When Memories of Trauma Are Triggered
Whenever I am at a conference for people who are sexually different, I am always watching for signs of participants who are having unexpected feelings triggered as a result of the material being presented. Sometimes it is really obvious, like when a surgeon is explaining a technique for removing scar tissue and he makes a sweeping movement with his hands that indicates snipping away all the damaged tissue, and all the men who have had genital surgery in the audience groan and grab their stomachs or even run out of the room. That is retraumatization. The surgeon doesn’t mean to upset the audience; he is showing them how all the old damage can be removed and the repair can be made with fresh skin and better healing than ever before. The participants all react to the memory of pain in the genitals from having had surgery there before, and without any conscious thought, they demonstrate all the physical responses associated with that pain or the fear of that pain.
The retraumatization reaction isn’t always so obvious or immediate. Sometimes something that is said or seen will stick in the unconscious of the participant, only to show up sometime later (this can take years). I remember a presenter talking about kids being in the hospital preparing for genital surgery, and how sometimes a kid who is being placed on the operating room table can muster the adrenaline to get up and run out of the surgical suite, even though he was sedated before being wheeled to the operating room for the procedure. This presenter said that when the emotional support team is called to reassure and calm these kids, the kids are referred to as “runners.” I listened to the presentation with interest, enjoyed the information she was presenting, went along to the next session, and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary as I went through the rest of the conference. Two years later, someone was describing to me how they had once been held down by an assailant and they were struggling to get free of being pinned. Like a wave sweeping over me, a memory came back of how I struggled to get free while nurses were trying to hold me still and anesthetize me for surgery when I was less than 7 years old. It wasn’t just a memory, it was like being there all over again. I remembered the presenter talking about “runners,” and for the first time realized that I was a “runner” several times when I was hospitalized as a kid. I was triggered by the story I was hearing and recategorized the memory on the basis of the presentation from the conference.
For any of us who have a history of trauma, we may find that unexpected events that are otherwise innocuous but still trigger memories of past trauma may occur in our daily environment. For many men with hypospadias, bathrooms can be a source of all kinds of anxiety and retraumatization. Think of how you may react if you are someone who has to sit to pee, and you walk into a public bathroom and see that the stalls have no privacy door. It is pretty common for us to remember being teased or embarrassed for being exposed sitting on the toilet in the bathroom when all the other boys were standing. As adults, we may just walk out of a bathroom with no privacy and wait to pee or go in search of a bathroom that does have privacy. All of that discomfort and waste of time is about retraumatization. This reaction can get more subtle. What goes on in your mind when you see a men’s underwear ad and the model has a more than ample genital bulge? All of these triggers for having the kind of genitals that “normal” men have (standing to pee, filling out their underpants a certain way) put us back into our trauma about being genitally different.
My guess is that as you read this, many of you can recall events which make you have that feeling of discomfort and differentness. I hear men say over and over that as a result of contacting HEA or being at an HEA event, they are so relieved to hear stories like the ones I have mentioned above because for the first time they are not the “only ones.” I realize that some of you may have been thrown into uncomfortable feelings just from reading this article. I encourage everyone who is affected by this material to talk it out with someone who you trust. If you feel moved to share your own experience of being surprised by something in your day-to-day life that triggered a trauma memory, please write back to me through HEA (anonymously if you prefer) and let me know if you would be willing to share it with the HEA community through this column. We help each other to feel comfortable with what we’ve been through by sharing these experiences and finding out how common they are, even if we don’t attach our names to the descriptions.