30. Navigating Triggers
Humans are sensory beings and our memories are closely connected to these senses. I know that I love the smell of sunscreen, because it reminds of summers spent at the local pool. The sound of rain on a tin roof is a comfort to me. There is a certain light at night that at the right angle, I can’t stand. It triggers bad memories for me.
The scientific reason for this is that the same part of the brain that’s responsible for processing our senses, also stores our emotional memories. (Read more here if you like- Brain links Senses to memory).
This topic has perhaps been the most frustrating for me to deal with. I rationally and practically understand the reality of triggers. I’ve lived with my own over the years and understand that they are very real, can sometimes take you completely off guard and that your response to them can be out of character and sometimes embarrassing. But, the part of me that rejects the notion of being a “victim” of your circumstance, really hates the control that “triggers” can have on your life.
Jen had spent 10 years as a constant in our family. Because of this, there were so many places, people, foods, smells and experiences that the kids related to her, and by extension, Leon.
For the first few months After, we were constantly looking over our shoulder, worried that we may run into Leon and Jen. We avoided shopping centres, coffee shops and other places that we knew they frequented. Despite there being an AVO in place, I wasn’t ready to run into Leon with the kids. I did have to prepare them for the fact that it might happen, because the reality was that it could. This made them fearful to go out for a while. I just couldn’t imagine what we’d do if we turned down the aisle in a supermarket and they were there.
After our story went somewhat public, I felt that the girls were a little more protected. Jen and Leon appeared more reluctant to go out. They didn’t have friends to meet for coffee dates or brunch, they weren’t being invited to the same things that we were, so there was an element of security in that for Brad and I.
After being at the Police Station one day, we ventured to a nearby coffee shop. Grace and Kate refused to come inside. “We can’t…Jen and Leon used to take us there”. As it turned out, there were a number of venues that we couldn’t go to without it triggering a memory.
On one particular occasion, about two years After, we met a friend for a coffee. She chose the venue and I reluctantly agreed, hoping that in a different context, the girls might be okay. As we got closer to the shop, Grace and Kate told me they didn’t want to go in. I told them who we were meeting and it excited them enough to want to try and go in. I explained to them, again, that Leon was required to leave an area if they were in it. I told them that they were safe.
Ruby appeared rather carefree about the whole thing…until we got inside. Everything began relatively routinely. We ordered drinks, checked out the cake cabinet, set up some colouring in. And then Ruby decided that she saw Jen. I was speaking with my friend, Marg, and Ruby said, “Mum…Jen’s over there”.
Grace and Kate began to panic- I looked to where she was pointing and was relieved to find that it wasn’t Jen, but a lady who looked somewhat like her. Ruby hadn’t seen Jen for about two years and in her short life, that was a significant amount of time. I told Ruby that it wasn’t Jen, but a lady who looked like her. She told me that Jen always took her to that shop and it was definitely Jen. She kept it up relentlessly for about 5 minutes. In that time, Marg tried to distract the older two by chatting to them about school and other things.
It became clear that Ruby wasn’t going to let it go. She was adamant that it was Jen and that we shouldn’t have been at the café. She was beginning to make a “scene”. In an effort to calm her, I approached the lady. I said to her, “Excuse me, my 6 year old has mistaken you for someone that she used to care for and has got herself quite distressed. Would it be okay if she met you so that I can show her that you are not in fact that person?”
I’m pretty confident that the woman may have thought I was crazy, but then I saw reality dawn for her. She believed that Ruby mistook her for someone who had died. I didn’t correct her, for the fact was that since that day, After, Ruby hasn’t seen Jen again. Fortunately, the lady was kind enough to say hello to Ruby and introduce herself as Elizabeth. She was visiting from out of town. This was the only thing that could placate Ruby. Grace was totally embarrassed.
We had to change the route to a number of places because the girls panicked if we went near Jen and Leon’s home. Even now, 5 and a half years later, we have to warn the girls if we are near their house. We learnt this the hard way around Christmas 2014 when looking at Christmas lights. We were approximately 2 streets away from their house, trying not to draw attention to where we were, but Kate went into a full blown panic attack in the back of the car. It was horrible.
We haven’t been able to have the best potato cakes in town because we can’t go to the shop. I can’t make pasta bake, they won’t eat it. There was a time when Ruby wouldn’t eat lots of different foods because she associated it with Jen and Leon.
I can’t use Glen 20 to disinfect my house because the kids say it smells like Jen’s…still.
Grandparents Day, Dancing Concerts, School Graduation. All tainted. All triggers.
Being in rooms on their own. Entering the house before anyone else. Triggers.
One of the saddest triggers for the girls have been other people. I’ve mentioned that the relationship between the girls and our own father’s was difficult in those first couple of years. They had similar feelings towards other men that they associated with Jen and Leon. We had a network of friends made simply through our relationship with them. Our girls were actually genuinely frightened for a time of Susie’s dad, Mary’s husband (Chapter 22). They saw him as a friend to Leon and thought that he might try and take them to him. There were other beautiful gentleman that were thought of in the same way by the girls. I think that it is very sad that their trust was taken from them in this way and that good people were inadvertently compared to this vile man.
The results of complex trauma, like the girls have endured, are lifelong. Even though we’d like them to “get over it” and be able to “leave it in the past”, the reality is that there will be times that they are tested. We’ve worked really hard over the last few years to help the girls to accept that there will be difficult times, days and seasons. What will help them to accept this is that they have already shown the capacity to live through the worst of times. We allow them to sit in sadness from time to time, knowing that they have the strength to pick themselves up and start over with their heads up and their eyes open.