Problems with the trigger warning debate //on being triggered// ableist attitudes about mental health in activist movements

Trigger Warning: explicit mentions of sexual assault, suicide, addiction, domestic violence & other potentially triggering content

Trigger Warning specifically for cousins and aunts on my mom’s side: If you are reading this, you might not want to read the middle section (#2), it will make you very sad.  Please don’t read it unless you know you are ready.  Also please DO NOT show this to mom, it will not be good for her to see, and I dont’ want her to see it. love you xoxo.

I’d been thinking about staying away from this conversation, because I knew it would be hard to feel through the words I needed in order to express why these debates about trigger warnings are so terrible, to be honest and open enough to make this visible to you in a way that goes beyond the supposedly cool objective rational political and academic arguments. But I have too much to say, so I found the words, even though it hurts. I need you to feel, viscerally, what this might be like for me, and potentially for other people who experience being triggered.  It is impossible to do that without sharing things that hurt to share, feel, revisit, and maybe hurt to read as well.  Some of the content might be disturbing (see trigger warnings above).  Writing this and sharing it is hard.  It is deeply personal, and it involves peeling back layers of myself that take a lot of courage to explore and revisit.  It is not a detached academic or political debate.  Maybe this is why hardly any of voices in the debate around trigger warnings are coming from the people who want/need them.  But, I think it’s important for you to understand these things, and it’s important for me to think through how to enable you to understand. I also want you to understand how the kind of dismissal ever present in this debate (and often present as well in our organizing spaces and culture) hurts our movements (whether we define them as social justice, anarchist, environmental, anti-colonial). It’s important that you learn to see.

#1: trigger warnings and academia

I keep seeing academics posting about why trigger warnings are like censorship, or why they are an unnecessary waste of time and energy without any real consideration of what it is like to be triggered in a classroom.  (For those of you not in the know, trigger warnings are just where you warn someone that the content to follow might be upsetting. Like if you are going to talk about rape or suicide or something.  ^ like what I did, up there, under the title. Those are examples of trigger warnings.)

I’m an anthropology TA.  In anthropology, we talk about fucked up shit all the time, in the general areas of sexual violence, racism, colonialism, but super explicit, detailed, uncomfortable.  For example, one of the textbooks popularly used in introductory anthropology talks about (TW!) adolescent gang rape. I have another, very popular, and very well written intro textbook that talks about the normalization of (TW) rape in the context of fraternities and American universities.  It’s important that we cover this material.  It’s important that we understand how these things happen and the cultural logic that circulates regarding misogyny and patriarchy, masculinity, how sexual violence comes to be normalized. That we see these things not as exceptions, but rather learn to look at how they are tangled up in wider, dominant cultural practices and discourses (I.e. rape culture).  Anthropology is uncomfortable—it’s meant to be.  It involves troubling and poking holes in comfortable taken for granted notions about the world, and ourselves, and learning from that discomfort. We might look at how certain example of violence are not exceptions but rather how they are rationalized, embedded in our structures and institutions, reified and perpetuated through language and metaphors, thereby coming to a better understanding of how this type of violence plays out in our lives, everyday—how it affects us, the people we care about, as well as people we don’t even know.  It involves interrogating privilege and oppression in a myriad of complicated and intersecting ways.  This is what makes anthropology so important, and what I love about it (despite all of its fucked up colonial roots).

It’s important that we engage with this difficult knowledge and that we encourage students to engage with it as well.  BUT.  It’s also important to recognize that students deserve to know about the content in advance, so they can mentally prepare themselves, if needed.  Preparation looks different from person to person, with a given situation and varies quite a lot.  It might mean being absent that day, or attending, but remembering anxiety medication just in case.  It might mean making sure they’re someplace that feels safe before opening the readings. Or, simply, it might mean mentally preparing themselves so they’re not caught off guard and vulnerable when triggering topic comes up, but can continue to attend and keep up with the work.  This is the most likely in my experience.

I know what it’s like to be triggered during lectures.  I’ve had students who have been triggered ask me to talk with professors so that they could prepare themselves for specific content. Students who wait until everyone else has left the classroom, and you see how hard it is for them to talk about it, to have to ask, the bravery it takes to be that vulnerable and disclose.  You see how close the trauma is, how it pervades all the moments that others assume are innocuous.  It’s hard to trust someone enough to divulge that you need a trigger warning, because that involves disclosing why you need a trigger warning—even if you don’t spell your trauma out, it’s implied.  And now, on top of how difficult it already is to talk about, we have a host of articles circulating the internet, posted and reposted to Facebook, shaming these students as overly sensitive, indulgent, and dismissing their trauma as “shorthand for ‘not getting what you want’”, “feeling inconvenience in an affluent, convention society”.  That is fucked up.  It takes so much bravery for a student to divulge they need a trigger warning, and these students deserve nothing but respect. Add to the mix these ‘debates’ that minimize their experiences of being triggered, potentially on top of delegitimization that occurred around the initial traumatic event. (I.e. ‘Oh, that’s not really rape— he shouldn’t carry around that stigma for the rest of his life.  She was drinking, anyway’—> THIS HAPPENS.  All the time.)  Now it takes even more bravery.  And what about the students who don’t work up the courage to ask?  They shouldn’t have to share traumatizing personal information to have some warning about potentially triggering topics.  It should go without saying: being triggered is NOT the same as being offended or inconvenienced.  These students are not trying to get out of work/avoid difficult knowledge: they are trying to maintain being well in the face of trauma and all its continual reminders.  They deserve more respect than they’re being given in this debate.

I have a lot of issues with the things that are being said, but, for now, I’ll stick to just a few of the very big issues floating under the surface of this ‘debate’.

#2: Most of the people involved in this debate have no idea what it’s like to be triggered  (as this article points out).  This is what being triggered feels like:

 What it’s like to be triggered varies from person to person.  It also varies with how stable other life things are, and the kind of space a person is in mentally—how prepared they are, whether something has caught them off guard, what the rest of their day has been like, how safe they feel, how supported they feel. Since it’s different for everybody, I will try and convey a little bit of what this is like for me, so that you can begin to understand.

On the surface, I seem very calm and measured, even when I am triggered. In the past, people have misunderstood this to mean that I thrive in a crisis, that I am well adjusted to the traumas that have occurred throughout my life and are ongoing (i.e.alcoholic, abusive, recently disabled and also suicidal mother with her own history of trauma, as well as other family members with addictions and precarious mental health situations being the main ones, along with very big past things that are not, thankfully, ongoing for me like police repression*, my aunt being beaten to death by her shitbag bf on christmas, sexual assault).  I understand why it looks like I thrive in a crisis—my feelings shut down so that I can deal with whatever is happening.  I do not have to feel, which is preferable in a lot of ways to feeling all of the unmanageable overwhelming feelings.   It’s during the periods of calm, where something reminds me of the trauma, but I am far enough away from it to be able to feel, this is when being triggered might happen, and this is sometimes when it feels like I have to work the hardest to be emotionally well.

Some of the things trigger me: a newfoundland area code on my call display (she’s probably drunk. what did she do this time? Is she dead this time? fuck I can’t answer that), having people around me engage in small talk about suicide or homicide on an album cover as if it’s just like super artsy or something, not like it’s a HUGE FUCKING THING that affects people in a huge fucking way; lights on a cop car flashing outside my house; being around people who are drunk, videos shown in lectures of protesters being shot.  I try to avoid things that will trigger me the most, when I can, because it is exhausting, and super bad for me, and it is detrimental to healing. Let me explain.

 When I am triggered, first, it feels like I’ve time warped back into being 5yr old me, trying to steer and keep the car from running off the bridge in the middle of the night while my drunk mother lets go of the steering wheel to touch up her makeup in the rearview mirror on the way from the trailer park to the rez to see her (abusive, cop) boyfriend. (Other person present–mom– not understanding why this should be a source of panic, why this is alarming “just steer the fucking car, I’m almost done, you’re fine. Don’t make a big deal out of it.”) I feel that exact same helpless, trapped panic, but blunted to varying degrees, depending on the trigger, by dissociation (otherwise it turns into a panic attack).  I’m also transported back, simultaneously, to 12yr old me, sitting on the floor with a jagged piece of glass trying to figure out how to stop myself from just fucking ending it and what is the fucking point if this is what life is like—it hurts too much, and I don’t want it anymore (and also my mother never wanted me to exist in the first place, unpredictably flipping between how she loves me more than anything to how totally and completely I ruined her entire fucking life).  Then, before I can feel those things too much, I dissociate, shut down, because I cannot deal with feeling these things. I do not know how I got through feeling them the first time, and reliving it hurts too much as well. I have come a long way since then, but, although I am much, much better, these wounds have not healed, and I don’t know how to heal them or if it is even possible.  When I dissociate, only about 5-10% of me remains present, just enough to look normal on the surface, even though the rest of me is gone, dissipated, hiding out for awhile, closed off and unreachable. Until I come back in my body, into being able to feel myself in my body.  I don’t have any control over coming back.  It just happens, eventually, independent of the hollowed out shell that has stayed.  My mind goes blank, I don’t feel anything, I can’t think, can’t process, it’s kind of like I’m not really here, and it can take moments or hours or days to come back, depending on the trigger and a variety of other life things.   The theory goes that dissociation can be an important and helpful coping mechanism: as a child, being helpless with shitty things always happening, not having any control over the shitty things or being able to make them stop, feeling nothing, not really being fully present for awhile protects me or something and I come back later when it is more safe and things are calmed down and it is ok to feel stuff (my psychologist explained it better than I can—yup, I am now privileged enough now to see a psychologist. And I can’t stress enough how unhelpful it is to have internalized ideas about that kind of self care being an indulgence that shouldn’t be needed if only I/we were strong enough to just fucking deal. One should just suck it up after all and get on with things, so goes the popular—and ableist—discourse.)

Occasional dissociation in and of itself is something I have mostly figured out how to deal with.  It means that sometimes I’m closed off to the people around me, and it affects my relationships, it means I can’t function properly for awhile and that life things need to go on hold for a bit, and that I often avoid a lot of things that used to be a big part of my life (unless I am on medication.  then it is easier to be around stuff that would otherwise be triggering.  but i prefer not to be, for various reasons). Dissociating is mostly ok now—it doesn’t happen with super intensity super often, and I have sorted my life out in a way that I can take space, have support, have a lot of flexibility about when I work, when I have to leave the house, when I have to deal with other people (yes, this is a privilege, and I’m lucky to have it, it helps me keep from spiralling into being worse).  Dissociation, numbness, is something that happens, and accepting that it happens, when it happens, is part of what it looks like to work towards wellness for me now. (Also, it is far superior to panic attacks, which have also sometimes been a thing.)

But, when I haven’t had the time and space to sit with it, to wait it out, it can easily spiral into some fucked up terrible shit.  Numbness and impaired decision making when I’m already vulnerable has gotten me into trouble, as you can probably imagine, leading to more trauma, and more things that are triggering.  It is absolutely the worst idea for me to just try and ignore being triggered/numb and continue about life, without taking the time to wait it out, and then to process, reflect. It can be dangerous for me. Key point: having someplace safe (free of triggers) to wait it out is fucking important as hell. I can’t make good decisions and be well when I am triggered.  I can’t heal when I am triggered.  I need space to come back to myself in order to work on being well, balanced, stable, to be able to make good decisions and avoid repeating the cycle of all that is terrible, horrible, and tragic.  It’s grip gets tighter when I am emotionally unwell (even though I may not show it on the surface) but loosens again when I have what I need to take good care of myself (physical and emotional space, time, support). While I recognize that there is kindness and good in them alongside the turmoil and hurting, I do not want that life, the one like my mother’s, the one that led to my aunt being killed–how her addictions and past trauma shaped her decisions and how she felt deserved to be treated and who she felt deserved to be with, the life that some of my cousins teeter at the edge of and it panics me to see. The life that tries to pull me in when I am emotionally unwell–the life in which I am unstable, fucked up, can’t make good decisions, am doomed to repeat all the bad things I hated about all the grownups when I was little, as both the helpless panicked very small child and the slightly older hopeless one holding tightly to the jagged piece of glass in the corner and not knowing which decision to make. I don’t want that life, and I have to look after myself carefully to keep from falling into it. It takes work.  No matter how far I’ve come, it waits for me, and I am always conscious of the threats that are imprinted on my body whether through biology or enculturation or both, threats of always having the propensity to fall into addiction and self harm during a downward spiral, no matter how long I’ve been straight edge (no drugs or alcohol) or how good I’ve been to myself. I have to make choices that prioritize my wellbeing even when the choices are hard, even when choices make me feel guilty (i.e. distancing myself from family, from people I love, because it is triggering, and I am often not strong enough, ‘dropping out’ of the urgent work of political organizing because it is a stressor I am privileged enough to have some control over).    I am strong enough to do it, to be well, but sometimes it takes everything I have.  This is self care, and it is not an indulgence.  It is hard work, and it is important.

  An additional consideration….for those of us who have mental health AND auto-immune disorders or other mysterious health issues, the stress (I.e. from being triggered) or chronic stress (I.e. from being constantly triggered) can set off a cascade of internal physiological disregulation (which I am just now learning the precise cellular & hormonal details of, though it has been my lived experience for quite some time).  So in addition to intense emotional discomfort, and dissociating, losing moments, hours or days, having to relive overwhelmingly shitty feelings, and cling tight to keep from falling into becoming all the things I hate, I get sick(er). And if I don’t take the space to deal with the emotional stuff, I continue to get sicker.  And sicker.  There is no ‘sucking it up’ and getting on with things.  This is a harmful attitude, period.  You do not understand how harmful it is, or how hurtful you are being when you perpetuate it.

#3: Ableist attitudes in activist movements re health & mental health

Attitudes about mental health and triggering that involve assuming certain people are  ‘too sensitive,’ or ‘should be tougher and suck it up’ are damaging, especially considering how hard it is already to heal. (It’s also alienating when people you’d think are in your support network turn out to have no patience for, and instead even minimize and delegitimize issues that are critically important to your wellbeing.) I agree with those who are saying that trigger warnings are more than a ‘simple courtesy’.  There’s nothing simple about them, because in order to provide a trigger warning you have to genuinely try and empathize, understand why they might be needed, and respect the people asking for them.   

One of my friends, after posting an article that critiques trigger warnings as indulgent, made a comment about the “politics of safety” or “Care Bear Politics,” indicating,  if I understand correctly,  that we need to discuss the potentially demobilizing effects of an emphasis on self care.  I have been guilty of these attitudes in the past as well—i.e being dismissive of self-care when there is more seemingly more urgent work to be done (and I am truly sorry for this, for minimizing peoples’ pain, for not taking the time to understand.  I understand how hurtful that was now). What I see as most demobilizing now is the ableism and disregard in activist circles regarding health and mental health, compromising sustainability in favour of a politics of urgency. That’s what we need to discuss, if we’re worried about demobilization.  There is a huge glaring gap. Some people keep pointing it out, over and over again, and yet so many others keep refusing to see.  It’s hard to be involved in movements that persistently don’t take concerns about health and mental health seriously.  Movements that frequently put the blame on the those leaving as “dropping out” or “not being committed enough” instead of trying to understand why it’s not sustainable for those who choose to leave, or those who choose to taper off and redefine their involvement in other, less visible and obvious ways and struggle to fit. It took getting sicker than I have ever been to begin to see the depths of ableism in organizing spaces and communities when it comes to both physical and mental health, and to understand why these attitudes are so damaging, problematic, and demobilizing.  I hope my words are enough for you, and that it doesn’t take direct experience for you to see it and begin shifting the conversation in ways that are more respectful of a variety of strengths and capacities, not just the ones that are the most obvious.  Our movements aren’t unsustainable because we’re putting too much focus on how to care for each other. They’re unsustainable because we’re not.




*Police repression is always ongoing to some extent, but I’ve minimized my direct encounters with it by often avoiding rallies, marches, blockades, anything that might get confrontational, etc.  This might be perceived by some as “dropping out”.  For me, it’s what I need to make myself well.  There are too many triggers I have no control over.  The ones I can control, I do, by minimizing their impact on my (mental) health.


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8 Responses to Problems with the trigger warning debate //on being triggered// ableist attitudes about mental health in activist movements

  1. Tam says:

    Keep being self aware Nikki it’s our only survival…xo

  2. Cindy says:

    It’s hard being an Aunt and knowing that I wasn’t there the way I should of been there for you. I am sorry Nikki for not being as aware of things as I should of been. I am here now sending you my loving thoughts and support in any way that I can. Love you Aunt Cindy

    • niki says:

      Aunt Cindy–you are, and always have been, a fantastic aunt. Even just spending the time I spent visiting your place when I was little was really good for me. And you couldn’t have know things that I didn’t tell you. So don’t feel bad about anything. love you xoxo

  3. thank you so much for sharing your beautiful thoughts, for giving a voice to many who sometimes spend so much of their strength fighting that their words get lost in the commotion. sometimes i spend so much time being brave that i push all my hurt to the back & often times it takes a strong person like you to remind me how vulnerable i truly am & that is healing in itself. love always d

    • niki says:

      love you bunches d, & I love hearing your beautiful thoughts as well. It goes both ways, sharing each others strength and wisdom, vulnerability and healing. You, my lovely friend, are an important part of helping me be a strong person and find the words I need, whether you know it or not. Good friends, so important! ❤

  4. Emily Houlik-Ritchey says:

    I am writing an article on teaching at the college level, and would like to include some of your thoughts on the importance of trigger warnings and your experience of dissociation. May I have your permission to quote from this?

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