*Trigger warning: this post contains special snow flake melting triggers, you’re not the center of the universe triggers and meltdown triggers for unspanked babies over the age of twenty – you’ve been warned.*
First let me tell you I don’t discount PTSD triggers. One morning, a few years ago, I came out of the grocery store with my son. For various reasons I was very stressed, but also very stressed in a way that had been familiar in my youth, where on a few occasions people near me were shot or at least shot at.
When a car backfired, I found myself under a parked truck. I’d dropped the bags and taken a long dive. My son was looking at me like I had gone around the bend. I had to crawl out, grab the bags, and explain. I was shaky the rest of the day.
Now, this doesn’t even happen every time a car backfires, and I’ve gone to a gun range without looking for shelter. The noise bothers me, but it’s not that bad (It bothers me because it’s in a range that hurts my ears, not because it gives me flashbacks.)
But put me in the right kind of stress, in the right situation, and the back brain takes over.
I don’t care. As issues go, it’s not that bad. Weird, yes, but not that bad. And it gives me understanding for friends who have much worse triggers to much worse flash backs.
Other PTSD symptoms from growing up in an unstable country are more subtle. Two hours after hearing about the World Trade Center bombing, I was driving back from the grocery store, my truck filled with groceries, but particularly cooking oil and toilet paper. This is in no way rational. There was nothing about the bombings – even when we thought there would be a lot more of them, as we did – that would affect the supply of canola oil and toilet paper in Colorado in the proximate future. BUT in Portugal in the seventies having these in stock was a very good idea, as they often disappeared from store shelves. In other words, they made the confused, scared kid inside me feel safe. It’s all right. Took me a year to get through the supply, but it’s all right.
Some of my friends with much worse experiences sleep with a gun at hand, or under their pillow at certain times of the year. Or completely isolate themselves from humanity for two weeks, because they can’t be trusted not to snap at a triggering incident.
I don’t know anyone – not one person, and trust me I know many sorts of people who are broken in many sorts of ways – who gets their PTSD triggered by a WRITTEN word or a blog post. I could see, perhaps, a novel that was all-absorbing, about a civil war triggering my feeling of vague stress that could make me vulnerable to PTSD. This is one of the reasons that, though I love military SF I don’t read it often. And I have to be careful when I write anything resembling it (I don’t write military sf, I don’t know enough about life in the military, never having served.) But it would have to be a darn good novel. ALL absorbing. Way beyond being “a good yarn.”
Normally the triggers are more primal and connected to the gut. Smell is one of the strongest, in most humans. You know that, right? Smell something and suddenly you’re there, when you were three and seeing whatever. Sight, of course. Often a certain season/time of year with all the cues. I thought Pratchett did that beautiful in Night Watch with the smell of lilac. It was RIGHT.
So what in holy, bleeding, sulphurous h*ll is this about?
Twenty years ago, critics such as Christina Hoff Sommers, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, and Karen Lehrman described the bizarre “therapeutic pedagogy” in many women’s studies classrooms, where female students were frequently encouraged to share traumatic or intimate experiences in supportive “safe spaces.” Today, at many colleges, academic therapism has spread to other fields. Welcome to the age of the trigger warning.
The trigger-warning vogue began a few years ago on feminist websites, and then spread to other “social justice” blogs. The idea behind them is that for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something that reminds them of the trauma can trigger painful flashbacks and panic attacks. Initially, the warnings were primarily for sexual assault and partner abuse. Eventually, on some blogs, they spread to just about everything that could be potentially upsetting to any person of politically correct sensitivities: sexism, racism, homophobia, “ableism,” “victim-blaming,” “slut-shaming,” “fat-shaming,” “body-shaming” and a host of other sins and oppressions. (My personal favorite, from Melissa McEwan’s Shakesville site, is a warning for “discussion of gender policing”–that is, of norms dictating proper bounds of masculine and feminine behavior. How startling to find such a discussion on a feminist blog!) Warnings for mere references to gun violence, suicide, self-harm and various mental disorders, as well as things that trigger phobias–from spiders to small holes (really)–have proliferated as well.
I’ve seen those warnings a couple of times, usually on articles about cutting or other addictive dysfunctions. That I understood. These are ADDICTIVE dysfunctions. If you cut, you do it for the endorphins. There is a seduction to it for you. The same for drug use. I can see where a well written, evocative, biographical article on it COULD start you thinking about it and could lead to your wanting to do it again, even though you kicked it. G-d knows I understand that. Every time I give up writing, I read a book… Never mind. Not the place to joke. (And I’m not even sure I’m joking.)
I get that type of warning and it’s where I’ve seen them. If you still choose to go ahead and read the article, you should have a quick dial to your buddy or twelve step counselor or whatever. Right. That’s fine. You’re more than allowed. You’re encouraged to do this. In certain circumstances, maybe, if you squint, an article on suicide might even lead you to consider it again. If the article makes it appear as wonderfully seductive as it has to me in my worst times. NOT normally, but if you’re at just that point. It’s a small demographic, but I could totally see a warning before playing certain songs or reading stories to a group of people that goes “If you’re suicidaly depressed…” (Of course, who admits to that? And to what end personal responsibility? Most of us who are cyclically inclined towards depression are aware of it, and compensate. Weirdly, actually, sometimes the more depressive songs are what pulls me out of it.)
But what the heck, people, seriously WHAT THE HECK? sexism, racism, homophobia, “ableism,” “victim-blaming,” “slut-shaming,” “fat-shaming,” “body-shaming”? Spiders? Small holes? WHAT?
You cannot have PTSD to any of those, because none of those are the sort of trauma that causes PTSD. Guys, I have black friends who lived in South Africa, under Apartheid, who don’t have PTSD relating to racism. They get upset at it, sure, (everyone does, with real racism) but they don’t have PTSD. There can be no “trigger” unless your idea of “trigger” is “something that makes me feel uncomfortable.” If that’s it, then everything is clear, from the “triggers” for mentions of spiders and small holes, to not feeling safe at a convention because someone, somewhere might make a fat joke. (Actually fat jokes don’t even make me feel uncomfortable. I know I’m fat. I don’t like it. For various reasons I have trouble controlling it. But you know what? It’s still funny. Heck, I make fat jokes myself. My favorite is that if my local thrift store doesn’t stop putting size 3 suits in the size 18 section, I’m going to find the sorting clerk and sit on her. At my weight, that’s serious punishment.) A fat joke can offend you, if you feel it’s directed at you – though then, that’s not a joke, but just a rude remark. In the same way a sexist/racist/homophobic comment might upset you. THAT IS NOT A TRAUMA. That’s just being bothered and upset. The proper outlet for it is to either roll your eyes, tell the person they’re annoying (if they’re nearby and not like a performer), not listen to/read the person again, OR, if it really gets on your nerves, vent to your friends about it.
I knew we were in some sort of trouble when I stole my kid’s psychology textbook and found that having mood variations of any sort was being classed as “bi-polar” and needing medication. I have no idea how it’s being applied, but let me tell you, I know what a real bi-polar person is like. I grew up with one. Getting mildly upset or happy doesn’t make you bi-polar. It makes you human.
You can’t feel unsafe because someone near you might possibly eventually say something that could remotely perhaps apply to you and upset you. You can’t even feel unsafe because someone might turn to you and tell you you’re a fat cow. You can get angry, but getting angry is okay. To feel unsafe you have to have a reasonable (note, REASONABLE) expectation of physical HARM.
Listen to me – this thing you’re experiencing? This upset in the pit of your stomach? It’s perfectly normal. Trust me. It’s part of being human.
That thing where whatsherface heard Larry Summers say that at the very top in the sciences there were few qualified women and felt like she was going to faint or throw up? Learned reaction. And the fact that she somehow got it into her head that she should never, ever, ever be upset.
Any woman who feels the need to faint when faced with a statistical truth – that women tend to cluster in the center of the bell curve while men cluster in the center. Yes, there’s more male geniuses. And more male morons. BUT this is not predictive of any given woman or man. It’s a statistical universe thing – is an unspanked baby.
No, I don’t believe babies should be spanked. (Yes, I can see the twitter storm now. That’s fine. I don’t care. They’re going to play telephone with anything I say anyway, let them have their fun.) But I do believe that if you’re never been metaphorically spanked, if the world never hands you a set back, if everyone tiptoes around you and tries to make sure that your tender, delicate, lilac scented feelings can’t ever ever ever be offended, you’re not going to grow up. You’re going to continue to think like a baby who attempts to control his environment by crying and pumping his hands and feet. And the more mommy and daddy – or total strangers who buy into your entitlement – rush to protect you, the more you’ll try the trick because, oh, my, that must be your G-d given right.
Listen, princess (and it’s mostly women, though some men are also drama queens) I don’t care how privileged your upbringing, how cushioned your adolescence; I don’t really give a good g*ddamn how many people told you that you were special and must be accommodated in all things, you’re human, living in an human world, and sooner or later reality is going to bite you on your pink powdered ass. And the longer it takes for reality to bite, the worse it will hurt.
This doesn’t make you a victim (and being a victim doesn’t make you a good person, btw) or entitled to compensation. Depending on how you take it, it either makes you a grown up, or a bloody nuisance.
But you have TTTTTTRAUMA. Some uncouth man has looked at you too long, slapped your butt, told you that you were hot… Some guy – trembles lip – tried to get into your roooooom at a con.
Look, my upbringing was no worse than most people’s. It was probably better than most in my time and place. My parents were middle-middle class. By education probably upper middle class. BUT thank G-d neither of them believed that I should be raised as the bubble girl, with every harsh feature of the world and humanity cushioned and softened for me.
I know they didn’t like to expose me to what was at the time and place quite a rough and tumble world. I didn’t like to expose my kids, either. I remember that first day in kindergarten, letting go of the kid’s hand, knowing they’d get in trouble, be made fun of, be spoken harshly to.
I didn’t get advanced from first to fourth grade because fourth grade was the last grade in the village, and after that I’d need to take a bus to the middle school. Mom thought a girl of eight was too young.
Now let me tell you why she thought so. Portuguese buses are usually overfull. There is either a class of men who rides the bus all day practicing frottage, or there are a lot of these men.
Yes, I’ve had total strangers pleasure themselves by rubbing up against me. When I was as young as 11, which is when I did go to 5th grade. Do I have PTSD due to that? Oh, hell no. It was ewwwwwwwwwwwwww beyond all measure, but it happened to everyone and I had been warned. On the advice of my female cousin/sister (she was raised with my brother and I) Natalia, I’d provided myself with one of grandma’s hat pins. It became a game to shift just slightly, then STAB. Oh, the screams, the clutchings, the moans that they weren’t doing anything. (At which point more often than not the conductor would come and toss them out.)
There were other worse incidents. It was the culture. Does this mean I feel unsafe around men? Oh, please. Why should I? WHY would that be a horrible trauma? Some stupid idiot thought he could get off by doing this. It makes me feel disgusted, but disgust – LISTEN TO ME – is NOT TRAUMA.
Being rubbed on by a stranger, or being groped by one, even, or even being cornered in a deserted classroom by a guy six years older who is intent on raping you IS NOT TRAUMA. NOT if you got out of it unscathed. It was scary. Oh, it was very scary. BUT BEING FRIGHTENED DOESN’T CAUSE TRAUMA.
Rape can very well be trauma. Very bad trauma. But how many of you have been raped? Tell me the truth, princess. Not “slept with him and found out he was not very nice.” Not “my friends all thought I was stupid for sleeping with him, so I told them it was rape.” How many of you have been held down and forcibly raped?
I know there are real cases of this. And I know it causes trauma. I have friends – female AND male – who have been raped, and who are still traumatized by it.
But look, honeychild, if being “slut shamed” is enough to traumatize you, you’d expect these people who have been VIOLENTLY and FORCIBLY raped to be huddled under their beds, crying, right? For the rest of their lives?
The people I know are all functional human beings. They might have some scars they have to route around, but I can tell you something, your highness, NONE OF THEM WHO READS THIS (and a few will) will complain I “triggered” them. They can be triggered, yes. I’ve handled meltdowns with a couple of them. But not by reading some words on a blog post.
I know my friend, Amanda, likes to just yell at people like you to “grow up” – yeah. You should. But I don’t know if you can. That is, I don’t know if it’s that easy. Sometimes I wonder if this panic and “injury” is sort of like the psychological version of humans who grow up in houses that are too clean end up having asthma, because their body reacts to ANYTHING as a major threat.
If that’s the case, you can’t just volitionally do it. But you should try to do it, nonetheless. Expose yourself to the company of those who disagree with you and DO try to defend your point, instead of screaming they’re hurting you and running away to the “comfort” of all your friends who will pat you on the back and assure you that it was indeed horrible trauma. Depending on how capable of immersing yourself in art you are, reading biographies of people who really WERE traumatized and didn’t end up as quivering pools of jelly (the world is full of them. No, seriously) might help. Or you could help people who have it worse than you. Take yourself out of your comfort zone. Baby steps. Remember, being upset is not abnormal. It’s part of human existence. And you are not a fairy princess. You’re human like the rest of us.
But you have to do something – other than scream and moan and demand to be protected. — Because I’m going to tell you this, Rapunzel, right now a well protected Victorian maiden would laugh her ass off at you. As much as they presented the “delicate maiden” to the world, theirs was a rougher environment, and they were likely to withstand a lot more than you can, including death of siblings and worse. Certainly being spoken harshly to and being TRULY discriminated against.
And here’s the thing, Cinderella, if you don’t change your ways, you’re giving Victorian maidens a bad name. I don’t care how much you roar in your “safe” places that you’re an all conquering warrior queen. The first time you faint at a harsh word, you’re validating all the stereotypes people like me don’t want to have brought back.
You know the whole frottage thing in buses? And why it was dangerous for a woman to be out alone after eight? And why a lot of families where I grew up considered it dangerous to send their daughters to mixed-gender schools at all?
Because women were assumed to be too fragile for this harsh workaday world. They were supposed to be kept cabined, cribbed, confined – PROTECTED by their men. And any one that was alone out could not be a virtuous woman, not even an 11 year old girl.
Now I wasn’t in the first generation to break that, not by a long shot, BUT there was still enough of that in the culture that I had to be aware of and fight and show that I could handle things so I’d be allowed to go on. A lot of that. And I fought back at it, because I did not want to be “protected.” I was a human being and I wanted to be treated as one. I wanted to learn and work, and be, just like my brother or my male cousins.
But if you keep up with the helpless-flower act, you’re going to end up giving people the impression that ALL OF US need to be protected. Slut shaming? Why, darling, you might not end up locked in the house, but the generation after you will. It’s so easy. “I don’t let my daughter go to school. She’d faint if someone made a joke about her body.”
Next thing you know, we’re all in burkas and being kept from that terrible rough and tumble world. Maybe that’s what you want for the generations of women after us. It’s not what I want for my potential granddaughters or great granddaughters.
So, princess, get off your tuffet and stop making like you’re a melting special snow flake. You aren’t. And before you destroy what much better women than you have worked for, I’ll see you in hell.*
*and if you thought the last was threat and you wanted to faint or run away, then yes, this post is all about you.