And it unintentionally stigmatizes others.
“So, Dexter is your…trigger??”
You could hear the air quotes — and the insinuation that “triggers are bullshit” — in my friend’s question from across the room.
It was a typical get-together, sitting around in one of our living rooms shooting the shit about movies, TV shows, books, politics, etc. We rotate living rooms, but the topics are mostly the same among our 6-friend cadre. And I had just mentioned how I only watched the first season of Dexter because the violence at the end of season one triggered something I had no desire to ever relive.
I am a fangirl. Anyone would say so — in fact, Buffy is on in the background as I write this. I enjoy fantasy, horror, superheroes, and serial killer lore. Violent movies like Pulp Fiction, Alien, and The Godfather were as important a part of my high school education as high school.
And, like nearly 25% of the American population, I also experienced physical and emotional abuse when I was a kiddo. Because of this part of my experiential and human makeup, I — like many others who share the statistic — have struggled during my life to manage PTSD because of it.
So, after an unexpected and irrational reaction to a violent scene at the end of one season of a popular TV show, I melted down. I spent the next few days a sad, crying mess. It was random, it was personal — and in the end it was manageable. I saw my therapist shortly after, and I turned away from watching the rest of Dexter (though my partner finished the entire series and I encouraged him to do so — because he does not have the same experiences as me).
I didn’t hop online and complain about the “triggers” for survivors of domestic abuse in the TV show Dexter.
While it’s important to remind the public at large that rape is an occurrence that affects over 10% of the American population (and 35% of the global population) and therefore something not to be taken lightly, it’s also important to remember that instances of something that happens to so many people around the world can also be treated as an important empathy machine.
The first time I heard about PTSD and triggers, I had already been experiencing it for many years. It was on an episode of The West Wing — I was instructed, as many times in my life, by stories and media and pop culture on a topic that was incredibly sensitive and in-depth. On the one hand, Josh’s struggle to listen to the cello after he survived an attack on his and President Bartlett’s life was summed up in a neat 45-minute five-act episode structure. On the other, watching his struggle gave me a context for debilitating depression, anxiety, fear, and misery I’d felt for years. And it had a direct effect on my getting help for those things.
If someone had told the show makers of West Wing that showing the violent attack on President Bartlett, and the emotional fallout his entourage went through in the ensuing months, was insensitive to those who had experienced similar trauma, I would have never been able to figure out why I so often couldn’t get out of bed and go to work.
Just because a thing is traumatic doesn’t mean that no one should ever read, watch, or hear reporting about it.
When I told my friends about a trigger that I had experienced, the immediate assumption was that I was judging the trigger source itself. That I was condemning, censoring, or dissuading someone from watching a show based simply on my personal reaction to it.
The reason they made this assumption has to do with the overuse of the term “triggering” in the media, on campuses, and in chat rooms across the nation.
And when I legitimately cited an actual trigger, I was judged for essentially crying wolf.
Triggers are legitimate facts of life for those of us who have experienced the mental anguish of trauma. But it’s not the responsibility of those we come into contact with to avoid mentioning anything that could potentially be traumatic for someone else.
Rather, true and effective awareness comes from conversation centered around preventing trauma from occurring in the first place.
Learn more about preventing child abuse here.
Learn more about identifying, preventing, and coping with sexual assault here.