Trigger warning for descriptions of political acts of violence, sexual abuse, body dysphoria
Monday afternoon, I woke up to a number of notifications from various news and social media apps about the tragic explosions at the Boston marathon. That fact in itself doesn’t make me different from anyone else–I’m sure a number of people were taken aback by the news in various ways, be they at work, school or relaxing at home, like I was.
The reason that it’s important that I woke up to the news of the explosions was that in the summer of 2006, I woke up from a similar afternoon nap in the sun at a beach resort outside of my family’s hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, to bombs falling on the harbour. I was there during the 2006 war with Israel that caused my family’s vacation to end in us fleeing via cab to Jordan (and, in the case of my stepmom and brothers, to wait over a month for the American evacuation barge to get them safely out of the country), as well as nearly 2,000 Lebanese casualties, roughly 200 Israeli deaths, and years of therapy to cope with the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder I experienced following the trauma of experiencing that kind of violence.
I don’t have the sort of PTSD from violent trauma that people who live in war zones experience–I rarely have untriggered flashbacks, and when I am triggered (often by loud sounds made by trash collecting trucks or TVs in other rooms playing loud war films), the flashbacks never last longer than a minute or two. I’m lucky that I don’t have to live with those sorts of attacks every day.
But there are a lot of ways in which I’m not lucky. Perhaps the most insidious, and most alarming, aspect of dealing with PTSD or any other trauma-related disorder (diagnosed or not), is that there are constant reminders everywhere about what happened to me–be they on television, in the news and, perhaps most often, in social media.
People who have experienced these sorts of reminders, or triggers, know how painful unwarranted reminders can be–how the simplest images or words, be they stories describing brutal rapes or photos of thin women, can ruin one’s day. For this reason, many bloggers writing about topics related to trauma choose to put boldfaced or bracketed trigger warnings within their pieces (such as the one at the beginning of this article) as a means of warning trauma survivors that the following information is sensitive.
While a lot of people disagree with the use of trigger warnings, the concept of warning consumers about sensitive information is not only a worthwhile pursuit–it’s one that has been in use under different names for decades. Anyone who’s ever watched “Law and Order: SVU” or any other television show containing violent imagery is familiar with the warning “viewer discretion is advised,” and as a person who’s suffered multiple forms of trauma (including sexual), I’ve always appreciated the warning. So why are trigger warnings so unpopular that typing “trigger warning” into the Google search bar produces suggested additions like “are bullshit,” “are overused” and “are stupid”?
I’ve read legitimate criticisms of the use of trigger warnings, from those who criticize some Internet communities for appropriating the language of anti-oppression, to the amazing piece over at The Rumpus written by a rape survivor on why triggers are a part of life that can’t be warned against. I’ve also read criticisms from other large subsets of the Internet who aren’t even worth naming demean trigger warnings as being for “sensitive snowflakes” who are “too emotionally fragile to leave their basements and so much as look upon anything that may make their delicate little hearts uncomfortable.” Other bloggers, particularly of the feminist variety, feel that posting trigger warnings is an essential duty to the mental health of their readers. There’s got to be a middle ground somewhere between loud and often divisive arguments that the use (and misuse) of trigger warnings seems to spur.
My nuanced beliefs on the use of trigger warnings are based in an observation that seems obvious: there is no “one-size-fits-all” trigger warning, just as there is no “typical” trauma survivor or “normal” way to be triggered. The way I respond to trigger warnings (as well as surprise triggers) within my self-curated blogosphere changes daily–sometimes, when I see warnings about rape or sexual abuse, I’m compelled to read on as a means of catharsis and relating my experiences to those of other people. Other times, I’ll avoid them because I don’t have the energy to deal with it.
No matter how I choose to respond, though, one thing remains constant–I am always thankful for the warning. And for every “overused” [TW] tag, there are countless instances when I’m going about my day only to be unnecessarily triggered–like the time I was in a class showing the documentary Happy where one woman tangentially discusses how she realized her father had sexually abused her (a discussion which lasted less than five minutes and was never brought up again), or watching Girls and repeatedly having to turn off episodes because depictions of non-consensual and coercive sex revolving around the main character’s ex hit way too close to home. Even the video for TLC’s “Unpretty,”one of my favorite songs and a championed anthem of body positivity, has caused uneasy feelings with its depiction of disordered eating and body image issues.
Are trigger warnings overused? Maybe. But in my experience, being warned that something I’m about to read, look at or listen to might freak me out, for whatever reason, is a welcome change from being constantly forced to “deal with it.”
Written by Noor Al-Sibai