Trigger warnings can be a good thing. They can help people avoid things that may trigger a negative reaction. Trigger warnings are pretty common these days, but I worry that this is making people forget what a trigger actually is.
This article will discuss the physical abuse of a child.
Sensitive topics such as child abuse can cause a trigger response. It’s why I have included a trigger warning here.
But triggers after a trauma can be very personalised. Often a trauma survivor may not know what a trigger is until it happens. Some fairly innocuous thing that reminds them of a small detail they associate with their trauma. It can be a smell, a sound, a place. It can be a turn of phrase, or an image.
This is the short story of a trigger I didn’t know I had.
My mother would often work late evenings and nights during the week. I would usually get home before my sister, so it would only be my stepfather at home. Lying in wait.
I had always done something wrong. I can’t remember any of the things I had done wrong, only that I deserved punishment. He’d tell me what I had done that day and the chase would begin.
I was young, not even ten years old. So the only place I knew to hide was inside the house. I’d always run to the same place. To my bedroom, where I would quickly crawl under the bed and tuck myself into the furthest corner. I’d pull myself away as he bent down and his hand reached under the bed. I would be screaming and crying as I kicked at his hand. He’d grab me by an arm or leg and drag me out. I often got carpet burn. Sometimes I’d hit my head on the bed frame on the way out.
Then he would hold me down and smile. He knew how to make it hurt without leaving a mark. I was too young to realise it at the time, but he didn’t want my mother to know.
Eventually I learned how to take the pain. I stopped flinching, and stopped being scared of being hit. I guess that meant it wasn’t fun for him anymore, as that was when he stopped hitting me.
Around 30 years later I’m wandering around Vancouver. I don’t really have anything to do, but I remembered that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 had just been released. I’m a bit of a MCU fanatic, so I decided to watch it in my downtime.
I go to the cinema alone and sit down to watch the movie. After the trailers the film starts. It opens on a small group of young raccoons in a cage. The cage door opens and the raccoons scurry to the farthest corners of the cage. As far away from the entrance as they can. A hand reaches into the cage and reaches out towards one of the raccoons. It then focuses on his face, showing the fear in his face.
I had already related the raccoons scurrying to the corner to myself crawling to the furthest corner of my bed. And in Rocket’s face I saw the same fear I had as I would watch my stepfather’s hand reach out for me.
And it broke me.
It took the film less than a minute and I was already a wreck. Alone in a cinema in a foreign country and I had to keep it together and not make a scene. And although Rocket’s story is nothing like my own, I had made some weird connection to his story and mine. Every time there was a flashback I swear I could feel my stepfather hitting me.
I made it through the movie without causing a scene. But it reminded me how sometimes something that is literally nothing to most people can still be a trigger to trauma survivors.
I still thing trigger warnings have value. I’m not advocating for people to stop doing them. But I hope that people still remember that triggers aren’t always obvious. They can be a smell, a sound, a place. They can be a turn of phrase, an image, or a scene from a movie. My reaction to the film was overly emotional, but in the end it wasn’t debilitating. But I still hope that if someone breaks down for no obvious reason, that people around them can approach with understanding.