Of Trigger Warnings and Why We Need Them

I’ve come to the end of the worst work week I’ve had in many, many years and had a day or so to reflect on what transpired and how it affected me and what I’ve learned. As happens so frequently, I have found salvation in something I have read. If my confusion and angst and fear and distress were all locked in a room deep in the recesses of a castle, I had to find the key to let that darkness out in order to begin to move on. I found that key last night when I opened Neil Gaiman’s new collection of short stories called Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances. I ordered this book on a whim on Thursday evening when I placed an order for a stand-alone turntable. It came yesterday, and though I haven’t even opened the box with the turntable yet, I found myself drawn to Gaiman’s book, and by the fire last night, with the ground outside under an icy white blanket and the wind howling, I read his introduction and the dungeon door was opened.

In his opening essay, Gaiman writes, “There are things that upset us….I’m thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming….And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead” (xi). Oh, indeed. Gaiman’s words articulated for me exactly what I felt this past week and helped push me to a place where, having seen the way the past intermingled with the present, I could come to understand more what I needed to learn.

Without going into a lot of detail, I will say that my workplace situation, which seems at this point, to be resolved (knock on wood three times for luck that it shall remain so), became a trigger for me. The problem truly came when I least expected it, so no “trigger warning” was evident at all. Had there been a trigger warning, would I have taken steps to avoid the situation? Most likely. But that might only serve to undercut growth, as Gaiman indicates. For those who may not be familiar with the phrase’s meaning, a trigger warning is a disclaimer placed on an article, video, or some other form of media, that tells the audience ahead of time of contents which might disturb, upset, cause flashbacks, or psychological distress. Certainly some triggers can cause enormous distress to those with PTSD, but Gaiman wonders (as do I) if placing trigger warnings on everything will only make us avoid anything we MIGHT fund unpleasant or difficult. In other words, if we apply the concept of the trigger warning not just to what we read or view but to what we live, will we seek to avoid anything that might hurt, insulating ourselves from experience? Most likely.

In any case, I came to an awareness this past week that the events at work left me feeling a sense of fear, apprehension, anxiety, and anger. I felt betrayed and vulnerable. I found myself saying to others that ordinarily I felt tough as nails but that this left me desperate for a mate to protect me. As I found my footing, I felt my need for a protector recede, and I appealed to my friends and colleagues and family for help, which made me realize I did not need a mate after all. But that initial instinct to cling to the very idea of a significant other, I thought, was telling, for what felt like an attack on me from many sides opened that door to the past which, as Gaiman says, is certainly not dead, but beating like a second heart in the recesses of my body, wounded and faint, but still alive.

I realized that feeling attacked and fearful only opened the door to the way I felt at the end of my marriage, and any time I feel triggered, my mind and my body remembers. I read before that the body can store emotional responses in the way it can store physical ones and intermingle the two. And so if you ordinarily feel in your bones your worsening arthritis every time it rains, you have a learned response in your very joints. And if that first time someone betrayed you your pulse races as you try to contain your shock and grief, then this, too, will return when someone else triggers those emotions.

I thought it intriguing to realize that my first reaction upon feeling scared was to want a husband–and in some way, probably, want my ex-husband here, 5 years after things ended, to fight my battles…but later, my second reaction upon feeling scared was to realize that the problems in the present only served to echo the fears I felt five years ago when my ex-husband, my betrayer, abandoned me. So by the end of the week, it wasn’t even the present situation that was the problem, but the past, which I thought had died.

By the wee hours of Saturday morning, my sleep was troubled, not by the images and people from the present who had made my week so trying, but by nightmares of persecution, filled with faceless angry individuals chasing me down. My nightmares were consumed by videos of me hiding in closets, under blankets, trying not to move or make a sound lest these villains caught me and destroyed me.

I stayed in bed several extra hours trying to send myself back into that dystopian world to try to set things right. I woke up not with a headache, but with the sensation that my muscles in my scalp hurt from trying to concentrate harder, to pull from all those file cabinets of memories in my mind to find the right disparate details that, if reformed and repackaged, could create a narrative in which I would not only escape those bent on my destruction but vanquish my enemies in a fiery rage.

Still troubled later that afternoon because I felt I had failed to set the narrative on a steady course, I opened the Gaiman book and read his introduction, and it was as if I saw a flicker of light in the darkness. When I slept last night, my dreamscape was not so scary. I woke up without that ache in my muscles in my head, and my dreams had returned to something more akin to normalcy.

I have the Timehop app on my phone, and the first thing I saw today was the video I recorded a year ago of what I could now call “The Epic Burning.” When I met my ex-husband in college, we lived two hours from one another, and we wrote long letters for 4 years every time we were apart. I had saved all of them. I also kept diaries off and on my whole life, and I had once taken my diary and then rewrote the entire thing in another journal with a calligraphy pen, beginning with the first day I wrote about him up until we were engaged, at which point I suppose I had decided I finally had found the fairy tale, and so I stopped writing.

I had kept these items along with the cards we had given one another over the years tied up with a red ribbon. They were more precious to me than just about anything in the world. Over the years we had read them off and on, but we always returned them to their place in the chest that he had given me as a gift in my bedroom.

When my then-husband cheated on me after 23 years together, a move that I now know spoke more of his own cowardice and failure to face his own mid-life crisis than, as he said, any kind of true love, I remember a day after I kicked him out that he arrived to pick up some of his things. Because those letters only served to remind me of what we no longer had, I handed them to him and said “You take them.” I remember that he argued with me. Frankly he did not want any reminder of our shared past. In fact I see now that his inability to take or even want anything that reminded him of our marriage was not a rejection of me, as I thought at the time, but a rejection of himself–the good man he was before he chose to become deceptive and manipulative. But he took them regardless, and after he left, I remember worrying that he might destroy them. I could not have them in my house, but I also could not bear the thought of them being gone.

I remember that I thought about those letters off and on for awhile, and secretly I hoped he might read them, feel guilty, and come back. I also thought maybe his very young girlfriend, also a betrayer, might read them and become so enraged that she would end it with him, forcing him to come back. How glad I am that neither scenario happened.

Eventually I asked for the letters back when it became apparent that this divorce really was going to happen, and I put them back in their place along with the diary, and there they all sat for a few years, until last year on this date when many things happened which conspired to tell me in words and in images and in signs that it was time to let go of them.

I lit a fire that night and I listened to music, and when Bob Dylan began to sing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, I knew it was time, and I threw the packet of letters into the fire. Immediately the ribbon burned and the letters, freed from their bonds, fell backwards out of the woodstove. Only the very edges were burning, slowly, and I had every opportunity to grab them and save them, and yet, without a moment’s hesitation, I took the poker and forced them back in. I recorded a video of this and so I have visual proof that I did not hesitate.

As the song played and Dylan sung, and I heard the words “you just kinda wasted my precious time”, I threw the diary on top of the burning pile, and I cried softly as I said “goodbye” to everything. I remember feeling that it was truly a moment of catharsis as the Greeks define the word, and my shoulders heaved with such a sigh that all the tension in my body released, the tension having built up for over 23 years.

Later, I remember shoveling the ashes out of the stove and sprinkling them on the ground where my first cat Vivien lies. I eventually bought a gardenia and two rose bushes and the flowers thrived last summer in that place. I felt that in a way I had buried the past completely, but that I had used it to nourish the present. In so doing, I made the assumption that the dark parts of that past lie dead and gone, never to return.

And yet, this week, here they were again, in the thoughts that plagued me when I could not sleep, in the tension which invaded my shoulders, in the shakiness of my hands, in the way I was near tears. That darkness had been triggered in me when I least expected it.

When objects themselves are perfect symbols of the events of our past, and we remove the objects from our lives through disposal or burial or smoke and fire, we think we have finished with them. We think that by removing something from our physical world we can pretend as if it never existed, or act as if it was just part of a story that we once read. But the memories associated with that object or that person are forever stored in us, and it only takes a trigger to send us spiraling backwards in time, and for a moment or two, the past and the present converge, and this can feel absolutely terrifying.

But I think what we have to learn from that is a measure of respect for ourselves, for how far we have come. When we feel shocked into that recognition that the past is still alive in us, perhaps the initial upset comes from our assumption that we had moved so far onwards that we have forgotten or nearly forgotten what it felt like to be “there.” For me, the difficulty lies in the assumption that if I am triggered back “there” that I won’t be able to escape, and I’ll be stuck “there” forever. And yet I have to remind myself, I already escaped “there” once, so why not again?

And this is why triggers are important. They remind us of where we have been, which may initially feel enormously threatening, but they also remind us that we have escaped that darkness at least once, if not many times before. In that way, triggers can be enormously empowering if we can see past their initial threat and learn from them. Gaiman likens triggers to the monsters in the darkness that lie in wait for us, “killing time until we came back that way” (xi). But I also think that such monsters are equipped with bright shining keys, there to help us unlock the doors to our personal dungeons, giving the past a chance to escape long enough to merge with our present, reminding us of how far we have come and how far we might yet go.


One thought on “Of Trigger Warnings and Why We Need Them

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s