The Trouble with Triggers
It’s not the first time this has happened, but it’s the most recent. A friend loans me a book, letting me know there’s a rape scene in it. “I know you hate spoilers, but…”
But I was raped, so I should know ahead of time, in case I’m triggered.
Here’s the thing: reading about rape, watching it on television, discussing it online–none of these things are going to trigger me. I was raped twenty-one years ago this October. It is actually no big deal. I know some people have trouble wrapping their heads around this, but it’s true.
It was at the time, sort of. I knew that as far as rapes went, it wasn’t, you know, that bad. I knew the person. We were dating. He was mad at me because I talked to a guy he didn’t like. He raped me. It only happened the once. Afterward, he acknowledged what he’d done. At the time, I had more people telling me I should stay with him than leave him. That would be one, maybe two people. Everyone else, including my mother and the resulting therapist, stayed oddly neutral, as if saying anything negative about him would push me into a teenage rebellion of resolutely sticking with a mentally and emotionally abusive boyfriend. It took me longer to get over that lack of help than the event itself, even though I knew what they were going for there. Even the school officials (is that the right term? guidance and whoever) just wanted to know if I wanted to press charges. After that, I was pretty much just passed off to my mom and the therapist.
The one person who told me to stay with him was his neighbor, our mutual classmate and friend, to whom I ran afterward, and I believe she called her friend across the street who agreed with her. After all, he loved me. He’d made a mistake. I think she even went over to speak to him for a bit. There was only a wall between us, because it was a townhouse. I think he even climbed out a window and knocked on hers to try to talk to me.
I had just turned fifteen a few weeks before. He was my first real boyfriend. We had very little in common–I was one of those smart kids, but the lazy kind, and fairly straight edge. He was one of the few people in school I knew of who’d tried hard drugs. His best friends were a genius and a burnout. It was a common but weird match: good girl, bad boy.
It took me a few months to finally extricate myself from the relationship. I had no idea how, and no support system. I never doubted I was raped, but what did it really mean? It didn’t make him evil. It didn’t make me impure, although I had something in me I couldn’t quite shake. My logical mind warred with my irrational one, the one that had lost a feeling of safety.
But I was never triggered. I never panicked. I never showed signs of PTSD. I didn’t have any problems trusting future partners, although I did have problems saying no. After all, if I’d slept with a rapist, why wouldn’t I sleep with someone who was great and not a rapist? My logical brain really did get how stupid that was, but hormones play their own part in that kind of decision-making. Still, years later, when someone said that rape victims sometimes have a lot of sex partners afterward “because when you say yes it’s not rape,” I nodded understanding.
About six years later, I had those of THOSE friends. The kind of guy we now call a Nice Guy. I’d met a couple of them, but no one took liberties like this one did. Ani DiFranco could’ve written a song about him. She kind of did.
It was the first time I’d felt like I wasn’t in control of my body since the rape, and at the time I pushed him away and said I was tired (afraid to turn down a guy who was driving me halfway across the country, if you want the details). When we got back to our home state, sure I could get a ride if he kicked me (and my daughter) out of the car, I confronted him…ish. Told him that wasn’t okay.
He said he was sorry, he understood…then when I got out of the car, he smacked me on the ass.
I think it was the rage that did it. Panic, rage, fear of confrontation, all those chemicals…as the years went on, they stewed. And then I met my husband in 2009 and we got married in 2010. A friend of mine made a joke on my wedding day and I was so hyped up with all those happy/nervous chemicals that the joke, which made me laugh at the time, which shouldn’t have bothered me at all, suddenly stopped being funny. A day later, when all the wedding stuff was over, I was freaking out. Nothing bad had happened. I wasn’t and had never been lacking control. But some chemical stew in me came to completion.
The end result, a few days later, was my first and only trigger: a specific color, my friend’s favorite color. I called RAINN, I got right into therapy, I calmed down, stopped panicking, but since then, that color can get to me. Some days, I don’t even notice, and I take a cup down from the cabinet and not even notice that it’s exactly that shade. Other days, that same cup makes me nervous, twitchy. I can’t even touch it, or the other cup that’s not quite that color but still in the family.
When I worked with children, I had to learn to deal with them handing me that color crayon, or asking me why I didn’t use it. After years of not having a favorite color, I developed one: it was Not That Color. I think now, looking back, I started liking one color, rather than my usual color combinations (for a few months, it was the yellow and blue of Luke’s outfit on The Tribe), so that when people bought me things, they’d be in that color, not the other one.
Rape in books and TV shows and movies still didn’t really bother me. I mean, I’m a more emotional person in general than I was then, so I feel bad or horror or whatever, but I don’t panic. I skipped That Scene last time through Buffy, but it wasn’t that long after my wedding, I think. That was the only thing and, even then, I watched most of it.
And I really do hate spoilers. I don’t want to know anything. I’ll watch an official trailer for something, but if it’s getting too detailed, I stop it. If there’s rape in a book, and it means a lot–like it did in this book I was lent–then I don’t want to know. As it was, I spent the whole book waiting for the rape scene. At one point, when it hadn’t come yet, I wondered if the friend just had a different perception of rape than I did. Because “trigger warning” culture makes people who’ve been raped into forever-victims, not people who’ve been through a traumatic experience and have to work through it like any other traumatic experience.
This is why I don’t mind people saying “content warning” but loathe “trigger warning.” Many people, like me, have really odd and random triggers. You can’t guess at them. For some, it’s a scent, or a song. Should we wear T-shirts that say “Trigger Warning: I’m wearing cologne”? No, because it’s ridiculous.
I also feel like the words themselves create unnecessary anxiety, to the point where my daughter’s generation starts getting that panicked chemical dump just from the concept. The idea of triggers are terrifying, and these kids are getting scared that they’ll be branded forever with PTSD and flashbacks if bad things happen to them. And they live in a world that gives them access to stories where bad things happen to people like them all the time. Starting the stew.
My husband and I were discussing this, and I said, “Look how long it took me to develop a trigger” and he said, “Wasn’t it like three days after the wedding?” I meant all the years beforehand, those incidents, they made me annoyed or angry at the time or years later, but they didn’t affect my daily life. If I had not been raped, would I have shaken off the assault? If the assault hadn’t happened, would I have shaken off the joke despite having been raped in the past? Sometimes I challenge myself to deal with my trigger, touch the cup when it’s one of those mornings, wear clothes with that color, even dyed my hair for a bit (but that didn’t work because I don’t look in a mirror all the time). But most of the time, I don’t even remember this trigger exists. Then it sneaks up on me.
But, honestly, the rape stuff? It was twenty-one years ago. I just don’t care anymore. I don’t think I really cared much even within a year. The rape and the trigger, they’re not even directly connected, and for that I realize I’m lucky. Still, I am far from alone in being someone who’s over their rape, but still has a trigger.
So it’s okay; I don’t need the spoiler. And rape is not my rape trigger. Let’s not assume it always is, okay?