On relapse triggers

If there’s one word our culture has thoroughly ruined - and there’s definitely more than one - it’s “triggered.” When people say "triggered," they're seldom referring to the sudden onset of cold sweats, sleeplessness, flashbacks, and nightmares. More often it means, "Hm. That reminds me of something I don't like." The word is rarely used with anything like clinical-grade accuracy.

“Triggers” are often the topic of entire recovery meetings. Personally, when I hear the word, I bristle. When I hear “trigger,” I think “excuse.” When I hear “trigger,” I think about undercutting one’s own capacity for choice.

But if I’m skeptical of the word, I also understand its meaning. I’ve even used it myself. A softer, more generous understanding of the word refers to situations we used to drink at, over, or about. (Prepositions are my strong suit. I could go on.) Situations that to this day make us think, Damn. A drink sounds really good right now.

About a year into sobriety, I remember walking away from a meeting with a professor. We were talking about data analysis, and I had been covering up how little I knew for a full two hours. I felt dumb, fraudulent, and like I’d been observed far too closely for my comfort. As I walked away, I thought Now this is a feeling to drink at.

Maybe a year later, I was feeling uncomfortable in my relationship. He was going out to a bar, and I was in an AA meeting feeling insecure. Now there’s something to drink about. As I sat in the meeting, I knew that this would have been exactly the kind of night where, previously, I’d go out, drink, and flirt with strangers. I would have dodged any real, constructive conversation in my relationship.

The above situations were “triggering.” No cold sweats, no nightmares - but triggering nonetheless.

What do we do with that? What do we do with the fact that certain situations elicit the same emotional reactions that made a drink sound like just the thing? Do we avoid those times that trigger a desire to drink, or is there some additional merit in confronting and overcoming them?

As much as I’m allergic to the notion: it depends. I can expect to sit through many more meetings with academics where my shame around not knowing enough or being a fraud is elicited. To avoid those situations would be to seriously shortchange myself of learning. In contrast, to wade through the murky feelings evoked in those meetings would probably yield a better, braver, and smarter person on the other side.

But what about the other situation? Should I have been in a relationship that occasionally triggered my urge to drink? Or was its capacity to trigger me a telltale sign of it’s just not working?

No, that relationship did not end up working out. But also, no: it wasn’t because it triggered me. At least for me, most of my learning in sobriety has to do with responding boldly, creatively, and unapologetically to near-constant insecurity. What if I’m not good enough? What if they notice? I have that thought every day.

When we experience these feelings in sobriety, we learn from them. Although I wouldn’t suggest exposing yourself to triggers in very early sobriety or with no good justification, I would confront the inevitable or important ones head on. It’ just another time to prove to yourself what a friend of mine has told me from day one: You can stay sober through anything.