(The first anniversary of this blog reminded me I’ve been neglecting it a little. Forgive me. The end of the school year is approaching and the weather is much too nice to stay inside and write. Okay, okay. I’ll write outside more. Be patient with me.)
Trigger warning for discussion of suicide and anxiety attacks
Recently, I was triggered by something I saw in a seminar. This occurrence made me aware of the misunderstandings surrounding the words ‘trigger’ and ‘trigger warning.’ I’ll endeavor to shed some light on them for you today. What happened was this:
For a module on affect studies we examined some examples of shame in popular culture. An obvious example was the 2011 film Shame directed by Steve McQueen, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. There was a scene towards the end of the movie that triggered an anxiety attack in me.
From here on out, this blog post contains spoilers for the film Shame.
In the film, Fassbender plays a sex-addict, and Mulligan plays his sister who is starved for affection. The atmosphere of the entire film is gloomy and depressing, full of emotionless, robotic sex scenes that seem hollow and sad. Towards the end of the film, the sister attempts suicide. She cuts her wrists, and Fassbender finds her. The scene is intended to shock: he opens the bathroom door, she’s smudged the shiny white tiles of the floor with the bright red blood gushing from her slashed wrists. He screams and clutches her limp body. The sister survives, but it’s a close call.
It’s worth mentioning that I feel personally sympathetic towards Carey Mulligan. In her 2009 film An Education I identified with her character greatly. I loved her performance in The Great Gatsby. When she recorded a number of songs with my favorite band Belle & Sebastian for their album Write About Love, I was awed and envious in equal measure. In Shame, her character is a young woman with mental health issues struggling to make a living as an artist. The parallels are obvious.
So when I saw her enact a graphic suicide attempt, no matter how fictional, I freaked out. It was like time stopped for a moment. Oxygen left the room. I looked around me, but no one else appeared disturbed. I couldn’t move and so I didn’t. As soon as the scene was over I left the classroom. I don’t remember cycling home, but I’m sure I did, because as soon as I was through the front door, the panic attack set in. I’m not describing a panic attack to you in detail because I can’t, but there’s crying and hyperventilating involved and it feels like you’re dying. In other words: not fun.
My dad came down the stairs to calm me, and eventually he did. Afterwards, I was completely exhausted. The weird amounts of oxygen I’d been breathing and the dehydration from the crying had given me a headache. I slept for the rest of the afternoon, and for over twelve hours during the night. The next day, I skipped class in order to recuperate. Recuperate is a word that here means: “lounge around in my pj’s, pet the pets and watch a bunch of Disney movies.” All in all, I missed two and a half classes because of this incident, and when I went back to class on Thursday I was still feeling shaky.
Trigger warnings in academia have been a hotly debated issue for quite some time now: if we put trigger warnings on things that are potentially upsetting, don’t we risk making people complacent? Won’t it hinder critical thinking if no one is ever confronted with things that may offend or shock them? Are trigger warnings an infringement on freedom of speech? No. And this is where the broccoli metaphor comes into play.
I hate broccoli. I think it is bitter and the texture is gross and it ruins any dish it’s involved in. But I was raised with the awareness that vegetables are good for you and so I’ll occasionally eat broccoli with only a bare minimum of complaint. The things that offend you are like broccoli. Freud is like broccoli: his phallocentrism annoys me to no end, but I am aware that reading Freud is an integral part of an education in critical theory, and so I’ll read him with only a minimum of complaint. Although the sexist implications of his writings bother me, they do not trigger me.
Now imagine if I was allergic to peanuts. If I ate a peanut I would go into shock and without medical attention I would die. If Freud is like broccoli, like a minor inconvenience, then triggers are like peanuts: potentially lethal. But, you say, peanuts are a central ingredient in the Indonesian cuisine: how can you eat sate without peanut-sauce? I do that because I don’t have a choice: the consequences of diversity and well-roundedness, in this case, would be disastrous. Because personally I think missing almost two days of classes is a pretty nasty price to pay.
Furthermore, I am not triggered by depictions of suicide because they are outside the realm of the imaginable for me. I’m not having an averse reaction to something because it is so alien to me. I’m having an intensely averse reaction because suicidal ideation, for me, is so intensely familiar. When I saw Carey Mulligan crumpled on the floor, my first thought was that that looked nice and peaceful. I remembered being depressed enough to desire death, and that thought is what upset me.
The trigger also did not occur because I have failed to deal with my depression. I am no longer in the midst of a mental illness, and it is not a weakness on my part that this has such a huge impact on me. Any cultural object, be it film, TV or writing, attempts to invoke a feeling of understanding in its audience. I’m especially susceptible to this identification by nature, because I’m very empathic, sometimes even too empathic. I’m especially susceptible to sympathizing with suicidal ideation because I have personal experience with it. A certain setting (in this case, a viewing of Shame in a public setting) bring the depressive side of me to the surface. And I’m not ashamed of trying to avoid that kind of needless suffering. That’s why I’m advocating trigger warnings.
Please note that the title of this blogpost was not meant to make light of trigger warnings, only to catch your attention and introduce the comparison I made. And hey, if you made it all the way down to this note at the bottom, that must have worked.