[Trigger warning: discusses rape culture and the experience of being triggered.]
Rape culture ruins everything, man. I’m having a nice dinner with my Joe, teasing him about his travels – he once walked The Road To Santiago – and trying to seem interested when he decides to explain to me (at length) the plot of one of the Canterbury Tales.
It’s rape culture that made it seem like a funny story that the two pilgrims rape mother and daughter in the same room, in their beds at night. It’s rape culture that causes the moment of cluelessness on Joe’s face as my eyes widen and I gasp “Why would you tell me that?! What is wrong with you?!” as I feel an icy grasp – a sharp-nailed witches hand – twisting my entrails.
Joe, being a decent human who is only an asshole intermittently and never deliberately is instantly horrified and contrite. He tries to apologise and explain. I shush him. I know. It was an earlier interpretation; a previous understanding that was unexamined in the light of his more recent understanding of rape culture.
I know he is sorry and I know why and how he accidentally said something gross and triggering. I know. But that doesn’t take the claw out of my innards and it doesn’t stop me from feeling dizzyingly unsafe. Knowing that Joe doesn’t think or mean that doesn’t stop the slow-motion car-crash feel as my brain plays through some of the worst moments of my life, like an old film reel.
Knowing it was an accident doesn’t stop the tears instantly leaping to my eyes.
I have the mildest case of PTSD of any of my close friends. I don’t get badly triggered often, I don’t suffer badly when I am and it is over quickly – usually taking less than an hour for me to regain equilibrium. But it is upsetting – especially when it is unexpected, especially when it is in a safe place with an ally.
This is why we use trigger-warnings for common triggers – for the same reason we use NSFW – because we don’t want to cause our friends or readers distress, embarrassment or discomfort, whether that be by being yelled at their boss for looking at pictures of glittery penises or by causing them to cry and shake uncontrollably as they experience flashback of abuse.
The one addendum I would add to this discussion is that “trigger” means something. You probably aren’t ‘triggered’ about your dead dog so much as reminded, even if it is a distressing memory, unless there is something to trigger. A trigger is something that “causes otherwise dormant/less active PTSD to show symptoms or acutely worsen”. It is also often used in mental health, especially in relation to eating disorders, to mean “causes otherwise dormant/less active mental illness or eating disorder to show symptoms or acutely worsen”. Any other use of the word ‘triggering’ is a misuse of a highly-specific term that dilutes its meaning and undermines and minimises the experience of people who suffer from PTSD or other episodic mental illnesses.