Finding out what “triggering” means firsthand

I’ve finally come to realize what the term “triggering” means in social justice discourse. And I learned in a way that was deeply, and viscerally, personal. This will be the most personal blog post I’ve ever written. But it needs to be said.

Over the past year, I’ve come a long way. I recently discovered a notepad in which I had written notes back and forth with a friend during class. The class had been just over a year ago. Reading the notepad, and reflecting on what I now know about feminism, I felt ashamed. My own comments reeked of misogyny and of a total non-concern for the feelings of the women I had been dating (the notes concerned my “love” life at the time). The friend of mine that I was trading notes with gave various passive aggressive responses, which I didn’t recognize as such at the time. Her snarky response that she had already read what I was saying “on Reddit” made me chuckle with my re-read. I felt even more ashamed — and hypocritical — because I had condemned sexism so many times over the past year. I bring up this story to say that I haven’t always been a feminist and that I am still learning about feminism. I began to identify as a feminist sometime last spring or summer (I don’t know the exact date; it was sometime before Women in Secularism 1 but probably not accurate until sometime after I had reflected on what I had learned at that conference). Over the course of the year since then I have gradually learned various things for myself. About a month ago, I finally came to realize what the term “triggering” meant.

I had been reflecting on my childhood. I remembered one thing that annoyed me when I was a kid — that every movie I had watched as a child which featured bullying was radically inaccurate. I wrote a Facebook post about this childhood complaint and one of my friends — who teaches high school mathematics and had seen her students bully each other — suggested that I watch the film Bully. So I did. And could not stop crying.

For those who don’t know, Bully is a documentary about children who are harassed at school. They followed outcast children around with cameras and recorded what happened.

My experiences being bullied or feeling ostracized are not something that I think about often. Over the years, these experiences have left me. I had almost completely forgotten that these events ever took place and sometimes wondered if they really were as bad as I had remembered. Other than sometimes feeling out of place in social situations, having some personal issues with anger or with anxiety, these events from my childhood were distant, hazy memories.

Watching those children — and watching the adults who neglectfully stood by and making excuses for their negligence (like the far-too-often-uttered “kids will be kids”) — brought back a flood of memories. My stomach flipped over. I remembered being so terrified and alone that I hid in the bathroom during lunchtime every day. I remembered skipping and failing gym class because I had been so mortified by the abuse that I had received at the hands of not only my peers but — and especially — the instructor. I remembered being stabbed by a soldering iron class during a high school electronics class. I remembered being harassed in elementary school to the extent that I marched into the principal’s office, slammed my fist on the secretary’s desk, and demanded to know why I had to take this. And being told that there was nothing anyone in that office could do and that I would simply have to endure whatever abuse my peers gave me. Because kids will be kids. I remember being punched in the arm during a history class and having an assistant principal demand that I tell him what he should do to handle the situation, and him being angry with me — and holding me out of class — because I wasn’t able to tell him how he should do his job. I didn’t know what he should do with the kid, I told him, I hadn’t been trained for that. I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just do his own damn job. I remember being called “fag”, “cunt”, “cock-sucker”, “tool”, and a number of other names as early as the 4th grade. And I remember being too terrified to fully explain to adults the kinds of overtly sexualized insults handed out by my peers on a regular basis. Because one did not talk about sex with adults. In my 9 year old brain, adults were not supposed to know that we all knew these words and used them. I remember being filled with shame, and feeling so utterly alone. I remember my mother, in her words (years later), “pounding the pavement” for me, her distraught exasperation at being told that kids will be kids. And I remember having to endure, because what other choice did I have?, the assault on my personal privacy in the wake of the Columbine shootings. No longer could I simply be a nerdy, bullied kid who liked horror stories, dinosaurs, and aliens and who had a horrible time getting homework done on schedule — I was identified as a potential time bomb, waiting to shoot up the school, because I wrote ghost stories in my spare time and idolized Stephen King.

I also remembered bullying other kids myself. I remember calling other students homophobic slurs. I remember antagonizing a young Asian student because he couldn’t speak English very well and because it was popular to make fun of him. So thoroughly dehumanizing people to the extent that I didn’t consider myself a bully. And, in high school, hating the same student because he had a crush on the girl I was dating. I remember being mean to other students for no reason whatsoever.

I was victimized. And I turned around and victimized others in response. I thought it would make me popular. I thought it might end the bullying, thought it would raise my status in the all-important social hierarchy and get the “cool” kids to like me. Of course, all it ended up doing was hurting and alienating others, and making me regret so much so many years later. If any one that is reading this is someone that I hurt, I’m sorry. I know that this is far too little and far too late.

The film Bully is fantastic. And it succeeds in its authenticity; it is real. And it was even more real for me. As I watched a worthless principal give a non-response to a parent whose child had been tortured by his peers, I wanted to slap that principal. I wanted to call her up and tell her what it felt like to be victimized. “What a fucking bitch,” I angrily said to my computer screen.

I watched the same principal force a victimized little boy to shake hands with the individual who had been harassing him for weeks. This was an individual who the police had told to stay away from the boy. I wanted to strangle her; you don’t force victims to shake the hands of those who victimize them. People have the right to stay away from those who hurt them, I thought.

As I saw a mother explain to her child that the child should not spend time around those who bully him, and the child responded, “if these people are not my friends, then who are?”, my heart broke.

And as I learned that a pre-pubescent child had killed himself because he had been so horrendously tortured by his peers, and I watched a father cry, my stomach turned into so many knots that I am surprised it didn’t break.

I couldn’t sleep afterwards and needed to talk things through with a friend.

I told her that I felt like my insides were twisted, that I felt weak, and that I felt like I do when I’m wheezing and out of breath. But I wasn’t out of breath. I wanted to lash out, to flail, to pound my keyboard (I was talking to her online, because I couldn’t stand to be on the phone), and I felt like I wanted to hit someone. It was a wild stew of emotions and I didn’t know what to do with it. Finally, she gave me the words to describe what I was feeling.

“Anguish is what you are feeling,” she said, giving a word to a feeling that I didn’t know how to begin to describe.

I know that these experiences are probably different for others. But, for me, Bully was a trigger. It brought me right back to those tortured, alienated feelings of my youth. It made me feel alone again. It made real for me things that I had almost forgotten.

I’m not a rape victim. I’m not a victim of spousal abuse. I’ve never been harassed for having a different color skin than others or for having a sexual orientation that society considers “deviant”. I don’t know what it’s like to have those things happen to you. I have tremendous amounts of privilege, and, although I had previously intellectualized the concept of a “trigger”, I didn’t know what one felt like.

But when survivors of those events talk about “triggers”, I have some better idea of what that means. About how something as minor as looking at an image, hearing a story, or watching a movie can bring back a flood of emotions, and bring you immediately back to that dark place where you had the worst events of your entire life. How you can be happy and excited to watch a movie in one moment and totally irreconcilable the next. I know how important it can be to provide trigger warnings; and I know that, when I felt those things, no amount of argumentation could have brought me back to a safe place.

There was an organization mentioned in the film  — Stand Up for The Silent — which works to prevent bullying. I found them on Facebook and joined.

This past Tuesday, at our weekly Freethinkers meeting, we briefly discussed school bullying. I tried to remain calm and not to get upset when friends of mine played devil’s advocate. And I think I managed to remain calm and not let on how emotional this conversation was for me — I don’t think anyone knew what I was feeling inside. But that gave me new perspective, too; how it feels when others intellectualize things which, for you, are utterly real. They can’t be separated from things that you’ve lived through. You can’t play games with them, to toy around abstractly with ideas.

Now when I see the words “trigger warning” written somewhere online, I know what that means. For someone, somewhere out there, whatever is being posted will bring them back to their own dark place.

8 Comments

  • August 16, 2013 - 7:06 am | Permalink

    Powerful stuff Dan. I absolutely love you! Thanks for putting into words so much of what so many have felt. I am sending this to both of my grown children and I know they will both “identify” with what you have written. Keep writing and keep caring!

    • Dan Linford
      August 16, 2013 - 8:01 am | Permalink

      No problem. I think that many people have felt this; I couldn’t imagine that I’m alone in this. Thank you for your kind words.

  • August 16, 2013 - 10:46 am | Permalink

    I was always what I will call semi-popular, not ‘in’ with the elites in my schools, but not so terribly out as to be bullied. I remember a kid, [name censored], a name that Dickens couldn’t have chosen better as a kid to bully, skinny, smaller than average, poorer (i’m guessing) than many of us. I remember watching him be bullied, not supporting it, but not coming to his aid, when the bully put into words what I was thinking at the time…he looked up and said, at me, “This could be you.” I appreciate you putting into words your experiences, Dan. I empathize. I didn’t experience the horrors you did, in the same way you (and I) haven’t experienced racism, rape, etc. But I lived with the fear nonetheless, and I also live with the fact that I never tried to stop what I saw being done to others. What you can’t feel (rationally, though I know rationality doesn’t always govern this) is shame. I’ll say, what you shouldn’t feel is shame. I do. I did nothing. I watched. I’m sure I laughed, at the appropriate times. When it was cool to laugh. Thanks. Your piece here is a trigger. I never want to be a person who does nothing, again.

  • Jaime Wise
    August 18, 2013 - 10:35 pm | Permalink

    It took a lot of courage to write this Dan, thank you for speaking up about this. I have similar feelings when I see or hear about people with mental disorders being blamed or stigmatized for their pathology. I’m very sorry about what you went through as a kid, and for the pain that revisiting it causes you. This is an issue that I’m not very well-versed in, coming from a home-school background. Where can I go to learn more about it and how to get involved?

    • Dan Linford
      August 24, 2013 - 11:27 pm | Permalink

      Jaime, Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you! I honestly don’t know very much about what anti-bullying resources are out there. It’s not something that I’ve looking into very much. However, there was the Facebook group that I linked to in the post. If you do look for resources, let me know what you find.

  • August 27, 2013 - 8:58 am | Permalink

    Hey Dan, this is Ross. It was a pleasure to meet you at SSACon earlier this year. I really appreciated this post. I too only last year (I think) adopted the feminism label and mentality, and it’s caused me to regret specific actions I’ve taken and things I’ve said in the past. It’s a weird and often frustrating experience to see yourself from before a major change.

    Your description of this traumatic experience is important, and I’m thankful you were willing to describe it. It’s vital to expanding my and others’ appreciation for these very real phenomena. And as you said, I’m also still learning about these things, trying my best to understand it all.

    • Dan Linford
      August 27, 2013 - 9:28 am | Permalink

      Hey Ross! Thank you for your comments. I’m glad that you enjoyed the post. I think that recognizing our past actions for what they are — and making corrections as we move into the future — is the most that we can do. It’s unfortunate that, sometimes, we hurt people before we can mature enough to do otherwise. I wish there was a way to prevent ourselves from hurting others before we’ve grown enough to know to avoid certain kinds of behaviours, but, of course, that’s impossible (that’s nearly a tautology).

    • August 27, 2013 - 9:49 am | Permalink

      Ross, you are exactly right! If only we could stop ourselves before we too do what is harmful. What a wonderful world it would be. At least some of us recognize that we made mistakes. Some never do.

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