There’s been a lot of discussion about trigger warnings lately. Some claim that not placing a trigger warning before something disturbing can be just as life threatening as an allergic reaction. Others have said that triggers are different for everyone. Others say that eventually and in good time, the trigger will dissipate. Some believe that anything stressful should get labeled as a trigger in order to warn everyone in advance. There are a lot of opinions on the matter.
I freely admit that I don’t actually use the term “trigger warning” on my blog. I’ve stated in advance that a video or article may be disturbing but that’s as far as I’ve gone. It isn’t that I don’t believe in trigger warnings; I just don’t like seeing them misused.
On one particular blog–it rhymes with Shakesbille–nearly every story posted has a content warning of some type. It can be a story about how fire ants link “hands” in order to prevent themselves from drowning and it gets a note of “images of insects”. A post that dealt with an iguana was labeled with a warning. An oceanography story was labeled with the term “creepy crawly” because of a picture of a crab. Other stories have gotten content notes of “eliminationism” and “Christian supremacy”. In the comments section, posters cannot make remarks such as “That’s lame” or “How blind are you?” since that is abelism at its finest. Saying an idea is crazy will earn you a warning from the moderators. If someone posts a video with a pratfall, it needs to be labeled with the term “violence”.
I am not making any of this up.
The problem is the above examples really aren’t triggering to anyone. They might make someone uncomfortable–seriously, seeing a raft of fire ants in a flood might be a bit freaky but not exactly dangerous–but unless that person was pursued by an angry crab that tried to go for the eyes, it isn’t going to cause them any real mental damage. If anything, labeling such things as triggers dilutes the idea of what a trigger truly is.
A trigger is something that causes someone to relive a past trauma. Most of these triggers come from visual or auditory sources, but some can be encountered via smell, touch or taste. In other words, this has nothing to do with seeing an animal that gives you the creeps. No, it has everything to do with suddenly reliving one of the worst days of your life, when something horrible happened to you or you witnessed something truly awful happening to someone else. Triggers are highly personal; some soldiers who come back from tours of duty during wartime can’t drive down a stretch of road without feeling a nagging sense of fear. Some victims of sexual abuse can’t stand the smell of certain aftershaves or cologne as that is a reminder of their abuser. Some victims of physical abuse will have panic attacks upon hearing a small child scream. It’s different for everyone; something that triggers a fear response in one person might be shrugged off by someone else who went through a similar trauma.
In other words, this has absolutely zero to do with large reptiles. But the idea of labeling a post with a large reptile as something triggering is a major problem.
Triggers are not simply things that make you feel uncomfortable. They are things that cause you to mentally revisit a traumatic episode in your life. Seeing a group of spiders is not usually a triggering event. Seeing a shrieking child being dragged to a bathroom under threats of severe punishment is. I know it sounds like I’m repeating myself but I want to be absolutely clear. A trigger causes you to relive a trauma. It is not something that simply makes you feel vaguely uncomfortable. How do I know this? It comes from firsthand experience.
In August 2013, there was a shooting at the Walmart where I was employed. Although I didn’t witness the actual event, I heard everything: from the sudden “pop” of the gun to the heavy silence immediately afterward to the wails and screams of an injured–and quite possibly dying–victim. At first, all I felt was an odd apprehension and nothing more. I believed that perhaps a shelf had fallen over and toppled onto someone, hurting them. But then I saw one of our assistant managers as she raced away from the liquor store. Her face was ashen and tear-streaked. Something was horribly wrong, worse than a mere shelf collapse.
When I saw the police pacing the front end, I knew it was bad.
The details came in fits and starts: there had been a shooting. The victim had been in the liquor store. The perpetrator had been a fellow coworker; she had casually walked up to the victim to relieve her for a break, pulled the pistol free and fired, then calmly returned to her register as the victim crumpled to the floor, bleeding. When the perpetrator had been escorted out by the police, her face had been completely expressionless. Her mug shot was the same: an empty, void stare.
No one else was physically harmed that day. But we were all mentally injured, some more than others.
I would be lying if I said I was completely over this trauma. I am not. In October of 2014, while doing my seasonal stint at Target, we had a small child throw a tantrum over the fact that her mother refused to buy her a toy camera featuring Anna and Elsa from Frozen. Maybe it was the pitch of her scream. Maybe it was the distance from the register. Maybe it was her tone of voice. None of that matters; all I remember is the sudden urge to panic. By the time the girl had been dragged out of the store, I was shaking violently and wanted nothing more than to close my register down and go home. (Luckily, this was five minutes before my shift ended.) This was a full year after the incident in question. I wasn’t completely over it. To be honest, I may never truly be. Trauma is quite a tricky beast.
In my case, I can’t tell you what will and will not trigger a panic response. In the resulting year, I’ve heard other children howl and scream while throwing fits and I haven’t even blinked in reply. I’ve gone through multiple thunderstorms and heard pallets slam against the floor but thought nothing of it. However, while at BotCon this year, I had an incident as I sat in the main casino room of the Casino Night and Awards Dinner. In order to raise funds for charity, attendees were allowed to purchase and pop balloons, which contained dollar amounts that could be spent at the card tables. When the first balloon burst, I jumped and gave a nervous laugh.
It sounded exactly like the gunshot I had heard on that summer day in mid-August.
Granted, I was duly warned. The host of the event mentioned that the balloons were there for purchase. It was explicitly stated that these balloons were meant to be popped. I had been forewarned that I would be hearing this sort of noise. I just didn’t know how I would take it at the time. It’s the same with long silences at home; they make me extremely uncomfortable. I have to have some sort of ambient background noise that’s louder and more forceful than the simple whirring of the fan on the computer desk. In fact, I prefer it if I can hear human voices of some stripe, which is why I spend a good amount of my free time listening to podcasts. It makes me feel as if I’m not totally alone, which is rather soothing. I won’t need this sort of thing forever; I’ve actually made it a point to switch over to YouTube and listen to music now and again, which I did prior to the incident in question. As time passes, I find myself adjusting.
In other words, the triggers that I’m dealing with won’t be there forever. I’ll adjust and move on, learning to deal with the trauma as best as I can. It won’t be easy and it will take time but it will happen.
In the case of the balloons, I stayed in that room for the rest of the evening. It wasn’t a picnic, as I had to fight the urge a couple of times to get up and leave but I persevered. Eventually, the sound of popping balloons faded to the background and didn’t bother me. Why should it? I was at BotCon, which has always been a safe place for me. I was among friends. I knew that everything was going to be all right. Will I jump the next time a balloon pops? Probably, but it may not be for the same reason as I jumped earlier in the month. Will I get a warning before someone pops that balloon? Most signs point to no. The real world is different from my blog; I may be able to post a quick “head’s up” when it comes to a disturbing article but reality won’t treat me with that same kindness.
Reality doesn’t give a damn about your trauma or what triggers you. That’s the cold hard truth that everyone has to face.