Six years ago, I asked Marie Fortune of Faith Trust Institute if I would ever be able to experience a change in ministers at my church without it triggering me. I had asked similar questions of others before. It’s my biggest trigger – causing flashbacks and anxiety attacks. I was abused by a minister who was transferred to my church just after losing a minister who had been a lifesaving pastor to me. Everyone else I had asked about triggers over the years had either not answered, or questioned me on why it was so important. Marie answered very honestly, “Probably not. You know things others don’t. But they will get less powerful.”
My reactions were put to the test this summer when the pastor at our church made a surprise announcement that he would be leaving in a month. Until that moment, I thought I had found the perfect setup to allow me to worship with minimal triggers. Services were held in a school cafeteria, not a church sanctuary (another big trigger for me), the minister was younger than me and we communicated a lot through email (which felt much safer than a pastor’s study). I had begun to feel very safe at church. We frequently volunteered as greeters and looked forward to attending.
The week after the announcement, my husband and I went to service. I could feel the anxiety building as we drove there, and my mind was busy with rapid-fire thoughts and I lost my sense of safety. I used techniques I had learned from therapy, such as grounding and staying present and I began to feel centered again, so I decided to go ahead and attend that day. Most importantly, though, I promised myself I would take care of myself and put my needs above things like politeness or protocol.
For most of the service, I stayed centered and did quite well. It was near the end of the service when we lined up for communion that looked back, saw the minister who was leaving at the back of the church and remembered falling apart when I was 14 at the minister’s final service. It was then that I started to cry and I knew I needed to take care of me. I turned to Dave and said, “we need to leave now,” and he didn’t hesitate. The moment I was outside the building I knew that Marie was right. I couldn’t forget what I know that others don’t, but it had gotten less powerful because I had gotten better at taking care of myself.
Over the following weeks, I sometimes chose not to attend, sometimes attended and snuck out the back before the end. I gave myself permission to stop volunteering as a greeter for a while so I didn’t feel obligated.
I don’t know if triggers can get less powerful for everyone. I pray that they can because every survivor knows how debilitating they can be. But I want others to know that it can happen and it has happened for me this time.