I have had PTSD, the result of severe and prolonged domestic violence, for over nine years. I am actively in therapy; I attend both one-on-one counseling and a peer support group every week. I regularly engage in mindfulness practices like yoga, exercise, intentional breathing, or mindful cooking and playing. I know how to use grounding practices to help myself out of a flashback. I am learning how to ask for help when I need it.
Nonetheless, I get triggered, at least slightly, almost every day. I expect this will be the case for the rest of my life. The experience of being triggered, for me, ranges from slight passing discomfort, to total day-long (or even week-long) debilitation.
The last time I was triggered was yesterday. My husband, in a fit of boisterous energy, slapped a paper cup that had been left on a garbage bin, knocking it to the ground. He wasn’t angry, and he wasn’t trying to trigger me; it was a benign, even playful motion. Just a random burst of energy that my husband, who used to train MMA religiously, turned into a moment of target practice. But it reminded me of a much darker moment when cups and cutlery were knocked to the ground.
I didn’t have a flashback; I guess the effects of this trigger could be categorized as an “intrusive thought.” I remembered, very suddenly, a date I went on with The Ex. We were having a late dinner at a Japanese restaurant. We’d ordered a fair amount of food, which amounted to a pretty hefty bill; Japanese-American food is not known for its low prices. About midway through the meal, a young waitress approached our table and informed us that the restaurant would be closing soon. I smiled, said okay, and resumed eating. She hadn’t kicked us out. As I recall, she didn’t even deliver the bill. But The Ex laid down his fork and began to stare. Not at anyone or anything; just a blank, inscrutable gaze. I would see it again, in my apartment, before he threw sour cream across my good friend’s hair and body just for the crime of holding my son. It’s the expression he makes when contemplating whether or not to give in to rage.
I have never seen him decide against rage.
After a moment of staring, of deciding, he swept his arm across the table, sending almost every cup, bowl, and plate shattering onto the floor.
“I’m sorry,” he said, in the bumbling ‘good-guy’ voice I’m now seeing him affect in court. “I’m sorry,” then sweeping what was left on the table to the floor. “I’m sorry,” the last few plates, the last cup, to the floor.
My husband didn’t mean to trigger me. And he hadn’t done anything wrong; the cup was discarded, empty. He put it in the trash after. He just wanted to practice his aim, to play around. Nonetheless, it triggered me.
And that’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in the use of trigger warnings.
The Great Trigger Warning Debate
Why I don’t use trigger warnings even though I’m an educated liberal with PTSD
It’s not that I don’t believe trauma survivors who say that reading graphic material triggers them. I do. That’s not my experience; I have never, that I can recall, been triggered by reading graphic material. A few very accurate rape scenes on screen have triggered me slightly, but even then, its rare for me to be triggered even by viewing graphic violence. Still, I believe other trauma survivors who say they are triggered that way. Triggers and trauma recovery are unique to the individual; we all respond differently to stimuli.
If you have PTSD and you get triggered by reading graphic material: I believe your experience. And I sympathize with it. Being triggered sucks. I do care.
I am also highly educated. I have advanced degrees. I have put in my time on a variety of college campuses including Emerson College, Seattle University, and Naropa University. I understand the debate. I’ve researched it. I get where both sides are coming from.
And I’m a liberal. A Pacific Northwest born, queer feminist raised on social inclusivity, who believes in abortion rights, marriage equality, gender neutral bathrooms, drug injection sites, gun screenings, nuclear disarmament, the immediate impeachment of Donald Trump, and even that college campuses should provide Safe Spaces (outside of regular classrooms) where vulnerable students should be able to go in order to communicate with others who come from similar backgrounds or experiences, without fear of mockery or discomfort.-That last part’s not an argument you’re going to hear a lot. Most everyone seems to conflate Safe Spaces with Trigger Warnings, and most people stand on the same side of both arguments. I do believe it is appropriate for an institution of higher learning, notorious for inspiring extreme stress and from which 11% of students can expect to leave having been sexually assaulted, to host spaces in which certain student populations can commune and expect to be safe, for a short, specific time period, from certain specific types of stressors.
But I’m still not going to put trigger warnings on my writing, or advocate that anyone else use them.
-That’s Not How All Triggers Work
Like I said, if your triggers work that way, I believe you. If the things that trigger you come neatly packaged and able to be labeled; if it’s a direct translation from graphic depictions of trauma similar to yours, to anxiety, panic, and flashbacks: your experience is different than mine, but I believe you.
I also believe that it is your responsibility to cope with a world full of triggers, and to learn how to help yourself when your body reacts to them. And I don’t believe that those are the only things that trigger you.
Even if people are triggered by stories which depict rape or war or child abuse, if they have PTSD, they are probably also triggered by things like the scent of fresh baked apple pie, hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, or the crunch of gravel underfoot. And it is simply impossible to place trigger warnings on those things.
There is no way to place a trigger warning on everything that triggers me, or on everything that triggers other people with acute PTSD. If that were the case, if it were a requirement to plaster a trigger warning across every single stimuli that could trigger symptoms, then the entire world would be forced to sport a trigger warning. As unfair as it is, part of life with PTSD is learning to cope with being triggered. Placing trigger warnings on certain texts promotes the delusional belief that those of us with PTSD can tiptoe around our triggers; that avoidance is a real coping mechanism. It’s not, and anybody living with PTSD who believes that she can get through life without experiencing a trigger simply by avoiding anything that comes with a trigger warning, is going to face a very difficult, and possibly lethal, awakening.
-Triggers Can Lead To Suicide
It’s true: Having one’s PTSD triggered can lead to suicidal ideation or even action. I have experienced this myself. The last time I was triggered to the point of suicidal ideation, was this past Mother’s Day. That’s right, as recently as that, because those thoughts get triggered pretty often. It’s less common now that I get triggered to the point of an actual attempt, but that has happened too. The last time was my twenty-eighth birthday.
The Mother’s Day trigger was a combination of my normal holiday-based depression and anxiety, coupled with a perception that I had been ignored by a group of people who I’d reached out to for support. The birthday trigger was just that; I was triggered by the fact that it was my birthday, and that my twenty-eighth birthday specifically was the ten year anniversary of a vicious assault.
I understand how lethal triggers can be. I also understand that it is my responsibility to recognize what my worst triggers are, so that I can ensure that I have extra care in place. For me, that means arming myself with more opportunities for self-care around holidays and birthdays. That means reaching out to friends and family for support around those times, and preparing myself emotionally in case those requests are denied. That maybe means not celebrating certain holidays, or celebrating them indoors so that I can avoid encountering even more triggers. Is that fair? Is it fair that I should have to tip toe around my own birthday? No, but that’s my reality and it’s my responsibility to work through it, and to seek appropriate spaces and supports to help me get through it.
Is it also unfair that, if your trauma is so acute you cannot sit through a class which discusses classical texts that deal with domestic violence, maybe you need to take a year off of school to engage in intensive therapy and self care? Yes, it is. That it is unfair does not change the fact that it may be your reality.
Being seriously triggered can lead to suicide. If a person is living under the belief that she can be safeguarded by the existence of trigger warnings, then she is at very high risk for being blind-sighted by an “unwarnable” trigger. And she may not have the tools or supports necessary in place to combat the feelings of deep helplessness and hopelessness which being seriously triggered can induce.
-Words Are Supposed To Have An Impact
I understand that for those who believe in the widespread implementation of trigger warnings, they are not intended as deterrents, but as ways for vulnerable people to “brace themselves” before reading a potentially disturbing text.
The problem is that trigger warnings are visible to everyone.
Words have the potential to have great impact. Believe me, I know that. I studied writing for the majority of my life and am in a great deal of debt because I have actively chased my deep desire to fully understand how to use words to their greatest efficacy. Words can be one of our most powerful tools; an explosive force of change.
Trigger warnings reduce the efficacy of words. That is, frankly, their intended purpose. And it’s the biggest reason they are so abhorrent to me.
Part of my mission is to use my blog, this “armory of words,” to open people’s eyes to the horror of my experience, so that I may enlist their real-world advocacy, compassion, and resources in the fight against domestic violence and rape culture. Part of my mission is to use words to help people understand the reality of living with mental illness, so that those who do not live with PTSD or another mental illness can feel, through the labors of language, a small tingle of a reality that is different from theirs; so that they may empathize and thus treat us with basic dignity and respect.
Part of my mission is to offer a place of compassion and understanding to other trauma survivors, which is why I have placed a “soft” trigger warning on my sidebar, telling everyone that my posts don’t come with trigger warnings; that the subject of this blog is trauma. I want others who have been through experiences similar to mine to be able to engage with me and this blog, but if they are not yet ready to read about trauma without being specially warned when and what they will be reading beforehand, then they need to take care of themselves until they are. I don’t mean that as a cruel statement: I mean that as a loving statement. This world can be beautiful and compassionate and loving, but it can also be cruel and ruthless and triggering. Those of us who are sensitive to the negative aspects of life need to get extra help combating them before throwing ourselves in full throttle.
My abuse was harsh, and unexpected, and shocking. When I write, especially when I write fiction or about real traumatic experiences, I mean for it to feel harsh and unexpected and shocking. I mean to make you uncomfortable. I do. I’ll admit this. Because how else are you going to understand how I felt? How else are you going to help me make sure no other little girl ever feels that again?
-Safely Experiencing Triggers Is Healthy
What? Being triggered is healthy?
Yes, in some cases, it can be.
Exposure therapy is a somewhat controversial form of therapy in which a person is assisted in facing a trigger or memory in a safe environment. It is somewhat controversial because some people believe it can cause retraumatization, but it is, in fact, a well established therapy for trauma disorders. I do believe that if performed in a reckless manner it can be problematic; for example, if a person gets pushed to verbally walk though a traumatic memory too quickly it can leave her feeling stripped and defenseless even after leaving the session.
I also believe that exposure therapy works, especially exposure therapy as applied to triggers (rather than memories). And I believe that “accidental” or self-performed exposure therapy, for triggers not memories, can work.
I believe that because I have done it.
There was once a street I avoided. I avoided it religiously. I would never walk down this street, because I had numerous traumatic memories on it. The Ex once threatened me with a knife on this street, before forcing me to accompany him to a motel where he would hold me hostage and beat me for three days.
On another occasion, on this same street, The Ex dragged me into a garage and repeatedly punched my head into the pavement floor.
I also had a friend, a girl, who lived on this street, and his baseless accusations that I had slept with her were a major reason I denied I was bisexual for many years.
So I avoided this street. For close to a decade.
Then, about two years ago, I moved into the apartment where I currently live. It’s downhill from a nice park with a playground, a wading pool, and a field. Being in Seattle, which is notorious for its weirdly plotted streets, there are several obstructions between my home and this park, even though the park is just a few blocks away. One of the few unobstructed routes between my building and this park, and the easiest to roll a stroller upon, utilizes this street.
At first, I didn’t want to walk on that street. I actually didn’t walk on it. I avoided it for a while. But then my littlest one was born and we upgraded to a double stroller. If you have never used a double stroller, please just believe that they are far more difficult to push uphill than a single stroller. It was no longer reasonable to avoid this street on the way to the park.
The first few times I walked down the street, I walked on the side opposite to the garage. I focused on a marker with a happy memory; a bush my friends and I had made a joke about and hugged after a party, before any of the assaults occurred.
I did this for a while, until I stopped feeling breathless and anxious while walking on the opposite side of that street. I did this until I could joke and laugh and carry on a conversation while walking on the opposite side of the street. I did this until one day, I was playing around with my daughters on the way to the park, and I did not notice that I had forgotten to cross the street until I was standing at the mouth of the garage.
I experienced a moment of terror, looking in on that dark place where I had been so deeply and intentionally harmed. I remembered how punch drunk I had been afterward, how I had stumbled down the very same sidewalk I’d be passing in just a few moments, The Ex’s arms holding me up, putting on a show of caring for his “inebriated” girlfriend.
I felt sad and scared and overwhelmed. But I had been walking that street for a while already. So, I took a moment to ground myself in the present, using my daughters’ voices and the feel of the stroller beneath my hands, which had not existed when all this occurred, as anchors, and then I went to the park. I may have been more anxious and alert that day, but eventually I would get past those feelings. I walk down that street almost every day now, with ease. Occasionally I will remember the incident, if the garage door is opened when we walk by, for example. But it passes. And now, those particular memories are not so hard to visit, even though they were terrible and deeply traumatic when they occurred.
Safely visiting triggers is healthy. It helps us to overcome those triggers, and it can help us heal from the associated trauma. I can think of nothing physically safer than a piece of writing. Writing will not harm you, nor rape you, nor rob you of your possessions. A written text will not send you to the hospital. A story will not kill you. If a text is a trigger, it is one of the safest triggers available. Being surprised by a trigger in a written work may actually help you, so that you can better overcome real-world triggers which may be less objectively safe.
-Triggers Warnings Are Not Supposed To Keep People From Being Uncomfortable
This is the part of the “Great Trigger Warning Debate” that really bugs me.
I can listen compassionately to a person with PTSD argue about the ways in which trigger warnings help her. I can recognize her experience as valid. I can be open minded and engage with her in respectful, honest debate.
But when people start bastardizing the whole reason trigger warnings were supposed to exist in the first place, I get pissed. I shut down.
Trigger warnings are not supposed to protect the general public from feeling uncomfortable. Yeah, there are subjects we’d rather avoid. Domestic violence, rape, racism, sexual harassment, and child abuse are a few examples. Those terrible truths about our world can be hard to face. For some of us, however, they are unavoidable. Trigger warnings are not an expression of privilege; they don’t exist to protect people from being uncomfortable.
Trigger warnings are not an expression of privilege; they don\’t exist to protect people from being uncomfortable
Too often, however, they are used that way. Trigger warnings have become an excuse for certain members of the white liberal elite to hide behind in order to avoid discussing certain uncomfortable truths.
In a parent blogging Facebook group I used to love but no longer participate in, one of the admins took an intense disliking to the guest post I published by an MHP about how to recognize and help trauma in children. This piece, as I mentioned, was written by a professional, who clearly took great care to word it in a safe and professional manner. It contains no graphic depictions of violence against children (or anyone else). With a focus on help and healing, it contains almost no depictions of violence against children at all, besides one short litany of possible traumas a child may experience. By no reasonable standard should this post have contained a trigger warning.
Yet this admin insisted that it include one, to the point that she placed one (within the context of the group) on it for me, giving permission to members of the thread to skip my post. Which of course is completely inappropriate and out of turn. It may make people uncomfortable to remember that children are capable of being traumatized, or that bad things happen to kids. But it is frankly negligent to be a child caretaker and not educate yourself about this possibility. And it is absolutely ludicrous to expect that an article that merely discusses the existence of an uncomfortable truth, and the ways in which to mediate its impact, bear a trigger warning.
-Trigger Warnings Are A Form Of Censorship
Someone’s going to get mad about this one, but in my opinion, trigger warnings amount to censorship. Especially when others place it on someone else’s work, like that admin did, or the way a professor does when placing a trigger warning on a classic text. It may be true that trigger warnings are supposed to function as aids and not deterrents, but they often in practice function as deterrents and excuses. Some teachers have even twisted trigger warnings to intentionally function as such. I have sat through numerous lectures in which the teacher offered a trigger warning as an opportunity for students to simply skip that class. Any writer is certainly allowed to self-censor; to lessen the potential impact of her statement because she believes protecting people from possible triggers is more important. I will not fault anyone for doing that to his or her own work. But don’t do it to another person’s writing. If a writer has not offered a trigger warning herself, don’t dull her message with one. Writing is a labor, and it is wrong to devalue an author’s labor when she has specifically chosen not to do that herself.
Survivors of trauma, especially traumatic assaults like rape and domestic violence, experience enough censorship. We are abused by the courts, silenced by the police, denigrated by the media, and even discriminated against by social media. To provide a recent, concrete example: I was the target of this recently when Facebook allow me to post this image:
and not this one:
Seriously, as survivors we are silenced, censored, and robbed of power enough. Our texts at least should remain pristine; privileged with as much power as we ourselves ascribe them.
I do believe in safe spaces. I do believe that they should exist on campuses, in the community, and at home. If a person does become seriously triggered by a piece of writing or conversation, or anything else really-those other types of triggers exist on campuses and workplaces and streets too-he should have somewhere calming and safe to go. I do believe that certain targeted populations should be allowed to create exclusive communities where they bond over their shared identities and experiences.
As members of a society, we have a responsibility to care for one another. Implementing and creating localized safe spaces (not an entire campus, but a designated room or two on campus) is a way of doing that. We can also educate ourselves on the signs of anxiety or panic in others, and how to help.
Writing affecting texts about controversial subjects, making art, and creating movies that are not intended to simply titillate audiences but rather to raise awareness and promote empathy, is another way that we can take responsibility for the care and support of traumatized people. Choosing to engage in a world without trigger warnings is another.
The Great Trigger Warning Debate is ongoing. Where do you fall? Do you agree that trigger warnings are unnecessary and even harmful? Or do you believe that they are an important component of caring for the mentally ill? I welcome comments on either side of the debate; go ahead and try to change my opinion, but please keep your comments respectful. I realize that many people have very strong feelings on this subject, so if you feel yourself getting heated, please step back and breathe for a moment before leaving your comment.
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Til next time!