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Trigger Warnings, a Help or a Hindrance? One Survivor's Perspective

18/04/2016 14:34

There seems to be a pretty dark narrative underpinning how we, as a society, speak about and deal with childhood sexual abuse and those of us who have experienced it. One that implies that we are broken and dirtied and that any hope of living a normal life is gone. One that tells us that we're probably not capable of functioning in society and we need protecting, for our own sakes, because it's a miracle if we can even navigate an entire day without falling apart.

I know that it's kind of to be expected, I really don't need anybody to point out to me what an awful crime it is and how deep and long lasting the effects are. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I've been living with the memories and after effects for over a quarter of a century now, so I do genuinely get it. Equally, I know that much of what gets said does come from a well intentioned place but the saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" didn't come about through chance and the subject of abuse is a prime example.

Trigger warnings, a subject that has recently been in the public eye after Stephen Fry's interview, are, in my opinion, a facet of this narrative . I understand the well intentioned thoughts behind them. I know first hand how utterly debilitating it can be to be unexpectedly triggered, to have your mind thrown completely out of your own control and to not be able to get it in hand again until you're a tear stained, hyperventilating, mass of jelly puddled in a corner. It's terrifying, it's humiliating, it's right up there on the list of stuff that nobody would choose to be experience. Yep, I understand well, it's a whole load of suck! So the idea of a sanitised world where we can skip merrily through life without ever worrying about that happening is a pleasant dream. The trouble with dreams, though, is that they have very little relation to the real world and that is the only one we have available to live in.

The emotional pain unleashed when we're triggered is our brain's equivalent of the body sending an electrical impulse along our nerves when we forgetfully grab a hot pan. It is telling us that there is something there that needs to be put right before it causes more significant harm. Avoiding being triggered, though a perfectly human reaction, is like self medicating with heroin. It will block the pain but it won't treat the underlying cause and it certainly won't be doing any favours for your health in the long term! Encouraging someone to completely avoid being triggered is the equivalent of handing a recovering addict a tenner and a spoon. You're really not helping, no matter how much they may appreciate the gesture. It shouldn't come as a shock to anybody, these days, that when people are battling emotional trauma we often don't make the best choices for ourselves.

It's a perfectly normal reaction for someone who's hurting to feel like they can't cope and that they just want to give up and hide but, by giving us trigger warnings, society is just reaffirming those feelings, telling us that we'll never be ok so why even try. Instead of equipping us with the tools and skills to overcome our pasts and heal, we're taught to run from it at all costs. It's no wonder that so many fall into patterns of self destructive behaviours for escapism, often experiencing even more trauma and forming even deeper emotional scars to excise if and when they do seek help.

If society really wants to support people affected by sexual abuse then it needs to do better than enabling our avoidance tactics and giving us a safe, comfortable environment to stay miserable in. We should be fighting for better mental health services, especially those focusing on children and adolescents or donate to any of the amazing charities out there that do fantastic work with precious little resources.

If you've been affected by child abuse, there is help and support out there. Your GP can refer you for counselling or other talking therapies, or if you're not quite ready to go face to face with someone you actually know, there are places online, such as napac.org.uk, who have free resources and can signpost you to local support.

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