tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
[personal profile] tim
I wrote this as a comment to a friends-only post and decided to rewrite it as a post on my own journal and elaborate on it.

I was responding to a post from a survivor who expressed a belief that trigger warnings[*] are a threat to their ability to recover and that writers or editors shouldn't be too sensitive.

Content warning: discussion of the effects of early childhood trauma in re: ability to trust.

I find this a little puzzling, honestly. If you'd needed to use a wheelchair for a while, and you were starting to walk again, would you see the presence of a wheelchair ramp as a threat?

I'm a writer and I wouldn't be the writer that I am if I didn't have CPTSD. I'm not saying it's desirable to have it, but nor is it undesirable. It's part of me. It's something I live with, and manage, and adapt to, and am learning to be friends with, not something to overcome. I'm not lesser than another survivor if I don't say I'm over it. I am pretty solidly a "stay sick, don't get well" person about this. I don't see it as desirable to turn myself into a non-traumatized person, or into a cis person, or into a heterosexual person, because why would I want to somehow destroy the effects of the life experiences that have made me who I am?[**] Passing for normal is something that has had a serious damaging effect on me. Part of not passing for normal is acknowledging I have needs that other people with different life histories may not have, and that I'm just as entitled to have my needs met as other people are.

I don't see a content warning as an admonition to stay in my shell -- I see it as a gesture of compassion. I don't see how I can be hurt by a gesture of compassion even if a specific one happens to be compassion I don't need at this specific moment. To the extent that there are content warnings that are helpful for me, I see them as helping me decide how to cope with a particular stimulus at a particular moment, not as an attempt to dictate how I should feel. I don't see how I can be hurt by having more information about what to expect when I read something.

A content warning is like a sign on a hiking trail saying "Mountain lions have been spotted here": it gives me the tools to assess risks for myself. The sign doesn't imply that I shouldn't go hike on that trail. It just reminds me that I might want to know what to do in case I encounter a situation that I might not expect in my daily life. Maybe I'm going to go ahead and hike on that trail even if I have no idea what to do about a mountain lion, because I think it's fairly unlikely that I'll see one and the benefit I think I'll get from hiking on the trail exceeds the risk of getting hurt! Or maybe I'll decide I just can't deal with that today and go home. Or something in between, where I take a moment to imagine how I'd deal with the mountain lion before I start walking. There is no right course of action -- the important thing is that I get to choose it.

For some of us who survived early childhood trauma, including me, any gesture of compassion or empathy from somebody else is potentially threatening. This may seem paradoxical; a lot of things about how we react to trauma look paradoxical to someone who hasn't been there). But for me, all of the comfort that was available to me until I was in my teens came from somebody who -- I was aware from pretty early on -- was abusing me. I might not have used the term "abuse", but viscerally, I was aware that my mother was a threat to me, that I couldn't let her in. As a result, I learned that all compassion and affection, no matter who it was from, was suspect. I learned not to trust people who seemed to be trying to be nice to me, because the patterns inscribed on me very early on in life told me that those people would lash out against me when I wasn't expecting it. Why would I do any differently when the only protection I ever got was from someone I knew was incapable from protecting me from the major threat in my life -- herself? This is why I got into an abusive marriage with a man who was very similar to my mother, personality-wise, as vehemently as I would have denied that if anyone who had pointed it out to me then.

So the fear of compassion from others is one of the things I am trying to unlearn -- or rather, make friends with and then adapt -- since it interferes with my ability to have relationships with people who genuinely do care about me. I think this is part of why I, too, was suspicious of the content of trigger warnings or content warnings for a while -- they pushed that "someone is trying to be considerate about your needs, watch out!" button. As part of trying to be more open to love and compassion, I find it a good exercise to try to use content warnings in my own writing as much as I can and to remind myself to see their presence in others' writing as a sign of safety, not as the opposite.

Content warnings don't, and can't, interfere with anybody's agency. Having more information is freeing -- limitations on me come from me. And, at any given moment, I have the right to choose what I do with information as well as to change my mind about what I do with it from one moment to the next. This is one of those statements I don't fully believe yet, but am writing in order to remind myself of it. We get to choose how we react to things -- which is easy to say in a victim-blaming or trivializing way, but I want to emphasize that the ability to choose results from a long, hard process. I'm still working on it -- yes, I did say I never wanted to be a person who isn't affected by the repercussions of the trauma I experienced (not that I get to be one anyway -- the choice is really between killing myself trying to be a normal person, and acceptance), but I also think I can steer myself into behaving in ways that are more in line with what I really want, in some situations, when I want to.

Maybe I don't really know how I'll react if I ever see that mountain lion on the trail, but with a signpost I can decide whether that's a hike I want to do today, tomorrow, maybe next year, or never; I can't see how I would ever be better off having information withheld from me.

[*] using the language from the original post, though I use the term "content warning" since that's usually what people who write "trigger warning" intend, clumsy as they may be about it (not that I can blame them, communication is hard).
[**] purposely avoiding the question of the relationship, if any, between life experiences and my sexual orientation and gender, because mine deserve respect whether or not I was born that way or became that way. Same for yours.
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Tim Chevalier

March 2017

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