Trigger warnings

This post is inspired by Trigger Warning the latest short story collection from Neil Gaiman.

I haven’t read it all yet, I’ve only got as far as the introduction and the first three stories and that’s all it took to remind me how much I enjoy his writing and the influence he has had on me.

As some of you may have already seen from earlier posts, his stories and way with language have stayed with me and shape how I view the world and how I handle my grief.

His collection was inspired by the much maligned phrase ‘trigger warning’. This isn’t a post that will go into the particular politics of the term. It’s more about my own personal triggers.

In the very first few paragraphs Neil Gaiman captures the essence of what it means to be triggered and in doing so makes it clear that we all have our own personal triggers:

“…images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much dark and less welcoming.


And what we learn about ourselves in those moments where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead.  There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corridors of our lives.  We think we have moved on, put them out of our mind, left them to dessicate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong.  They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practising their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches to the gut, killing time until we came back that way”

Neil Gaiman – Trigger Warning

Critics of trigger warnings say that life doesn’t come with a trigger warning. To a certain extent that is true but it’s not a bad thing to think about the questions we ask and how we phrase them so we can at least minimise the potential for unleashing hell on the unsuspecting.

Some of the most innocuous small talk questions can strike me dumb on a bad day. The answer to the seemingly bland ‘how many kids do you have?’ will vary depending on where I am and who asks.  Other times it may just be a thoughtless comment reducing something important to a punchline.

This Christmas I felt unaccountably sad hearing a cheery “bye boys and girls!” to my children.  At the time it reminded me that our twin sons were not there with their brother and sisters. That’s on me and at any other time it would have been fine.

On that particular day though the trap door opened and I stumbled back into that dark place.

It’s not just grief though, triggers can be buttons and our closest friends and family can be expert at pushing them.

At reminding you that no matter how old you are, how resigned you are to your past and committed to putting it all behind you, all it takes is one word or even the smallest gesture to pull you through time back to the older days.

An unnoticed slip nursed into a hard edged grievance to be deployed when you least expect it. A simple catch up that morphs into an unexpected and unwanted performance appraisal.

Once pushed these are triggers that can either launch a furious (but always internal, these are things not to be voiced aloud) response or, as buttons, take time to slowly reset but still always primed to be pushed again no matter how many layers of protection are imagined.

Some of the worst triggers are when others seek to appropriate the most personal of losses. When your tragedy is flourished to generate sympathy not for the bereaved and the lost but for their own attempts to get attention.

It may be the crass use of tragedy to whine and beg for trinkets that inadvertently snaps the chain restraining the snarling, lumbering rage within me.

It could also be well intentioned but rage inducing attempts to assign supernatural agency to the boys’ stillbirth as a misguided attempt to reassure me (but in reality such attempts are about them, not me.  It is not my faith they seek to reconcile) that the harrowing events were for a reason or part of a chosen deity’s plan.

It’s not just about angry.  It’s the sadness of seeing twin boys or even a twin buggy.  Hearing a particular song or melody associated with the funeral.  Even an unrelated song or a riff at the right wrong moment can be enough to trigger a tsunami of grief that leaves me stunned.  Perfectly fine images of open mouthed babies with their eyes closed send a chill through me and an instant mental slideshow of photos of eyes that never got to open.

The question then is how to manage these triggers.  Knowing about them is a start to being able to attempt to manage exposure to them but what can we do when those triggers are pulled and buttons pushed?  How do we climb out of the dark places?  How can we persuade the demons that practice their punches to pull them, just once and give us the chance to recover before the next flurry of blows?

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Triggers are so hard. Unfortunately only 6 months in, I have no good answers to any of your questions. Triggers hit me frequently and unexpectedly, after which I feel pretty beat down for at least a couple hours.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Anxious Dragon says:

    My personal triggers are related to domestic abuse rather than the loss of a child, so I couldnt and wouldnt claim that the experiences are the same, but I personally have found that time does help (yes that old chestnut). All manner of things still trigger memories and feeelings (fear) but as the years have gone by (five years since the marriage/abuse ended) the intensity and duration of these responses are far less. It no longer cripples me, although it is still highly unpleasant.
    I can only wish for you that in time your triggers will evoke smaller responses xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShoeboxofM says:

      Thank you for your honesty. I’m sorry to hear that you have suffered.

      I have been careful in my posts to avoid specifics outside of bereavement but I have the smallest hint of where you are coming from.

      The nature of triggers is highly dependent on context and some days I could weather them without blinking whereas other times something very simple will crush me.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I will balance this with something more pleasant. Promise.

      *pinky swear*

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Anxious Dragon says:

        I will hold you to that now 😀 Xx

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ShoeboxofM says:

        Under the Pinky Swear Act of 2003 such a promise is legally binding and punishable by paper cut.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Tina says:

    Well I now know what book to get next on my kindle. I was actually looking at it a week or so ago, but wasn’t sure if it was a good read for me right now. I have been burying myself in sci fi and humor the last few months, but I have always been a fan of Neil Gaiman. It has only been 3months since we lost our precious firstborn and it doesn’t take much to trigger me. For weeks I was practicing trigger avoidance as much as possible, but lately I have been challenging myself to face them head on, with some uncomfortable and sometimes surprising results. xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShoeboxofM says:

      Thank you for commenting. I’m so sorry for the loss of your daughter.

      After just 3 months you must be incredibly raw mixed with shock and I’m impressed with your blog. It took me four years to be able to blog.

      It’s good you are challenging your triggers. It’s almost like trying to innoculate against the daily pains of the little things that spark memories.

      I’ve really enjoyed Trigger Warning. There are some wonderfully creepy stories but some beautiful and funny ones too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ourrachblogs says:

    This is so powerful and so well written. #stayclassy

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mrs Tubbs says:

    Oh, something to add to the wish list!

    Although none of my bad experiences equates to yours, I think everyone has gone through stuff that they try to keep safely locked away in a cupboard that can fall out at any moment due to a misplaced comment, random song or the sun looking at you funny.

    I always find it helps to remind myself that the universe isn’t out to get me, this sh*t just happens, and expecting it not too is an unreasonable expectation that will only lead to disappointment. The other thing I remind myself is that people don’t set out to be deliberately unkind, they’re usually just thoughtless or forgetful … Apart from that, I’ve got nothing apart from always have tissues and Rescue remedy about your person and remember that tomorrow is another day!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Beginning my journey 16 years ago was hard. I was just a kid I had no clue about anything I was dealing with. I went the way of anger and building walls. I finally realized that seeing anything baby was not my trigger but path of hopes broken was my trigger. Thinking too much and not knowing how to handle the emotions that flowed. Today I find my heart weeps easier for everybody, my soul yearns to help anyone in any type of pain because I am a fixer. Because of my journey I have become more than I was and less of who I was heading to be. Sometimes my triggers help remind me to be who I have become and embrace it, not hide or run away because sometimes that pain makes me understand those who have no clue they are in pain also. Another great read! #StayClassy

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah yes triggers can be as simple as “how are you today?” This has happened to me many times in the past but also just after the birth of my son. It can be so hard to get back out of that dark place once you are in it. But to the contrary simple things as just my son smiling at me can pull me right back out. Beautifully written and thank you for sharing with #StayClassy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShoeboxofM says:

      It’s one of the weird social conventions that we don’t expect or want an honest answer to how are you!

      I’m glad you have found what brings you out of the darkness. It’s a rare and beautiful thing.


  8. We all have triggers and ive yet to find all of mine. when i say i feel anxious my mums says right stop sit and think back to the last point when you didn’t. hard but ill get there. thanks for linking to #stayclassy

    Liked by 1 person

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