Friday, February 29, 2008

A Request to Readers (Triggers about Triggers)

So I was browsing on Technorati a few minutes ago, checking (as I periodically do) for links to the blog, and I came across this post complaining that the title of my previous post is, in effect, false advertising, and that I should have included a trigger warning about abuse issues.

I've now included the trigger warning. Truth to tell, I'm a little ambivalent about such things: they remind me too much of the woman I knew in grad school, a former anorexic, who sat me down and gave me a list of food-and-eating-related subjects I wasn't allowed to mention in front of her, because they'd upset her too much and/or trigger her illness.

But she was asking me to censor myself; this reader is asking only for informed consent, and that's different.

At any rate, I'm very sorry I upset a reader (although, on the other hand, if that post doesn't upset you, something's wrong). But here's the request: if I need a trigger warning, please tell me so directly! My e-mail address is in my profile, and anyone can leave a comment on the blog. I shouldn't have to learn that I retraumatized someone by stumbling across it on Technorati.

And, S.I., I hope you feel better.

I continue to wrestle with my own feelings about all of this, though. See, here's the thing: I'm not sure the rest of the world is responsible for protecting me from my traumatic memories. I think it's my own job to figure out how to deal with them, with whatever help is appropriate, of course. (Note: After my own colorful experience with DV in college, which included flying furniture aimed at my head -- and very clumsily thrown, thank God, so I managed to duck it -- I was for some months terrified of flying objects. It was spring semester, and my college campus was a maze of grassy quads, all full of people playing frisbee. The flying frisbees completely undid me. I knew even at the time that this was PTSD; I also knew that the frisbee-players weren't out to get me. I got into therapy and planned long, ornate routes to my classes, routes designed to avoid frisbee games. I never would have dreamed of telling people on campus that they couldn't play frisbee because I had trouble with flying objects, or even to ask them to post signs that said, "Warning: Frisbee game in progress." On the other hand, yeah, I know, it's a lot easier to spot a frisbee from a distance than it is to know what a mistitled post is about.)

*Sigh* I've now hit the depths of political incorrectness, haven't I? I dunno. What do other people think about this? I included the trigger warning, and will do so in the future if a post seems to warrant it; I'm just a little troubled by the concept. But maybe it's like restaurants that have spiciness ratings next to the food? I really appreciate those, because I hate hot stuff.

On the other hand, as Gary pointed out when we discussed this over dinner, where does it stop? Should restaurants also include warnings if food contains fat, salt, lactose, or artificial colors? Should writers include warnings about every possible subject that could upset someone in their work? My fiction contains so many possible triggers that each of my published volumes would be twice its current length were I to list them all. Do I need to warn blog readers who hate cats when I'll be talking about one of my pets?

I'd like to try to have a rational conversation about this, if possible. Dear Readers: what do you think? How should bloggers/writers handle this issue?

Please keep all comments polite. Remember that your audience here will inevitably include people who don't agree with you, and that insulting people rarely wins them over to your point of view. Please speak as you'd wish to be spoken to.



  1. I'm not sure that there is a "correct" answer for what to do.

    I know that there are things that I used to not be able to read -- some things which I still cannot read. However, as soon as I find I've stumbled across something that bothers me, I have a choice. I can either continue to read or I can stop reading. When I am wise, I stop and I find something else to captivate my thoughts. When I am not, I realise I was foolish and regret it. I may avoid the source for a while, or even altogether. But I do not feel that I could justly feel much anger for long at the source.

    Of course, I am one person, and I am affected as I am, and others are affected as they are. And for others, it may not be that simple. I guess I cannot say one way or the other as to whether warnings should be included. I do feel, however, that the writer should not be pushed to fear that they feel they must put a disclaimer or warning for nearly everything they write, because that would be a slippery slope issue.

  2. All of us have issues, some more debilitating than others. I agree with you that as writers, even as humans, we can't live our lives worrying if our normal actions are affecting other people. If we're deliberately out to provoke, that's another story.

    For me, I think warnings are appropriate if content might upset a large percentage of the population, or if it contains a significant risk.

    When I was Stage Managing and Directing theatre productions, I would post warnings for things like loud noises and strobe lights (which can affect epilectics), but wouldn't post warnings for nudity or strong language.

    I think we all have to make decisions, and ultimately, individuals are responsible for avoiding things that are bad for them. I know that my PTSD had me panicking at loud noises (firecrackers and backfiring cars), and there were certain movies that I wouldn't go see.

    I knew I'd made progress when I was able to sit through Blood Diamond. But I was prepared to leave the theatre if it became clear that I wasn't ready for it. It's not my job to take care of someone else's issues; I have enough issues of my own to deal with.

  3. Anonymous5:07 AM

    My trigger is Mom or Dad stories -- I'm still dealing with my parents' deaths and the pressure of being the only sibling with daily contact and responsibility during their illnesses. But it also depends on time of year (they both died in autumn) and my own mood -- stressed out, menstrual, etc. So if others were responsible for my well-being by not mentioning triggers, they'd practically have to take a poll of my current condition before discussions!

    I think that we'll have to go on as we always have: trying our best to be polite and careful and care-taking of others when we can, and making human mistakes when we can't. And people with huge issues are quite welcome to let us know about their issues so we can be more compassionate, but they have to accept both our individual, reality that our culture, as a whole, is not required to bend to them.

  4. Honestly, I assume that any of your posts about your chaplaincy work are potentially going to be difficult to read, what with their being set in a hospital, so I wouldn't see the need for an additional warning.

  5. A wise friend once told me that I should read, 'Take Nothing Personally' from "The Four Agreements". It has served me well in casting off aspersions from others by pointing out that the things that they say tell more about them than they do about us. In this case, I think you have a reader who feels unable to control themselves, feels frustrated, and is reacting to her own anger at herself by casting off the blame to others. At some point we all have to be responsible for ourselves. At some point we also need to start loving ourselves. Part of that might involve a way to not be angry with ourselves, but I don't think that right behavior includes making others conform to our needs. That would be expecting more than simple courtesy deserves. That would be expecting friendship. Should we befriend the world? Perhaps, but I think that at some point tough love will have to enter the equation to create balance. As another wise friend told me, "We can't save them all."

    Perhaps your reader's best course of action would be to find work in an area that protects others from abuse.


  6. As a former abuse victim and self-injurer with history of an eating disorder, there are a lot of sensitive subjects for me. I, and most people I've met like me, do not expect people to post "trigger warning" at the top of a post unless it is specifically directed at behaviors.

    For example, if you had written a post on all the self-injurious behavior you had seen in the ER, that might "trigger" a self-injurer to hurt herself. If you had written on eating disorders, the same thing may apply. A sensitive writer may choose to post some sort of warning, whether it's making the topic clear in the title, or posting a formal "may trigger ED behavior" warning.

    Writing about abuse might "trigger" some people into a SI, ED, or PTSD episode. So might writing about sex, babysitters, parents, death, or any number of things. I can't imagine that a blog writer, or any sort of writer, should feel obligated to post warnings about these things.

    The only exception of which I am aware is the internet community of SI/ED-ers. Within this community, people are expected to post "trigger warnings" about everything under the sun. I personally find it helpful when I'm in a particuarly sensitive mood, but it gets tedious. Occasionally members of this community feel that people outside the community should be under the same obligation to post warnings. You probably ran into one of these people.

    If I were you, I would not choose to label my posts with trigger warnings.The vast majority of affected people will not fault you for this, and I feel that it would detract from your writing to give a list of topics covered at the beginning of each post.

  7. I forgot to mention that I loved that post and did not find it triggering in the least. I hope you are able to find the right solution for you in this complex issue.

  8. Gosh, this is a hard one in some ways, and something I suspect was not an issue before the internet.

    If you really want to address it, you could put a general warning in your profile, something like "as a hospital chaplain, some of my experiences are less pleasant than others. Those addressing difficult issues in their own lives may find some of my posts hard to read." And then leave it at that.

    A many people have already said, you can't possibly be expected to tailor each individual post so that potential triggers are warned about (because, really, they're so specific and individual that they're often impossible to cover). But at the same time, part of what you do in your life is try and help people through trauma and support them in coping with it, and it would seem a little incongruous if you weren't sensitive to that in your blog. At the same time, it's your blog, and where else can you have a little space to yourself? I'm going in circles.....

    I think perhaps a general acknowledgment in your blog profile might be a kind and sensitive thing to do (though not strictly necessary), but that individual posts don't need warnings.

  9. Thanks for the super-thoughtful responses, everybody! Ariel, I'm glad you enjoyed the original post. And Alexis, I think you're right -- at some point, I should probably add a gentle caveat to my sidebar. (I have to admit that it's not my first priority this week, though!)

  10. Anonymous11:03 AM

    I agree w/ most of the above. As a recovering addict who must deal daily with instances of his "drug", I really have no patience for folks who put their recovery on other people. If you get triggered, get the help you need. Call your sponsor, a program friend, or your therapist. DON'T walk around expecting everyone else to treat you like a precious glass figurine. Sorry, but life ain't like that. Get used to it. (And I mean that lovingly.)


  11. This discussion kinda reminds me of Connie Willis' story "Ado."

  12. Anonymous8:08 AM

    I read your post on addicts and choice before I read the post on triggers. It’s an interesting combination of difficult topics.

    I suspect for people who have triggers, it’s much easier to choose not to read based on a trigger warning than to stop reading once they have started. (Just like abstinence for the alcoholic.) And the easiest place to be surprised by a trigger is somewhere that isn’t usually discussing that particular idea. That puts you in a difficult spot---so much of what your blog is about isn’t going to be a problem for most of your readers. Someone whose triggers include knitting, religion, writing, or cats isn’t going to come back to read more. When you write about the ED, the spin is generally how people support each other even in the worst of circumstances. I see hope here---that even the hopeless can have someone on their side. But it means that a reader might get sideswiped now and then by your content.

    Will Blogger allow you to put your labels at the top of the post? That might act as a subtle trigger warning without the need to ponder who or what a post might trigger.


  13. Triggers happen.

    By their very nature, they are often unexpected. And they are my own damn business, and I don't typically go around shouting "LOOK! Look what will make me remember past traumas!" Matter of fact, I could have not linked your site at all, but I wanted people to read your article.

    I think the biggest issue for me was the fact the title of your post contained my *name*. Yes, I think it's very amusing that my name, given to me at Baptism to honor both of my grandmothers, on my birth certificate and passport and driver's license, is also the name of a fiction cliche. I revel and rejoice in that situation.

    Having an article with my legal name in the title that mirrors too closely a violent and traumatic situation I was in, and thank God, managed to escape?

    Yeah. That's a trigger. Can you blame me?

  14. Mary Sue -- No, I don't blame you for being triggered, but I do wish I hadn't had to learn about it on Technorati. And the name issue is no more my fault than it is yours. In any case, I hope the new strategy of putting tags up front will help!


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