Why We're Not Snowflakes: What a Trigger Warning Really Means
Editor’s note: If you or a loved one were affected by the August 17 Las Ramblas terror attack in Barcelona, the following post contains some graphic imagery and could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
I was once called a “snowflake” for having a trigger warning on my website; my “readers are as well,” she said, if they need to be “coddled.” Not without its exceptions, sensitivity is what has made our generation great. It has broadened our capacity for empathy; allowed us to truly feel what used to be suppressed. The inherent power in vulnerability, in facing the insecurities that once flattened me, has been a means to my survival. I reject what this woman said to me; what was just one tiny, futile voice among thousands of others.
When we are treated as though we are weak, it is driven by a misconception that all triggers send us spiraling out of control. Instead, a “trigger” is an all-encompassing word for what may provoke a severe reaction, but also for what may momentarily catch us off guard. There is not a single human being who does not know the feeling. Whatever we choose to call a “trigger,” we are all familiar with the effects of residual pain. Giving a name to this experience — despite an epidemic of silence, a lack of well-established labels — does not make us overly-sensitive. The mother of Eric Clapton’s young son who died tragically has never listened to Clapton’s song “Tears in Heaven.” Is she weak if she resists doing something that will undoubtedly crush her? Does she deserve to be warned if the song is next in cue?
My family has moved from my childhood home and it is in some ways a relief. Our home was an idyllic place to grow up, but still I am justified in having difficult memories there. It has been years and still the Motion City Soundtrack song “This is For Real” triggers me into a memory of my old bedroom. Christmas lights ablaze, I sat on my bed with a friend of mine. It was just another holiday but this year I became a wrecking ball, starving myself of everything good, captive to all that was bad. Five seconds of that melody and I’m taken back. The library in my old house reminds me of the day I was told my dad had cancer; recovered now, I’ll still never forget it. I think about these moments often, keeping composure, processing them and pushing forward. If I see the house in a few years, my bathroom floor will still be a place I struggle to look at. I spent a lot of time on that tile floor, feeling hopeless. The fresh white walls of our new family home have an almost-symbolic allure. Should I have to re-enter a room that makes me hurt? Without a trigger warning, my new walls are papered over with old memories.
Weeks ago, I received a four-word message from my brother: “terrorist attack in Barcelona.” I checked my newsfeed. Nothing at all yet. There is an unparalleled eeriness to the 15 minutes between a devastating event and worldwide hysteria. At ground zero, people begin to tweet; to say something — maybe an accident, maybe not — has happened. CNN catches wind and there’s a mad dash to be first. Speed is prestige and prestige is money to the reporters who wait safely in offices for moments like these. I know this because I’ve worked in the industry; humanity is lost.
“We huddled on the bathroom floor in a store off Las Ramblas” came next. My brother and his girlfriend ran from what they believed were gunshots; in reality, it was the sound of a van plowing through bodies. My family followed significant installments and reported back to me. It was too hard for me to look, but, evidently, impossible not to. “Las Ramblas” was everything that mattered on August 17. Everywhere I went, I was followed. We live at a time in which life is a stream of anxieties, kids can’t play in the streets, and each step deeper into Grand Central makes us more fragile. We should all have a say in whether we are exposed to things that only add to this enormous weight.
The 21st century is an intrusion of things we don’t always want to know. Facebook told me a “gunman [was] on the loose, entering stores along Las Ramblas.” CNN said, “shots have been fired.” Twitter argued, “no shots fired.” ABC reported that many fatalities were likely as the truck had swerved, with intent to kill, down much of the street. At 11:20 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, Chris said, “we are OK.” I wanted to hug him; to have physical proof of it. The Islamic State group (IS) is driven by the reputation we give it as “champion” in mass carnage. Most of us believe we will never be directly affected until we find ourselves huddled in the back of a store. On that day, IS attempted to take away my pillar, and I become increasingly empathetic to the many families who were not so lucky. Weeks later, I shudder when a car door is slammed. I wasn’t even there, didn’t even see it, and yet anxiety seeps into my world. Many people cannot leave their homes. Is that pathetic?
We must all work harder to accept that it is not pathetic to fear a world that has proved itself worth fearing. I have no shame in being a deeply feeling person. My brother saw bodies through the store window where he sheltered in place. Everyone was screaming and crying. Julian Cadman lay motionless on the street. You may know him as the 7-year-old boy reduced simply to another “missing person.” We should challenge the way broadcast desensitizes us; let it crush us over and over if that’s what it takes to see Julian as somebody’s baby. Is my brother a snowflake if this hurts to read?
Whatever trauma you carry, it’s not your job to force your feelings so deep that a reopened wound leaves you vacant; not your responsibility to justify a less-than-positive reaction to an unsolicited trigger. Every time I watched the news after I knew he was safe, new details emerged; that knives, machetes, axes and explosives were intended to be used that day. They said it could have — should have — been much worse. Had the bombs not detonated inadvertently prior to their intended use on Las Ramblas, would I be telling a different story today?
The life was sucked out of me in an instant the day I feared I might lose my brother. My thoughts jumped straight to what Christmas would be like without him. It was a major reality check, reinforcing that I can never let the sanctity of a sibling escape me. All has gone on for our coast-to-coast family. We’ve continued living in our respective cities, walking through busy parts and taking public transportation. But the terrorist attacks we have become so accustomed to cut us all deeper now. In all honesty, it’s sad; events like these should have always affected us to this extent. Each victim is somebody’s Chris.
Being triggered is no different than feeling pain from some outside stimulus. I will always maintain the position that we are not obligated to relive our traumas for the sake of someone else’s story. We do not live in a simple world; many of my friends have been through the unimaginable. Do you know how many people we lose to suicide a year? Decades of silence have finally been shattered by those who are tired of hiding integral truths. It takes courage, strength and a whole lot of heart to forge a different path. We deserve to be protected from some of the challenges that arise as we bravely fight for our rights. We must be stewards of our own emotions and face trauma only when we are ready. I can spend days reading and writing about trauma and mental illness, but I still greatly appreciate trigger warnings. Sometimes when I write, I’m triggered by my own words. It both hurts and heals to go back to darker chapters, but it will be by my choice, and my choice only, to do so.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash