Book Review: Trigger by Susan Vaut

Trigger warning LOL very graphic book! About failed suicide attempt by gunshot, severe brain damage

Have seen this title on teen reading lists for a few years now and have absolutely wanted to read it. But it hasn’t been on bookshare until recently.

Jersey is 17. A year ago he was athletic, on the ROTC army program, popular and made good grades. Now his whole left side is very uncoordinated, he can’t use his hand or balance well. He has to write down absolutely everything to remember it. His most pronounced problem is that every word that comes into his head, whether it’s what someone has just said, or from totally unrelated inner thought processes he is compelled to repeat over and over again out loud. Jersey did not get in a car accident or attacked. Though for awhile he tries to convince himself he might have. For reasons he can no longer remember, he took his dad’s gun and shot himself in the head sustaining major brain damage. After three hospitalizations including a long stay at a rehabilitation center he is home and trying to piece together himself and his life.

It’s not common to read books about people with brain injury/ brain damage. This is the first book I’ve read about the subject. I was instantly pulled into Jersey’s world as he struggles to walk a few feet, do everything with one hand, and to carry on a simple conversation without inserting complete nonsense words. It is painful when he interacts with the “ghost of his past self” who spends a good portion of the book berating him and telling him he’s a loser and there’s no hope for him having any kind of life. It’s extremely traumatic I would think to sustain that level of injury, especially the parts that are invisible like how hard it is for him to even string one clear sentence together, but to know you caused it must be unimaginable.

I’ve also never read any books from suicide attempt survivors so this was truly eye opening.

Jersey tries to manage his life through lists and containing his disorderly thoughts in a memory book, that he carries constantly. Things the hospital psychologist recommended were to find out why his former friend, Todd hated him, get back into school, take a drivers test, and other normal teen things. But first he must visit Mama Rush, Todd’s grandmother and a close friend of the family. Todd and his sister Liza, and Mamma Rush seem like they were very much a part of Jersey’s life before. But now things are strained and uncomfortable with Liza, and Todd won’t speak to him at all. Neither will any other of Jersey’s past friends.

His first task on the list is to give Mama Rush the presents he made her, pottery, at the hospital. While his parents struggle in their own way to even look at and try to make conversation with him, others just stare, and old friends refuse to speak to him Mama Rush is a tell it like it is person. Doesn’t treat him with any pity, or even much sympathy for what happend. She has a feerce respect for him, and very high expectations. She holds him one hundred percent accountable for what happened. Makes him face the reality that he did this to himself and hurt a lot of people, and basically says what everyone is thinking but won’t say. That they need to know why he did, and that he does too if he’s gonna have any kind of chance at being able to choose to live.

At first Mama’s attitude towards him borders on the mean, very harsh and at first it’s hard to see her talking to him how she does. But quickly you see that it’s because she loves him so much. Loves him enough not to let him sink into self-pity or not take responsibility for what his actions cost him. She does know that he genuinely can not remember.

Sadly the presents fell on the way to coming to see her that first time. So while Jersey tries to work on the puzzle of what happened she spends time in between their visits glueing together the gifts as best she can. She told him some things just can’t be fixed which is an apt metaphor for how he has to handle life now.

It is remarkable that he is able to navigate the physical mental and emotional impact of his head injury, (physically he has blindingly painful headaches much of the time, mentally has to struggle to focus, emotionally he is so overwhelmed) while going back to school and facing his past life.

Each day is a fight whether it’s inside his head, dealing with others reactions, or the silence and mounting tention at home. His father doesn’t know quite what to do other than cook healthy bad tasting meals. His mom is the hardest to deal with as she can barely face him, and lashes out several times in anger. It’s painful to see her struggle, know she has been through as much trauma as he has but so wishing she could be there for her son more.

As Jersey c crosses off and continues to look for more reasons to add to his list h he reconnects with Liza who becomes as helpful to him in all this as Mama rush treating him with the same no holds barred b brutal honesty and pushing him to accept what has happened and look outside himself. The theme of selfishness is big in this book, as it appeared that a lot of what happened before was due to him being self-centered and not seeing how he was affecting others. And now his brain injury does genuinely impair this ability a lot of it due to all the work necessary to just hold it together enough to function.

The book takes a lot of twists and turns and it’s honestly a hard call til the last turning point, whether Jersey can survive the aftermath of his attempt or whether he will try again and be successful.

The ending to the book is hopeful but realistic. Continuing on it’s clear that Jersey and all others in his life still have much healing to do and hard work. But everyone came to a place of at least acceptance of how Jersey is now and not holding on to who he was before. Self forgiveness and those closest to him forgiving him will take a very long time if it happens at all.

As I said before I never read anything on these subjects. Someone sustaining permanent and disabling injury from a suicide attempt and how they then move on. Honestly for myself if it were me I’d feel more like ending my life than before it happened. For him to want to live enough to face his past and want to find answers, rather than denying his part in things is a huge testament to his courage and insight and need to repair things with all his loved ones

Despite the completely dark and triggering subject matter there is quite a lot of humor in this book. His family’s lack of knowing how to best help him is balanced by the big personalities of Mama Rush and Liza, and there are really funny scenes about his jumbled words getting the best of him and ways he tries to prevent this.

So I highly recommend this book. I’m glad it’s finally on bookshare so I could read it. Hope I can get it on audio, advocate for it to be.

At the end of the book there are great resources and explanations for why someone would be suicidal. Like Jersey found out it’s rarely one big reason why something like that happens, but a bunch of interconnected things building up. There is also an awesome interview with the author, who used her personal experience as a neuro psychologist as the foundation of the book, having guided families through the aftermath of their loved ones completed suicides, or like Jersey, to help someone into their new life with brain injury.

Would love to hear others thoughts on the book and any other similar titles that deal with suicide attempt survivors or brain injury.

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