so marvellous but also so petrifying; we cannot have one without the other and that’s the price of the ticket for the trip we’re all on. Once we accept that life is going to be painful and we are going to suffer unpleasant emotions along the way, we can begin building better futures for ourselves, because our triggers suddenly, beautifully, lose their fire power.
Once I accepted that Spring would not be a care-free emotional romp in the daisies I could begin to anticipate, accept and process the painful emotions it created. I even started to make friends with them. There’s something incredibly liberating about crying hysterically at seeing the first bumblebee of March or channelling my misplaced rage with a bike ride through the park in full bloom like a woman possessed. It’s cathartic and it’s healthy, and it reminds me that I’m exquisitely alive. Painful emotions are part of the richness of existence, they are no less or no more than pleasant ones. To spend your life attempting to avoid them is cheating yourself of one of the main things that makes us human; the ability to feel at all. As a person that previously consigned herself to the numbness of mind-altering substances, I can say that the noble pursuit of feeling is not a right, it’s a privilege, and it’s one I intend to exercise – even the painful parts.
Finally, one more point stood out to me, one that brought a glimmer of hope. Much like grief, it’s rarely the object of our focus that’s the problem; it’s always the associations. Objects, people, places acquire layers of meaning according to our experience in conjunction with them. We ascribe significance to each in order to categorise and codify them, so they slot more neatly into the mental filing cabinets of our understanding of the world. These associations are also vital because they orientate us to our past and give us a better sense of our identities in the present. To you, daffodils are just daffodils. To me, daffodils affirm that I am ‘Hannah, sectioned under the Mental Health Act, lawfully a danger to myself or others.’ Daffodils link me to who I think I am. In this way triggers are stories, telling the tale of where you have been, what you have survived and what it has made you. But this begs the question, who is in control of that narrative and who is holding the pen?
These are your associations; just as it’s your past to interpret, and it is you alone that has the power to decide what these interpretations are. This is an action made in this present moment and where you are now is not where you were then. You are not tied to a one-dimensional definition of your past, nor are you a fixed point – why should your triggers be? When we begin to harness and reframe these experiences according to a better script – one more reflective of where we are now rather than where we were then – we can transform not only our concept of who we believe we are but also our belief that our trauma is a detriment to a thriving state of existence. I can be ‘Hannah, mental health patient’, or ‘Hannah, mental health advocate, lived experience champion and proponent of change’. I can be empowered, enriched and enlightened by virtue of my trauma, rather than in spite of it. I know which definition I prefer and I know which is conducive to my self-actualisation, rather than my potential self-destruction. By reclaiming my triggers, I can reclaim my identity, much like we can reclaim our lives after trauma. My life. My associations. My story to write.
There is a park in Stobhill, just near Broadford Ward. Once you’re deemed safe as a flight risk, you’re given permitted time out to roam for an hour or so and savour your artificial freedom. I would use this allotted time to meander around that park’s green spaces, picking daffodils to take back and put on my bedside or to give to the spectacular human beings I met in that otherworldly place. I couldn’t look at daffodils for a very long time after I got sober. They still hurt, they probably always will.
However, I now know why I find this painful. This awareness has led me to a deeper understanding of my past, myself and points of tenderness I still need to heal. I allow myself to look at these bruised parts and treat them with compassion, patience and tolerance rather than judgement or shame, and I’m thankful for the marks that they’ve left because they help me act more mindfully when noticing the marks of others. I accept the months of March, April and May will be hard, but that’s ok. They, like the painful emotions attached to them, will pass, and a new season will be rolling round given time. Finally, I let my triggers remind me that any emotion – all emotions – are a gift and I can let them lead me to self-creation and resilience, or self-destruction and numbness. The amount of work is the same, and the former has a happier destination. You can even find gratitude in the painful stuff.
Nature, like people, remembers. But you can pick to let these memories grow in new ways this time round and fill your life with beauty and abundance, rather than the weeds of an old self that no longer serves you. Given time, practice, and a few supportive hands willing to get messy with you along the way, anything can be accomplished.
Written by HBC