“Know thyself” - σαυτόν
Ancient Greek aphorism
I can’t stand trigger warnings.
And I don’t mean the standard ones that have been around for years like, “WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS” that appear on articles about war or crime or famine or Jonestown. I’m talking about the modern phenomenon of alerting readers that the words that follow may remind you of something unpleasant, even traumatic, so continue at your own risk.
Doesn’t all reading involve risk of some kind? Words are powerful. There’s that John Donne poem that makes me cry every time I read it and a certain Edgar Allan Poe story that elevates my heart rate, makes my palms sweat, and my teeth chatter. But isn’t it my responsibility to know my triggers well enough to either pander to my sensitivities by avoiding potentially upsetting text or understand my own fragility well enough to be able to confront and cope with my emotional reaction should I stumble across words that unnerve me?
Now I know folks who clamor for trigger warnings aren’t (usually) referring to crying at reading the sad ending of a poem or needing to sleep with the lights on after reading Poe, or are they? Trigger warnings began as a way to alert sexual assault/abuse survivors that a forum post or conversation thread online included discussion of rape, assault, or abuse as a way to give the reader a heads-up to avoid that thread if she was still in danger of anxiety, PTSD flashbacks, depression, or any other negative psychological sequelae by being reminded of her own personal experience. I get this. I really do. But what started as an optional acknowledgement of the sensitivities of others has snowballed into demands of warnings of all kinds and swift condemnation for label-less prose.
Give me a break! No fainting couch for me, thank you very much. So imagine my surprise when I was triggered—in the truest meaning of that word—by something I recently read. I just emerged from two days of flashbacks, a panic attack, and intense suicidal ideation after reading a seemingly innocuous fairytale-inspired young adult novel.
In my life I’ve survived several instances that meet (or exceed) the definition of trauma. I have navigated the post-trauma waters for years with the help of God, a supportive family, longsuffering friends, and some of the best psychiatrists and therapists on the planet. But probably most important is that with the unfailing help of my support system, I have developed a keen insight into how best to protect myself from the tentacles of the past without preventing my full participation in the present.
I know I can be a marshmallow when it comes to, well, lots of things. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become much better at treating myself gently. I try to plan for a potentially stressful situation by ensuring I have enough time alone to prepare (or to recuperate), or time with friends, or an appointment with my therapist on the calendar. And yes, sometimes I avoid situations that might be too unsettling. I can handle a little turbulence, but it’s crucial to maintain altitude and cabin pressure, and therein lies the rub.
The book that sent me into a two-day tailspin was a thin, easy, and enjoyable read. It was not about war, crime, famine, or Jonestown. It was not about child abuse, sexual assault, or kidnapping. But death was a main character; a personified, tall, handsome Lord Death replete with a horse and a cape and eyes full of sorrow and starlight. As ridiculous as it sounds, this was enough to knock me off course. My adolescent flirtations with Death blossomed into a courtship that culminated in a suicide attempt that landed me not into an early grave, but into a hospital for a month.
In the 27 years and 2 months since falling off of Lord Death’s horse I have ventured into the wood looking for him once or twice a year, but I have never again tried to join him. This recent stroll through the underbrush felt less like a treasure hunt and more like hide-and-seek. I knew I didn’t want to find him, but I was still helpless to leave the game.
Should I have seen it coming? Maybe. Should I do some background research before I read something new (especially if the word “death” is in the title)? Maybe. Will I warn my friends with a history of depression or suicide attempts that this book might upset them? You bet. Should the publisher print a TRIGGER WARNING to alert readers that the story deals with death and people die in the book? Absolutely not.
We live in a big, big world and it is impossible to determine what content might elicit post-traumatic anxiety or emotional turmoil in another person. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each individual to tame his or her own demons, ideally with help from an extended support system. I am grateful for the dear friends in my Book Club who insisted I attend our gathering by offering me a ride, calmly and patiently listened to me share my reaction to this month’s reading selection, acknowledged my unique response, then matter-of-factly went on discussing the book as if it were, well, the harmless piece of fiction that it is. That was enough to snap me out of it.
This experience has not quelled my desire to seek out new combinations of words to thrill, challenge, enrage, teach, wound, and maybe even trigger me—because ultimately it’s my finger on the trigger (bad metaphor!) and my responsibility to choose wisely, and to reach for a helping hand should I choose poorly.
Jewels Green is a middle-aged married mother of three who many moons ago survived a suicide attempt with the invaluable help of a perfect storm of a support system: a compassionately-staffed hospital, a loving family, loyal friends, and ongoing psychiatric and therapeutic intervention.