Tag: mental health

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.

An Update: Abandoning My Antidepressants

An Update: Abandoning My Antidepressants

It’s been over a month now since I quit taking my antidepressants (Wellbutrin). If you didn’t see my original post on this topic, you may want to check it out here. To briefly summarize, I hated how it made me feel in that it made me feel nothing at all. Now that its effects seem to have subsided, I wanted to give an update on how things are going.

So… what are some of the differences I’ve noticed? first and foremost, I can feel again. Things have begun to affect me the way they used to. I’ve been writing again. I’ve been thinking deeply again. I feel more present as opposed to like I’m watching my life go by through a foggy window. I’m okay.

I’m finding myself torn. On one hand, I’ve always been a big supporter of medical science and getting help when you need it. When someone is suffering, I always recommend going to a doctor for antidepressants or other therapy. Hell, I work in a mental health clinic and help people get their prescriptions every day. I think for a lot of people, medication can be a life saver and the answer to their problems.

On the other hand I feel a bit like a hypocrite when I see things differently for myself. I think maybe some people are just meant to feel things more intensely than other people, and maybe that isn’t a sickness; when you take away the ability to feel you take away the ability to create. I’ve talked to a lot of fellow creatives on this topic and nearly all of them have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. Many of the old greats have been diagnosed post-mortem with depression or anxiety or bipolar. A common theme seems to be the inability to create on medication. It numbs the senses crucial to the act of creation. I’ve tried two very different antidepressants now and they both essentially did the same thing: one brought me to an almost violent serenity and one brought me to a sensory deprivation tank filled with my own blood where I lay there smiling with no care in the world.

I was afraid that maybe this time I wouldn’t wake up again. After a couple of weeks passed and I was still struggling to form a coherent thought or to care about certain things I thought maybe whatever part of my brain was responsible for it was killed off or left on permanent vacation.

To my immense relief, I was reading an article one day and it actually made me emotional. Shortly thereafter, I started to get a lot of really great ideas for writing, or little projects I could do. This went on for a week or so. Then, I seemed to have some sort of second breakthrough where I started to take better care of myself. I started going to the gym again. Today was my day off from work and I’ve had a lot of really wonderful time to myself to think, and the epiphanies keep coming. I want to re-embrace my minimalist lifestyle and do another wardrobe purge. I want to  go back to eating 100% paleo (a diet in which I felt healthier than I ever felt in my life) but to avoid my usual urge to dive in with both feet. A gradual change is hard, but it’s what I want to do this time to make sure it sticks.

Overall I know that going off of the antidepressants was the right choice for me. It’ll be a difficult path but a beautiful one. I don’t want this to come across like I’m promoting living with mental illness unmedicated. I’m very much a believer that everyone should walk down the path in their own way and find what makes them happiest. You should talk to your doctor before making any changes in your medication. For me, twice was enough to know. While there might be a medication out there that would work for me without killing the emotional side of me, I’m not willing to try anymore. At this point, I’m going to keep going with what has worked for me in the past, which is keeping my creative outlets open and fortified strong against my demons.