Long time followers should already know this, but I am a rape survivor. It happened when I was six, and I repressed the memories of it for twenty years. As a result, I scarcely remember my childhood – only brief snippets and partially-reconstructed images and scenes based on pictures and stories I have been told of it. I’ve always been somewhat jealous of those who can remember their childhoods.
After I saw my rapist again, twenty years later, I came to the sudden realisation that the vague feelings of being violated were not fantasy, were not desires, but were memories, and a lot of my life started to make sense. I told my father about the abuse – it was the son of a family friend that used to babysit me – and I felt more in control of my life than I ever had before. I realised I was not “a little bit gay” (a sense I once had so much that I confused the “gaydar” of LGBT friends I had in college), and came to understand part of why I was so angry and isolated. Facing my trauma, instead of hiding from it, helped me start to heal.
And for another ten years (not quite), things were fine(ish). But two and a half years ago, I was triggered for the first time. Before then, I didn’t even really understand “triggers”, or PTSD. I’m not sure how much someone that has never experienced it CAN understand it. Being triggered is uncomfortable; you feel unsafe, your body shifts heavily into paranoia mode, and the mind races. I left the community that triggered me shortly thereafter (I’d been drifting away already), and found new places to dwell.
I was hurt and confused, unsure how to feel and what to think of this new experience. At the time, I sent a (passive-aggressive) note to the person that triggered me, letting them know they had done so and explaining why I left the conversation. It wasn’t a nice thing to do, and I probably sent some hurt back in the process, helping no one, but when you’re hurt, you don’t think clearly. You just act, because you want the hurting to stop (this applies to both mental and physical pain).
So I understand how people felt when they saw the backer memorial in Pillars of Eternity that took over twitter this weekend. Being unexpectedly triggered sucks; it’s certainly the worst I’ve ever felt (and I’ve been stabbed in the leg). And it’s completely natural to want to avoid situations and places where you were unexpectedly triggered, because they are uncomfortable places for you. There is no shame in that; getting away is probably the healthiest thing you can do at that moment.
But the worst thing you can do is avoid your trigger FOREVER.
I have no problems with people that voluntarily choose to put “trigger warnings” on things; that’s their choice. What does concern me is a DEMAND for them, because here’s the thing: triggers are weird. Like, really weird. I’m a rape survivor, but depictions, discussions, or any description of rape have no effect whatsoever on me. They’re not my triggers.
Triggers are anything that brings up the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness of your trauma, and given the weird, ephemeral nature of memory, they can be almost anything. Colours. Smells. Songs. Specific words. Triggers are as wide and varied as people. And while trigger warnings can help people whose triggers are those specific things we associate with “trigger warnings” from being unexpectedly triggered, I would like to note that I have been using a descriptive word here that is important to the point: unexpectedly.
Because deliberately triggering yourself and reassociating that trigger with a safe environment is actually the main treatment for PTSD.
It is unhealthy to live your life avoiding your triggers – especially given the fact that triggers are usually something common and everyday. You are going to encounter your triggers, and you are probably going to encounter them unexpectedly. And to be able to live a normal life, you’re going to need to be able to deal with that. The only way to learn how to deal with something is to actually deal with it. You can learn techniques and mechanisms to help you cope, but until you are actually faced with the situation, those tools are completely useless. Practice is the only road to recovery.
So yes, speak up if something hurt you. Let people know it hurt you, so those that are close to you and care about you can be aware of your triggers. But to demand that society scour away your triggers, that the things that trigger you not exist, is counter-productive and extremely unhealthy.
And don’t assume the worst of strangers who you will likely never interact with again if they don’t show the same sympathy and support your friends and loved ones do. It’s even possible some of them are hurting too.