Trigger Warnings Ain’t What They Used To Be

I realised there was something wrong with my mind at 12:30pm on Sunday 16th June 2002 because, while disinterestedly watching Spain vs Republic of Ireland in the World Cup and waiting for my lunch to cook, I started crying and shaking for no reason. And I didn’t stop for four hours. “Huh,” I thought afterwards, “there’s something wrong with my mind.” I was put on meds and signed off work and slowly balanced back out again, but I still felt scared and alone and is if nobody else in the world could really understand how I was feeling. And therefore nobody could really help.

To my old ears, 2002 sounds and feels like yesterday, but this was, remember, four or five years before Twitter or Facebook or smartphones. God help us, even MySpace hadn’t yet launched. If Google existed, I’d not heard of it. But I did have a desktop computer and a broadband connection and at some point I searched AltaVista for “depression” in the hopes of learning something that might help me feel a little better. I found some web pages with bits of information, bits of advice, but they mostly boiled down to “Don’t give up, Jesus loves you,” which wasn’t a great deal of practical help. What I also found, though, was a bulletin board / chat room / self-help resource on the unlamented MSN Groups Network called Living with Anxiety and Depression, or LWAAD as it was near-unpronounceably known to members.

It’s hard to know how accurate this is in reality but, at the time, I felt that LWAAD had saved my life and helped me at least as much as the medication and counselling I received. It did what doctors, family, friends could not possibly do: it showed me that there were other people in the world who were going through exactly the same thing as me. It seems so strange to me now, but this was an absolute revelation. People would describe a panic attack or a depressive episode or an auditory hallucination or a momentary, unprovoked suicidal impulse and I would, with a sort of awed sense of relief, think “Yes! That’s it! That’s it EXACTLY!” Horrible though it was, those people’s pain and suffering brought me a comfort I desperately needed. If other people were living with these things, then I could too. And not only that, perhaps I could help and encourage others by describing my own experiences.

So I nervously joined up, and did one of those embarrassingly self-conscious “Hi everyone” messages on the Welcome Board, and later tentatively joined the Chat Room and said hello then fell into silence and pretended to be afk. Over time I grew more confident, and talked more, and made friends. What I cannot stress enough is that the people I met were not pampered, privileged, fragile flowers. I met Felicia, from Los Angeles, whose husband was in prison for a gang-related shooting and who worked as a longshoreman at the docks when not looking after her three children or teaching herself hacking. I met Santiago who had left his job as a police officer in Mexico when he angered the wrong people, hopped over the border to Texas and made ends meet as a security guard when work was available. Anita from Illinois was raising four kids alone, despite being in constant pain, after her husband had disappeared without a word, and she never seemed to sleep. She was one of the few Americans who would be in the chatroom all day UK time and was never less than cheerful and welcoming. There were many others whose names I have shamefully forgotten, but they were level-headed, strong people who had seen and done and been through things I couldn’t imagine surviving. They helped me and, I hope, I helped them. They all suffered with anxiety, or depression, or PTSD or some other mental health problem, and they all got themselves and each other through each day as best they could.

There was a terrible black humour about the place, and an absolute intolerance for fakers. The first time I was in the chatroom and saw somebody say they were about to kill themselves, my heart stopped. I wanted to log off, turn the computer off and run away. I didn’t know how to help this person. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to be complicit in their death by my silence, but nor could I risk making them worse. My hands were shaking as I tried to think of something supportive to say. “Don’t give up, Jesus loves you,” perhaps. Americans love that shit.

“Go ahead,” said one of the others in the room before I could write anything myself.

“Yep, get it over with,” said another.

“Don’t fuck it up, you’ll end up a vegetable. Make sure you do it right.”

I was utterly shocked. These were the generous, supportive, welcoming people who I knew had spent countless hours caring for strangers that they would never meet. And here they were openly encouraging a suicide.

Except they weren’t, they knew something I hadn’t yet realised. As the weeks and months passed and I saw this pattern repeat itself, it became unremarkable. The people who came into the room and threatened to kill themselves never did it. Never had any intention of doing it. They were either out-and-out trolls hoping to wind up the regulars, or more often, they were people who were breaking the one golden rule – thinking that their pain was more important or more intense or more special than anybody else’s. This was intolerable. If you want to hurt yourself, the consensus was, talk to a doctor, call an ambulance, call a helpline. Don’t bring that shit in here, don’t fake, don’t exaggerate, because we can’t help you and you’ll hurt other people too. When suicide happened on the boards, it happened silently. You wouldn’t hear from someone for a day, two days, a week.

“Anybody heard anything from Duck?”

“No, nothing.”

“Hope he’s ok.”

And a week would become two, three, a month, six months. And you would never know what happened. Or rather, you would kid yourself that you didn’t know, and hope against hope that you were wrong and that your friend was ok.

__________________________

I’ve been using Trigger Warnings wrong. Or maybe I’ve been using them right. They’ve become a bad joke. The preening, self-regarding, self-important use them in a game of “Who’s the Least Problematic?” As seen in last week’s latest pathetic attempt to irritate the over-sensitive using the hashtag #theTriggering, ‘trigger’ has come to mean anything that could potentially upset or offend. And since literally anything could potentially upset or offend someone, trigger warnings have become pointless. They either have to go on everything or nothing and therefore they mean nothing, these modern Trigger Warnings.

As I understand it, the concept of “triggers” has a more specific clinical meaning when discussing post-traumatic stress disorder, referring to stimuli that could invoke specific, painful memories of trauma. And I suppose the same issue applies to an extent, that more or less anything could be such a stimulus. There is also a question around whether avoiding thoughts of traumatic events is more or less helpful than facing them head on. But I don’t have PTSD, and I have no expertise in it, so I genuinely don’t know whether or not “trigger warnings” are valuable in that sense either.

Back, though, to LWAAD.  Here’s a copy and paste of the chatroom rules about self-harm or suicide: “MEMBERS AT LWAAD ARE NOT TRAINED SPECIALISTS IN THIS BEHAVIOR You put yourself in further risk of harm and emotional harm to members who are sensetive. For your saftey and the emotional saftey of other members, you are RESPONSIBLE for your OWN actions.”

And here’s a screenshot of the place, in its 256 colour glory, chosen at random from the internet archive. First message on the main board includes *may trig* in the subject line. Further down, another message **May Trigger**. A couple above that, one of the rare occasions on which we did find out what happened to a member: “Most tragic news – passing of one of our members.”

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These are trigger warnings from ten years ago. Longer. These are not the trigger warnings of pampered know-alls in the NUS using them to avoid difficult discussions. These warnings mean “I know you’re strong, tough people, but I also know you find things difficult sometimes. And that sometimes you want to hurt yourself, and sometimes you want to die. And I don’t want you to do that. So if you’re feeling that way today, maybe don’t read this right now. It might make you feel like doing something bad, and I care enough about you to want you to be safe.” All of that was encapsulated in the phrase *may trig*

These were trigger warnings given by the same people who I watched get up from their desk, find an encyclopaedia, come back to the chat room and describe Australia’s most venomous spider to somebody who was threatening to kill themselves, and tell them to go find that spider and put it in their socks and wait for the sweet release of death. These were not people engaged in a holier-than-thou arms race of sensitivity.

And so, by instinct, that’s how I use trigger warnings. That’s how I react to them. I assume they’re serious. I assume they’re meant with care and generosity. I assume they include a recognition that there is the genuine risk that somebody might genuinely seriously hurt themselves as a result of being exposed. I included a ‘Trigger Warning’ on my own post about suicide because of what I believed them to be, how I used them, and others used them, in LWAAD.

Maybe they need a new name, maybe they need to be rebranded. I am furious when I see them overused for something trivial, to an audience who is in no danger of anything more than mild annoyance. Each time that happens, it makes trigger warnings mean a little less. But, for me, there are always audiences of people who need to be looked after, who are at risk of harm, who are hanging on by their fingertips and ready to fall. And for whom a good old-fashioned, LWAAD-style trigger warning might just tell them “I care enough about you to want you to be safe.” And, for that reason, I think we need to remember that not every trigger warning is a joke. They could be life-and-death in 2002 and they still could be.

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