On Trigger Warnings

by thethreepennyguignol

So, a few months ago, a couple of friends and I were discussing safe spaces and trigger warnings. One of them mentioned a post he’d seen on social media, which displayed an image of someone holding a knife to their arm, and he snortingly described a comment from someone asking that it be tagged with a “trigger warning” for people who self-harm. And then he saw my expression of apologetic “I’m going to disagree with you quite a bit here”, and realized it was going to be an awkward five minutes.

I know damn well that the concepts of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” have become a dogwhistle term for overly sensitive social justice warriors and all kinds of apparently swooning lefties who can’t so much hear the word “fat” without keeling over into a weeping pile of mush- or so most of the internet would have you believe, anyway. And I know a lot of you reading this may well fall on the “pull yourself together, you can’t be protected from every little thing that bothers you” side of the scale. And I know I can only talk about this from my own perspective (ie, dealing with self-harm), but indulge me a few minutes while I try to explain why these concepts are perhaps not the ridiculous pandering you might think they are.

As I have written about before, for me, self-harm is an addiction. Which means that it’s never really been something I’ve “recovered” from- it’s still there lurking away at the back of mind most every day, and I would say not a full hour goes by where my brain doesn’t shout “DO IT YOU PUSSY” at me. For the vast majority of these incidences, I can snuff out those kinds of thoughts pretty quickly, because they usual come from nowhere-there’s nothing backing them up and making them legitimate. These thoughts just sort of slither to the front of my head, and, finding nothing to hook on to, then slither off again a few seconds later.

Sometimes, I might be scrolling through social media of some kind- maybe even come across an article like the one my friend mentioned- and see an image of someone injuring themselves, or see pictures of self-harm scars, or whatever it might be. Again, most of the time, I can see this images and brush straight by them. But if seeing an image like that happens to match up with a moment or period of time when my brain is pushing for me to harm myself again, it’s like someone has yanked the concept to the front of my brain and nail-gunned it there. It’s hard to explain the singularity my brain locks into when I want to hurt myself, but it’s kind of the same feeling I get when I’m walking home in the rain carrying a heavy bag- that internal promise that it’ll be done soon, and then I can relax. I find it difficult to shake these thoughts without actually acting on them, else they just sit and leach at the back of my head for hours or days or weeks.

As I’ve said before, mental illness works differently for everyone, so some people who self-harm (or suffer from other forms of potentially triggerable illness, like PTSD) might find themselves absolutely fine looking at these images. Which is great for them. But for me, and people who react similarly to difficult reminders of things they’d rather not think about, putting a trigger warning on something isn’t there to pander to my agonizingly delicate sensibilities; it’s something that gives me the choice to opt out of seeing or watching or reading something that might tip my brain upside down. I understand that if you don’t find anything in particular “triggering”, the concept might seem like cotton-wool wrapping the world, and you’re welcome to continue arguing that it is. But for me, it’s just a promise that I get to choose whether or not to carry on my day like a normal person, and I appreciate the effort.