Trigger warning: This post contains discussion of trigger warnings, what they are, how they work, and when they can be helpful. If you find discussion of trigger warnings triggers you, you may wish to consider if you wish to read on. Also stuff about sexual assault, abuse and rape. Your choice.
I started this post last week, then deleted it and gave up. I was too angry, it felt too raw, I felt I was making myself vulnerable by writing it. But when I heard about Maya Angelou yesterday, it reminded me that I’ve only ever read one book of hers – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Her poems, her articles, her tweets, no problem. But I read Caged Bird when I was nine years old and it had an impact on me that I don’t think I possess the eloquence to adequately express. Specifically, it was a few short pages. I read them, I understood them, I relived them.
I vomited. Not just because of the horror of what happened to her, but because she was describing something that had happened to me. It’s a flashbulb memory. I can still see myself, as though I am an onlooker in my own life, sitting on my bed, in my green Tammy Girl blouse and capri denim trousers, reading the book with the blue cover, and suddenly vomiting down the side of my bedside table. Before then, I didn’t have the words to say what had happened to me. Now I knew. Reading her description, I was triggered. I’ve never been able to read that book again.
That’s what a trigger is. It’s not something that might make you a bit sad, or angry, or fed up, or annoyed, or happy, or uplifted, or tearful, or desolate, or grieving. It’s a visceral, physical, hurtful thing that forces you to relive something so painful and traumatic that it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t exist, it didn’t happen, I can’t think about it. That’s what it is. It can hit you with such force that your mind is unable to cope, that you’re knocked to the floor, that your body rebels and you vomit. You’re plunged back into the moment, into something that paralyses you, that makes you sweat, shake, cry. Makes you tremble, makes you so fucking scared that you daren’t open your mouth because you’re not even sure if you can make a sound, or if you do, you might start screaming and never be able to stop.
And even afterwards, after that moment when you’re triggered, it doesn’t go away. Like a bruise that won’t heal, it’s always there. It stalks you in your dreams, makes you cry in your sleep and physically attack the person sleeping next to you. It makes nightmares become routine and your only hope as you go to sleep is that tonight won’t be too bad. It makes you terrified when you’re out of the house alone, and have to pass a stranger. It makes you constantly have your phone in your grip, with a number predialled, just in case. It makes you so agitated that you have to leave the house and walk for miles and hours, because you need the distraction.
That’s what ‘triggering’ is.
This article appeared in The Guardian last week. It’s appallingly badly written, never defines what a trigger warning really is, and seems to mistake emotion for trauma. It’s a load of crap, basically. I read it and it pissed me off mightily. But what pissed me off more was the reaction to it. Lots of people read it as a trigger warning being the same as a content warning. They are two very different things. A content warning is similar to a BBFC guideline – ‘includes mild peril, car chase sequences, alcohol and dinosaurs’. Basically, just letting you know if it’s suitable for children or not. A trigger warning is more than that.
A trigger warning is generally used ahead of discussion/mention of sexual abuse, sexual assault and/or rape. It’s recognising that just using those words, never mind any kind of description of such an event, can act as a trigger. It can cause a reaction so intense and traumatic that it becomes physical. It’s consideration. It’s not being precious. It’s not saying ‘ooh, this is an emotional scene in which Jane Eyre leave Mr Rochester, you might get THE FEELZ’. It’s saying ‘If you have had an experience similar to this, I’m warning you now that I’m going to mention this, and that you might find it hard to cope with’. It’s allowing your audience to decide whether or not they feel able to handle what’s coming. Because some days, most days, practically every day, I’m fine. But, every now and then, things hit me, and a trigger warning allows me to decide, for myself, if I’m able to cope with it. Without a trigger warning, essentially I’m being handed a live grenade. I might react, I might not, but the decision about whether or not I’m being exposed to a trigger has been taken away from me.
You can condition yourself not to react to certain triggers, of course you can. I know, because I’ve done it. Do you know what one of my triggers used to be when I was younger? Oranges. Fucking oranges. Do you have any idea how bastarding common oranges are in everyday life? VERY FUCKING COMMON. And only oranges. Satsumas, tangerines, clementines, mandarins… Nup, nothing. Orange juice? Not a bother (and do feel free to make your own ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ joke). But oranges made me want to curl up and cry. I got over it. Eventually, slowly, progressively. Did I think oranges should come with a trigger warning? No. That would be precious and demanding. That would be rounding off the corners to a ridiculous degree. Asking for a trigger warning about oranges would be petulant and selfcentred and all the things that critics of trigger warnings seem to think I am.
And it’s to the critics of trigger warnings that I’m trying to explain. I’m not advocating everything being labelled and plot spoilers agogo, and every single thing being neatly assigned a trigger warning in case someone, somewhere is hurt or offended, or worried that someone else might be hurt and offended. I can read a lot of fucked up shit and while it might stay with me, change my mood, affect me emotionally, it won’t trigger me. But for me, and other people like me, reading something about rape is triggering. If you could spare me pain, would you? If you could prevent me from reliving something traumatic, would you? If you thought that you might be directing my attention towards something with the potential to damage me, would you want to warn me first? Would you want to give me a heads up and say that I might find it hard to read? Or would you think that I was demanding to be mollycoddled, that I couldn’t handle literature, that I was unsuited to reading and writing because of my past? Would you think I’m just a feeble little flower, wilting and swooning under the direct heat of words on a page? Would you tell me to stop reading anything, because clearly I’m pathetic? Would you sneer at me, for appreciating consideration? Would you feel intellectually superior to me, because you can manage to read about the rape of a child and not vomit because of the memories it claws up?
If so, congratulations. I apologise for being human.