Triggered Isn’t A Punchline

6 minute read

My name is Aleksandra, and if you met me on the street you might complement my awesome hair. Perhaps you’d wonder how I manage to wear mostly black in the Oklahoma heat. Maybe you’d say how cute my best friend’s dogs are (have you ever seen a Jackhuahua? Totally adorable. Ears like little satellite dishes.).

You most likely wouldn’t think that I’m mentally ill. You would likely not expect that certain things in everyday life can cause me to have a panic attack, or flashbacks to things that I would never wish upon anyone, even the people I hate. (Packages of super-fine glitter, however, are acceptable. Do you hate someone? Send them a card filled with the most annoying glitter your local craft store worker can recommend. [Makeup glitter is my personal recommendation – editor]) You certainly wouldn’t think that, since my brain is wired to remember traumatic events, I can close my eyes and remember, with close to perfect recall, nearly every awful thing that has happened to me, like a horror movie projected onto the backs of my eyelids. Only it’s not a horror movie; it’s my life.

Here’s the thing: I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape, verbal, emotional, and financial abuse, homelessness, and over half a lifetime of mental illness. I’ve suffered from panic disorder since I was 8, PTSD and multiple OCD spectrum traits since I was 11, and anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder since I was 12. All of those went untreated until I was 24 years old.

But none of the things that have happened to me make me angry anymore. Those things are in the past, they made me who I am today, and while none of it was what anyone would call “fun,” I wouldn’t have the friends I have today if those things hadn’t happened. I wouldn’t be in the place I am now, which is pretty good. So I can’t hold anger about the past.

You know what does make me angry?

The way people treat the word “triggered” as a joke, as something to make fun of. “You replied all triggered” is just one phrase of many that led to this article being written. Go Google “triggered”, and see what the first result is. Spoiler alert: it isn’t anything educational about trauma triggers. The idea of trigger warnings is a joke to many people. They think because people who have been through terrible things may not want to be reminded of them, they’re unworthy of respect. “Special snowflakes”. “Tumblrinas.” “SJWs.”

In reality, living with PTSD is harder than any of the people who make those comments seem to realize. Surviving with any mental illness, many of which can be set off (or, you know, triggered) by innocuous things, is hard. I have a friend who can’t touch a specific sink in his house without having to wash whatever he’s wearing and take a shower because touching that sink (for whatever reason) triggers his obsessive compulsive disorder. I moved halfway across the country to escape most of the things and people that would cause my panic attacks. Moving away from almost everything you’ve ever known, even if you’re mentally healthy, is difficult.

So is, apparently, treating the mentally ill with even the tiniest modicum of respect. At least, it seems to be for the people who treat the word and concept of trauma triggers as something amusing, simply because people they disagree with use it. They make a joke out of it, to invalidate the lived experiences of those people. Apparently being a teenager, or not being a war veteran, means nothing bad has ever happened to them. But as it turns out, plenty of bad things can happen to people who aren’t even teenagers yet. Bad things happen to a lot of people, and sometimes those things are bad enough that they leave invisible scars behind. Surprise! You can’t tell if someone is mentally ill just by looking at them, or reading their blog.

If you make fun of people for wanting trigger warnings for common traumatic events, if you think that trigger warnings are somehow a threat to your free speech: congratulations, you’re not a particularly good human being. Honestly, you’re kind a terrible person, and you should be ashamed of yourself. You should ask your nearest parent if their love is actually unconditional or if they secretly want to smother you in your sleep to save the rest of humanity from your existence.

You make a mockery out of the reality that millions of people have to live through, and pat yourself on the back. You totally one-upped that person online– how dare they ask you not to use certain words! How dare they ask that you give a warning before discussing certain subjects! Let’s make fun of them in one of the most neurotypically ableist ways possible. They can’t possibly be mentally ill– they must be faking it for the attention!

The attention you get as a person with a mental illness is really great. Being “2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population” is fantastic. How about being stigmatized, because the portrayal of the mentally ill in fiction and news media is generally that of a violent person, despite the reality being very much the opposite? Having people not want to rent to you because of something you can’t help? Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Not being able to find a job that will work around your health issues? Or losing your job because of them? Sounds to me like the opposite of the attention I would want. I’d just like to be seen as a person who sometimes needs a little help.

If you use “triggered” as a mockery, then I’m sorry to tell you that you’re awful and that I wish I could give you a glimpse into my mind: the mind of a person that takes 240 pills a month, and still suffers from debilitating panic attacks, and anxiety so bad that I dyed my hair bright purple so at least I would have a legitimate reason to think that people are staring at me. The mind that, try as I might, will scream at me that I’m in danger if someone so much as raises their voice in my general area. It doesn’t even have to be toward me; just being around yelling, or slamming doors, is enough to set off my anxiety.

Until a person knows what it is to have to hide under a desk, or in a closet, or in a shower with the curtain closed, or the smallest space they can possibly cram their body in just so they can feel safe –

Until they’ve struggled not to cry because then they’ll start hyperventilating, and that’ll just make it worse, all because of something their abusive stepfather said literally two-thirds of their lifetime ago –

Until a person knows what it is to feel like they’re drowning and suffocating and running eight miles an hour all at the same time, and praying (as an agnostic) that the anti-anxiety medication they just chewed kicks in soon so they can breathe properly again and not feel like they’re going to die for no reason –

Until a person knows what it’s like to have to do a certain action the same way every time so that something doesn’t go terribly wrong, or to have to pick at every blemish and bump they can find to the point of contortion, for no reason that’s understandable even to them –

All because of something that is absolutely stupid and illogical. Something they know is stupid, but their brain doesn’t care, and is pumping out fight-or-flight hormones through their body in preparation for danger that doesn’t exist –

Then they shouldn’t talk about “being triggered” like it’s a funny thing, a joke, a punchline, or a low-key insult.

Because it’s not.

It’s a reality for a lot of people, including me, and it’s a terrible one.