I reached the scene in ‘Spec Ops: The Line.’ The decision. Those of you who played the game will know what I’m talking about. For the rest of you, you make a choice in that game, a choice that turns you into someone who just drank a cocktail of medicine, Crisco, and the blood of orphans. There were kittens on a floor of spikes, and you just stepped on them to get to the fire escape at hallway’s end. Your gut solidifies, your veins freeze, and your fingers grip tight on the controller; no matter how solid you feel, any wind will knock you over. And you deserve it.
I didn’t see it until now, but now I get why some people claim this is one of the best games ever made.
I love it when a work of art instills negative emotions in me. ‘Spec Ops’ is just the latest to do it so well. Alien instilled fear of the dark and of Sigmund Freud in me, and Mockingjay (the book, not the movie) sent me into a funk that not even the funkiest of artists could get me out of. Hell, I love traversing through /r/shitredditsays and /r/tumblrinaction because it’s so fun to get angry, you guys. And you’d think it’d be the opposite. I talked about my depression before, you know how deep those experiences run. ‘Spec Ops: The Line” placed me on the edge of that emotional cliff, tied a rope to me, and kicked me off. Here’s the thing though: I know Spec Ops. He’s a good guy. Thoughtful, challenging, admittedly harboring a messed-up imagination. I’m not done playing with him, but I trust him to hold onto the rope while I bungee jump.
And that’s the reason I love art in general and fiction in particular- it’s an environment where I’m ok to feel things. For a guy who’s still emotionally repressed inside, this is a big thing. Of course you feel bad; that’s the point of the book. It’s not like when you’re at the Pride Parade and you’re standing on your toes to see the floats but your friend the navigator wants to leave because he got no sleep last night and feels overwhelmed so you go with him with your mind still on the parade you’re missing and he says he can’t wait ‘til the rest of your friends arrive and is that because he wants to go home or because he thinks you’re boring because you’ve decided that filling each available moment with talk was a strategy to curb anxiety in high school and now you want to stop. I’d rather watch or read that than participate in it. For one, there’s a level of distance between you and events on page. No one in A Song of Ice and Fire will rape you, not matter how George R.R. Martin describes those events. And if such plot twists sneak up on you, you can close the book, turn off the television, or put down the Viewfinder.
The second point I want to make reflects on the fruits of my therapy sessions. Resisting emotions cause more problems than acknowledging them. My therapist compares the depressed part in my body to a child locked away in a dark room, put there by an older brother hiding the child from an abusive parent. Refusing to acknowledge my anxiety and depression only makes it get louder, because it wants to be heard. Let it be heard. Say to yourself, “I feel (blank), and that’s ok.” You’re under no obligation to be happy all the time. Why would you want to be? Life has such a rich landscape of emotions, in more colors than our eyes allow, that we should experience as many as we can. Intense feelings are a sign of vitality. If you suffer from depression like me, you should celebrate the experience each emotion, even the ‘bad’ ones, give you. And for the mentally healthy in my audience: feelings make us human. Run with them, not away from them.
And here we’re served our dessert: making fun of Tumblr. Or, to be precise, trigger warnings.
Don’t fret, I have no problem with trigger warnings as a concept. You’ll notice that I danced like a secret agent to avoid spoiling the twist of a three-year-old game. If you can put a spoiler warning in front of your article, you can put a trigger warning there too. No, it’s the philosophy behind trigger warnings that bother me. Now take this with a grain of salt as white as my skin, because aside from one incident I’ll talk about later, I’ve never had to deal with sexual abuse. And that’s a definite no for PTSD or rape trauma or anything like that. Those aren’t the types of trigger warnings I’m talking about- I’m thinking more ‘homophobia’ and ‘ableist language’ and even fucking ‘swearing’ (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
‘Beyond Intractability’ suggests that trauma sufferers need a safe space in order to open up about what they confronted. I admit, trigger warnings can make the Internet a safe space. The website also points out that trauma will not go away unless confronted, and that an important part of healing requires you telling your traumatic event to other sufferers, people who will likely be triggered by a describing of said event. Exposure therapy is crucial to recovering from phobias, and yes, even trauma. The founder of trauma studies at King’s College in London drives home another important point: triggers come from everywhere. The triggering object or event doesn’t even have to make sense. I know “trigger warnings spoil surprises for everyone else,” is a lame argument, but art should be beyond a vague list of what’s contained in it. Then again, emotions are different to everyone. The Tumblr post I linked here has a link to Trypophobia, and I clicked on said link, read the title, and laughed loud and crisp. Trust me, it takes a lot to get me to laugh reading something. And then I thought, I’m quite the asshole, aren’t I (again, sorry not sorry). Maybe someone does have a fear of holes that breaks their sweat and their soul. They probably don’t drive on Chicago roads, though.
All right, confession time: if I ever would want a trigger warning, I’d like one that tells you when someone’s tongue will get stuck on something frozen. Looking at you, A Christmas Story and Dumb and Dumber. I get anxious around frozen metal in the wintertime, and try to wear face-covering material for that reason. I’ve never stuck my tongue on frozen metal, I never will stick my tongue on frozen metal, and yet my tongue will try to burrow it’s way up to the safety of my cranium whenever I do see frozen metal. But look; I’m not a trauma survivor. A Christmas Story and Dumb and Dumber remain good, enjoyable movies to me. And I do not need to be protected from or warned about events like them; it fact, tweet them at me! If I ever want my characters to be horrified, I’ll describe what I feel like when I walk by a lamppost this Groundhog Day.
A lot of people use triggers because they want to avoid the ‘bad feelings’ at all costs. I’d like to say this to them: you’re going to encounter these feelings again. Only the hand of God pushing a bus into you will prevent them. Why not prepare for such feelings in one of the safest environments you can find, in fiction? Emotions are neutral- it’s our reaction to the emotions that define our character and our experience. If you’ve experienced genuine, medically certified trauma, I can understand why you’d like trigger warnings (and you already have them in the form of PG-13 and R ratings). For the rest of you… well, I can’t tell you how to process or approach distasteful feelings. All I ask is for you to try. If you’re reading The Great Gatsby in class and hate the misogyny in it, don’t throw the book to the lions right away. Talk about it with your friends and your teacher. Discuss what you feel. And decide what to do with that reaction when you encounter real misogyny in real life.
I’d love for you all to send me some extremely depressing work, so I can better understand my depression states and learn to acknowledge them. And I’m still a work in progress- panic attacks and being overwhelmed aren’t easy feelings to accept. But I want to live in this world, not in a void where nothing exists so that physical objects in decay don’t remind me of my mortality. You can’t read much when you’re in a void anyways.