Why I Use Trigger Warnings

You’ll notice that in my last review, which you can read here, I made a point to lay out trigger warnings. In the short stories I used to post on this blog (but no longer do because they were for an adult audience, and I am a young adult/new adult writer), I also made sure to preface them with trigger warnings. Now I’m about to explain why.

For those who don’t know or haven’t been around this blog for awhile, I have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve been around the block with other mental health issues, too. Throughout the years, I’ve run up against generalized anxiety disorder, depression, self-harming behaviors, eating disorders, agoraphobia, touch aversion, and insomnia. These are the things that (in my mind), make my C-PTSD not “complex” as much as it is “complicated.”

For those who do know me, they’ll be the first to tell you I am also someone who does not like the way “trigger” is thrown around these days.

Trigger has a specific medical definition. A trigger is a stimulus such a smell, sound, or sight that triggers feelings of trauma. This is why it is most closely related (or used to be) to PTSD. A trigger is not something that makes you feel upset. A trigger is not something that makes you feel uncomfortable. A trigger is not something that makes you grimace and wish you hadn’t read/seen/heard/touched that thing. A trigger is not the predecessor to a mildly uncomfortable feeling.

A trigger is something to be avoided at all costs. A trigger causes anxiety, panic, flashback, nausea, fainting, vomiting, sweating, nightmares, shakes, and tremors. A trigger is, in short, the recipe for a very, very bad time.

A trigger is hearing a mother scream at her children, then having your mind go blank and your eyes glaze over before finding yourself, hours later, with your hands clasped over your ears rocking back and forth in the empty bathtub, all your clothes on, mumbling incoherent protests against a phantom from the past.

A trigger is a boy who looks like that boy brushing up against your arm on the bus, and your mind stealing you away to years before, when it wasn’t just a brush against your arm, and you weren’t on a bus, then only coming out of the fog of memory when a kindly black bus driver kneels in front of you and tells you as gently as her contralto can, that this is the last stop, and is there somewhere you’d like to go?

I rarely use the word trigger. Words have power and when I say the word “trigger” I want it to mean something.

Because it does.

It does not mean uncomfortable or upsetting. Literature is supposed to be uncomfortable and upsetting. It is supposed to make you feel. If literature makes you uncomfortable or upset, it is doing its job. There were a lot of things I listened to in Educated that made me uncomfortable and upset. There are a lot of things I read in books I will five star review in the future that made me uncomfortable and upset. None of them have been triggering to me.

But that last bit is the most important part of this whole thing: to me. I am thirty years old. I have been in and out of therapy seriously since I was nineteen. At this point, I know what most of my triggers are (although sometimes one will sneak up on me). I’ve been able to beat some of them back into the realm where they’re no longer triggers but are just experiences that make me uncomfortable. I’ve had that opportunity, to seek and destroy the things that make life hard to live.

Others haven’t. Not only because some may still be young (this is a blog that is supposed to be teen friendly, for goodness sake), but also because others might not have had the privilege I have had. I know what it’s like to choose between therapy and food. I’ve been there, in my younger days when mental health coverage was worse than it is now and I was poor. Food will win. Every time. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to make that choice anymore. Others aren’t so privileged. And I recognize that. They haven’t had the time or the means to seek and destroy. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

So I write trigger warnings. Not to devalue the word, far from it. I write trigger warnings because I know how powerful words can be. And I would never, ever want to intentionally shove someone before an altar of their own demons and make them pay.

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As always, take care of yourselves.

❤ Aimee

Let’s Talk: Touch Aversion

Trigger Warning: Discussion of touch aversion/trauma responses.

Anyone who’s been around here for any length of time might remember I’ve mentioned I have touch aversion. If you know me in real life, this is even more apparent due to the fact that I sometimes wear gloves. What isn’t obvious is what touch aversion is and how it affects me.

It recently occurred to me that my touch aversion is something I regularly talk about but never really explain, as if everyone should obviously know what that means. A few days ago, I was having a conversation about relationships with one of my closest friends when I realized she had no idea what the deal with my aversion to touch was about, probably because I’d never explained it, and she felt like it was rude to ask me.

So here we are.

Before we get started, there are some things you should consider while reading this post. First, my touch aversion is a consequence of trauma. Touch aversion is also discussed in the autistic and asexual communities. I’m not a member of those communities, so to hear about touch aversion from their perspective, seek them out. Their experiences are different. Here’s an article about touch aversion from the ace perspective to get you started. Second, as is always the case with marginalized groups, we are not a monolith. My experience may not mirror the experiences of others, even those who have touch aversion stemming from trauma. I’m only one voice.

Furthermore, I don’t expect people to know about my touch aversion, which is why we’re having this conversation. I encourage questions. Not everyone feels the same, though, so respect these boundaries if/when they’re voiced. Mental illness is still extremely stigmatized and some don’t feel (and aren’t) safe discussing their deeply personal experiences. That said, I don’t mind (anymore). It doesn’t make me uncomfortable. If hearing someone talk about these experiences makes you uncomfortable, I encourage you to sit with that and examine why. It likely has to do with some stigma you’ve placed on mental illness that you might want to evaluate further.

Final prefacing note: I have consciously purged this post of the word “suffer”. It’s a loaded word. When I use it, I use it with a great sense of awareness and because I would say it’s an accurate word for my personal experience, but I know it can be painful, so I’ve removed it. Words are powerful.

Okay, this is long, so here we go.

Touch Aversion: An FAQ

Q: What is it?

In its most basic form, touch aversion is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not liking to be touched. When I use it to explain my personal experience, I mean: “Not liking to be touched by other people.” Touch aversion can extend to other living creatures and inanimate objects as well, but for me, it’s mainly people (although when my touch aversion was at its worst, I also had difficulty touching animals, including my own pets).

Touch aversion exists on a spectrum. Some people find human contact to be uncomfortable, others find it debilitating. Some people are okay with hugs but not kissing. It’s all variable and as such, is difficult to nail down. I was going to link to a medical definition, but to be honest, those definitions are all kind of gross to me, using words like “irrational” and “morbid” so I’ll just stick to “not liking to be touched.”

Q: What’s okay and what’s not?

Again, it varies for everyone. For me, I prefer not to make skin-to-skin contact with people (especially strangers). That’s why I’ll often choose to wear gloves when I’m in public. The layer of fabric acts as a shield. If I’m in a situation where I feel relatively safe, I’ll keep them off. If I don’t wear gloves around you, it means I trust you to respect my boundaries.

My stress level can usually be predicted by some common factors: the intimacy of the contact; its duration; my familiarity with the person; and the power dynamics between myself and the person touching me. If someone briefly bumps my exposed skin, I’ll sense it, maybe freeze or falter, but I’ll be able to brush it off quickly. Handshakes I can manage, though I’d prefer to be wearing gloves. Hugs are not my favorite, but I can usually get through them as long as they’re not prolonged, whereas rubbing my back or shoulders (even through clothing) makes me panic. More intimate forms of contact like kissing, cuddling, sex, etc. make me nauseous, skittish, dizzy, and eventually lead to either a full-fledged panic attack or emotional shutdown.

Q: What does it feel like?

It depends. If I’m in a situation where my anxiety is relatively low, the person touching me is someone I trust, and the interaction is short, I’m mostly fine. I notice it, mind you, with acute sensitivity. I consciously register it, whereas someone else might not even think twice, but I can usually move on with relative ease. The flip side is, if I’m in a situation where my anxiety is high and/or with someone I don’t trust and/or am faced with an extended interaction, my anxiety can escalate to dramatic consequence. I might freeze, shake, be unable to breathe, throw up, and in the most extreme cases, pass out. Very, very rarely and exclusively in situations with male romantic partners, I’ll strike. For me, those situations hurt the most. I’m incredibly nonviolent, so when someone pushes me to violence by ignoring my boundaries, it’s soul crushing. The only times this has happened, the end of the relationship followed shortly thereafter.

As to what it feels like in a sensory way, it doesn’t hurt in a traditional sense. It feels almost like an extreme case of caffeine jitters. It’s like an army of ants is crawling just beneath my skin. I want to reach down to my muscles and push them away but can’t. It feels like if there were some way for me to rip my skin open and let all that excess anxiety out, I would feel better. Often, my muscles will twitch and spasm, sometimes lock up and cramp. It’s not pleasant.

Q: Is it worse with certain people?

Yes. I’m much more anxious with men than women, and I have essentially no issue being touched by children. This is definitely tied to power dynamics for me. If you have more power than me (I’m talking mostly physical power, remember, my touch aversion is tied to trauma), then I’m more likely to be on edge.

Trust and choice have big roles to play as well. If it’s someone I trust who gives me the choice to engage (this is where non-physical power comes in), then my level of tolerance for touch tends to be higher.

Q: How does it shape your life?

It’s… hard. Friendships can be hard. Relationships are even harder. Fear of being touched keeps me from public spaces with regularity. For example, before this weekend, I hadn’t been to the grocery store in 6 weeks. People coming near me can throw my entire day into a spiral. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. I’m worn out all the time from existing on edge. My muscles are constantly knotted so I live with chronic back pain; I’ve ground my teeth to shit. Because I use clothing as a shield, I wear sweaters and long pants in the summer which can make me sick. I’m prone to fevers and nausea. I throw up so frequently my esophagus never heals, and I vomit blood. And the unhealthy coping mechanisms I’ve tried would take another ten blog posts to unpack.

I walk through life conflicted. Part of me has this deep desire to scream, “I’m not broken, don’t try to fix me.” Side note: If that’s how you feel, that’s incredible and amazing and you are fantastic the way you are. Be you. Whoever you is. If you’re happy, be happy. You don’t owe anyone your touch. You don’t owe society or your therapist or your partner or your friends or your family. It is your body. I cannot say this enough. Because I’m going to talk about change here in the next paragraphs, and I want everyone reading this who might experience touch aversion to understand I am not saying you have to change. If you are happy, be happy. You deserve that. And if you do want to change, dig deep to discern why. Do you want to change because you feel like you have to so you can conform or please someone? Or do you want to change for yourself? That seems like a simple thing, but it’s really, really not. And please, if you’re considering working on this issue, find the right therapist and the right therapy. This is so, so sensitive, and doing damage is so, so easy.

For me, the part of me that wants to say I’m not broken is not a brave voice, proudly declaring, “I’m different, and I am unafraid.” That voice telling me I don’t need to be fixed is the coward within, who is deathly afraid of change. That voice is the voice who says, “This is how I am and there’s nothing to be done about it, so let’s just keep going regardless of whether or not we’re miserable, regardless of whether or not we’re doing actual physical and emotional damage.”

Because the truth is, I am miserable. I hate being unable to be touched. It’s a burden. I want to be touched so desperately it hurts. I want to be able to shake hands with someone without flinching, and to have someone jostle my shoulder like a pal without grinding my teeth into nothing, and be able to stand in a checkout line without every muscle in my body tensed, ready to spring away should someone happen to brush up against me. I want to be able to kiss someone without having to turn off my entire emotional experience. I want to be held when I cry. I want so many things most people take for granted, and I can’t have them. And I can’t have them because someone did this to me. I don’t want these things because society tells me I should (though certainly there’s some of that at play), and I wasn’t born this way. This was done to me.

So yes, I’m miserable, and yes, I want to change, and yes, I consciously embrace the language “broken.” I am broken, but I’m not beaten. I’m working to fix myself for myself. Every day I’m working, and I’m getting better. Not better so I can meet some definition my therapists and psychiatrists want to place on me. Not better so I can fit in with the rest of society. Not better so I can please a future partner. I’m getting better for me. I’m defining “better” in a way that’s right for me. And that’s why changing is right for me. I’m not changing to conform, or to “pass”, or to be more pleasing to the rest of the world, I’m changing because I want to.  For me. For my happiness. I’m taking back what was stolen from me.

Have questions? Put them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. And as always, please take care of yourselves.

❤ Aimee

P.s. With regard to touch aversion in literature, Leigh Bardugo’s Kaz in Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom comes as close to representing me and my experience with touch aversion as I’ve ever read. This is representation of a marginalized group done right.

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A Room of My Own

Author’s note: This post was written on October 21, 2016 before the website was launched. I hesitated to post it because it’s deeply personal, but I decided when I launched this book that I would be transparent with my readers and hopefully give some encouragement for those who are currently struggling.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind. ~ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Today, I sit down to put the final touches on my debut novel The Wheel Mages before I send it to the copy editor. It’s a time of great joy for me. I spent the first hour of my day dancing to Sia in my living room with my German shepherd, Gabi, chasing me, loving this grand game. But as the adrenaline that comes with ending the task you’ve been focused on for so many months wore off, I became reflective.

I’ve been thinking about Virginia Woolf a lot this morning. I remember reading A Room of One’s Own for the first time in a high school English class. Virginia Woolf spoke to me in a way no classic author had before. Through the practicality of her message I felt a deep romanticism of writing—one I shared and it made it feel like she was truly speaking to me in the most personal way.

When I was in college studying creative writing, my dorm room was covered in quotes from my favorite authors—Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Christina Rossetti, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Dante. But affixed above my head was a quote from Woolf:

“Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.”

I didn’t know it then but that quote would take on a new life for me many  years later.

You see, The Wheel Mages originated in a dark place.

In late January of this year, I self-committed to a behavioral health facility for suicidal ideation. I’d been having the thoughts for a long time but for whatever reason, that night, the dam broke and I knew I had to make a change or I wouldn’t survive.

Behavioral health facilities do not allow patients to have pens or pencils in their rooms, and the use of them is closely monitored in common areas. At first, this situation didn’t bother me. I hadn’t written anything of substance in years and it never occurred to me that might be something I’d want to do. Thoughts of what I wanted had fled not long after I graduated college.

But after a few days, my mind started to clear. Long hidden desires and dreams resurfaced. Through the fog of the medication, I saw the outline of what could be. It was like looking at a shadow at high noon—impossible and fuzzy but somehow still there.

During my years-long battle with mental illness and addiction (two dirty words, I know), I lost so much. Relationships with men and friends and family, my health, my spirit, my sanity. One after one, pieces of my life tumbled down around me like boulders falling down a mountainside. I watched them fall in silence because I felt I had no choice. No matter how hard I loved or fought or lied, the boulders fell. Eventually, I gave up trying to stop them.

For a long while, I lived like that—in stasis, in a cocoon of my own making. I existed, nothing more.

I think the thing people often don’t realize about mental illness and addiction is that while all the visible losses the person suffering sustains are indeed terrible, the greatest loss is unseen. It is often one of the first stones to fall but it isn’t a boulder—it’s a tiny, insignificant looking pebble that starts the slide. It is the voice of the sufferer.

By the time I found myself behind four layers of locked doors, lying on a plastic bed with a sheet that barely covered my body, my voice had long since fallen and it had taken my desire to write with it.

The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace.

There had been no peace in my life, no freedom. I bore my problems like heavy chains and sat in a pit of self-loathing while my mind made a meal of itself, strangling me from the inside out.

In that facility, with all its horrors and interruptions, a place Virginia Woolf certainly never meant to be the room of one’s own she envisioned for female novelists, I began to find some freedom.

For the first time in years, my time was my own. I had no responsibility to anyone except myself. It was a violent baptism of sorts. I had been stripped bare of all my defenses and distractions, forced to confront myself in the harshest of lights.

Alena took shape in the back of my mind. In many ways, she’s a reflection of who I wanted to be at that time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the first image the reader gets of her is of her standing tall, biting back her fears. That’s how I saw her and how I wanted to see myself.

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.

As the days in that place trickled by, the story spun outward. There would be a man who loved her and another to challenge her. She would stumble, as we all do. She would fail, as I had, but she would push forward.

My fingers started to itch in a way they hadn’t in a long time. Energy I thought I’d lost resurfaced. My voice started to whisper to me, a wellspring of hope, and I no longer felt alone.

When I was released, the first place I went was a bookstore. Among the familiar scent of fresh pages, new life blossomed. I caressed the titles of works I knew, breathing them in. I remembered college and the quotes on my wall, now stored in a box in my parents’ attic. I remembered how much I’d loved Milton and how ardently I’d argued with my professors over morality in Chekhov.

I remembered, too, how I’d been taught to write fiction but had always been drawn to fantasy. I remembered the shame I’d felt and the judgment I’d borne because I had such promising talent but I wanted to waste it on genre fiction.

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.

I thought about writing the story of my ten-day stay in a mental hospital or about the events leading up to it but I couldn’t. If I were to find my way back to myself it would be in fantasy. It would be my path—no one else’s.

I bought all of Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series and read them in two days. I ransacked my old room at my parents’ house, loading my car with books. My apartment, which had always been bare of books (looking back, I can’t help but shake my head, how deep was my despair that my world was bare of books?) was now full of them. Every flat surface held a title—Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, J.K. Rowling, Cassandra Clare—the novels of my genre touched spines with the classics of my training. I brought forth Durkheim’s work on the Elementary Forms of Religious Life and dove back into the dark writings of Nietzsche. I pulled out notebooks full of research on Eastern European history that has always fascinated me and read my old journals that even then were dripping with the deep darkness that would overwhelm me in time.

When my mind was full and saturated with art, I sat down with my legal pad and let the words bleed onto the page. The Wheel Mages was born.

Now, nearing the end of this journey and the beginning of a new one, I can’t help but look back and see how far I’ve come. For the first time in my life, I’m proud and unafraid to say so. As I sit here, settling into my desk chair with the cover page of a completed manuscript staring back at me and a light breeze drifting through my window, I feel the greatest sense of peace I have ever known.

I finally have a room of my own.