Johnny: Triggers -"What! That Happened Long Time Ago!"

"Thanks to the client whom I coached that wanted and allowed me to share his story to help others" Warning: Story might be triggering for some.

(Excerpt from "30 Days of Our Stories")

Johnny sat in the quiet library room. He was a married 45-year-old successful business executive. He often bragged of his affluent lifestyle consisting of international vacations, boats, cars and homes. On the outside, he lived the American dream but entombed inside his mental coffin lay horrific skeletons and unimaginable nightmares. Johnny grew up the child of an alcoholic dad. Fortunately, during his preadolescent years, his parents divorced and he finally escaped the horrid drunken beatings, verbal lashings and emotional neglect his father used to enslave them. Johnny treated his body like a temple. He constantly worked out, ate organic foods. His handsome charm and outward physique complemented his lifestyle. Johnny married Jana, who was a 37 year-old former sports magazine model. He had worked through many of the childhood issues surrounding his alcoholic father with help from his therapist, but something remained untouched and embedded in his soul.

I entered the reserved library room and greeted him with smile.

“Johnny, I read your completed questionnaire and profile form. It appears that you have worked with a counselor and resolved umpteen issues. Great job! I applaud you. Help me understand your interest in working with me as a survivor coach.”

Johnny tried to share.

“I guess you could say, I’ve been stalking or following your work via your website for a couple of years. Read the articles. Listen to the podcasts and radio show. My therapist felt inept to deal with this issue. I visited a few other therapists but couldn’t find a good fit for me.”

I asked Johnny directly. “If you have been uncomfortable sharing with your therapists, why me? I don’t have any special magic.”

Johnny smirked.

“I believe you have walked in my shoes and can relate. After reading your book, I believe that you honestly want to hear my story without being condemning, judgmental or freaked out. Also I like your idea of a multi-disciplinary integrative approach to healing, body, emotions and spirit. Not just psychological or mental.”

It took a couple of meetings at the library to build a rapport where Johnny felt comfortable, then he began disclosing more.

“ I really don’t know where to begin. My therapist discharged me. Apparently, I resolved my daddy issues and the alcoholism. Yet, at times a rage comes over me that I cannot explain.”

I looked intently at him. “Have you physically hurt anyone?”

His eyes widened. “No! no! However, there are times when I feel that I am going to lose it. Rage city.”

We bantered back and forth. I fired off targeted questions to gain some clarity.

“Are there times when you feel hyper-sexual and promiscuous? Other times you feel asexual, “like don’t touch me” or an aversion to sexual intimacy with your wife?”

His mouth dropped. “How could you know…”

“Do you ever experience images or flashbacks that make it difficult to achieve sexual arousal or orgasm with your wife? Deep inside do you feel that you harbor negative attitudes about sexuality?”

Johnny’s heart raced. “Man! This is like that mind-freak television show. How are you extracting all this?”

“Okay, so I assume we have struck a nerve!”

Johnny commented. “You have struck a gold mine. This is only our second coaching session. How could you have known?”

I smiled. “I’ve been around the block a couple of times myself. You mentioned alcoholism and physical abuse from your father in your abuse history. May I ask if there was ever any sexual abuse that occurred?”

Color seemed to drain from Johnny’s face. His posture sank. His voice, mannerisms and persona seemed to revert to a childlike state.

He whispered.

“ I have the memories of physical violence and being thrashed around by my father. However, there are a few memories that are sketchy, not as vivid or lucid. I am not sure if they happened or not. Or if I am trying to block them because I don’t want them to be true. Many of the visual pieces are missing, but the feelings, certain sensations are there. Does that sound crazy? I’m not crazy, right?” Johnny looked for reassurance.

“If I said that it’s possible we might have similar childhood experiences and there is nothing you could share that would make me condemn, judge or not accept you. Would you feel comfortable sharing?” Johnny hesitated and then replied.

“When you say it like that I feel like there’s nothing to lose. If you don’t think I’m nuts.”

“Okay let’s not use the word “nuts” word around two guys who have experienced therapy!” Johnny slightly smiled.

Perhaps Johnny started feeling a bit of the isolation lifting.

“Okay! As I mentioned before my father’s physical abuse stands vividly in my mind. However, there are moments when flashes of my father’s hand in my underwear and touching my penis intrudes my mind. Then it’s gone! Sometimes my body begins to shake, difficult to breathe like a panic attack. An overwhelming disgusting feeling sits in my stomach. Yet the most paralyzing flash is…”

Johnny choked to get the words out.

“Well..umm… you know…umm.”

I gave him a reassuring look.

“It’s okay, take deep breaths and draw a moment of strength and clarity. I’m here.” Johnny took another breath.

“There are inklings and feelings that something also happened with another person. It’s a blur. It just feels like maybe I allowed it. All I know is that whenever I try to be sexually intimate with Jana, I get these disgusted feelings.”

I sat back and slowly introduced another question. “Are these the times you feel your strongest aversion and disgust?”

Johnny looked exhausted, but encouraged me to continue. I really asked going a bit further.

“How did your mother react to the physical abuse you both endured at the hands of your dad?”

Johnny threw his head into his hands and bawled.

“No! No! It can be true.” Johnny sobbed. His body shivered as he begin to release years of pain and frustration. I moved toward him again and waited. He asked for a hug. I placed my hand back on his shoulder and slightly embraced him with a nudge. He broke down even more. The librarian, Stacy, knocked lightly opening the door and whispered.

“Is everything okay?”

I assured her things were fine. The library was practically empty. She checked on me to make sure things were under control. I let Johnny take the time he needed as we sat there.

“Johnny what can’t be?” I asked.

He whimpered.

“I believe my mother was also involved. Not physical abuse but...ssssexual abuse” Johnny broke down again as he tried to spit out the words.

My mind reminisced of my time in Johnny’s shoes and the person who was there when I experienced my sexual victimization revelations. I remembered and used a page from my own history. I simply sat, listen and validated his sexual abuse story. A few weeks later we met again at my office. Johnny felt safe and comfortable with the coaching style.

Johnny’s story resonates for numerous male survivors. Although he could not recall the entire memory and experience, his reactions and aversion to sexual intimacy with Jana, were memories buried within his own body. Triggers and possible indicators that were embedded in his subconscious of the sexual abuse traumatization from both parents.

Memories can be stored in the brain and trauma blocks or causes limited conscious access to parts of the memory. The brain has not fully processed the event memories. You feel like you are losing your mind because the only conscious pieces available for access may be feelings. No clear visuals. Or perhaps limited access to the auditory portion of the memory. Each time a certain trigger word is used, hearing a slamming door, certain scent or seeing an image that may have been part of the original sexual abuse experience occurs, it may automatically trigger you and produce inexplicable goosebumps, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, nausea and shivers down your spine. You grow frustrated beating yourself up with unproductive negative self-blame because you cannot resurrect every single detail of the memory.

Okay I used a word “trigger” what in the world is that? It’s another reason our sexual abuse is multilayered.


Let’s use a gun/bullet analogy to explain this phenomenon. The basic mechanics behind the gun is to load the gun with the bullet or cartridge. When the trigger lever is pulled, it releases the hammer. The compressed spring drives the hammer forward. The firing pin on the hammer hits the primer. The primer explodes, igniting the propellent (gun powder). The propellant releases a large volume of gas which is compressed in this small chamber area. That pressure drives the bullet down the barrel. Probably more than you wanted to know. That’s the simplistic version.

Let’s explain my perspective using the diagram. A trigger for you as a survivor is anything (image, sound, smell, thought, feeling..etc) that sets off a rewind or flashback that mentally transports you back to the time of the original feelings, emotions, thoughts of the traumatic experience. This is one reason I anguish in misery at the numerous survivors and wounded individuals who have been emotionally devastated and crushed at the misuse of people telling them “ that happened long ago, or forgetting what lies behind...”

Our reality looks like this. Our brains store volumes of information and experiences. Unless those horrific memories are somehow deleted or destroyed, like TBI(traumatic brain injury) they exist. We have not even touched on talking about somatic memories lodged in muscle memory of the body. That’s one reason an innocuous sound, image, taste or touch inadvertently can trigger the flashback. It’s in there somewhere! It may have been consciously forgotten denied or suppressed, but not subconsciously lost.

Triggers are quite personal.

Each person has his unique stimuli that initiates the flashback. In Johnny’s case he started to avoid sexual situations and stimuli like intercourse with Jana. Rogelio’s dance which I will share shortly, reconnected him with his traumatic experience. Triggers can be activated through one or more of the senses: touch, smell, taste, sound, sight or thoughts and feelings. The flashbacks can be triggered especially in situations that strongly mirror or duplicate the original traumatic event or environment. Or even someone enacting abuse that is familiar like manipulation or coercion. Triggers often are diverse, but are commonly associated with familiar themes.

Triggers also come in two categories: external and internal. Some of the most innocuous are external triggers because they appear outside the body via situation, people, places that you have no control over. The internal triggers encompass our memories, thoughts and emotions. I remember one client I coached would be triggered by rapid heart beat because it triggered and flashed him back to the nature of his sexual abuse. It was difficult for him to follow any exercise regime. Are you beginning to understand my disdain for the “just forget about it... that happened years ago” mentality? With triggers as part of the PSTD that phrase might not serve as wise advice. Some more effective advice might be to process and work through it.


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