What Being Triggered Actually Feels Like
My partner and I were supposed to go to our neighbour’s house for a socially distanced hangout. We’d sit in the driveway and they’d sit on the front porch. We’d basically have to yell to hear each other. But the day before the hangout they texted us saying they actually weren’t comfortable with it and cancelled. We were at the grocery store doing our two-week stock up.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I complained to her, tossing a bag of romaine into the cart. “You cannot catch COVID-19 from sitting 50 feet away from someone else.”
“You can’t blame them for just wanting to be safe,” she said.
“I know, but there’s a difference between being safe and being irrational, and they’re being irrational. That’s dumb.” I retorted, surprised at how upset and childish I suddenly felt. “It makes me feel like they don’t trust us. They don’t even want us to stand in their driveway?”
I kept bringing it up, and my partner kept raising her eyebrows and telling me I just needed to let it go. It wasn’t about me. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t let it go, and somehow found myself standing in the kitchen unpacking groceries with tears streaming down my face.
“Babe! I don’t understand, why are you so upset about this? Now you’re the one being irrational!” My partner tried to console me. I shook my head. I was upset and confused and suddenly felt like I couldn’t explain let alone control my emotions. And then, it dawned on me. This is what being triggered feels like.
Back when I was going through treatment a friend of ours said she didn’t want to be around me. It was the most hurtful thing anyone said to me during my cancer journey. It made me feel icky, like a disease no one wanted. It made me feel guilty for having cancer. And this experience with COVID-19 was bringing back the trauma from my cancer past that I thought I had buried. Not so buried after all.
Once I realized what was happening, I felt both relieved and devastated. I was relieved that I had an explanation for how intensely I was feeling these emotions that didn’t quite make sense. This is what trauma looks like, I reminded myself. At the same time, I felt immensely sad because it was dawning on me for the first time that I’m not over this. It might be a long time before I’m over all the emotions I felt during cancer treatment. I wanted to be able to spring back to normal life once treatment was over, and it sucks to realize that it’s going to take a long time. I’m still learning to be patient with myself. I’m almost a year out of chemo and about 17 months NED, and I have a long way to go.
COVID-19 has made the general public feel just a glimpse of the constant fear and uncertainty that we cancer thrivers and survivors deal with every day of our lives. I chuckle when I see news articles going around social media with titles like “How to manage fear in everyday life” or “Not sleeping well? 10 ways fear changes your body”. I feel like shouting, “WELCOME! It sucks, doesn’t it? We’ve been living here all along.” And it’s true. We have been here all along, living invisibly in this cloud of fear that suddenly everyone else is feeling too. And in that sense, I wonder if going through cancer enabled me to react to COVID-19 with a cool head, to not get overwhelmed even in the epicentre of it all. Until I was triggered back into cancer-freakout-zone, that is. Cue that Xanax prescription! (Kidding, but kind of not).
Cancer survivors navigate COVID-19, like everything else, through a veil. Our experiences are coloured by fears and awful reminders of the past but also by surprising moments of strength and calm. We have the privilege of knowing we can weather the storm. We’ve been here before. And even when we have setbacks, when we’re reminded how fragile our minds and bodies can be, we know that we’ve got this community of others to lead us through. – Robin Goode