Why “Triggered” Jokes Suck

Content/trigger warning: description of dissociation, discussion of emotional abuse

Today, I want to talk about triggers and the mocking thereof.

I want to talk about triggers because I can’t do any work. I’m sitting in front of my work computer, quaking with a mixture of rage and terror, pressing myself hard into the seat for grounding purposes (“grounding” is a technique used to prevent dissociation). My spine is starting to do that annoying thing where it feels like it turns to ice and then my soul shoots out the top of it, leaving behind an empty shell. The music blasting through my earbuds—somewhat ironically, I’m listening to a song called “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as I type an entry about being prepared for being metaphorically hit—helps remind me that the material world is real.

Why am I like this? I was triggered. While a trigger can be literally anything—for example, a domestic abuse survivor might be triggered by the scent of the perfume her abuser used to wear—my trigger was being reminded of something my abuser used to do. In this case, I was told my feelings were wrong, and I was shamed for having those feelings; my abuser was quite fond of doing this to me. Fortunately, the antipsychotic I take (mostly) kept me from having a stereotypical flashback in which my brain forces me to relive the trauma. But I’m having one hell of a physical post-traumatic reaction. My CPTSD symptoms can be more severe, such as dissociating for days or having such a bad flashback it kicks off an Autistic meltdown. (Comorbidity is fun.) My symptoms aren’t always this severe; sometimes I’m just left shaking or hypervigilant. But my symptoms always, always, always suck. Even if they’re mild, they suck, and it isn’t fair that I should have to put up with them because of someone else’s douchebaggery or insensitivity.

Is it apparent yet how important it is to help keep neurodivergent people from being triggered? (Note: I say “neurodivergent” instead of “mentally ill” because mental illnesses are not the only ND conditions that can have triggers. I don’t want to imply that mentally ill people, especially trauma survivors, have some kind of embargo on the word “trigger”, because other people with PTSD have claimed that and it is just. Such crap.)

Just a note, I am not suggesting that people with psych/neuro conditions that can be triggered should not work to recover so those triggers no longer affect them or affect them less. EMDR, one of the leading treatments for PTSD, has that exact goal, and EMDR is my jam. I’m just saying that during that recovery progress, triggers should be avoided as much as possible. Desensitization doesn’t work when it’s sudden and inconsiderate. Also, some triggers are never going to go away. Many people with epilepsy have their seizures triggered by, say, strobe lights, and that’s never going to change.

Speaking of inconsiderate, let’s talk about the backlash against trigger warnings and why it makes no sense. Trigger warnings are similar to movie ratings: a method of cautioning someone about the material they are about to view. (Sometimes I want to ask people who make triggered jokes or are against trigger warnings if they hate the MPAA as much as they hate neurodivergent people.) In some cases, people who are warned about a trigger can then be exposed to it safely. In other cases, people will have to stay away from it. But the idea that trigger warnings are “coddling” is crap. Not only can trigger warnings help people experience things that would otherwise be triggering; for example, if a rape survivor has to do a reading for class that involves a rape scene, they might be able to get through that scene if they’re mentally prepared, or they might be able to do the other parts of reading instead of being triggered and then spending the rest of their day having symptoms too terrible to accomplish anything. Trigger warnings are not pandering to people who are “too sensitive”. (Also, what the hell is wrong with being sensitive? Some people are sensitive. Deal with it. The world would be a much nicer place if sensitivity were accommodated instead of mocked and taken advantage of.) Trigger warnings exist to help make the world accessible to people who have measurable emotional, psychological, and/or physiological debilitating responses to triggers. Those debilitating responses are not funny. They are serious and deserve to be taken seriously.

Every time someone makes a “triggered” joke, at least one ND person near them thinks “this person is not safe. This person thinks my suffering is funny. This person is dangerous to me”. When an academic institution insists that it does not condone trigger warnings, at least one ND student thinks that they do not have the right to be educated while ND. Sometimes, “triggered” jokes, by virtue of their being neurotypicalist, are in and of themselves a trigger. They sure as hell are triggering for me.

Why do people make “triggered” jokes? I think it boils down to neurotypicals not believing the experiences of those who can be triggered are valid. Neurodivergent people are not people to them. We are only tools for their (unoriginal, crappy, bigoted) comedy. Our suffering is funny to them. Well, either that or they don’t believe we’re suffering, because you have to believe someone is a person before you believe their experiences are real, right? They think we should “just get over” our triggers and their garbage trigger jokes to make their lives easier when our lives are already made harder by our conditions, and it is no more possible to “just get over” a disability-related trait or symptom of an illness than it is for a person with the flu magically stop having a fever.

It is wrong—morally wrong—to mock the experiences of a neurodivergent person because they seem “weird” or “too sensitive”. It is also wrong to deny a neurodivergent person accessibility by refusing to use trigger warnings on potentially triggering content. (Like I mentioned, anything can be a trigger, but it’s best to start out warning for what I call the Trigger Trifecta: murder, rape, and abuse. I might expand on common triggers and how to do trigger warnings in another entry.) The mass invalidation of triggers and trigger warnings is harmful to those of us with conditions that can be triggered. Many of us are now afraid to discuss our triggers with our friends, family, and psych professionals because we expect to not be believed or, worse, shamed for our experiences. This, to me, is deeply saddening. It needs to change.

Trigger warnings need to be commonplace. People’s needs should be respected even if they are not neurotypical needs. And gods help me, those needs should not be mocked or seen as some mere political concept that is up for debate. We are not controversial abstract topics. We are people.

Carrie Fisher quote of the day, which I like because it relates to how I feel regarding writing about mental illness: “I have a mess in my head sometimes, and there’s something very satisfying about putting it into words. Certainly it’s not something that you’re in charge of, necessarily, but writing about it, putting it into your words, can be a very powerful experience.”

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