It’s the internet bully’s favorite term to mock people who, I don’t know, have feelings, I guess. There are a bajillion memes and GIFs that get pasted into replies. Hilarious. But triggers are real, and I’d like to share a story about mine.
I’m a childhood cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with a kidney cancer at age four. I had three surgeries, eighteen months of chemo, and looked like all those kids you see on St. Jude commercials. And if you’re reading this, and you are sensitive to medical discussion, I’m going to get into some details in the coming paragraphs, so insulate yourself if you need to.
I have no “before cancer” period. I don’t remember my body as any other way but scarred and invaded. My life came to be known to me after cancer’s brief and wild party on my kidney. The lens from which I viewed myself changed as I got older and could understand more of the technicalities of my anatomy and my survival. I’ve never felt “normal.” My normal is intersecting scars and fear that has deep roots. My memories of treatment are gray and hazy. I experienced life through my senses then, and those clues never left, like a road map back to my past, my childhood, where I was vulnerable, when I needed shelter.
When I needed the word to describe what was happening to me emotionally, it didn’t exist. I didn’t understand how the smell of adhesive tape could upturn my stomach, or why certain sensory overloads could bring a long buried part of me to the surface, only for it to crumble like a shipwreck dredged up from the bottom of the sea.
I used to wonder how I would ever deal with the gut-wrenching anxiety hospitals and medical procedures caused me. As I transitioned into adulthood and had to face even a normal doctor’s appointment alone, I borrowed old relics from my past to help me cope. Until I found something I didn’t know I needed.
My sophomore year of college, I abandoned my music dreams and set out on a path to become a child life specialist — an individual who works in the medical field supporting children to give them tools to reduce the stress and trauma of hospitalization, injury, and illness. I thought I was perfect for the job, but I wasn’t ready for the emotional labor it would take to complete my studies and graduate. That was when I learned about the power of triggers.
Children between the ages of three and five are particularly susceptible to trauma due to many developmental factors in that age range. And that was where I was all those years ago, right in the sweet spot. When I learned about the behaviors of children that age, things started to make sense. I started to make sense.
Anxiety has a funny way of telling you to flee a situation to protect yourself. As I sat in some of my classes, I learned I have a physical reaction when I get grossed out: I get a cramp in the right side of my neck that runs into my shoulder. I found myself leaning my ear into my shoulder many times, hoping no one would notice. My flight reaction was overwhelming when I didn’t need it to be. I convinced myself I could do it. I wouldn’t be scared of the hospital, of medicine, of procedures, of doctors.
My program only accepted thirteen students a year, and all program entrants had to complete an application and interview process. I devoured all my technical studies. I knew all the important terminology and craft. Every student was asked why they wanted to go into the field and my answer was simple. Because I lived it, and I wanted to help anyone else living it too.
I got in. It was one of the biggest achievements of my life.
My first, brutal trigger came at a presentation given by the pediatric burn unit. I’m especially uncomfortable with burns, and was not prepared for the graphic images of injuries, skin grafts, and debridement. The cramp came first. Then the roiling stomach. I felt myself melt into the large executive swivel chair. The outsides of my vision blackened. I broke out in a cold sweat. I thanked heaven above the lights were off for the presentation because I was moments from passing out. (Side note, if you don’t know what debridement is, and you’re squeamish, don’t search for it.)
The second came when we toured the radiology unit of the same hospital I was treated in. I told no one. I didn’t want to be seen as weak. Though the whole hospital had been remodeled, the radiology department was exactly like I remembered in the dreamlike wisps of my memories. The smell. The metallic flavor of the air. The looming CT scan machine. Identical. Fear crawled up the back of my throat. I was cold and hot at the same time. I followed my classmates through a doorway and my knees went soft under me. I forced myself through most of it until I couldn’t take it anymore and excused myself to the bathroom, where I sat on the floor and wept. I was going to fail. They would never let me achieve my dreams.
The third act of this play is something I’ve always wanted to talk about, but never had the venue. I’ll never name and shame, but I’ve always wished this person knew the damage they did to me. After the radiology debacle, someone from my program called me into their office for a chat. Expecting it to be about my coursework, I was instantly blindsided when they brought up the incident. They questioned my capability to cope. They wondered how being a cancer survivor would impact my interventions. One of the paramount child life values is not to judge another person’s coping, but give them the tools to feel empowered in the situation. With a few sentences, this person rendered my experience invaluable.
Angry is not a strong enough word for the way I felt. I was furious. I made a pact with myself that day that I would show them what I was made of. I would show them what being a survivor really meant.
I completed a semester long internship and graduated summa cum laude. I did it. I finished.
My triggers are all still there. They’re small sometimes, almost overlooked. They operate under the surface and I work to redirect them like distracted toddlers.
When humorless people on the internet laugh and point and say “triggered” and lump it with safe spaces and parlay it into sad, pathetic millennial bashing, they’re not thinking of me. They’re not thinking at all. It’s time for this little word to be retired from the bully vocabulary because it’s gross.
I say this a lot: trauma is trauma is trauma is trauma. We all have various experiences in our lives that hurt and leave scars. It’s not a scale. It’s not a competition. If you are out there, and you are experiencing things that trigger all the bad stuff and the raw emotions, I stand with you. I lived it.