Trigger warning: Rape
I have PTSD. It used to be called “Shell Shock” and was generally thought to be the province of the soldier. Although military personal are at higher risk of suffering from PTSD, the condition itself is simply that: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You may or may not have it. You may have been through an extremely stressful event, but come out the other side more or less intact and okay. For those of us who have PTSD, our bodies and minds are never the same after the events that caused it, and the consequences are wide and far reaching. As world events develop, with terrorism an ever present threat and increasing numbers of people fleeing war torn areas, the realities of living with PTSD are becoming more and more relevant. Awareness is beginning, and we note that June is PTSD Awareness Month.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD are varied and personal to those experiencing it. There are a few main elements common to PTSD: Re-experiencing the event that occurred, hyperarousal (hyper alert, on edge) sleeping problems, depression and so on. Physical symptoms also commonly manifest themselves, for example, stomach ache or headache, and those problems can develop further. People with PTSD often have extreme reactions to “triggers”. Most of us are familiar with “trigger warnings” to one degree or another, and they are useful even for those who do not have PTSD. But for people with PTSD they can be life saving. Someone struggling hard with PTSD can easily be triggered into feeling suicidal. This is the story I offer anyone who has ever asked me why I support trigger warnings.
I was twenty-five, and I’d lived in England and been married for three years. My marriage marked the end of a 21 year long endless trauma that was my life, and the beginning of my time to heal and grow as an individual. I was a victim of child abuse, and a homeless teenager. What I went through in those years was enough to fill a book, which is what I vowed I would one day do, to even the scales of justice. Among those things that I suffered in those wilderness years, was much sexual abuse.
After my marriage, I initially tried to suppress everything that had come before it – all that causes me to suffer from PTSD now. It was during that time of deep suppression, in my young married years, that I was blindsided by a powerful trigger. My husband, Matthew and I, were reading books together, each night a few pages before bed. We decided to read “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell, which I knew nothing of but that it was a classic. We had just finished the excellent Wilkie Collins’ classic, “The Woman in White” and I was expecting to continue riding the high of that book. I was wrong – I came down with a crash. Not far into “Down and Out…” came The Rape Scene.
The rape scene depicted in that book is so graphic, so cruel, so sadistic. It fully shows the brutality of rape, the inhumanity of rape. But I was not ready to hear it. I had lived that inhumanity first hand and ran away across the world to escape from it. As Matthew read out loud, the atmosphere in the room became thick and tense. I didn’t want to talk about my rapes. I didn’t want to admit they’d even happened. I didn’t want to “wuss out” of reading a “classic”. I shook and listened as he read on, nervously coughing from time to time. Until a moment came when I cried out “Stop!” and the very next thing I knew, I was on my hands and knees on the bedroom floor, and I was vomiting. Horrified, I gagged and wept and was sick while my frantic husband tried to help me. It was an instant, physical reaction to hearing of a trauma that I was not ready to hear. I was still too raw.
We stopped reading “Down and Out in Paris and London” that night, I asked Matthew to dispose of it and keep it out of my sight. As Matthew had been reading those words, I was living them. I was the girl caught and trapped like and animal, and brutalised. I relived everything I had ever been through, in one awful moment. If the book cover had simply said somewhere discreetly “Trigger warning – Rape” I would have passed it over in my already rather random selection of books, and read a murder mystery. I wouldn’t be on my knees broken in two until the wee hours of the morning. That night, in itself, became something I wished to forget but could not. Rather ironically, I have gone on to write a book heavily in need of trigger warnings. No one who is in favour of trigger warnings is asking for a muzzle to be put on free speech. We’re just asking to be spared – we have suffered enough. Topics that it is often helpful to have trigger warnings for include rape, child abuse, racism, violence. It only takes a little thought, for all the fellow writers out there, all the people posting on Facebook and so on, to take a moment and ask yourself if something you are saying could hurt someone in a vulnerable position.
As the years went by, I healed, but part of that healing was acknowledging that I do suffer from PTSD, and rather severely at that. For me, it is a constant, daily battle against my inner demons. I have nightmares every single night, without fail, over the same terrors, again and again. I have made a career, out of managing my obsession with reliving the past, a classic PTSD symptom. For me, writing is therapy, and I learned that long ago and that’s how it works. But every PTSD sufferer needs to find their medium, their safe space, and go live there as much as they can, until they have healed as much as possible. There is no shame in being a victor over injustice, oppression, violence.