Content warning: bugs, sexual assault, physical violence, PTSD
I am triggered by bugs.
I was assaulted and am triggered by bugs.
I was sexually assaulted and am triggered by bugs.
I was raped and left for dead and am triggered by bugs.
I was raped and left for dead and am triggered by bugs because when I woke up on the floor of that dirty fucking shed, my twelve-year-old body was covered in blood and spiders. I refuse all offers to go camping because the sound of crickets makes me feel his hands and taste copper and see it all over again. When I’m having a flashback (because make no mistake, that’s what I’m describing), I can’t hear anything else but his words screamed into my face, punctuated by fists.
I’d apologize for the detail, but I’ve found that this is the level of depth I have to give in order for someone to consider taking my triggers seriously. People feel entitled to know why something causes me to have such an extreme reaction, especially because there are often no outward signs of that reaction besides a glazed look in my eyes. In practice, this means that if I want to have a chance at being respected while asking for trigger warnings, I have to offer more information than I’d like to. It’s no longer enough to simply say “I am triggered by ____.”
Trigger warnings are not about me feeling “uncomfortable.” It’s not just some hot topic being debated in academic circles, packaged in soundbite-sized pieces that tell one narrative: the coddled college student living in a liberal ivory tower threatened by the reality of a harsh world. To hear some pundits tell it, trigger warnings are a mark of America’s downfall and, somehow, an exercise in censorship. Apparently there can be no free speech without the unrestricted ability to completely disregard the experiences of those you are speaking to, without fear of being told you’re an asshole.
This isn’t about free speech. This is about those of us who know the harsh realities of the world all too fucking well, so well that we won’t ever be able to forget—unless we do forget and have it all come rushing back when we can’t brace for impact.
That’s what happened to me. My mind had pushed my traumas aside until, years later, all of my repressed memories rose to the surface. I guess my brain was so overwhelmed it couldn’t hold back anymore. I screamed my entire family awake. I cried myself to sleep. I often still do. I go through a version of that realization, of remembering and reliving, every single time I am triggered.
Remember that roach in Stone-Davis? The one people posted photos of on Yik Yak? Yeah, that made for one hell of a night.
We think of Wellesley as this “politically correct” bastion of liberal students, people who would never disparage someone’s mental health. Yet, that is exactly what I had to deal with when I posted a yak asking that people not post photos of bugs.
I was intentionally specific and apologetic in my request, saying bugs are a major trigger of mine and other people I know on our campus and asking that others avoid posting photos of them so we didn’t have to stop using the app. I even added a “thank you so much” as the first comment, and an addendum asking if people were going to post the photos that they add a trigger warning as a separate yak so when scrolling, people would know what was coming. That addendum was downvoted before anyone else had even commented.
Once the comments did start rolling in, I was blindsided. I was accused of censorship by multiple people, told my trigger isn’t real because bugs are harmless, and reminded that “college is not a counseling service.” I needed to go to the Stone Center. I should have known that being triggered is just a form of “exposure therapy.” I needed to “woman up and get over it.”
Nevermind that I cannot learn if I am in the middle of a flashback, that I’m not simply afraid of bugs (though I do believe phobias should be acknowledged and are also helped by trigger warnings) but am trying to avoid reliving being raped. Nevermind that exposure therapy is done by trained clinicians, with the informed consent of the patient, and in a controlled environment. Nevermind that I’ve been in treatment for my mental illness for years now. Nevermind that I am not a woman.
The assumptions these commenters—my peers—made about me are truly staggering. The blissfully ignorant position they occupy might lend a note of absurdity to their comments if they didn’t hurt so badly. Who are these people to discount my trauma and tell me what’s best for my own mental health?
When I posted that yak, I wasn’t looking for people to fall at my feet. I was just looking for the sort of consideration you’d give to someone who’s had a rough time and doesn’t want to be reminded of it out of the blue. I figured that those who disagreed would simply continue on with their day, and those who were compassionate would read it and maybe prevent a future flashback of mine. Hell, I’ve seen more compassion given towards students who didn’t get into a society and were sick of reading about those who did.
All I am asking for is a bit of tact, a sense of empathy, and a willingness not to co-opt the struggles of mentally ill people in whichever way best benefits your political position. Yik Yak is just an extension of the culture we’ve steeped ourselves in. Wellesley thankfully doesn’t have the ideology that trigger warnings are unnecessary because they stifle academic freedom. However, there is still a culture of knowing what’s best for everyone, and we need to address the ills that come with it, like believing all a person with PTSD needs is a trip to the Stone Center, some exposure therapy, and perhaps a prescription.
Maybe this way of thinking is a side effect of attending a college full of type-A students, where mental illness is so commonplace everyone thinks they’re an expert. Maybe it’s not. No matter the reason, I only hope students will learn to take the words of students with triggers at face value and recognize the harm that comes from believing themselves entitled to our life stories. I only hope that next time, saying “I am triggered by bugs” will be enough.
From February 2016 Issue