There’s been a lot of talk on the interwebs of late about trigger warnings. What are they, who needs them, should we have them everywhere or nowhere, what good do they do? I’m not mad keen on them, myself – I can see a purpose in the basic sex/violence warnings you get on DVD boxes, since those are things that bother many people for many reasons, but I don’t see how they can usefully extend beyond these broad categories.
The thing about being triggered is that it’s completely different to being made to feel a bit uncomfortable. Triggers are part of living with PTSD. People who are triggered experience extreme, excessive reactions to stimuli – things like flashbacks, uncontrollable shaking, spontaneous nausea/vomiting, the fight/flight/freeze response. It can change your mood for days, give you nightmares, kill your appetite, prevent you from sleeping, cause dissociative episodes… Of course, not everybody experiences all of these things, but the point is that there’s a lot more to it than just not liking to see or hear something (and the people who co-opt the term “triggering” as a means of censoring and controlling those around them do none of us any favours).
Having dealt with PTSD for several years now, I’m no stranger to triggering and know very well the difference between something that triggers me and something that just upsets me. If I’m reading a book or watching a film or play and someone loses their loved ones through death or abandonment, it will upset me (if it’s done believably, otherwise it’ll just piss me off). I will probably cry. It probably won’t make me want to stop watching or reading, unless it’s really close to home. Breaking Bad came close once or twice, because Walter White strongly reminds me of my dad in terms of looks, temperament and physicality, and watching the character going through cancer treatment in the first season was tough. It made me very sad, and I thought about my dad a lot while I was watching it and missed him badly. It pained me that I’ll never get to show him Breaking Bad and tease him about the resemblance. But it didn’t trigger me. It caused me to have a perfectly normal response to being reminded of someone I still miss.
So what does trigger me? Well, the one I encounter most often is car crash noises. Some shows and films use very realistic crash sounds, and I find those hard to handle. I can usually rely on structure and lead-up to see it coming, in which case I’ll get ready and make sure I’ve covered my ears and am not looking at the screen when it happens. The trouble is that sometimes it comes out of nowhere, so there’s no action I can take. Last year I was at a book launch and part of the way through the reading, CRASH, sound effect out of nowhere! There hadn’t been any other sound effects, nothing to make me think that this might happen, so I was completely unprepared. I nearly leapt out of my seat, then sat there for a while twitching and shaking, trying not to scream or cry. I had nightmares that night. But at least it wasn’t as bad as seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron. I remember almost nothing about that film except that there was a sequence that was just one crash after another, and by the time it was done I was curled up in a ball on the floor with tears streaming down my face.
Now, car crashes are pretty common so I suppose one could argue that anything involving a representation of a crash should bear a warning. Personally, I don’t agree. They are common occurrences, and most people are fine a short while afterward. They process the shock and fright, they recover, they don’t shake and cry whenever they hear the noise. I recovered just fine from the first crash I was in, when I was a child. I appeared to be fine after the pile-up in 2005. It wasn’t until the black ice incident in 2008 that I started experiencing flashbacks and other trauma symptoms. For a while I found it very difficult to be in a car at all, but EMDR helped me to get things under control to the point where I can drive and be a passenger. It’s just the noises that still trouble me, but that’s my damage and I don’t think it should be necessary to undermine a dramatic device to accommodate it.
Also, not all triggers are as obvious as that. The other one that affects me is the smell of lavender. While car crashes are commonly considered traumatic events with negative associations, most people’s associations with lavender are very positive. It’s a very popular fragrance for bath products or anything laundry-related, and it’s one of the most common oils used in massage or any kind of relaxation treatment. It’s remarkably difficult to avoid, but for me it’s tied in with memories of things that happened while my mum was dying, things people did that I still can’t talk about, even in therapy, because to process those things is too close to forgiving them and there will be no forgiveness here.
I control my environment where I can. I’ve got used to checking laundry products and toiletries to make sure I don’t inadvertently pick up something lavender-scented. If I book a massage I request that no lavender be used in my treatment and offer to bring my own geranium oil instead. But there’s nothing I can do to control the outside world, where lots of people like the scent and I can smell it on them. Nor would I want to restrict their right to enjoy the fragrance if they like.
A few years ago my husband and I went to see Puppet State Theatre’s wonderful show The Man Who Planted Trees. At one point there is a description of lavender fields, and by means of a beautifully simple effect they waft the scent out over the audience. I saw it coming, only just, and scrambled for the bottle of Olbas Oil I usually keep in my handbag to drown out any other smells. It broke my heart a bit that I couldn’t enjoy that part of the show the way it was intended (though I certainly appreciated it objectively and could see that it was lovely for everyone else).
The experience I had at that show always pops up in my mind when discussing trigger warnings. I don’t think it would be reasonable for me to expect Puppet State to have anticipated my reaction. How could they? It would be equally possible that someone might have PTSD responses linked to a particular quality of light, or the type of shirt one of the actors was wearing, or to an uncommon phrase that might have cropped up in the script. If triggers are very specific and personal, any aspect of a show (or film, or book, or everyday experience) might be someone’s trigger – so in order to provide total protection, it would be necessary to list every single component of the production and every word in the script, and at that point haven’t you just experienced the thing anyway?
My preferred option is to take responsibility for my own traumas and deal with them myself. I try to anticipate the car crashes in TV and film, and I carry my Olbas Oil to overpower unexpected lavender. And, increasingly, I try to get the better of the triggers. I’m on the waiting list for further EMDR to deal with the car crash stuff, and while I’m getting support from my current therapist I am training myself to be able to tolerate lavender without having a visceral response to it.
It’s been a long process, beginning with using CBT to control myself when I encounter the fragrance. Every time I would try to push myself a little bit longer before I blocked the smell out. I’d control my breathing, remind myself that the nausea was without cause, dissect the intrusive thoughts, try not to let myself shake. Later I acquired a bottle of lavender oil and started training myself to handle the scent at its strongest. Most recently I scented my bath with it so that the smell of lavender went wherever I went, and noted how it affected me. I’m almost entirely in control of it now. I’ve overcome the shaking, the nausea, the hyperventilation. I’m aware that I still experience heightened alertness and am quite jumpy when I can smell it. But it’s so much better than it was, and I’m still working on it. Whether I’ll make my peace with lavender to the point where I can have it used in massage I don’t know, but at least I’ve made it to this stage. I’m getting there.
Of course, overcoming triggers through exposure isn’t the right move for everyone, so I’m not suggesting that anyone who manages PTSD and may be reading this ought to do the same. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of mis-steps along the way. But I’m glad I’m doing it. I may not have dealt with the trauma that underpins the trigger, but I’ve managed to detach the scent from the experience and will, in time, reclaim it. Whether that’s healthy or not is up for debate, but I don’t know if I ever can have a healthy relationship with those experiences or how long and arduous the journey to get to that point would be. The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is to deactivate the triggers so that I can deal with the trauma or not, in my own good time.
Do I have a conclusion? Not really, sorry. I can’t tell you whether trigger warnings should exist, I can only tell you that I can’t imagine they’d be helpful in my particular case because I’d need to know the thing I’m watching/reading thoroughly in order to know whether it would be triggering. But hopefully this post explains a bit about what it feels like when it happens, what I’ve been able to do to reclaim control and why it’s complex.
Enough for now. Whenever I write mental health posts I reach the point where I can’t keep writing long before I reach any proper conclusion. The urge to delete the whole thing kicks in. So I’m going to post and go and work on something else before that urge wins.