I struggle with trigger-induced panic. Often, it is easiest to say I suffer from PTSD, though I haven’t been formally diagnosed and do not want to diminish the experiences of others who may have it worse than I do. I know I used to feel helpless when others threw around the word “depressed” as if one could become such by the mere awful occurrence of a bad grade. “Oh my god I got a C- I am depressed.” I promise my use of the label PTSD is not so cavalier.
You see, it is true I fit the rubric. Exposure to trauma: check. Subjective re-experiencing of the trauma … hmm, one aspect of it, quite a lot. Newfound hyper-vigilance: definitely. Duration of symptoms for more than 1 month: you betcha. Significant impairment: well, is not going home with the pretty girl significant impairment? Being afraid to be barefoot? Flinching violently when I am touched?
Living life through this lens of panic has changed me. I avoid the strangest things, yet so gracefully, habitually, that I go weeks without noticing. My triggers also, over the years, have spread over more and more stimuli like a sinister net. When I am my most terrified, I imagine the cobwebs of fear will spread until I am forced to be completely immobile, lest I stir my spider of panic.
Ferguson and “Shirtgate” and finishing writing my book (which delves a lot into my panic) (oh yeah by the way I finished writing that) got me wondering if living in oppression is not unlike living with PTSD. Seemingly small infractions, micro-aggressions, seem to illicit a “disproportionate” response. That is, people who don’t know what it’s like to live with triggers and oppression do not understand such reactions. A guy tells me “bitches are crazy,” and instead of feeling mildly annoyed, I feel really sad. A guy asks if he can “watch” me have sex with my girlfriend, and instead of being bored with something I’ve heard before, I feel like my party is ruined.
Granted, this “disproportionate” response tends to only happen when I have a false sense of security, and am startled back into the realization that sexism is, like, prevalent. I’m not going to be as frequently shocked or upset at sports-bro-dive-bars because I’m inured to their stench. When I think I’m having a grand ol’ time busting gender/sexuality norms at a groovy kickback and someone blindsides me with one of these things, then, yes, it shakes me a little. Or a lot.
Sometimes, also, the things that really get me are ones that I know others do not see. I feel helpless because OH LOOK AROUND THIS IS EVERYWHERE… but I know I’ll be hard-pressed to convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced that the way that guy talked to me was totally indicative of a major sociological problem and not, as my opponent might put it, “just being friendly.”
Yet, to the person with triggers, there is a landslide of connections to cause such panic. Someone runs their hands over my hands in the wrong way, and that connects to one event, which connects to another event, which connects to all of the events ever that have made me feel the monolithic spider’s legs closing around me, her venom dripping on my forehead, and I am reduced to a scared, fight-wild and flight-wild animal. “Reduced to?” More like detonated.
I know the people without triggers don’t exactly understand. I know this, because the most aware, most well-intentioned, most loving people in my life still require multiple reminders to steer around the land-mines embedded in my skin and in my psyche. They seriously don’t want to hurt me, want to do the opposite of hurt me, but because they lack my vigilance, my daily lived experience, they can’t help but tread on my toes sometimes. (Ouch, foot metaphor hurts for multiple reasons.)
The difference between this PTSD thing, and suffering caused by oppression, is the locus of responsibility. People close to me and who know about my ish ought to be considerate, but healing is pretty much on me. This is my own private monster. The onus of easing the pain of and eradicating oppression, however, belongs to everyone.
Besides that, though, the requests for support I make of intimate friends (for my PTSD) and those with privilege are very similar. 1. If you don’t understand, stop and listen and be receptive to my perspective / the perspective of the oppressed. 2. If you mess up, be willing to try better in the future. 3. Be mindful of the difficulty faced, and how its systematic nature means it can affect every aspect of (my) life. 4. Do not feel guilty per se, but do feel like you have the responsibility to be respectful. 5. Do your own research. Answering questions can sometimes be fatiguing for me / the oppressed, and I / we don’t know everything.
At the end of the day, if you knew something seemingly-small that you keep doing really hurt someone, would you still want to do it?