Watch Out for Invisible Gorillas

There have been few times when I have seen the doctor’s office so busy – every couch, every chair, and every corner already taken by heavily pregnant women and their adoring partners, several with infants in car seats or talkative toddlers nestled at their feet. I try to avert my eyes, shielding them from the many protruding bellies or beautiful babies, only to find when I turn my gaze to the walls that they too are covered with pictures of bellies and babies.

My breathing grows shallow and anxious. I feel trapped.

There is no way to avoid hearing the two pregnant women sitting next to me excitedly comparing what genders they are hoping their babies will be, seemingly without a care in the world, oblivious in their happiness to the possibilities that not all babies are born and not all mothers make it. Illogically, I want to warn them, but then I realize that most likely their babies will indeed be born beautiful and healthy and these women will continue on in their blissful ignorance of the potential pain that they escaped. So instead, I stay quiet and try to block out the sounds of their unjaded joy.

My ears perk every time a nurse enters with a clipboard, frantic for her to finally call my name. I am desperate to escape the too loud happiness of the waiting room.

“This is torture,” I angrily muse. “Pure, psychological torture. There should be a safe space for the mothers of stillborn babies.”

This is an extreme example of a moment repeated for us dozens of times a day.

Heroically, Patrick faithfully screens every episode of “House Hunters” that we watch – “Oh good, they’re old!” he exclaims, relieved from the fear of a surprise pregnancy announcement at the end – and he mutes every commercial featuring a baby. Count them one day, and you will notice, as we cannot help but notice, that pregnant women and babies dominate the airwaves. Advertisers seem keen to prey on humanity’s most basic biological urges – food, sex, and procreation. Babies make especially great hucksters. The diaper commercials are obvious. But tiny toddlers plugging Apple products can catch us off guard.

Add to this other moments – discovering yet another friend is pregnant on Facebook; the baby photo contest that unexpectedly greets me in a meeting at work; the stranger who unknowingly asks us how many children we have…

Most call these unexpected disturbances TRIGGERS. I like to call them “INVISIBLE GORILLAS.”

(You must watch this video, or this next part won’t make any sense…)

Belated SPOILER ALERT! I’m sorry if the title gave it away. Just in case, here is another brain game to test your wits further. This clip from National Geographic’s “Brain Games” does an excellent job explaining this strange psychological phenomenon.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “selective attention” or “selective perception.”

As they theorize, the brain can only take in and process so much information at a time. When it becomes overwhelmed by outer stimuli, your brain must then choose and prioritize what it will focus on in a given moment. Like a spotlight, the mind will zero in and direct its attention to the basketball players passing the ball or on the girls in green doing double dutch, for example. But in doing so, it may miss the giant gorilla or the dancing chicken entirely. Blinded by the brain’s focus, the gorilla becomes invisible…

…unless you are looking for it.

Living in a world of triggers feels like living surrounded by giant and dangerous gorillas, all ready to pounce and to pulverize us. Our brains’ spotlights are constantly on edge and on the lookout for them. Defensively, we seek these gorillas out before they can hurt us. Suddenly, there are babies, pregnant bellies, and other overwhelming triggers everywhere. And when we see them, these giant gorillas are so big and so obvious to us that it seems impossible that they are actually invisible to the blinded world around us. Usually, the world just does not see, like we do, that these beautiful babies are really gorillas wearing a dangerous disguise.

Sometimes babies come with trigger warnings; most often, they don’t.

This week, for example, I appreciated when my boss pulled me aside to let me know that a colleague had her baby. I find that the gorillas are less powerful when I know that others can see them too. If I am prepared in advance for an announcement and it is not sprung on me in surprise, I can handle it much better.

However, even the most well-intentioned people may not see every gorilla or know when one is attacking me.

Also at work this week, I cried tears of gratitude as I thanked my colleagues during our staff meeting for all of their support and compassion after the stillbirth of our sons. They clapped and welcomed me back, expressing their own gratitude for my health and for the chance that they had to attend the funeral. My colleagues have been so helpful and so compassionate for us, and since they were aware of my pain and that I have been so open with my grief, I just assumed that they could see my gorillas too. After all, my boss had just evidenced his sensitivity when he told me about my coworker’s baby in private.

However, what makes invisible gorillas so dangerous is the fact that they are invisible. In the moment immediately after my heartfelt and heart wrenching announcement of gratitude, my boss moved down to the next item on the agenda, which I had not seen – a baby photo contest. In my absence, each of my colleagues had submitted a baby photo so everyone could guess which photo belonged to each person. Caught off guard, I was completely unprepared when the projector screen raised slowly to reveal a wall full of baby pictures – each baby actually a gorilla in disguise. 

It is almost impossible to explain what triggers do to my psyche when they attack. In an indescribable way, each baby’s face in those pictures caused me to flashback to the faces of my own babies, like a stabbing reminder of my grief. But because I was in public, I had to feign composure, and no one else could see the pain and the damage that these invisible gorillas had caused.

I know that I am not the only one who lives in a world full of invisible gorillas. Others are in pain fighting gorillas that I too may not see. This is, in part, why trigger warnings and safe spaces have become so prevalent. Typically, trigger warnings have been used at the beginning of writings or accompanying syllabi to warn survivors of trauma, such as sexual violence, crime, or torture, of content that may disturb or “trigger” them. As writer Melissa McEwan explains, “We provide trigger warnings because they give survivors of various stripes the option to assess whether they’re in a state of mind to deal with triggering material before they stumble across it.”  

Critics complain that it is further evidence of the oversensitivity of my generation. Trigger warnings and safe spaces have become for some, as one person described, “a shorthand way to complain about privileged millennials.” (Check out this CNN article for both sides of the debate).

Maybe my fear of babies is indeed babyish. Maybe, in time, it will be better to face my gorillas head on rather than working so hard to avoid them. I am not sure.

But I know for me and for others that until we are ready for that battle, a little more sensitivity wouldn’t hurt. 

So for now at least, watch out for those invisible gorillas – they’re on the loose. 

3 thoughts on “Watch Out for Invisible Gorillas

  1. This is a great blog about “invisible gorillas.” My heart goes out to you and Patrick. I am always thinking of you. I feel badly that you have to go through this as a young couple. I wanted to share with you that I’m so able to relate to this trigger. For many years, I felt the same way and all alone. I would run home and call my mom in tears, sharing with her my innermost thoughts. If mom wasn’t free, I called my sister. They were the only two I could call on.

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  2. Incredible blog Jenna. So sorry for your pain. Always praying for you and Patrick, and prayers to Heaven for Ezra and Leo.

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  3. My husband and I lost our son to stillbirth at 37 weeks in Nov 2016 (we also have a 2 year old). I resonate with every single thing you write. I have been so torn about not only having to be so consumed by grief and loss, but also jealously and anger. You just can’t have one without a plethora of other feelings. We also screen tv shows, have started sitting toward the front in church, and avoid places filled with babies. I am slowly coming around but it is a cruel reminder in the beginning.

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