Orlando, Trigger Warnings, and Respect

Trigger warning: In the following article, there is a brief mention of suicide and discussion of guns and mass shootings, specifically the Orlando shooting from this past summer. There is also a brief discussion of anxiety and anxiety attacks. Please keep this in mind as you continue reading.

 

I can’t say I truly understood the necessity for trigger warnings until I started to need them.

When I was in the twelfth grade, I got very angry about the lack of trigger warnings in my AP Literature class. We watched a movie in which a character committed suicide with no warning from my teacher. I think this is careless enough with the prevalence of teen suicide. I also found it especially significant because, when I was a freshman, a sophomore with whom I went to elementary school with took her own life. I didn’t know her, but one of my friends had. I got so angry at the possibility that someone in the class could have been cornered by their emotions because they were not properly prepared.

Fast forward four years to June 12, 2016. I woke up on Sunday morning with two things on my mind: I was excited to watch the Tony’s with my mom for her birthday, and I wondered if Christina Grimmie had survived the night. I saw the news about Orlando, and I figured it was about the man who had shot her while she was signing autographs after her concert. I was wrong. It was two waves of bad news within 10 minutes of waking up: Christina Grimmie had died, and there had been a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing dozens of people on its Latin Night. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed.

It was a difficult day. I was out of sorts all day, trying to process all that had happened and how it could affect me. Kenyon feels like a very safe space. It is a privilege—a comforting, kind, obvious privilege to me who has always been so open and loving and supportive as much as I can be. But it is a privilege all the same, and Orlando was a stark reminder of how unsafe it is to be queer in this country.

 

 

I am privileged as a white, cis, feminine presenting woman who can pass as straight in our binary society. But I am a queer woman, and I did not feel safe. I was in my own home, far away from the scene of this crime, but the message reverberated around the world. Even though many barriers have been broken down, the United States, and the world in general, are still very homophobic places. It only proves that passing same-sex marriage was not and is not enough to make our society kinder and more accepting.

So, when the Orlando shooting occurred, I was shaken to my core. With all of the recent Title IX conversations at Kenyon as well, I realized how scary it is to be a woman (and a queer woman, at that). Kenyon feels like a safe place to be queer, and I am lucky to be surrounded by incredibly supportive friends and family. But even Kenyon is not perfect or immune to the diseases of hatred and intolerance.

All of this insight is coming months after the fact. The day of and the week of these events, I was a wreck. I was beyond angry. I spent most of Sunday picking fights, which I realized was dumb as soon as the heat of the moment had passed. I watched the Tony’s that night, dedicated to the victims of the Orlando shooting, and cried multiple times. It was a sensitive and emotional time, with responses of outrage and horror and calls to action.

 

 

I would like to say I was a part of that, but instead, the next day, I was driving seven hours north into California for a vacation with my friends, which we had been planning for months. We couldn’t have known that this tragedy would occur as we were about to separate from wifi in the wake of so much erupting online, but it did. I tried to stay connected, but reception was spotty at best so actual action was impossible. I hated sitting and doing nothing, but I was also afraid I didn’t have the strength to actually do anything. I was scared and confused by my own emotions, unsure how they might erupt.

But I am getting a bit ahead of myself. I am going to go on what seems like a tangent, but I promise it is all connected.

Rewind back to the spring semester: I had been encouraged to listen to Hamilton for months. I had heard of it on Facebook and from my friends on numerous occasions, always at times when I had far too much to than to just sit and listen to a new musical. I love musicals, but they are very distracting. Musical theater is not a genre I can casually listen to whilst doing homework. I get pulled into the narrative and want to look up videos from performances, and by then it’s been three hours.

I was also secretly worried I wouldn’t like it. I didn’t want to be that one person who disliked Hamilton, especially when those around me were so in love with it. I feel like when you don’t like something that most people love, there is this accusatory tone people take when you admit your dislike. They exclaim, “How can you not LOVE THIS AS MUCH AS I DO?” Not only does that make me feel like I don’t belong, it does not steer me to liking it more by making me feel bad for thinking differently than the (apparent) norm.

 

 

So I put it off. I knew I would listen to it eventually, but I wasn’t going out of my way to pursue it.

Driving up to Northern California with my girlfriend and another friend, we listened to Hamilton. I struggled to follow the complex storylines unraveling in song, and we started songs over so I could try to catch every word. I was intrigued, though not in love. Mostly I wanted to be able to listen and figure it out for myself, but I didn’t want to ask to turn it off and have to explain why.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t listened to the soundtrack, but Act II is quite dramatic. One set of scenes involves the death of a character by a gunshot wound, set up by two songs: “Blow Us All Away” and “Stay Alive (Reprise).” The scene is painful and heartbreaking on its own. Within the context of the feelings I have explained above, it hit me especially hard. I have anxiety and have the occasional anxiety attack, though not usually triggered by anything in particular.

This was different. The song built up to the inevitable standoff, and I lost it. I struggled to ask for the song to be changed before I was completely overwhelmed. I curled up in the passenger seat, sobbing and struggling to breathe. It felt like I was being crushed, attacked, torn apart by emotions. I was having an anxiety attack. My girlfriend immediately turned the song off, and my friend comforted me as best as she could. I couldn’t explain what had happened. I was just as confused by it as I was about the rest of my emotions.

I had watched the Tony’s with my mom, and I was fine. I sobbed over James Corden’s dedication to the victims in the Orlando. I admired Hamilton’s Tony performance, how well staged and beautifully complex the number was. I celebrated their success, and I knew they deserved the Tony’s they received.

 

 

But there was something about that moment, that state of mind with that song, that I cannot quite put my finger on. After that, I didn’t want to talk about Hamilton. It scared me to think about it. All I could remember was that moment in the car, and all the anxiety and fear would rush back to me and I would feel sick and like crying all at once. Hamilton became my trigger.

I have always been respectful of trigger warnings. I use them when I think it necessary, but my privilege of not needing them put an intangible divide between myself and so many of the triggers that recall issues I cannot and do not understand.

Now, on some level, I do. The theory is valid and important to understand, but it can be challenging to sympathize with the anxiety, the fear, and the general mix of emotions that come with triggers.

This is only complicated by the nature of my trigger. Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon. There is no day, no place, I can go without seeing or hearing about it. It was always there, and so was the fear. I didn’t know how to manage it. When it came up in conversation, I would deflect or ask to change the subject, usually a bit more aggressively that I would intend. All I knew is I was trying to protect myself, and I figured they would understand.

It was hard, and I didn’t really know how to communicate it. Plus, I was about to go to work where the environment was far smaller and more inescapable, and that the passion for Hamilton was more concentrated. At one point, my friend said “What are you going to do? Everyone loves it. How are you going to deal with it then?”

It was harsh and painful at the time. I wanted sympathy and a hug but was hearing the equivalent to a slap in the face. It was a reality check, though. Living in fear was ridiculous for me. This is something I knew I couldn’t escape, and I didn’t want to have a negative association with this thing for the rest of my life.

So I did what I could to acclimate myself. I would listen to parts of the soundtrack when I could. I’d listen to the whole thing through, alone in the safety of my room where I could feel what I needed to and where support was a phone call or text away.

It sounds difficult and like I was torturing myself, but it did help. It showed me I could listen to the musical—especially to the song that gave me such a visceral reaction the first time—and be okay. It is terrifying, but sometimes you need to confront the space in order to understand where the fear comes from. It also shows you your strength. You can confront it. You can overcome it, carefully and slowly. Now, I listen to Hamilton often and quote and joke about it with my friends without much thought.

 

 

I am lucky that it was mild enough that over time, the anxiety dissipated. For some, that is not the case. It’s why trigger warnings are so important. They help people stay safe and healthy, which is all we should wish for others. It’s about supporting someone’s sanity and well-being, which are so precious and sometimes fragile. If someone asks you to change the subject or turn something off, don’t ask questions and simply respect their wishes. You never know what the reasoning might be, and your support can mean everything. If you feel comfortable explaining later, it can be so beneficial and help them understand.

The bottom line is that trigger warnings show respect. This respect should be obvious, though it can be difficult to understand at times. I know it was hard for those I told to understand where I was coming from without an equally lengthy description. But if we could all listen a little longer and a little harder, trigger warnings and the people who need them could receive the respect they so need and deserve.

 

Image credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5