Category: Thoughts

The Problem With Trigger Warnings – Thoughts From a Person With PTSD

The Problem With Trigger Warnings – Thoughts From a Person With PTSD

If you’ve spent an iota of time on the Internet, you’ve likely seen trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are, as far as I can tell, a social construct used primarily to advise you that something you are about to read, watch, or listen to, contains content that some may find offensive or “triggering”. You may also have seen people lambasted for their failure to use a trigger warning by someone who deemed it necessary. So, what is a trigger?

The first time I ever heard the term “trauma trigger” was during a counseling session when I was 7 years old and newly diagnosed with PTSD (for the uninitiated, that’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I continued to see this term and grew to understand what it meant through the magnitude of reading on my condition I did while growing up. Until relatively recently I had never heard the term used in relation to anything other than PTSD. Simply speaking, a trigger is something that brings forth memories of a traumatic experience in someone with PTSD. This can be in the form of flashbacks, panic attacks, or other mental symptoms.

The difficulty with triggers is that they are often things that are difficult to pinpoint and impossible to avoid. They can be things that wouldn’t make sense to someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be genuinely psychologically triggered. I’m not talking about people who think that “triggered” is synonymous with “uncomfortable” or “offended”. I’m talking about the folks out there who have real mental health consequences to triggers.

My Own Triggers

I’m triggered by the obvious ones, like rape, pedophilia, domestic violence, etc. And then I’m triggered by the ones you wouldn’t expect, like the cologne that my dad used to wear or the smell of sawdust. I’m triggered by certain words, toys, and books. I’m triggered by moustaches. I’m triggered by old carpet. I’m triggered by guns. I’m triggered by high winds or heavy snowfall. I’m triggered by being a passenger in a car. These are just a few examples.

Now, I’m going to say something that seems to be contrary to popular opinion: I am responsible for my triggers. Me.

I don’t believe it’s the responsibility of writers, filmmakers, bloggers, or educators to tell me I might be triggered by something they create for consumption.

Crawling Out of the Darkness

Back when my PTSD was at its worst, I spent nearly 2 years without leaving my home. I had between 3 and 5 panic attacks per day, oftentimes more. I was triggered by everything. Like most people, my safe space was my home, and I was afraid to leave it. If I had continued on that path of avoiding every single trigger to my PTSD, I would still be locked away. Instead, I started to face my demons, and closely observe my reactions to them. I had to if I wanted to survive. What I learned was that by exposing myself to these triggers and learning to cope with them, I took the power away from them. I stopped letting them control me, and it saved my life.  

The problem with trigger warnings is that they make PTSD worse, not better. By avoiding everything that makes you feel uncomfortable, you can never overcome your affliction. You can never face your demons and you will never really get better. You’ll just get better at hiding.

I think most people who use trigger warnings are genuinely caring people who don’t want to hurt anybody. The main problem I have with trigger warnings, however, is that I don’t think they’re helpful. I think they’re a cute way of saying, “Look here. See? I care about your mental illness. I am enlightened. I’m talking about rape but warning you that I’m doing so.” It’s saying, “I’m putting you in a box and protecting you.” as if sheltering a life has ever been productive to growth or healing. I think building these larger safe spaces is counter-productive. You can’t learn to swim if you avoid the water.

So, how did I keep myself safe without trigger warnings? I took responsibility for myself. I didn’t expect my friends to tip-toe around me. If something was triggering me, I’d remove myself from the situation, or I’d sit with it until it went away. I spent time educating myself about my illness until my smarts outranked its strength. Most importantly, I dealt with my demons instead of letting them chase me.

Now

My triggers still affect me, but they don’t run my life or dictate what I can and cannot do. I’m not going to pretend it was easy to get to this point. Facing the things that trigger you and asking them questions rather than closing your eyes is so empowering and healing, but it’s also scary as hell. I learned more about myself doing this than anything else. What’s more is that I stopped letting my abuser and my trauma win. While I did do most of this without any professional assistance, there is a lot of help out there if you look.

If people want to use trigger warnings on their writings? By all means, be my guest. On their own, a trigger warning is little more than a disclaimer and not harmful by itself. It’s just information. The real problem arises with the talk of mandatory trigger warnings, or when people allow themselves to become upset at content creators who don’t use the warnings. It’s simply unreasonable to expect the world to contort and become your personal Safe Space. Living with that sort of mentality will only hurt your mental health in the end. A large number of triggers are unavoidable out in the real world anyway, no matter how many people vigilantly use trigger warnings. Sooner or later, a person needs to take responsibility for their own healing process rather than expecting everyone around them to act as an emotional airbag.

When Social Media Becomes Toxic

When Social Media Becomes Toxic

I’ve had a Facebook profile for 10 years now. That’s a decade, or almost a third of my lifetime on the largest social media platform. It acts as my lifeline to a pseudo-social life, a documenting of my time (I post incessantly.), and a memory jogger. I give a lot of time to Facebook, but I don’t get much in return as far as meaningful content or personal growth is concerned. It’s how I spend garbage time. It’s the modern equivalent of sitting in front of the television having my mind filled for me with discount whatever. I click “Like” to show someone I’ve acknowledged and validated them while never saying a word, or to gently end a string of conversation that I’m not sure how to continue.

I’ve taken “Facebook Vacations” before, where I vow to log out and stay out for a week at a time so that I can either focus more on something important to me, or focus less on things that keep me clicking refresh on autopilot with minimal reward.

Every time I’ve taken one of these Facebook vacations, I have this fantasy of deleting my Facebook altogether. Good morning Productive Me. Yet as much as I hate it sometimes, I have tricked myself into thinking I need it. Not in an oxygen kind of way, but in the way that I’ve relied on it for so long to keep contact with people that I’m afraid deleting it will effectively delete everyone I know from my life. Is that a little over-dramatic? Sure, but I’m still afraid. If you do something and there’s nobody around to click “like”, does it still matter?

I recently watched Black Mirror (a Netflix show you should absolutely watch) and it really got me thinking, like all good television shows should, about how I use social media. I already know that I spend too much precious time and give too much priority to Facebook, or to YouTube, or to Instagram or Reddit. The amount of time I’ve spent just in the last month sending stupid Snapchats to my friends could have been better utilized to finish editing my novel. I have over 2,000 images in my Instagram account. I know I need to learn how to turn off this hyper-social-consumption part of me on a regular basis.

I’m a human with a lot of aspirations. I thrive most when I’m learning and expanding my mind, opening up little doors to different parts of my self. I think that’s why I’ve grown to love Medium so much. In the short time I’ve been on the site I’ve read life changing articles that have challenged how I think. I can’t say the same thing for an endless Facebook Newsfeed filled with dank memes, as entertaining as some of them might be.

I’m sure most people don’t have these problems. Most people probably have an iota of self control that keeps them productive, but I feel like I lose myself a little bit every time I waste an hour here or there on things that do nothing to challenge me. I’ve got an amazingly addictive personality, which equates to entire days flushed down the proverbial “social” toilet with nary a thought. I will procrastinate entire weeks away watching makeup review videos. The worst part is that I know that when I take that same energy and put it toward something goal-oriented, there’s nothing in the world that can stop me.

I would never say that social media is inherently bad. Like most things, the magical world of moderation gives it a prescribed value. To a growing chunk of the world, if you don’t exist on social media, you don’t exist at all. It’s not going anywhere and will only get stronger so I will only alienate myself in exile from it.

Rather than take a Facebook vacation this time around, I am issuing myself and anybody else who wants to participate a permanent challenge: to limit yourself to a combined total of 1 hour of social media per day. For myself this will be Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit as that is where I spend the most unproductive time. In its place I’ll spend more time reading and writing, two things that are more in line with the person I know I am.

Don’t Talk, Don’t Talk – The Value of Listening

Don’t Talk, Don’t Talk – The Value of Listening

Sometimes I like to just sit in a crowded public place and listen. Listen to the bustle of the crowd; catch snippets of conversation in passing. Listen and watch. You learn a lot about people that way.

I like to sit in a restaurant and watch people. Based on what I see of their body language, notice about their physical presentation, and hear of their conversations, I construct elaborate back stories about their lives in my head. I make my best guess at what they love and fear, how often they smile, and what brought them to this specific moment, where we share a space and a time.

When you act like a sponge; when you pay attention: that’s when you learn the most. While absorbing the actions of strangers in public might be more of a bizarre hobby than a helpful addition to your life, listening to the people you are directly communicating with makes all the difference in the world. I don’t mean listening, like… hearing the words they’re saying an nodding your head while waiting for your turn to speak. Looking like you’re listening doesn’t mean you are listening.

Truly listening to someone who’s sitting in front of you means you don’t talk. You don’t give your opinion, you don’t insert your little quips, you don’t go off on a random tangent related to what they’ve said. You just. Listen. You listen until they stop talking, and then you listen some more. If they stop talking for awhile, you ask a question about what they’ve said to get them talking again. You do this until you have a deeper understanding of who they are as a person.

It’s in our nature to want to be known, and to share, which is why we’re always so quick to want to take hold of a conversation. It’s why so many people feel fulfilled when talking about themselves. Hell, it’s why some of us blog. It’s the willingness to share who we are in the hopes of making a connection. But, if everybody is wanting to talk and nobody wants to listen, any connections made will be entirely superficial.

I work with a lot of incredibly smart people: doctors, nurses, social workers and the like. On my break when I join many of them in the coffee room at work, I love listening to what they have to say. I hear such interesting stories and even learn something every now and then.

When you’re just getting to know somebody, it’s so important to listen. When I have someone new in my life, I want to learn all about them. I want to know what makes them tick, what they love, what makes them smile or laugh, how they see the world and how they see themselves. I love deep connections, and it’s easier to achieve those when you listen.  If you don’t, you’ll end up projecting onto that person who you think they are, or who you want them to be, rather than who they’ve been trying to tell you they are.

Try it. Next time you’re having a conversation with somebody, don’t think about yourself at all. Don’t talk about yourself if you can avoid it. Ask questions to the person you’re conversing with and let them talk. Listen to what they’re saying and pay attention while trying not to subconsciously dismiss them in favor of trying to make yourself known. It just might be one of the best conversations you’ve ever had.

Steady Your Hands, There Are Miles Still to Go

Steady Your Hands, There Are Miles Still to Go

 

I find myself needing a reminder every now and then that it’s not a failure to feel this way. It’s okay to feel like you’re a piece of shit sometimes. It’s okay to feel like giving up – roll credits, the film is over.  It’s okay to be weak, to feel ashamed and fall inside myself to drown a while.

Sometimes I forget that I’ve had a hell of a ride and that I’ve been dealt a really difficult hand to play. In some ways, I think I forced myself to heal too quickly after Dave (my partner and son’s father) died shortly after our son was born. I had to, of course, for my son’s sake, but sometimes it feels like I forgot myself in the process. Something inside me still feels unresolved. Something inside me feels dead. I worry that there is some part of me that is irreparably damaged, and, even when my goals are reached, maybe I’ll still feel unhappy and incomplete.

Sometimes I feel like I haven’t been patient with myself, or like I haven’t healed from my traumatic past the right way. I underestimate the impact living through what I did as a child can have on me: the adult. Does being deprived of food as a child have any bearing on why I struggle with overeating now? Is it why I struggled with not eating enough in my early twenties?

There is so much inside me that has been broken. I feel like I’m in a constant state of transition and trying to fit the pieces together. I have a difficult time pinpointing who I am sometimes because maybe I don’t really know who I am anymore. If someone asked me to describe myself, I wouldn’t know what to say. I feel like I’m detached. I’m on autopilot. I’ve spent so much time smothering the parts of me that feel pain that I worry I’ve lost my ability to feel in the same way I used to.

Depression gets worse for a while and then it gets better for a while before getting worse again. I know medication isn’t the answer for me, but keeping up with everything that keeps me sane sometimes feels like it’s doing the opposite. I feel like I need to step back and take my time; be patient with myself.

I just hope I can pull myself out of this fog soon.

From a Second Floor Bathtub

From a Second Floor Bathtub

As I lower myself through hot steam, I’m transported to a place without measurable time. It’s just me and this water, in this room. This is nice. I feel relaxed. Water ripples at my temples while I close my eyes and sink deeper. Soon only my nose and knees are above the waterline and I imagine I’m a submarine, hidden deep and safe in the warm water. I smell lavender and palm leaves rising all around me, scenting the air. Through the water, the old-timey swing music of Glenn Miller playing just a few feet from me sounds much farther away. I imagine I’m listening secretly through a closed door, hearing the muffled trumpets and trombones play their lively tune.

Here in the water, my body is amplified. I hear every heartbeat; every breath, as if it were right next to my ear. Each thought is magnified until my mind swims in static. I try to clear it all away; to think of nothing; to relax, but my mind keeps falling around him. I smile against the water and let my thoughts drift to conversations we’ve had about the way our minds are broken in some of the same places and that despite the cracks, his looks so beautiful to me. I think of the way his eyes remind me of some of my favorite paintings and that even though we might just be tourists in each other’s lives, he’s a song I want to keep listening to.

When at last I emerge, the cooler air of the room refreshes the skin of my face, my breasts, my back, and my arms. The music gets louder as my little underwater world fades to black until I am once again in the present time. The colour in this room has been enhanced while the stresses of daily life have somehow disappeared. I’m rejuvenated, but the water couldn’t clean off the smile he painted on my face.