On Trauma, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Trigger Warning

A few years ago, I watched a screening of the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with my ex boyfriend and my dad at the local cinema.

One of my friends was kind enough to advise me that about midway through the film, it contained a particularly violent rape scene. I never told her, but maybe she knew.

A short while prior, I’d been assaulted by a client during a modeling job. I didn’t know what to do. I went home crying, not fully understanding what had just happened to me. When I got home, I took a shower that nearly boiled my skin off. Sat on the floor as the water streamed down my legs. Apologized to my ex boyfriend repeatedly. “Why didn’t you leave?” He asked me. “Why didn’t you fight?”

I couldn’t answer. I simply did not know. I was born and raised in conservative, rural Montana. I had no guide to prepare me for the aftermath of an assault. I could only draw upon the sentiments that had been fed to me by countless teachers, peers, family members, and generations of Mormon doctrine.

You shouldn’t dress that way. You shouldn’t wear low cut tops. Your makeup makes you look like a stripper. You should always carry a weapon. You should have been more careful. There are men out there who prey on women who look like you. You should never go anywhere alone. You should have brought your mace. You shouldn’t drink too much. Don’t leave it unattended. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t put away your groceries with your back turned. With a job like that, did you really think it wasn’t going to happen?
Your fault.
Your fault.
Your fault.

It’s been three years since that man decided that no didn’t really mean no. That my body was a thing to be stolen when he didn’t like the answer. Three years of rearranging pieces of myself, three years of books, therapy, articles, and health professionals convincing me that I did not choose to be hurt because I was not careful enough, wore the wrong dress, took the wrong job, went somewhere alone. I am able to enjoy my life again.

Thanks to her, I was able to enjoy the rest of the movie, and use the steps my therapist had given me to overcome my feelings and remain calm, rather than vomiting in front of a hundred strangers in a public theater.

There is a lot of misunderstanding floating around about trigger warnings. That people who need or appreciate them are somehow incapable, weak, in denial, or overly sensitive.

5.2 million people in the United States have suffered from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We still don’t really understand much about it — but there has recently been a great deal of success with patients being subjected to small, controlled doses of their stimuli over time. The keyword: control. Trigger warnings allow me, and the millions of people in my situation, for whatever reason they have found themselves saddled with the burden of trauma — some form of control. A way to anticipate their reaction, and handle it according to their own level of capability.

It’s been three years since that man decided that no didn’t really mean no. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.
I am not incapable. I am not weak. I am not in denial. I am sensitive, but for that, I am not wrong.

Trigger warnings are tools. Tools that, for me, have built a road out of Hell, brick by brick.