“Triggered,” my son says with a grin. He and his older brother are laughing as if he’s said something hilarious. To them, the idea of being “triggered” is something to laugh at. They roll their eyes when teachers and school administrators suggest being sensitive when other students are triggered, and “triggered” has become the punchline to their jokes. For me, being triggered is an everyday consequence of trauma.
Which makes the University of Chicago’s warning to freshman that it won’t support “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” troubling to me as a mother.
Like most teenagers, my sons’ perceptions are shaped by their experiences. If they haven’t encountered something, it’s difficult for them to believe it actually exists. When that unknown is someone else’s emotional reaction to trauma, it’s easier for them to dismiss the other person as overly sensitive than it is to try to expand their own limited understanding.
Neither of my sons has ever experienced trauma firsthand. They’ve had difficult experiences, but they are fortunate enough to have made it to 16 and 18 without being the victims of rape, sexual assault or any of the other types of abuse that some of their classmates are dealing with. While I wish that made them more compassionate and kind, sometimes it seems like the opposite is true.
My sons attend two different high schools. My older son is a senior at an alternative school that goes out of its way to make its students feel safe in class. This means that trigger warnings are routinely used to warn students of difficult topics, and when students speak up in class to say they are triggered, the topic is often changed to respect their feelings. My son has only one response to that policy: “ridiculous.”
My younger son is a junior at a more traditional high school. His school doesn’t use or respect trigger warnings, and he and a classmate were shocked when they were assigned The Lovely Bones in English class last year without a warning that the novel centers on the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl. Despite his own shock and discomfort with the topic, he agrees with his older brother that trigger warnings are stupid.
My sons are well aware of my trauma history. I’ve been the victim of rape and sexual assault, and I was emotionally abused as both a child and an adult. I know what it’s like to feel triggered, and in the past I spent months struggling to get through each day before the flashbacks and full-body memories took over each night.
My life isn’t ruled by trauma anymore. I’ve been in therapy for five years, and I’ve learned how to stop disassociating and begin reintegrating my experiences and my body. It’s been a journey of a thousand tiny steps that often felt like I was making no progress at all, but as the years go by and I remember how I used to feel, I know I’m in an entirely different place now than I once was.
All that progress doesn’t mean I don’t still get triggered, however. When I’m triggered, my heart begins to race, I break out in a sweat, and I feel my temperature rise. My body becomes heavy and strange, and my limbs feel fuzzy and electrical. I mishear and misunderstand people, and I can’t connect emotionally; every nerve ending screams at me to get away from other people no matter who they might be. Even my own children.
Through time, my triggers have become much more specific and infrequent. Where once I felt triggered multiple times per day, if not most of the day, now I feel triggered perhaps only once per week. The episodes fade more quickly than they used to, and I can go about my day normally after an hour or two instead of them lasting for days. Instead of being emotionally debilitating, triggers are emotional debris that I have learned to withstand.
As part of my healing, I have learned to create healthy boundaries. Some of these boundaries involve directly limiting my interaction with things or people that trigger me. Through time, I am able to lessen these boundaries and increase my interactions with triggers until they no longer impact me or only minimally impact me, but this is an incredibly personal process. No one can tell me when I should be able to move forward, because there’s no such thing as a timeline for trauma recovery. It’s a lifelong process, not a simple journey from point A to point B.
When I was in high school and college, there was no such thing as a “trigger warning.” Students were expected to participate in every assignment regardless of how much it might impact them emotionally. It would’ve been considered a sign of weakness to request that other students refrain from discussing rape, and those kinds of ideas are part of why it took me until my early 30s to finally seek help. I believed for many years that ignoring my pain was how I could show strength. I, like many of my peers, mistook denial for courage.
My sons will never understand what it’s like to be a trauma survivor. But I’m glad they are coming of age in a society that encourages kids to be aware of their own limits and respectful of the limits of others.