First of all, if you’re a fan of the medical drama New Amsterdam and haven’t yet seen the season finale, here’s a spoiler alert. Same if you’re not current on Grey’s Anatomy. Read on at your own risk.
I’ve always rolled my eyes at trigger warnings, thinking that people who have been through things like sexual assault can’t be protected from the knowledge that it exists in the world—that ship has sailed. I know a lot of people think that way, but I also know that a lot of people in my audience suffer from debilitating PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I’m here to say, I get it now.
Trigger warnings are not there to warn people that they will be reminded of sensitive subjects. That’s not what triggering is. Triggering rips past your defenses and puts you back in the incident. Triggered people feel helpless, panicked, and awful in a way they’d do anything not to feel. How do I know?
When I was hit by a car on my bike in 2010, my physical recovery made fools of the doctors who gave my initial prognosis. I broke records for extent of recovery. My attitude in the therapy gym made me the most popular patient by far.
My psychologist was not as easily impressed. He was concerned that I spoke about what happened with a flat affect, as if it happened to someone else and I was reciting a boring newspaper account. He said this made me a ticking time bomb, and about 6 months into mandatory therapy sessions (because people with my type of traumatic brain injury often become aggressive within the year after), he had me write out exactly what I remembered from the crash, for us to discuss in the office.
I did this at home alone, the way I normally write, with quiet and privacy. I started by recreating the pleasure of my bike ride, then the moment any cyclist will relate to, when I felt an “off” vibe and looked around for the danger signs. I was sucked back into that day, reliving the incident, and my lungs constricted. My shoulder and chest muscles tightened. The sweat that drenched my body dripped from my fingertips onto my computer keys and I had to keep wiping my hands to keep from shorting out my keyboard. I shook so violently that I typed lines of gibberish. I didn’t know I was having a panic attack, or that I should have received medical help for it. It took me hours to calm back down and I threw up the next morning.
After I started writing, I kept going for 300 pages and it became my book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed. Telling my story helped me set it down and move on.
Since then, I’ve been reminded of the incident countless times. I wear visible scars that people ask about. It’s impossible to avoid in conversation sometimes. None of that is triggering. That’s just life, and the crash is part of mine.
Triggering is different. I can think of seven times when I was triggered. Four happened while watching TV. They just love to put sudden impacts in the introductions to movies. Fly Away Home, Rememory, Margaret, and a Japanese movie whose name I can’t remember all started with graphically rendered crashes. The intro to Margaret was especially awful, as Alison Janney played the victim who portrayed her injuries a little too well before she died of them. The Japanese movie began with a woman being hit by a car on her bicycle, and the “whump” sound was exactly the same as the car hitting me. And last night, in the final 5 minutes of New Amsterdam, the sudden ambulance crash with the dead and injured on full display did me in.
The most recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, “Drawn to the Blood” (May 9), also ends with a spectacular car crash. This one was not triggering, because it was foreshadowed. It was one of those scenes where the danger was established and you expected the impact, you just didn’t know when. That moment of suspicion allowed me to put up my defenses and brace for it.
It’s the suddenness of the trigger that makes it so devastating, just like the incident itself. There is no heads-up to put your defenses in place, it yanks you into reliving it, completely involuntarily. I don’t know of any form of treatment that could prevent that. By the time last night’s trigger episode happened, I recognized it and I understood why I felt so horrible, why I couldn’t “snap out of it” to respond to a friend who called. This time it passed without me needing to take the fast-acting medication I have for that purpose. But it did get me to thinking, it would have been nice to be prepared for that scene. A trigger warning would have been a spoiler, but I would have appreciated the opportunity to decide to watch or not, or maybe save it for a better time.
I’m not advocating for universal trigger warnings—I’m saying I understand why the warnings exist and I will never roll my eyes at one again. People who can be triggered are not fragile. We live with the memory of something that would break a lot of people. It takes immense strength to overcome that and allow ourselves to be vulnerable again by engaging with the world.
Who in my audience lives with triggers? Do warnings help you?