Nine years ago, my best friend came to stay with me for the weekend. As soon as she pulled into my driveway, I hopped in her car and we were off. She lives over five hours away, and our time together is sacred.
This particular evening we went to go see a psychic, then hit Walmart for supplies so we could craft all weekend. About two minutes after we walked through the sliding doors, I saw two teenage boys running in the opposite direction. They were weaving in and out of the candy displays which were placed at the end of the aisles and kept checking back over their shoulders.
My friend and I turned to watch them, and I opened my mouth to say, “What the fuck are they doing?” Only I never got the sentence all the way out of my mouth. A Walmart employee appeared out of nowhere, yelling at everyone to run to the nearest exit.
My friend and I didn’t even hesitate. We ran. We were only yards from the doors, but it felt like it took us forever to get there. The sound of a man’s voice blasting in my right ear, screaming he had a gun and he was going to shoot, changed me.
As soon as we entered the parking lot, we were both in complete shock. We had no idea where our car was, and I am pretty sure no one else did either. Car alarms were going off by the hundreds. People were pushing their panic buttons in desperation to find their vehicle and get the hell out of dodge.
Everyone made it out okay — not one person was physically harmed. The man did have a gun, but it was not loaded. He just “wanted to have a little fun that night,” he later told police. (Yeah, he was a real piece of shit.)
To this day, I still can not go into Walmart. And for years after the incident, crowded spaces made me almost hyperventilate, I had difficulty swallowing, especially if I was alone with my children. My anxiety would make me feel panicked, uncomfortable, and constantly on edge.
And so last weekend, when my family and I went to see Les Miserables and I saw the sign on the door warning the audience that there would be simulated gunfire, I was prepared. I appreciated that sign so much. I needed to be able to steel myself ahead of time and also make a game plan for a quick exit, if needed.
I wasn’t the only grateful one. So were other people, some of whom had to get up and leave during that scene, but the beautiful thing was, they were still able to enjoy the play. It was not something I would’ve noticed had I not been in Walmart that Friday night almost a decade ago.
Before this experience, I never fully understood how valuable having trigger warnings could be. I had no idea what it felt like to be paralyzed with fear over something that happened in the past. That mentally you could shut down because you couldn’t cope with the situation. That you would have tunnel vision and a ringing in your ears, unable to process your surroundings any longer. That sheer panic could overtake your body and literally leave you exhausted for days after an episode.
I never knew you could be triggered by similar experiences and also completely different experiences — a scene in a movie, a conversation, a commercial, or a scent — that could sneak up and try to suck the life out of you. Anytime, anywhere.
Being “triggered” is not a joke. These feelings are real, no matter how insignificant they may seem to someone else.
Being pre-warned, being given a “trigger warning,” is a tool to prepare people to protect themselves if they need to. And believe me, some people need to.
Making a mockery of the term dilutes it for those who are suffering and depend on these warnings for their mental health and well-being, or at minimum, to manage their emotions and prepare themselves. They exist for a reason: to help people cope with their experiences or feelings around a traumatic issue, and that should be respected.
If someone opens up and lets you know they have triggers, they should be taken seriously. Do not minimize the experiences of someone else. Have empathy.
If someone needs to get up and walk away from a discussion or out of the movie theater, it is their right. It’s not something they are doing to draw attention to themselves. They are coping. They are practicing self-care. Do not mock them, or make light of their trauma.
Many things can cause someone to have triggers, including dramatic experiences like loss, abuse, assault, crime, torture, and anxiety.
Trigger warnings, and safe spaces, are becoming more common for the simple fact they are needed and useful. They are there to help people who have experienced trauma experience the world in a way that feels safe for them. They show compassion. They allow teachers to teach hard lessons in a slightly different way. How is this a bad thing?
Some don’t need warnings before watching or reading something, but many do, including myself. The more we can help others cope and deal with their trauma, the better off we all are. So think about that next time you want to make a joke about being “triggered.”