Trauma, Triggers, and Marriage: Hello, December.


I’m going along, minding my own business, creating this new and beautiful life just the way I want it to be, and suddenly it’s December.

There we are, singing Christmas songs in the car, and suddenly I need to change the station. There are holiday scents in the air, some variety of cinnamon, and suddenly I feel like I need to leave the room. We are singing together at choir rehearsal, and suddenly I’m crying and crying and crying. We are watching the last two minutes of the last episode of This Is Us, and suddenly I’m tied in the knots of a wordless, seizing panic attack.

It all happened so suddenly.

Which made me mad, because I don’t want to be undone over Christmas anymore. I want only happiness now. It’s a new season. God has done great things, given me everything I asked for, restored my joy and turned my mourning into dancing. I’m happy now. And I want to be happy at Christmas too. But there I was, in an emotional setback that I didn’t want, an emotional setback that Peter didn’t know what to do with.

It seems that I skipped the sadness last year. I was pretty hopped up on limerence, as you might recall. Last year’s brand new love was drug that carried me over the moon, and it kept me, quite frankly, distracted from the December cloud of the last five years.

So when it showed up this year, when I felt the anxiety mounting and the darkness looming, I didn’t know what to do.

I feel crazy in love with Peter, but why was last December easy and this one is hard? I mean, nobody can maintain that kind of craziness that comes with the weeks of falling in love. It’s not sustainable. It’s replaced with the comfortable space of knowing and being, which is wonderful and comfortable… and a safe place for grief to return.

Sometimes I don’t want this story to be my story anymore.

The return of December has put me back in Jana’s office. This time, Peter came too, since this isn’t jut mine anymore. Actually, marriage means none of this is a ‘His or Hers’ kind of thing anymore. For better or for worse, this is Ours.

We’re learning a whole lot over here. Just in case you love somebody who is triggered by things you can’t understand, we’ve decided to share our list with you.

Emotional Memory is different from Logical Memory. There are things you choose to remember because it’s a logical connection. Like when you see someone wearing a blue shirt, and it reminds you of your roommate’s blue shirt that you borrowed for that one date … and you intentionally follow a rabbit trail to that memory. That’s a logical memory. But emotional memory is different. You might see the blue shirt, have no logical memory of the blue shirt, and somehow you just feel sad. It may be perhaps because a paramedic’s uniform was that color of blue, and it’s a peripheral memory that only registers as sadness. Emotional memory is hard to trace; it’s involuntary and it only produces… well, emotion.

Emotional Memory is the Result of Senses. The scent of a candle. A song on the radio. Christmas lights on the drive home. They trigger emotions.

All of this is not Surprising. December is filled with scents, smells, sounds, and songs. And so of course this is happening. I cannot will it away. These are deep neurological paths that I’m trying to fight, and that is no small thing.

All of this is also Unpredictable. Sure, it would make sense for me to slip into a spiral closer to December 22, December 23… but the first day of December? Where did that come from, three weeks early? Triggers are unpredictable, and they are in charge.

I didn’t ask for these Triggers. I’d prefer to not have them at all, thanks.

Trauma isn’t Longing. These episodes that send me spinning are about Trauma. That is all. These episodes are not about indulging in a memory, and they are not about my longing for a different life or an earlier husband.  I don’t wish for anything to be different about this beautiful life of mine; this cannot be overstated.

Trauma isn’t logical. So you can’t explain a traumatized person out of it. In case you’re thinking, “But you had thirty good Christmases before that one bad one… can’t you just think about a different one?” Well, all I can say is, no. I can’t. It doesn’t work that way.

Some things can’t be fixed; they can only be carried. As Peter said, “I don’t have to fix it. I only have to be available to my wife.”

My Emotions Don’t Have to Rule the Day.  Peter said, “Honey, I love you and I am in this with you.  But with all due respect to your story and what you’ve been through, Christmas isn’t sad for me.  And I won’t give up my happiness this season.”  It’s possible to read that and hear insensitivity; but the truth is, this is a very healthy response that is every opposite of codependent.  Plus, there’s so much comfort in knowing I can feel how I feel without ruining Christmas.  Peter is holding on to his joy, and I love him so much for the consistency he brings and the light that he shines in this shadow.

I asked Peter what he would say to a fellow person in the support role.  He said, “I would tell them to remember this isn’t about them.  It’s an opportunity to not be selfish.  This season gives me a chance to love somebody more than I love myself.  So, if you’re married to somebody who’s struggling, then get over what you wish this looked like, and support this person who wishes it looked differently, too.”

In case you love somebody who has triggers of PTSD, in case you’re in love with somebody whose emotionally undone for reasons that are deeper than logic and longer than a season:

Please buckle up, stay close, and love us anyway.

Tricia Lott Williford

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