The Song That Haunts Me: My Trigger Story
He was playing that song a long time ago. It was his favorite song. “It’s a classic,” he typed back to me on AIM. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
But I listened to the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody before I heard the song. It didn’t seem that beautiful to me. In fact, knowing my childhood boyfriend at the time, I saw it as a sign of something bigger at play. He had told my fifteen-year-old self that he was cutting himself because his home life was… less than desirable, and it made him forget about it for a while.
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality
Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see,
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go
Little high, little low
Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me, to me
Nothing about that sounded happy or beautiful to me. I didn’t realize that song would haunt me for over a decade, when I first read those lyrics.
I also didn’t know, at fifteen years old, was how popular that song really was, and I didn’t know that I would have constant run-ins in public places with that song that everyone loved so much.
After I ended our inhumane, manipulative, mentally abusive relationship (yes, at 15 — people start young with learning bad habits!), I hadn’t heard the song again until I was coming out of my first college ballroom competition. We were waiting for the train from Harvard Square when someone started playing the song on their phone and people started joining along.
Why do I recognize this song? It sounds familiar. Easy come, eas — ohmyGoditsthesong.
And just like that, I started having flashbacks in my mind’s eye that first time…
“I can’t believe you tried to break up with me,” he said, angry and frustrated. I had hurt him again. I didn’t want to have sex with him (I had only discovered what sex even was pretty recently), and I was getting tired of him telling me what he wanted and pressuring me into things I wasn’t sure I wanted, and deciding that my hesitations meant that we should try it. Many nights hiding in the forest next to the movie theaters touching each other, which was really him touching me and guiding my hands where I wasn’t sure they wanted to go.
“You know, I’ll probably hate you forever if you actually broke up with me.”
And something snapped in me at that moment. I couldn’t take it. That was the last straw. My mind whipped into motion. We weren’t old enough to drive yet, so he couldn’t come over easily unless his parents drove him (unlikely). We didn’t have cell phones yet; we only had the landline, and that was easy to take care of after hanging up.
I managed to croak out his name in a wavering voice and continue my final spoken words to him: “Start… start hating.” Click.
The phone promptly began ringing in my hand. I hung it up immediately. Click, click. The phone rang again almost immediately. Click, click. This happened a couple more times before I returned the wireless landphone to the charging station. “Mom, don’t pick that phone up if this name shows up on the caller ID.” My mom took it a step further: she unhooked the landline so the calls wouldn’t come through for the next half hour.
I’d find out one month later that he was on suicide watch in a mental health hospital. He had written a note to his friends, and he had wrote about me in it. He blamed me for his mental condition. When the cops came in to get him from his room when his parents couldn’t get the door down, he was found still alive but mulling over the prospect of killing himself with “Bohemian Rhapsody” playing in the background. That should have been my sign when he first played that song for me so long ago.
Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body’s aching all the time
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooh (any way the wind blows)
I don’t wanna die,
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
I felt tears start streaming, and between the echos of the song I could feel the whimpers start to emerge from my mouth. I threw my sweatshirt’s hoodie over my head and hid my face, the first of many times I would attempt to hide my face during these quiet episodes. I can’t make a scene, I thought to myself. They’ll think something is wrong. I can’t let them think something’s wrong with me.
The entire ride home I felt so off. My overall excitement for my first ballroom competition luckily overshadowed this event in that moment, but this didn’t mean that this situation had resolved.
March 2013. A frat party at WPI. I had come to this house to have a good time with friends that night, but then some familiar songs started playing. I found myself promptly running out of the room and burrying my face into the nearest couch as the song played from another room.
May 2015. I was in a karaoke bar and the song started playing. I ran to the bathroom to escape the music, but it just echoed muffled in the distance. Each note still reached my ears as tears silently streamed down my face.
July 2016. Walking down to the Esplanade in Boston on the Fourth of July after a lovely day at Fenway Park I hear the Boston Pops playing a medley of music. At one point the familiar unusually-happy tone of the bridge from the song plays and I find my knees getting weak and my heart pounding as I realize I have no way to escape amongst these tens of thousands of people. Luckily, I only had to endure for ten seconds, but the after effects mean I chug water in hopes of quenching this fiery fear that struck me as my friends rub my back. “You need to get over this song,” one of them says to me. No shit, I remember thinking amongst my angst. I noticed myself pulling away even further from these two people as one of them had hurt me gravely in the past as well and I was suddenly very aware that it was never resolved. I’m surrounded by people I don’t want to be around in this moment, and I want a hug from someone that is none of these people.
August 2016. I’m in Portland at a karaoke bar and everyone is shouting for joy about singing this song. I had just got a friend to overcome his fear of performing, so it seemed fitting that I should also overcome my fear of this song, especially since I really didn’t want this moment and this evening to end as soon as this song played. It was my first time sitting through the entire song, and I silently cried in a corner discreetly while everyone else sang along. I may have tried to join in, but I just moved my lips really quietly as words barely squeaked out of my lips. I felt my inner self look at this from a distance, and despite the disconnect I was feeling to everyone’s excitement for this song I realized for the first time I was okay with being a wallflower. I endured this song and the pain it struck me with for a few more minutes and tried to transition back into Happy-Sam mode. I felt much more vulnerable and tender than I normally do, but a kind German man that I had my attention on brightened my mood up without being aware that I was hurting at the time. The rest of the night goes much, much better than I could have imagined it would after being exposed to that song.
Many other experiences in between too of course, but these are the ones that stick out most in my mind.
You may notice that I don’t describe any other flashbacks associated with that first real exposure in Harvard station. That’s because I don’t have any these days if I hear the song. They’re just feelings that get invoked in me. The most prominent and clear one I can describe is a feeling of violation.
So what do I want if I’m triggered like this? It varies, but here’s how it usually goes:
- I don’t want the center of attention on me unless I ask for it. In fact, putting the focus on me makes me even more self-conscious that I’m ruining something for everyone else, and I really don’t want to do that. I’m okay with not drawing attention to me unless I ask one or two people for help.
- I want to cry it out. If I don’t, I just end up getting put into high-functionality mode and have this undue need to throw myself into something of great importance. This may be helpful energy at times, but if there’s nothing to direct it at it’s frustrating and does even more damage. Crying it out tires me faster and reduces that need.
- I want the song to stop. This goes without saying, but hearing more of the song, especially more of the lyrics specifically, really invokes more violated feelings in me.
- I want a hug, but not just from anybody and definitely not without asking first. I may ask for it from a specific person. If it’s from someone I don’t want in that moment (which, by the way, just because it’s not you in that moment doesn’t mean that I don’t like you at all. It’s just the way I feel in that moment), it makes me feel guilty and even more violated. I would like the option to pick who I get a hug from and not feel guilty about it. This isn’t always something I get to do, and I don’t usually feel comfortable with this because I don’t know how people will react.
- I want sympathy, but empathy is better for me. I see sympathy as someone feeling bad for me. I see empathy as someone understanding where I’m coming from. Sympathy is great because then I feel less alone, but empathy means the person is trying to understand where I’m coming from more and I appreciate that much more. It feels deeper and reconnects me to something other than this violated feeling.
This is a bit scary to put out there because as someone in a healing industry it feels odd to admit that I have this tender side of me that isn’t healed yet. But I don’t believe anyone is incapable of helping others just because they don’t have every aspect of their life taken care of. I’ve learned to put this in a container so I can still function and let myself recover properly, and I’ve taken the time to see my limits on this particular aspect. It’s just not fully recovered yet. And I hope that my readers can understand that this is not me asking for help but me being open about my life and if you experience something remotely similar, you’re not alone.