Trigger Warnings

*Actual Trigger Warning*

I was shopping with a friend, in a charity shop, browsing through the clothing rails when I saw the dress.

Not the exact same dress as mine you understand, but the same make and design of the dress I was wearing when I was sexually assaulted a few years ago. It was quite a distinctive design, not something I have seen again since I threw mine out, as I could no longer bare to wear it or have it in my possession.

My heart flipped, not in the fluttery way but a thud, like a piece of offal on the butcher’s block.  It felt like a boulder fell through to the pit in my stomach, I felt adrenaline pump through my body, my breathing quickened. I blurted it out to my friend, in a voice which came tightly, squeezed from my constricted throat, ‘That’s the same dress I was raped in!’

The blood in my veins felt thicker and my heart was thumping, I felt sick. I felt a burning sensation in my crotch area, as though it were blushing with the memory of what had occurred. I felt an internal jolt as my vaginal walls involuntarily contracted, as though they are clamping shut like a vice. I feel embarrassed to have awareness of my private areas in public, ashamed to be having a physical response in my sexual organs in relation to this event, albeit it an unpleasant one. Every micro movement and sensation became magnified, like every fibre in my body was overly stimulated. The hairs on my body, arms, neck stand up with a shiver than rides the wave of nausea.

Emotionally I feel panicked, I feel shocked, sad, angry, a touch of disbelief that I went through that, and a glimpse of gratitude as to how far I have come. These are the physical and emotional sensations I felt; this time.

What follows is a few dissociative minutes, where I go quite numb and dazed. It is like my body reaches boiling point and then switches on a natural anaesthetic where my body and brain blanks. It sounds like an ideal response to a horrible situation, but although today’s ‘attack’ for me was minor, for some people it can be quite a dangerous state to be in, resulting in them losing hours of their life, wandering in a daze, with low or no impulse control, (they may cross roads with a total lack of awareness for example), like a human zombie. If anything it makes people more vulnerable, rather than keep them safe. Luckily for me today I was in a safe environment with good company.

When you mock someone for being ‘triggered’ or putting a ‘trigger warning’ in their creative output, you are mocking their PTSD, or anxiety, something which is an involuntary physical and mental response to a traumatic event. Involuntary.

It takes practise, therapy, and whatever coping mechanisms available to a person to try to overcome trauma of any kind, and sometimes the body cannot keep up with the work that the logical mind has done, sometimes it gets caught off guard and replays the trauma, or the perceived danger again.

When someone experiences trauma their body sets off a set of primal responses as a survival tactic, which can recur in a cluster of symptoms which are triggered when their body- including the brain- senses that they are about to relive the experience. Fight or flight syndrome kicks in, the natural urges to either run from danger (which brings on the urge to empty the bowels and bladder and drop everything else and get out of the way of danger) or to stand your ground and fight off the threat, which means the adrenaline increases, the heart rate increases, we sweat or get clammy, often aggression or anger switches on and the urge to physically or emotionally lash out is increased.

The truth is I can be triggered by touch, even from someone I love and trust, in a moment of intimacy. I can be triggered by a random negative thought popping into my head, an actual clear memory of a certain place or event, or sometimes in a more reasonable environment or situation, like when walking home alone at night, or perhaps squeezing past a group of men on a train.

Trauma often knocks your intuition and judgement out of whack, so sometimes you get a negative ‘gut feeling’ about a situation even when you are perfectly safe and other times you are completely oblivious and naive to an imminent threat. People find themselves unable to trust themselves, let alone others.

It is not easy, it can be made easier by people understanding what it is like to live with trauma.

People seem to think that if we are so easily triggered then it doesn’t matter what they say or do as we will be freaking out over nothing anyway. Ultimately that is an unkind, irresponsible and reckless way to treat people.

I remember a loved one asking me why I needed to ‘keep going over things’ in therapy, not understanding that the very nature of trauma is that it plays on repeat, it is the body and mind re-living danger, as a warning, as though it must stay on high alert, prepared for a repeat of events.

The saddest and most frustrating thing of all is that many people who live with trauma go on to live through similar occurrences, and despite all its ‘safety drills’, the body does little to protect them, we still freeze, we still endure, we still cannot escape the threat. It is a primal and often futile response. But we as a species are not as primal and pointless as that, we can chose to be educated and compassionate and emotionally mature.

It is not that those of us who believe in the importance of appropriate trigger warnings DON’T want people raising these difficult topics, quite the opposite! I just want people to talk constructively and do what they can to encourage and support people who are struggling and allow people who may have found their own voice crushed and silenced, the space and comfort to speak and be heard in a respected environment.

Personally I am crass and vulgar and use adult humour as a way to cope and enjoy life. I don’t like censorship but I do believe in tact. I am also a highly sexual, sensual person and it is not prudish of me to ask people to consider that their talk of violence, sexual violence and sexual degradation be done in an appropriate setting, with tact, or with respect for the fact that for many of us Survivors, would much rather be Thrivers and that can only happen when we feel empowered, supported and safe.

In writing, a trigger warning can be kept vague, as above. We trauma survivors know what our triggers are; for some it is mention of suicide, rape, miscarriage, incest, overdoses; we don’t need it spelled out, so if I see a warning and I am feeling sensitive that day or feeling good and don’t want any reminders of difficulties I can skip past it. It gives me a heads up so I can implement the skills I have learned to prevent that thought spiral, that familiar sequence of fear and panic.

You can be certain that the internal battles we face are much more powerful, destructive and painful than many of the ones that we face when met with cruelty on the web, in debate, in politics, and within the legal system. And most of us battle them quietly, privately, without trying to crush your free thinking, opinions or freedom of speech.  It is really not too much to ask that you do not belittle and degrade us further with thoughtless, uncompassionate language and attitudes.

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