If you have experienced trauma in your life, you may be familiar with the concept of triggers. They are words, images, etc. that bring back to mind your own hurt or pain, and can sometimes really set a person back in terms of processing/accepting/healing. Seeing as April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, this feels like an appropriate time to talk about triggers. And lately, for me, it feels like triggers are everywhere.
Perhaps it is because my own sexual assault, which occurred ten+ years ago but was really only seen/accepted for what it was two years ago in a therapy session, still seems new.
Perhaps it is because more people in society as a whole agree with my friend who made the point at book club the other night that we need to keep giving voice to these issues – women’s rights, sexual assault, abuse – and are therefore talking about it.
Perhaps it is as simple as my heightened sensitivity level.
Whatever the reason, I feel like rape specifically – as a story-line – is impossible to escape these days. It is portrayed in film and on television shows (even on PBS). It pops up in small anecdotes as well as major plot lines in books (so, so many of the books I have read in the last year, even though I am definitely not seeking it out). And then there is the Internet. Oh, my, the Internet. Posts, info graphics, music videos – so many manifestations. But of course, here I am, adding my own voice to the online conversation about sexual assault and yes, I am hoping people see it and take away something from it.
What is there to take away, exactly? Well, as a survivor, I can tell you all of this is hard, and by this, I mean every single time I stumble upon one of these references, scenes, or articles, my heart hurts a bit. Sometimes my heart hurts a lot. And each time I find myself wondering, could/should someone have warned me about this?
After all, that is what the phrase “trigger warning” is for — to alert people that something within is potentially disturbing and may be difficult for someone who has experienced something similar. However, I see the flip side of this, realizing that there are sadly so many nuances of abuse, assault, and violence in the world, how could we ever fully warn people without eventually becoming numb to it all because so many references would require the warning? And it is not until we learn to move beyond the numbness that true healing begins.
Since there is no way to ever know all the triggers for all the people you encounter in your daily or online life, my most honest suggestion for how to go about sharing or discussing potential trigger topics is this: be mindful.
Yes, we need to keep talking about sexual assault. Openness and education are our best practices for preventing and hopefully eliminating this awfulness, so silence is not the answer. However, if you know you are talking (or typing) with a survivor, be aware that triggers may certainly lead to some quietness, some drawing inward. Give these people time. Give them space. And of course respect them if they do not wish to discuss it, but also, do not hesitate to ask them if they are “OK” because maybe they have something they are scared but still wish to voice. Please never use the word “rape” in a flip or joking manner; hearing others discuss what is to us, heavy, in a light-hearted manner is never amusing. Strive to recognize that for many of us, the lack of control is one of the longest and hardest realities to overcome and triggers are what remind us of that.
Will these triggering encounters get better and/or easier to digest with passing time? With proper support – both professional and personal – I believe that yes, eventually they will have less and less impact. And I will not give up hope that some day sexual assault will be a lesson from history and not a reality of the present.
For more information about SAAM, please see the following links: