During a dermatologist visit last week, a nurse left me alone in the examining room once she’d completed updating my chart. I fidgeted with my phone for a second before slipping off the table to study the nurse’s notes: I was a “well-nourished adult female” with “mild acne.” True enough. I left with topical gel and a barking desire to skip lunch.
In a recent “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead surveys the newly-borne debate about trigger warnings in the classroom. At college campuses from California to Ohio, students are responding to material—often literature or film—with anxiety over the potential some material may have to upset or trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Students should be prepared, is the gist of the complaints at Rutgers and other such schools, for what they may encounter in a text; and perhaps they should. The writers and educators who spoke in Entropy’s roundtable series, On Trigger Warnings, raised questions about the role trigger warnings play in privilege, generation, disability, and creativity. In the third part of the conversation, Andrea Lawlor writes about the criminalization of people with HIV in Canada and state control of bodies, noting “I see people living with trauma as having much more in common with—and common cause with—people living with other chronic conditions, like HIV.” Maybe this is where I hop in because an eating disorder, in my experience, is a chronic condition, a self-inflicted trauma.
I won’t mince words. I write as someone who has lived longer with an eating disorder than without one. As a child of the World Wide Web, caught between the anarchy of Generation X and sanitized millennials, I’m whisked back to the year 2000 by the conversation about trigger warnings. Not Y2K, the threat of which my favorite uncle responded to by purchasing gas masks and bottled water enough to sustain his family of four, but the potholed Internet terrain that I frequented as an anorexic adolescent, unchaperoned and often late at night.
In 1998 I was diagnosed with an eating disorder that, in one guise or another, I still possess today. Part of the narrative I’ve crafted for myself is that my disorder was a choice—no psychologist, psychiatrist, dietician, physician, or behaviorist has yet convinced me otherwise. Now I live with this truth: one might decide not to take the bounded road, but instead veer off and forge a way to survive. In 2000 I simply knew I wanted to be sick.
Sick meant thin, and Internet surfers in 2000 had many ways to gorge on skinniness. As a fifteen year old, I vacillated between two types of websites: pro-recovery and pro-anorexia.
For readers who haven’t skated around this terrain, pro-recovery websites focus on healing. The pro-recovery sites of fifteen years ago were steeped in a sort of hands-in-the-air-ness: this is what we have and now let’s cope—we must get better to survive. Little has changed. Message boards and chat lists allowed eating disorder sufferers—like myself—to connect with one another, so long as triggering material was kept out of the posting: no weights, no measurements, no calories consumed or burned.
Pro-ana, or pro-anorexia, websites, on the other hand, stocked nothing but triggers. Trigger books, often little more than pictures pasted into an album, catalogued the bodies, axioms, and figures (i.e., circumferences of supermodels’ thighs) that triggered one to starve. Pro-ana sites garnered the reputation (as Kelsey Osgood writes in her memoir How To Disappear Completely) for attracting wannabes: healthy girls hungry for a quick diet fix, the people I overhead in real life whining about wanting to be anorexic.
It was navigating pro-recovery and pro-ana websites that I put language to my desire to open old—or not so old—wounds; triggers allowed me to instantly reanimate my past like shining a light behind a photographic negative. Triggers allowed me to re-access complicated emotions, painful and otherwise. More often than not, I wanted to be triggered. I sought material that would be triggering.
Perspective and choice are acknowledgments that are missing from many recent discussions about trigger warnings in the classroom. Trigger warnings focus on a variety of PTSD situations and potential traumas, the gravity of which I’m by no means discounting. But as someone who once watched the 2000 Adam Sandler film Big Daddy (yes, that Big Daddy) to soak in her longing for stasis and stability (“Why can’t things go back to the way they used to be” Sandler’s character bemoans), as a writer and an educator, I can never know how the material I encounter or present will strike me or another person. Big Daddy triggered me. In 2000, the shroudedness of pro-recovery sites was a trigger I wanted sometimes as much—or more—than the blunt index of thigh gaps and rib pics on pro-ana sites. Last week, “well-nourished” triggered me.
Trigger warnings might then be woefully inadequate and futzily normative. On The Nation’s Web site, Jessica Valenti suggests as much: “There is no trigger warning for living your life,” she writes. As education comes more and more to resemble a grand, labyrinthine buffet, shouldn’t the vegan items be labeled accordingly wherever possible? On any given day when I was fifteen—hell, on any given day now, at twenty-nine—I may have wanted to avoid triggers…or to be triggered. Surely cautions on classroom texts will afford others this—the privilege to choose, when possible, how one wants to use or receive material. Still, I balk at the notion that trigger warnings will help all students prevent unwittingly harmful encounters; individuals who want to be triggered will use these warnings to easily assemble ammo. And this isn’t a problem, in my estimation.
What we think might obviously trigger may not trigger, and, of course the end result of being triggered is not always bad. At the time in my life when I watched and rewatched Big Daddy, I was not eating—or I was purging anything I ingested. I was prescribed medication to regulate depression and anxiety. When I felt overwhelmed with the discrepancy between what I saw in the mirror and what I imagined in my mind, I snipped at my stomach with cuticle scissors. Yet, while viewing Big Daddy, triggered as I was, I experienced a temporary comfort; I listened to my emotions again and again, like a weird, somber B-side to the movie. I was afraid of change, I realized while watching on the little white television set in my bedroom. I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, about to leave home and contend with my own struggles at college, where I believed, I would be on my own. By triggering myself, though, I was able to become mindful of what I was feeling.
I was not, however, triggered by what one might expect to be triggering to a young woman with an eating disorder: Leslie Mann’s thinness. I was not triggered by scenes where food (breakfast cereal) is defiled. What I fear, then, about the current trigger warning conversation is that it might veer into glib categorizing of normal and aberrant behavior: this should trigger someone who’s survived _______, that shouldn’t. Adam Sandler’s movies may routinely take the cheapest shots at those situations that Oberlin instructors were originally encouraged to be sensitive to—“racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression”—but few would think them capable of unearthing painful emotional memories.
The national discussion about mental health—especially the one that amplifies with each mass shooting—would benefit from a more expansive rather than prescriptive view: we need to move beyond diagnoses, stop hunting for the same standard symptoms. There is not a one-size-fits-all way to protect—or experience the world. We must acknowledge that in America most of us who are lobbying for or against academic trigger warnings have the privilege to decide on a daily basis what we want to feel. END