Trigger Warning: This Post is About Trigger Warnings and I Think You are ALL Full of Shit

Writing

I have PTSD. I was diagnosed when I was thirteen after putting away the man who sexually, physically, and verbally abused me from the ages of 2-13. It is a complex, challenging condition that I spend a lot of time working to combat and control so I can be a functional human being. I had it in high school, I also had it in college as a history major at an elite institution. I will never not have it, my therapist says too much damage was done for me to ever not have nightmares, which is to say my entire existence on this planet will involve never sleeping like a normal person. My triggers are so numerous and severe that to avoid them all would require that I never leave the house. Here is a brief, non-comprehensive list of things that trigger trauma associated memories and panic attacks

  • Budweiser
  • Ammonia
  • Hamburger Helper
  • Fly swatters
  • Rubber bands (specifically being hit with them)
  • Being approached from behind
  • Having a white male “square up” to me
  • Home Depot
  • Raisins
  • Depictions of incest, rape
  • Depictions of violence
  • Most crime dramas
  • Depictions of methampehamine
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Crowds
  • Phone calls
  • Christmas trees (Christmas in general is rough, Thanksgiving ain’t much better)

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point here, each and every single one of those has a specific association to trauma for me. Now, imagine for a second that I decided that the best way for me to deal with the trauma is to avoid it. HOW THE HELL WOULD I LEAVE THE HOUSE?

How did I study history? Or literature? Or anything, really? It’s almost like avoiding triggers doesn’t actually liberate you from trauma at all!

Or maybe they do for people that have a specific trigger or instance of trauma, I don’t know but it’s not my experience that this approach helps.

But my bigger issue with trigger warnings is conceptual. When it comes to the treatment of a severe mental health problem, where does the responsibility lie? I’d argue that the only people who should be telling me how to treat my PTSD are me and my doctor, but most certainly not university professors who don’t have training or classmates who don’t have the disorder themselves. Although I’m very public about my struggles, I also still think that my compatriots who chose to deal privately have the right to do so and we should respect that. So when a university administrator or classmate demands the removal of a reading, or even a content warning (for adults… did you guys actually follow content warnings as kids, I know I didn’t, and I took great pleasure in subverting the man in that way), on my behalf, it feels a little patronizing and, well intended, but particularly destructive if it means that it changes what conversations we are having.

I really want to believe this is well-intended, and I think for most it is. I think most professors are just trying to do what’s best by their students and that students are trying to deal with these issues. But we’ve made it such that saying, “hey, I don’t think this is the best way to do this” is now somehow a form of oppression and it isn’t. I was a poor student at Stanford with PTSD and I don’t believe trigger warnings are the best way to liberate me, and other people do. And that’s fine. You can disagree with me because this is America, and you have free speech, but the point here is that this issue isn’t one sided. Reasonable people can disagree about this.

 

But some of this doesn’t feel well intended and it’s because of the way people describe what happens when they are “triggered” by books like Antigone. They say it “makes them uncomfortable.” Now, I’ve had a lot of panic attacks and flashbacks and uncomfortable is not how I would describe the experience. I would describe it as debilitating, painful and challenging, but it also didn’t stop me from reading things for class because I recognize as someone who has spent most of my existence on the planet feeling “uncomfortable” (hungry, sick, tired, poor), that sometimes I’m going to feel uncomfortable. And sometimes I’m going to learn things from that discomfort. It just strikes me as an insane level of entitlement to assume that you’ll NEVER BE UNCOMFORTABLE during your educational experience. Are we sure that’s the goal, here? Because my goal is to get more services for the poor and to force the rich to deal with the challenges that face the poor. I actually don’t give a shit whether or not people at elite institutions are uncomfortable when encountering challenging readings. I hope the folks with PTSD get treatment to make real triggers manageable and I will fight and have fought for that treatment, but I don’t understand why I’m supposed to care about the discomfort of a bunch of kids who are supposed to be learning and who live in a contained, safe space to do that while the rest of the people their age are trying to survive poverty and war.  But what really bothers me is that these words, “makes me uncomfortable” are the same words that were used to silence me as an undergraduate.

“Heather, don’t talk about your childhood, it makes me uncomfortable.”

“We can’t use the term low income because it makes people uncomfortable.”

“We shouldn’t talk about rape/incest/poverty/racism/sexism because it makes people uncomfortable.”

The reality at most elite campuses is that the children are extremely unlikely to have PTSD. How do I know? Because Stanford doesn’t even have a PTSD specialist on staff, but they have 13 eating disorder specialists. PTSD wasn’t covered in my health insurance when I was an undergrad. And when I was an undergrad, openly discussing my PTSD, most of my classmates told me that I shouldn’t talk about it because of how it made them feel. They described It as awkward, uncomfortable, and like experiencing the pain of cognitive dissonance. They were not telling me not to talk because it was triggering THEIR PTSD. They were telling me not to talk because they didn’t want to deal with real life. So my concern is that we have very privileged college students setting the agenda of what we talk about and what we read about. A “hey, this has rape, its ok if you need to step out” was common educational practice before trigger warnings, and if that’s all that was happening from the movement to include trigger warnings, I’d be on board. But that’s not just what has happened, it has actually shaped syllabuses around the country and my feeling is that the minute books get banned, you become a fascist.

Since most of human history has involved rape, murder, genocide, and war, most literature and history would need a trigger warning. Can you study history and avoid trauma? Should the only people studying history be those without trauma? Should we be making that choice for other people? Who determines that? Who has the power to dictate what we read? Why do college students have that much control over the syllabuses of professors? Should they? It strikes me as a profound level of entitlement and privilege to assume that its ok to demand the right to shape the syllabuses of professors. My working class, PTSD having ass would never have assumed I had that right, so I’m trying to figure out how oppressed these college kids are if on the one hand they wanted nothing to do with my attempts to advocate for more mental health services for the poor, and on the other they are demanding (and succeeding in these demands) that professors exclude readings based on the personal preferences of the students in the classroom.

Since I taught real history, obviously my students encountered content that was challenging and probably deeply reminiscent of real oppression for most of them, on a regular basis. My students with anxiety and PTSD had never had such a sympathetic home. I created a space where we could address these feelings in a safe, academic environment that was full of love. When we talked about the victims of Japanese sexual violence, I, of course said to my students,

“This video will be difficult for some, and by that I mean at least 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted before the age of 18, which means this will be personal to several people, myself included, in the room. If you need to walk out, that’s ok. I ask the rest of you to respect this conversation.”

But this has been common educational practice for some time, so what UChicago and other university professors who are worried about the trigger warning situation is something else. It would be different if the trigger warning discussion hadn’t resulted in texts being removed or in the media being banned from public protests. Those are the tools of fascists. And here’s what I’ve learned about fascism, no matter how sympathetic the fascist is to my group of people, people like me do not survive fascist regimes.

Because we “make people uncomfortable.”

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Teaching Kids Who Have Trauma

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First and foremost, I think it’s important to remember that kids can’t learn under stress, so creating, a calm, safe, warm environment is the most important thing to focus on. What that looks like to you will mean something different, but it helps if the space is calm and you are calm. And if you aren’t calm, that you explain to the child that it’s not their fault because they will pick up on whatever energy is out there.

Trauma can make it difficult to focus, so often it is helpful to provide warm redirects and to understand that children facing trauma will often have shorter attention spans and will need patience and more breaks. Set more realistic goals for attention, get a baseline read by finding out the amount of time it takes for them to get overwhelmed and then work five minutes back from there. So if they freak out after 15 minutes, you know that they need a break at ten and slowly and gently work your way up. Breaks look different for every kid but the little ones benefit from physical movement, which can be walking or dancing. The older ones benefit from being able to stop sensory overload. I highly recommend music breaks or walk breaks.

It helps if you vocalize things for the kids. So in my case, I used to flinch if people touched me, someone broke me of it by noticing I was doing it and saying, “hey, you flinch when you are being touched, why is that” and then I could be both conscious and aware that my trauma wasn’t normal, this is especially important for victims of early childhood trauma and kids who went through years of trauma like I did.

I had a pass in my room where I allowed kids to step out at any time if they needed to gather themselves. It was used, very rarely, but it made the kids who needed it feel safer because they knew they had the option and they knew I was aware and they weren’t going to get in trouble for their trauma.

Some kids benefit from having a peer age buddy they sit next to or can call on if they need them. I gave my students input on the environment so they felt more in control of the situation.

Trauma can make kids feel uncontrolled frustration and anger and most of the time this is what leads to kids acting out. I’m a big believer in giving kids things like stress balls or stuffed animals (if they are little), this can give them a physical way to deal with their emotions and it’s something they get to be in control of. I also allow doodling as long as it doesn’t get in the way of work, I doodle myself and also often make comics or basically provide running commentary that are definitely not notes that I used to get in trouble for but it kept me from getting frustrated or blurting things out. In fact, I’ve used this for non-traumatized kids too.

If something happens and a kid starts to become defiant, DO NOT escalate by yelling at them in public. Ever. Ask them to take a break outside and go talk to them. Yelling will automatically trigger a negative response. Don’t take it personally, don’t assume they are just being a jerk or trying to engage in a power struggle. Be the adult in the situation and calmly tell them to take a break and then go talk to them. Kicking kids out of class and to the principal’s office ought to be reserved for students who are a direct physical danger to others, otherwise you are just sending the message that these kids are “bad” and unwanted and unlovable. Kids who have this self image will act out when a teacher loves them and likes them, because they will want you to confirm their image of themselves. That’s the worst thing you can do, instead you should break them down over time by loving them everyday no matter what they did the day before. Give your students a clean slate everyday. Are they likely to disappoint you by misbehaving on a given day? Yes, but in the long run, their behavior will change over time. And besides, you are the adult here, their job isn’t to please you or to make life easy for you, your job is to teach and love them. Be the adult.

And the most important thing I can say is to remember that if a kid is acting out, he’s not being an asshole. There’s a reason for it. The best way to diffuse a freak out is to say, “hey, this isn’t like you. Is something going on? How can I help?”

And finally, it might seem obvious but I rarely see teachers do it, develop a rapport with students and open up a line of communication and ask them what they need to be successful. Giving them agency is critical and it sends all the right messages to them about their power and rights after being robbed of that. Some kids might not immediately turn into the compliant happy kids you want, some will take all year and some will take decades but if you are consistent, loving, kind and professional, you can take solace in knowing that they will remember that you provided the counter narrative and a model for what a good adult looks like.