It can be innocuous. A tone of voice. A word. A touch. A smell. It can be more overt. Descriptions. News stories. But the effect of both can be the same. That in one instant you are moved, transported, experiencing two events at once. It’s that aspect people find tricky when you try to explain. The notion that you are experiencing it.
You can be anywhere, wholly aware of what is going on. On a train: conscious of the announcements, the discomfort of the seats, the reflections in the window, the presence of your fellow passengers, the passing countryside. In an office: aware of the draught from the window, the cursor flashing on the monitor, the murmurs of phonecalls by those in neighbouring offices.
In telling friends that you are transported they seem awkward, not comprehending. One perceived that you left, that your mind had gone. That you were not there. But that’s not the case. You still sense your surroundings. But you are simultaneously somewhere else, somewhere long gone but present still – experiencing that. And when you are experiencing the other place you smell, you hear, you touch, you see. You feel. Oh, how you feel. The raw, visceral emotions burn through your body, through your head. And your body reacts. It is present, aware of now, but feeling then, feeling that overwhelming, that body and mind encompassing distress that you feel in your heart and in your lungs and in your gut.
But how do you get there?
The unexpected smell of fumes from a car exhaust, a glimpse of certain Christmas decorations, the untrailed news report, each can transport you back to the town, to the park full of bags, to the house, kerosene and smoke heavy in the air, as you peer through the window. Feeling the touch of someone against you can move you years. An unexpected hand on the shoulder, a leg against yours while on the train, certain words, a voice, or a report recounting events. Each can punch you. Bend you double. Head here, and elsewhere. Looking in the mirror. Frozen.
And the incomprehension, the fear, is there again. And again. And again. Stuck in your head, relived, time after time after time. Stuck. In your head. And you can’t breathe. And you can’t think. And you can’t move.
Triggers they call them. Triggers. Events, sensory experiences, that transport you. That leave you debilitated, reliving, re-experiencing.
But there are ways sometimes to manage them. Instances where you expect something, and can be ready, can know that you will cope. Now this does not cover every scenario. The hands on your shoulders, the fumes, the throwaway reference in a news report, may arise without your expecting it, may prompt – however momentarily – the shift in perception, that moment where you are Schrodinger’s person. But sometimes a simple act indicating there are issues that will be addressed within a news bulletin (“coming up next”) or a table of contents in a book or, when a student, a wording in a handout or in a lecture that next time a certain topic will be dealt with can allow you mentally to prepare.
But if you were a student some years ago such civility allowing you to prepare might not have existed. Handouts were distributed on the day of a lecture. A much-loved lecturer would giggle his way through extreme tales of distress, egged on by those in the back row.
But such civility is common now. Handouts are distributed in advance, students are aware that certain topics are covered. Sometimes this basic decency gets a label: The trigger warning.
But the moment you use the expression you provoke certain zealots.
It’s the sneer that gets you. You know the thing. You’ve read it. The references to “snowflakes” or the “snowflake generation” where a man (bar a Hopkins or a Hartley Brewer it’s nearly always a man) writes disparagingly about the youths who can’t cope with modern life, who need “trigger warnings” (they italicise or use inverted commas for added snark). The contempt, the bile, they feel for those who have suffered trauma is uncomfortable.
It is bullying.
It is an attack.
Why are they so concerned by an institution or a lecturer acknowledging that where a student may face a visceral reaction that leads him or her to relive a trauma in a way that may render them unable to handle material and to miss an essential class or feel generally that a course or a programme is not for them? Why are they so offended by this? Why insult those whose lives are made a little easier by these warnings? Why do the journalists feel that those who have experienced trauma, who live with the events every day of their lives, are more worthy of contempt than others? Why do they hold those who have survived traumas, who have survived some of the worst experiences you can imagine, in such contempt? Column filed, coins for sneers banked, do they sleep easy?