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November 18, 2020

When Social Media Resurfaces our Emotional Trauma.

 

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“Anyone else get PTSD from a name? Like you see that name and it makes you cringe every time you see it.”  ~ @MykahiaSheree, Twitter

~

A short time ago, a name appeared on the list of people who had viewed my Instagram stories.

To be honest, part of me wasn’t surprised. If anything, I was amazed it had taken as long as it did for them to look. However, that name was even more conspicuous because I wasn’t writing at the time and was on a short hiatus, figuring out what I was going to explore next.

If I’m in the middle of writing a particular piece, the majority of the posts on my social media will be about that topic. It can be a pretty grim experience overall, but it keeps my head in the game. Also, at such times, my posts will be less frequent—I’m too busy writing to be on social media.

There’s a good chance that if they’d looked during one of those periods, I might have missed them altogether.

But it hadn’t been one of those periods.

I was on a break. And, as I wasn’t posting any articles, I was using my Instagram stories to engage with the people who both followed me and read my articles.

Having invested a great deal of effort in building up my followers, I didn’t just want to suddenly disappear. So, in the absence of any articles, using my stories was a quick and easy way to say, “I’m still here.”

There was no overarching theme; it was simply what was in my head at that moment. I wasn’t on social media 24/7, but I was browsing more than I normally did; if I found something I liked, I’d often just throw it up as a story.

And, over the space of that week, I posted about everything: from James Bond to codependent relationships—changing my Instagram story multiple times a day. 

Seeing that this name had viewed every single one was…well, it was a lot of things.

To begin with, as I said earlier, it was no surprise. I’d known they were reading my articles; looking at my social media too made perfect sense. No big deal. I was a little irked that, having blocked me from their main account, that they were using a secondary account to take a peek. But that’s just rank hypocrisy, I, too, have a second Instagram account, and, a few months before, I’d done the same. So, I could have no complaints.

It was just one of those things, and it would probably peter out.

Except it didn’t.

And, after the third or fourth day, it became unnerving. I changed my story, and they were the first ones to see it. I changed it again, same result. The next obvious step was to simply block them. But, I didn’t.

Because now I wanted to know why?

It was impossible to figure out how much time they spent each day looking at my Instagram, but it was certainly way too much for someone who didn’t want me in their life. What did they hope to gain?

If they really wanted to know what was happening in my life, they weren’t going to find out via Instagram. I’m like most people, I use social media selectively; it might be a snapshot into my life, but it’s a carefully focused one. 

And, the big stuff? That’s kept private. You’re just as likely to get a fair reflection of my life at any given moment by looking me up in a telephone directory as you would from my social media.

If they wanted to say something or needed to ask something, why didn’t they just contact me directly? I was pretty certain that whatever it was they hoped to find couldn’t be done so by looking at my Instagram. For a start, they couldn’t even know if my stories were even about me, let alone them.

Why was I even a consideration in this person’s thoughts? And why were they doing this in a way that was so visible?

I can have no idea if someone is checking my business Facebook page, or reading my stories or articles unless they tell me directly. But, Instagram tells me who has seen my profile or stories. It wasn’t exactly subtle. 

Were they trying to get my attention? If so, why?

It had moved from being moderately intriguing to being a bit uncomfortable, a bit confusing, now. Still, my fingers hovered over the block button. Because, still, I wanted to know. 

I wanted to know what had prompted this brief but intense period of interest in me. I was confused, unsettled, and needed to understand. Most of all, they must have known that I would have seen, and they, likewise, would’ve known that would’ve had an effect on me. I wanted a reason why I had been made to feel this way.

However, before I made the mistake of contacting them, I did two things.

The first was looking online. And, there’s actually a flotilla of articles about this. What I had found quite unnerving and surprising is actually common—very, very common.

The first takeaway from them all was, no matter what prompted it, the chances are it doesn’t mean anything.

After all, did they contact you? Did anything actually happen afterward? Contacting someone is an action that symbolically represents that you care: Looking at them on social media requires almost no physical effort, has no inherent emotion, and is ultimately pointless. Social media is a mirage, and they’re not going to really discover anything anyway, no matter how often they look.

Although it might be disconcerting, it’s essentially meaningless. Looking at an ex or estranged family member or an old friend online is just part of modern life. Any value that behavior has only comes with what follows; if nothing follows, then it’s simply being a bit nosey. And, quite frankly, how big a deal is that?

The second takeaway is that it’s absolutely none of your business.

None.

Whether it’s boredom or minor intrigue, it’s really nothing to do with you. That person has gone from your life; what they choose to do now is not your concern. If they have decided to look at things you’ve willingly posted online, that’s their choice. Their reasons why aren’t your business, just as your motivations behind those posts are nothing to do with them.

In short, let it go.

And, then, the second thing happened—a session with my therapist.

Initially, what we discussed echoed the ideas I read in all those articles: the bottom line was that this person’s interest in me was probably meaningless. Even if it wasn’t, I had no way of knowing what lies behind it, so it was—again—best to let it go. They took a peek, and then stopped, so what? 

What I really needed to focus on was me. Namely, why had all this got to me? 

Why had this triggered me?

That was less straightforward to figure out. But, when I did, the reasons behind my inability to act decisively and just simply block them also became apparent. I’d been stuck in between fight-or-flight mode, caught in emotional inertia.

Why?

Because that name is a trigger for me.

Emotional triggers are fascinating. A trigger is anything that sets you off, anything that makes you recall a painful, traumatic experience from your life. It resurfaces old wounds and makes you reexperience the negative emotions of that time.

Triggers are something I’ve been studying a lot, given how generously they appear to be sprinkled throughout my life. And they’re fascinating because they’re a Trojan horse; they’re not what they seem to be on the surface. They appear to one thing but tightly packed inside are all kinds of horrible feelings.

Take a crude example. Imagine that one day you and your partner have an argument. Voices are raised, and you resort to anger. You’ve become angry because…well, that conversation made you angry, right? It’s simple.

Yes. And no.

Your partner may very well have made you angry in that moment, but that primary emotion isn’t the whole picture. If you take a step back, you might see that, although you might have genuinely been seething, you weren’t just being angry for the sake of being angry—you became so because you felt you weren’t being heard or validated. That’s the real issue.

It’s what lies under that anger that is the true problem.

Perhaps it taps into a childhood where you felt invisible and dismissed. Or a loveless marriage in which you were deemed disposable. Whatever it is, that’s what you’re experiencing and reliving. Not the inconsequential tiff you and your partner have had. That, and your anger caused by it, is the just gateway to those deeper buried feelings.

And that’s the truly horrible part about triggers. The things they make resurface have been deeply buried by your subconscious for a reason—they’re brutal recollections. The trigger itself could be relatively minor; the things that follow after it are most definitely not.

And having to relive those potent feelings of hurt, confusion, and abandonment from that time again is grim. 

As they’ve been stewing in your subconscious, they’ve grown more potent. Victims of PTSD say that it’s not so much the actual event that caused their trauma that is the problem; it’s the nightmares about it. Over time, they seemed to have become more powerful than the original cause.

So, you’re not just reliving those horrible events again; you’re reliving them with added interest. And again. And again. Those horrible feelings resurface, and you get caught in a loop of misery. And it’s all thanks to the trigger.

This person’s name is one for me. It reminds me of a time in my own life where my life and my sanity plummeted to depths I’d never before experienced.

It’s been a year since my breakdown and admittance to a psychiatric ward. Every day represents a tiny step away from that vile period of my life. But that name pulls me back there all over again. It triggers a remembrance of all the feelings I had at that time.

In an act of synchronicity, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t done on purpose; it was also approaching the exact one year anniversary of the day I was admitted. To be fair, it was a subject my mind was already mulling over; that name was a push I, quite frankly, didn’t need.

Every time I saw that name, I was, briefly, back in the courtyard of the ward one year earlier, rereading text messages I didn’t understand, feeling lost, confused, lonely, and broken. Feeling as if I was nothing.

Nothing.

And that’s a horrible feeling to experience.

Yet, as uncomfortable as the brief cyberstalking was, it was actually good for me. Really—it was! For a start, I now know that the name is a trigger—nothing more, nothing less.

The name (and the person behind it) will never be meaningless, but neither had the power I had given them. My subconscious had entwined that word with a certain period of my life; every time I saw that name, I had an almost Pavlovian recall of that time. Like all triggers, that name was just a portal back to a miserable time, and once it had been opened, the Trojan horse had gleefully ridden though, spilling all of the accumulated trauma everywhere. 

I doubt if there will be any further contact, but I know I won’t tie myself up in emotional knots if there is. Because this also showed me that I’m not where I want to be.

And that was the big issue: Despite my best attempts to convince myself I was better, I blatantly wasn’t. I wasn’t even as fractionally healed as I thought I was.

If one name can pull me back, then I guess I need to let myself be pulled back, and reach a greater degree of understanding and closure on it all. Maybe the answers I’ve arrived at aren’t working, and I need to find some better ones.

As hard as I’m working on me, this episode was a stark reminder that there’s still a lot of unresolved trauma to work through. Not just in negating the influence of those triggers, but in the trauma behind them.

I may have left that ward a year ago, but its influence can still be felt. And it’s shown me that I’m going to have to approach social media differently for a while; given the array of potential triggers online, I need to be cautious.

If one name can cause the spiral of unease it did, then I’ve still got many more miles to travel on my journey. I’m not there yet. But, knowing how I can get there, knowing what I do need to work on, was a priceless insight.

And, bizarrely, I have Instagram to thank for this one.

~

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