Trigger Warning


©Sezin Koehler 2015

At our local farmer’s market I came across this amazing sunflower, as tall as me and boasting a bloom bigger than my head. Sunflowers were my friend Wendy’s favorite, and this epic example reminded me so much of her big and bold spirit. She was killed in a random robbery in 2000. I was with her when she died.

I posted the picture and tagged Wendy’s family since I knew they’d appreciate the flower’s beauty and the sentiment behind it.

As the like count on the photo grew, I received a comment agreeing that the sunflower was so very Wendy. I thanked the person and said it was nice to virtually meet them. I love connecting with people who knew and loved Wendy as well. It makes me feel like she’s still being that bright and bold personality bringing people together.

The person reminded me that I had indeed met them before: at Wendy’s funeral.

The floor dropped from beneath me as memories from that awful day and the events leading up to it laid me out in an avalanche of emotions. I do remember meeting many of Wendy’s friends and family at her funeral, but without her to give me any context I was awash in a sea of unfamiliar faces, and on top of it all also dealing with PTSD in its most acute form.

That simple Facebook exchange led to several days of sleeplessness coupled with graphic nightmares in the few hours of sleep I did get, and severe anxiety as flashbacks overwhelmed me and my mostly-managed PTSD resurfaced.

Who knew that a photograph of a sunflower would need a trigger warning?

Being the survivor of a gun crime involving an actual trigger, I often find the phrase “trigger warning” itself to be a trigger. I remember too well what it looked like and how it felt to have a gun in my face and see a finger on the trigger that killed dear Wendy.

Oddly enough, a few days before the sunflower I received a message from Al Jazeera’s The Stream with an invitation to appear on an upcoming panel discussing trigger warnings and its impact on free speech. Thanks to Mercury in retrograde, I didn’t get the message until they’d already booked the panel. Here’s me weighing in retrospectively:

Trigger warnings don’t impede free speech any more than telling someone with food allergies what ingredients are in a meal.

Would you expect someone with a severe peanut allergy to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Would you give someone with celiac disease a bowl of whole wheat pasta? Would you feed paella to someone with a shellfish allergy?

No, you wouldn’t. Because these things are harmful — sometimes even deadly — to those with allergies in a similar way that disturbing images and media can be to those dealing with trauma. For traumatized people, being triggered comes with it a reaction that is not only mental, but physiological as well, causing unhealthy spikes in cortisol and adrenaline levels which do become toxic in the long term just like exposure to food or airborne allergens.

Flashbacks are another unfortunate side effect of being triggered.

Flashbacks are not mere memories of a traumatic event, it is the body actually reliving the event, down to an accelerated heart rate that makes you feel like you’re having a heart attack, the full-body intensity of the flight or flight response, a sense of fear so overwhelming it’s inhuman, crippling anxiety, difficulty breathing, and the feeling that you just want to die so you never have to remember that horrible event that now shapes your life.

This can sometimes go on for days, coupled with panic attacks, night terrors, nightmares, insomnia, and more.

It’s debilitating. It’s humiliating. It’s dehumanizing.

Flashbacks are one of the worst parts of living with trauma, which in itself is a special circle of hell. And those of us who live with PTSD have a right to NOT experience them if at all possible.

We need to start talking about mental health issues in the same way we approach other bodily ailments. The brain is as much an organ as our heart or intestines so why is there such shame and stigma around our brain’s health or lack thereof?

People do not choose their traumas or their grief, any more than people choose their food allergies. And the issue of free speech has no place in a discussion about trauma, triggers, and mental health.

If people have a right to know what ingredients are going in the food that they consume, then they also have a right to know what to expect from the visual and other media they might consume.

Traumatized people should not be further traumatized for the shock value of a creator who will not be the one dealing with the emotional fallout that comes with being triggered.

By the way, absolutely nothing is lost in a movie, or show, or book, by letting people know what kinds of violence they can expect: All it does is help the viewer mentally prepare for or decide that kind of story isn’t for their consumption.

Of course, there will be things that I personally might find completely innocuous that could end up being triggers for someone else. And of course we can’t 100 percent avoid or prepare for our own triggers: a case in point being the sunflower photograph that ended up triggering my own PTSD.

Still, it’s important to acknowledge that disturbing visual media featuring certain kinds of violence — like rape, murder, gun crime, assault, torture, whether extreme or not — has a much higher triggering probability than other kinds of media. And there is no good reason why all of those kinds of violent media shouldn’t come with a warning.

Now — and also in the wake of the newest horrifying mass shooting in Charleston — is a little empathy and compassion for traumatized people really too much to ask?

*Originally published on July 13, 2015, at Huffington Post.*