It's funny how your opinions can change. A few years ago, I wholeheartedly believed that trigger warnings on content did more harm than good. A lot about life is hard, and it certainly doesn't come with trigger warnings. Weren't we just making people more snowflake-y than ever with these labels?
Then I came to accept that I was an abuse survivor and had PTSD.
I'd known for years that I was sensitive, both physically and emotionally. I remember being at an assembly in kindergarten and crying because the applause was just too loud, even though I didn't know how to explain it at the time. I have to be cautious about the media I consume—even the news, especially lately, can be too much for me.
But it's hard to describe the kind of sensitivity that lingers after trauma. When the flashbacks or intrusive memories come, they can physically and mentally paralyze you. The horrible images and the feelings of fear, pain, violation, betrayal, powerlessness, anger, and hatred come surging through you. They're so overwhelming that you can't get them out of your head or get your mind onto anything else. I've had a time or two when I could barely move during one of these episodes; about all I could do was press my fist into my forehead. And it got to the point where the memories were so intrusive that I struggled to concentrate at work.
Those moments are agonizing. And you don't always know what will trigger them. Or the triggers might be everyday things that you can't avoid: soap, a certain phrase, making a list, and so on.
For me, therapy has greatly reduced my reactions to some triggers. I'm still working on others. Twenty-five years' worth of pain takes a while to heal.
But what about people who don't have access to therapy? People who don't yet understand the connection between their symptoms and their past trauma? People who are still in the middle of traumatizing experiences?
Trauma affects people in a variety of ways. Two people can have the same experience, and it might traumatize one person and not the other. Or the effects of trauma might not manifest themselves until years later, as they did with me. Triggers might not even be the same from day to day—sometimes certain triggers don't bother me at all, and sometimes they sucker-punch me, especially if I'm not expecting them.
I'm not saying we should put trigger warnings on everything. As I said before, life doesn't come with trigger warnings, and we all need to learn how to handle unexpected unpleasant experiences. We're also not responsible for what might have happened to our readers in the past. At the same time, I think most of us write because we want to make the world a better place. Are we really doing that if we cause more suffering by unexpectedly activating traumatic memories?
I don't know where the balance point is. But I do know that, at least in my experience, advance warning can give survivors (and non-traumatized but sensitive people) a choice about what they experience. That's powerful for people who've been denied such choices in the past.
For instance, my abusers were my parents. After my PTSD diagnosis, I cut off all contact with them. A few months later, one of my dear friends invited me to her wedding reception. Of course I was going to go.
Then I learned from my sister that my parents were also planning to attend. I still wanted nothing to do with them. But I wasn't going to not go to the reception. At least now I could mentally prepare myself instead of suddenly seeing or running into them and having to scramble to figure out what to do. The experience wasn't that fun—my parents and I saw each other from a distance but didn't speak, and I ended up leaving early because it was so uncomfortable—but I was in control.
So if you're writing about topics that commonly cause trauma (sexual or racial violence, suicide, abuse, etc.), think carefully about whether you want to include a trigger warning. It may make all the difference for some of your readers.
P.S. If you're in an abusive situation, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). You don't deserve to be treated badly. Ever.
(Thanks to Aliyah Jamous for sharing their work on Unsplash.)