Why trigger warnings may hurt more than they help.
You’ve probably seen it: the “*TW” (Trigger Warning) preceding articles and news stories in social media feeds and news sites. This warning frequently accompanies stories about rape, abuse, sexual harassment, stalking, or domestic violence – topics that could potentially trigger a physiological or emotional reaction in readers who have experienced similar situations.
I follow a lot of feminist organizations and blogs, and since feminism exists because specific categories of people experience physical and organizational violence, that’s what people write about. Subsequently, I see this warning (*TW) multiple times per day. Systemic oppression and sexual violence are huge obstacles in women reaching social and economic parity, and these issues are compounded by preexisting social inequities for people who aren’t white, able-bodied, cisgendered, and straight. Feminist issues are inextricably linked with issues of violence and oppression, and therefore the subject matter is frequently distressing.
It’s vital that we continue to address these issues in any way possible – in blogs, news articles, art installations, videos, protests, auctions, film, poetry, fiction, memoirs, etc. – but the haphazard (or, worse, universal) application of the term “Trigger Warning” does little for those we desire to help, and can actually be harmful/hurtful to the most vulnerable among us. Continue reading →
This conversation occurred during my last appointment at the VA Hospital:
Me: You guys should really start looking into cannabis for PTSD treatment. I haven’t had to adjust my prescribed meds since I started using it, and I haven’t had a drink in over a month[I used to drink ½ a bottle of wine a night]. I’m sleeping better and I’m able to manage my anxiety better than I was with the beta-blockers you prescribed.
Doctor: Yeah… You see, there are so many issues with that- marijuana might not work for everyone since people respond differently to it and have different reactions, plus there isn’t any conclusive evidence that it works, and it’s still illegal at the federal level.
Me: … Well, it works for me…
Doctor: … mmmhmmm… So, you were asking about what we would do if your current medication stopped being effective?
Me: Yeah… I haven’t had to adjust my medication since I started using cannabis but I am concerned about what would happen since I’ve already gone through all the different types of anti-depressants. In the past, I got to the point where my meds weren’t working anymore and I couldn’t increase the dose because I was already maxed out. Then I had to switch to a different type, and deal with all the gross side-effects that go with each medication… Now there aren’t any other medications left that I haven’t tried…
Doctor: Well, there are options. Not all the medications work the same for everyone, and while most people will notice decreased effectiveness, some medications do stop working altogether for a few patients. So we can look at different combinations of the medications you’ve already tried to see if something else would work… I –
Me: Wait, did you just say that the anti-depressants don’t work the same for everyone?
Doctor: Yes, why?
Me: Well, then should you really be prescribing them? Since you don’t know how everyone will respond?
Doctor: uh… Oh, I see where you’re going with that. You have a really good point there.
Me: I know.
The short video below is an excerpt from “The Botany of Desire” and talks about the science behind PTSD and cannabis treatment. One of the best lines from the video is this one: “It plays a critical role in a sometimes underappreciated mental function: Forgetting.”
And here are a couple more links discussing the efficacy of Cannabis in treating PTSD symptoms:
“The medicine you’re taking is probably keeping you from getting better”
“You’re just using it as an excuse so you don’t have to work as hard as everyone else”
“Just another person with a ‘victim’ mentality”
“You didn’t even experience that much trauma, just get over it already”
“You should just smile and you’ll feel better”
It may be surprising to some people that all of these thoughts (and worse) come from my own autocannibalistic brain. Occasionally I read/hear disparaging statements about mental health issues from other sources, but the most damaging and destructive opinions are self-generated.
And the denial! I am constantly amazed that after 10 years of this shit I can still convince myself that nothing is wrong (while absolutely disintegrating mentally and withdrawing from any and all social contact).
Go ahead, ask me what’s wrong.
My answer: Nothing. Everything is great! (Raise eyebrows, keep eye contact, smile).
Lists seem to be a popular thing on the internet so I came up with one, and in order to make it more universally appealing I will work from the assumption that more than one person experiences the things I experience!* Plus I came up with a super catchy name for my list:
A list of things you might not know about depression and anxiety that your friend, partner, or family member may be dealing with on their own:
1. Depression is not “sadness.” Depression is all the negative emotions you can possibly imagine (sorrow, grief, anger, frustration, desolation, loneliness, incompetence, hopelessness, and despair) all morphed into a giant sucking void that drowns out all other thoughts and feelings and has an overall effect of creating an EMPTY shell of tired useless human husk.
This shit is no joke. When my husband asks me, “What’s wrong?” (so he can try to fix whatever is making me curl up in a ball on the floor) what can I say? “I am sad” doesn’t really convey the black hole of agonizing misery residing in the center of my chest.
Your brain literally feels like it doesn’t want to have anything to do with you, that no one wants anything to do with you, and why (really) WHY haven’t you driven off a bridge already? Continue reading →
It’s a relatively recent development: I am obsessed with documenting stuff. I take thousands of pictures of random shit, and aside from the pictures of my kids hardly any of it is significant subject matter (think trees and clouds and more trees). I recently had to go through and make some tough decisions and cull/transfer a few hundred photos of vegetation and other random stuff after I filled up my 120 GB hard drive. It made me sad because I am like Gollum and hoard files, books, and music like treasure.
I have the same compulsion about writing and over the past few years I have squirreled away bits and pieces of poems, essays, the fledgling beginnings of a memoir (it’s gonna be a best seller, I just know it) (←haha), and even some fiction in various cloud storage accounts and hard drives. Fortunately text files take up virtually no space so I can keep amassing my collection of words without worrying too much about consolidating or streamlining. Unlike my photography obsession, the compulsion to write is less documentation and more exploration. I fixate on certain snapshots of conversations or events and look at those in the larger context of the world around me. When something hooks my attention I consciously place a bookmark in my brain so I can revisit it later. If I’m distracted or driving (or almost asleep) and I fail to purposefully remember (meaning, I forget to say to myself: Hey self, make sure you remember this so you can write it down later),I practically mourn those fleeting thoughts and ideas that pass through my consciousness, their perfect shape and essence disintegrated into fragments of nothing. I just know [xyz idea] would have made the best short story or poem but now I can’t remember a goddam thing…
Then there are those thoughts and moments that (whether I like it or not) stay stuck, fixed in my brain on a loop until I release them in composition. Until the words are out of my head I’m held hostage by my own brain, unable to fully focus on anything else. I had one pestering me this morning, a sharp, clear recollection from Christmas day:
Pre-dawn Christmas morning.
The sky was dark; the sun wouldn’t be up until 7 or so. Still foggy from sleep, I was dressing in the master bathroom and listening to the lilting tones of my children through the walls that separated me from the living room. The sound of their voices traveled uninterrupted but there was a fluffy quilt wrapped quality about their words making them incomprehensible. Most were questions, I assumed, because of the upturn at the end of their muffled phrases. Their father would answer in low gentle tones, occasionally interrupted by the higher voices. I paused and just listened for a minute to the waves of low and high tones like a beautiful song with no pattern.
This was the sound of my home. This was the sound of my family and they were happy. We are happy.
Even though this was not a bad memory to have hijacking my thoughts, after getting that little gem out of my head I felt all limber and comfortable in my brain – once I captured it “on paper” I could move on to other stuff – because the thing is – I just can’t focus on anything else when my mind is otherwise preoccupied drafting prose.
But unlike my beautiful Christmas memory in that paragraph up there, sometimes the memories and thoughts aren’t so nice. Before I realized I could write stuff down and feel better doing it, I spent years with bad memories and terrifying and angry thoughts, to the extent that I couldn’t even remember (or enjoy) the beautiful things anymore.
When I first started dealing with symptoms of what has since been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress, the social worker at the VA hospital recommended journaling. Journaling! I thought it was a giant crock of shit (yes, humble pie is very delicious). Four years ago I couldn’t even look at the silent horror show that was running in the background of my mind and relentlessly skirting the peripheral of my thoughts – so how the hell was I supposed to write about it?
But my anger became all-consuming. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like I was drowning in rage and sorrow. I screamed at my children, I screamed at my husband. I collapsed on the bathroom floor more times than I can count, unable to do anything but muffle my racking sobs with my legs as I sat curled up against the wall. I started drinking to dull the sharp edge of my pain. It helped quell my anger for the most part but made the depression more pronounced. I would imagine all the different ways I could end this overwhelming sadness, envisioning just the slightest turn of the steering wheel to guide my car off the side of an overpass or into oncoming traffic. Or I’d picture a quiet end in my sleep, never thinking death but always seeing it and wishing for it.
I finally started to write my pain because there wasn’t anything else I could do. And it hurtso much. I thought I was making it worse at first, because bringing all the scary shit to the forefront seemed to be making my nightmares more intense, my startle reaction more pronounced. But then I started to re-read my own words and re-write so that it was more and more descriptive and narrative [rather than me vomiting my emotions into half-formed phrases], and I realized that I gained power over those memories when I typed them out on my screen. They loosened their hold on me and the vise in my chest began to ease. So I started writing more. I wrote stream of consciousness, I wrote poetry, I wrote short stories and essays. I incorporated all those bad memories into stories about my life, about the things I had witnessed and experienced, and what do you know? I started remembering the good stuff too. Buried in my anger and depression, those good memories began to seep into my writing – just a little bit at first, and then more so as I pushed forward – and slowly, steadily balanced out the anger and fear that had taken over my life.
Now it’s no longer simply catharsis. Writing is my primary mode of creative, emotional, and political expression. It’s how I connect with the world around me, and how I archive my experiences, both bad and good. It’s how my brain breathes.
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