On Triggers and Tools

There are a few common things you hear when you have a large problem with your mental health.

You’ll never be rid of it.

You’ll have this thorn in your side the rest of your life.

Once an addict, always an addict.

The best you can hope for is to have it well-managed. It will never disappear completely.

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What the crap is all the hard work for, then? If the illness stays with me no matter what, I’m defeated before I begin. There has to be a possibility of a cured mind. Sure, there is a case to be made in twelve step programs about surrender. They speak of knowing the problem you have is out of your control, and you have to be willing to turn it over to God, or the Universe, or your sponsors and EDanon groups, and admit it’s bigger than you and you’ll always need to be open to help. Fine. I concur. But to believe you’ll never be strong enough to beat it?

Not buyin’ it. Can’t buy it.

It just feels….wrong.

Something happened recently that hasn’t happened in a long time. Ever. It hasn’t happened ever. I canceled a therapy appointment because I didn’t have anything I needed to say.

I felt so strong. So clean. So CURED.

Sounds like a perfect happy ending, right?

Everyone cackle like the devil while Madam Therapist rolls her eyes.

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Because since then, I’ve had a few things come up. Things that make me think: Should I have kept that appointment? Should I hurry and make another one? Am I really cured? When will I know I don’t need any more therapy appointments?

I do all this work in therapy, to hopefully become well again. To hopefully not need therapy anymore. To hopefully be cured from all the festering illness in my brain. That’s why I spend all the not-exactly-extra time and money on it. And now I feel like the storm has abated. I don’t need to call in the troops and strap on my gear and dig in. I’m doing pretty well right now. And I know deep down I can beat it, so, when can I say I’ve beaten it and have it really be true?

Ha. Never.

But Rachel. You said you could beat it. You said it was possible to overthrow the whole eating disorder regime and rule triumphant once again in your own mind. You did. Like, five paragraphs ago you said it.

But, then I realized something else big. Will vanquishing a foe ever guarantee no attack will be mounted against you ever again? That’s the thing. The recurring nightmare of the illness isn’t necessarily an oozing, festering canker in my soul that hasn’t yet healed, or will never heal. It’s not necessarily a corner of the inner closets of my mind that hasn’t yet been cleaned, or can’t be. It’s the external crap. It’s the campaigns that are launched continuously.

It’s the demons, the thoughts, the triggers. They’re the ones who don’t shut up.

Before all the work in therapy and at home and in church and in my inner mind closets, triggers were my nemesis. In the therapy world, they are talked about quite frequently. Many times in hushed, frightened voices. Because they do the thing it sounds like they do. They flip switches. Scary ones.

I’ve been triggered by sensible things–food I “shouldn’t” have eaten, billboards of perfect-looking people, the mirror–and I’ve been triggered by some not-so-sensible things–camping trips, wearing hats, successful jeans-shopping trips, etc. The thing is, there are limitless ways I could be triggered. Which means limitless opportunities for bad habits, even vanquished ones to resurface, because I don’t always know I’ve been triggered and half of what I do is done on auto-pilot and how was I reduced to tears and closed doors with the lights out in my own bedroom because I bought a pair of jeans that fit? Huh? ANSWER ME.

Here’s what I’ve learned. I can be cured of this illness. All of us can be cured of our illnesses. They don’t have to be a part of us on the inside forever. And some things that used to trigger us might not anymore with time and effort. “Cured,” though, has to take on a new meaning. We would never say that because we got over a physical illness, like a cold, being cured means we’ll NEVER have one again. That would be silly. Germs are everywhere. Yet, we sometimes expect that definition of “cured” from mental and emotional illnesses. But these triggers, these germs, they can morph, and evolve, or resurface anytime from the outside, triggering scary thoughts on the inside.¬†Whether we let the ideas back inside our minds to become the festering cesspool of infection they once were is the real question.Which brings us back to tools.

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I used to think that I’d be cured when I got to the point that I’d never need my tools again. I was wrong about that.

I may not need a weekly therapy appointment, but knowing I can call Madam Therapist again when I need her is an incredibly liberating thing.

I may not need to deliberately look into my own eyes every morning and chant my positive affirmations, but as soon as a negative thought enters my mind I can use any number of those blessed and cheesy mantras to turn that train around.

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I have stuff. I have weapons and tools and time and options and I can honestly say now that I get it. Being cured doesn’t mean never being triggered again. Never needing my tools again. Nothing works like that–not lawns, not laundry, not the common cold, not human minds. Cured is knowing what tools you have, and using them every time you need them.

The cure, ladies and gentlemen, is in the maintenance.