About six months ago, a storm drain built over the ravine started to show some signs of structural issues--cracks in the pavement nearby, sagging curbstone, a general air of instability. But it wasn't major; and though I saw it every day, I never really thought much of it. Eventually the storm drain grate detached and fell into the storm drain, and the city put a barrier near the storm drain so that nobody would fall in (unless they were being spectacularly unwise enough to climb over the barrier and jump in, I suppose.) Problem solved, right?
But, like many towns in the USA, mine has been recently deluged by record rainfalls.
As you can see, half the road has now collapsed. The photo doesn't really do it justice; the sinkhole is at least three feet deep and the edges are still crumbling. We may lose the entire section of road that bridges that creek bed, but nobody can fix it until the soil isn't as saturated. So the road is closed to all but pedestrians on the opposite sidewalk.
Here's how I figure it happened.
First there was a culvert that wasn't built properly. Or maybe it wasn't maintained properly. Maybe it was weathered and should have been replaced ages ago. But, however it was, eventually, through time and weather that exceeded the limits of the structure's tolerance, gradually the culvert weakened.
Those of us walking above had no idea that anything was happening down below. The road still looked perfectly sturdy, still held up cars just as it should.
Eventually, the part of the road that took the most stress started showing signs of strain--those little cracks, the sagging curb.
But even then we didn't realize there was a problem. After all, old roads sag all the time. And that storm drain, after all, should have been replaced ages ago. The cracks looked normal. Pavement cracks all the time.
Then... the persistent storms. And the sinkhole. Which was decidedly not normal.
If I didn't know better, I might have thought that it was the storm that had single-handedly caused the road to collapse. I might insist that we should all stay off the roads when it rained, for fear they might give way under us. Or maybe I might insist that we should learn how to control the rain, in order to protect our roads.
But I do know better. What caused that sinkhole wasn't that one month of rain; it was all the months beforehand, wearing away at a weak structure that wasn't properly maintained. It was caused by all the times workers ignored the cracks and ignored the sagging curb. The rainstorms were little more than a coup de grace.
Yes, this is going to be used as an allegory. You should know my style by now.
Let's talk about triggers.
If you don't know what a trigger is--basically, it's a word that's part of the online mental-health community, and it has a really wide definition. A trigger is something that you're sensitive to--something you don't have the tools to cope with. Being exposed to it can really ruin your day. For a rape survivor, a trigger might be a description of rape. For an overwhelmed school-age autistic, a trigger might be an unexpected assembly instead of English class. For a veteran with PTSD, Fourth-of-July fireworks might trigger flashbacks. For someone with migraines, flashing lights might be a trigger. There are triggers for just about everything, from meltdowns to suicide attempts to seizures. It's generally considered polite to warn about the obvious ones, or the ones that your friends have told you affect them.
It's a handy concept. Explaining "That's a trigger for me" is a good shorthand for informing your online friends, "This is something I don't want to be exposed to; I'm here to have fun, so let's not go there." It works.
But I think we often overlook something. Triggers, in this case, are a lot like those heavy rainstorms we had the night before the road collapsed. On the surface, it looks like it's the triggers that cause whatever upset results from them.
Let's go specific to autism. It may look like the kid having a meltdown because English class was usurped by an assembly is having the meltdown only because of that specific event. In fact, teachers, parents, and therapists are encouraged to make a list of each child's "meltdown triggers", so that these can be avoided or dealt with somehow.
But we forget that triggers aren't the cause of meltdowns, any more than that one rainstorm caused the road to collapse.
Just like the road had weaknesses to begin with, autistics don't have the sensory and cognitive equipment to deal with a lot of stuff that's trivial to deal with if you're NT. That means vulnerability to stress. What kind of stress varies with the individual, but just like that road wasn't built to take what it was exposed to, we're not built to take some of what we're exposed to.
But just those weaknesses didn't make the road collapse inevitable. After all, there were signs before it happened. The problem was, the workers ignored those signs and didn't do any repairs. If they had, that road might still be in one piece.
What happens with autistic meltdowns is a lot like that: First, there's a weakness--the mismatch between the autistic brain-wiring and the NT world. Then, little cracks start to form. Things get a little shakier. Often times, we ignore the cracks because they don't look that severe, and just push ourselves or our kids harder, believing that more effort is all we really need to get back up to par. We might even call ourselves lazy. I know I do.
That can only go so long before the inevitable rainstorm undercuts the last of the support, erodes away the last of the coping skills, and the collapse happens.
The misconception here is blaming the trigger for the meltdown, or the shutdown, or the burnout, or regression, or whatever tends to happen to you when you try to force yourself past your limits. You might blame finals week; you might blame a move; you might blame the new schedule or the highway they built outside your house.
But that's just blaming the rainstorm for the sinkhole. In reality, that last event--the one that caused the final collapse--is little more than an inevitable result of a long-term issue.
Triggers alone won't cause a collapse. Ever. You need more than that. To cause a collapse, you need vulnerability plus stress plus not dealing with the cracks when they start to show up.
And to prevent a collapse, you can cut the cycle anywhere along that line. You can, for example, remove exposure to the vulnerability. Say you have an issue with polyester clothing--don't force yourself to wear polyester. Or you can deal with the stress before it gets to the point of causing cracks--down time, freedom to de-stress without demands placed on you.
Of course, you could just remove all the triggers; but that's not a very good solution at all. If you don't deal with the underlying issues--if you don't deal with the stress before it becomes overwhelming--then you're going to end up teetering on the edge so precariously that any small thing would knock you right over it.