Sunday, April 22, 2012

Zombies Come With Trigger Warnings

Note: This is a warning. Sometimes I need to write about certain topics, such as the suicide of a loved one and post-traumatic stress. Not everyone needs to read about them. 

On the Web site, a lot of the comments beneath a post come with a "trigger warning." The term comes up often on stories about rape. The site is targeted at women and it makes sense, I guess, that the site's audience is sensitive to the issue of violent assault or eating disorders or post-traumatic stress. Sometimes there are comments criticizing the author for failing to provide a "trigger warning" at the top of the post. (Jezebel doesn't use trigger warnings.)

I actually don't have an opinion one way or the other about the use of these "warnings" (though, apparently, it's the topic of some debate). Frankly, I do not expect others to be responsible for what might or might not upset me. I'm a big girl.

I often wonder if people, knowing what their triggers are, ever stop reading the story once they see the warning. Or do they take a deep breath and wade into the danger zone. Maybe they do this knowing they might get knocked down by a wave, but they take the chance because they also might find an answer to a question they can't stop asking.
This song should come with a trigger warning. 
There are no such warnings on stories about suicide.

I don't suppose that it would really matter. A "trigger warning" would not stop me from reading. I usually jump right into those stories, even knowing that the comments below probably will set me off. That I will see the word "selfish" typed out a hundred times. That I will grow tense and my hands will tremble with anger when I read this phrase: "I would never do that to my children."

I can easily spot the people who have never actually experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide. They are the ones who don't know what they're talking about. They are the ones who demonstrate a marked ignorance about depression or addiction or the reality that what could happen to you in your lifetime has nothing to do with your self-perceived superiority.

I have to stop myself from diving into the comment thread and ranting about how I'd like to banish that particular phrase, the one that tells children of suicides that they do not have their mother or father with them because their parent just didn't love them enough to bother staying alive. That it's too bad they didn't have these perfect parents who would never do anything to hurt their families, these know-it-all jackholes who are probably screwing people other than their spouses and shoving their fat faces with artery-clogging crap and drinking and smoking and driving too fast and feeling smug about how selfless they are.

See? That's what happens. I start muttering my new favorite phrase from the book I'm reading right now. "Everyone is a motherfucker. Everyone."

So, yeah, maybe a warning would be helpful.

But probably not.

In truth, I am prepared for all that when I see a story about suicide. I know what lies ahead.

Recently, Todd said that he thought my ability to watch The Walking Dead (and my enthusiasm in discussing the zombie apocalypse) was a sign that I was getting better. Because we all know there's only one way to kill a zombie.

And he could be right. I should confess, though, that I do watch certain parts of the show with my hands over my eyes. I have my guard up. I'm ready. I know how zombies must die.

There are no trigger warnings on movies that include suicide because that would be a spoiler. There are no trigger warnings on movies in which someone is killed with a shotgun. Again, that would be a spoiler.

Spoilers ahead...

When Jacob and I went to see Inception a couple of years ago, neither of us could have known that Leonardo DiCaprio's character would witness his wife's suicide. The worst part was that I could feel Jacob glancing over at me repeatedly. I could feel his worry, thick in the air of the darkened movie theater. I think I can accept a lot of the bull shit that happens in this world, but I can not accept that my 14-year-old had to worry about his mother's response to a movie scene. He should only have had to sit there and watch his favorite actor. He should have had to do nothing more than try to figure out what in the holy hell was happening in whichever dream within a dream we were currently lost.

Several months ago, when Todd and I went to see Drive, the movie starring Ryan Gosling as a stunt car driver, I was prepared for the typical action movie violence. I was not prepared for Christina Hendricks' head to get blown off with a shotgun. I was not prepared to think about all the things I knew that the other moviegoers might not. Like how it would smell. (Unfortunately, Todd has to know this particular thing, too.) I had to leave the movie theater. I had to pace back and forth in the hall for a few minutes.

That has happened before, this need to immediately stand up and walk back and forth with no destination. It is the perfect example of the impotence of the fight-or-flight response when the threat that requires fleeing or fighting is in your past and not your present.

But even these situations are not completely unexpected. I watch the trailers. I know there will be guns and violence.

It's the truly unexpected places that really get me.

This is why I can watch The Walking Dead, but I can no longer watch Cougar Town. It seems insane, doesn't it, that a silly sitcom could be bothersome, but it is. One of their favorite comedic moves is the suicide gesture, the I'm-so-bored-and/or-you're-so-stupid-I-could-die move. I'd gotten used to that.

When the new (and, I suspect, the last) season started recently, one of the episodes included a storyline about how one of the couples poses for photographs depicting the wife killing the husband with various and violent methods. The photographs were gruesome. I failed to see the humor. I didn't even try.

Not long after, my mom mentioned to me that she had stopped watching the show because of that episode. "I kept thinking about you and I decided not to watch it anymore."

It was obviously more difficult in the beginning, after Charles first died. For months, my guard was up constantly. You don't actually realize this is the case until you reach a magical moment when your guard is down, when your body is not tense and ready for danger like some soldier on night duty. Suddenly, you recognize the state you have been in. You see just how much effort you have been exerting to protect your broken brain.

I imagine this is only a tiny fraction of what actual soldiers must feel when they come home from war. When, restless and tense, they must pace back and forth through quiet and ordinary days.

One day I watched an episode of Mad Men in which one of the secretaries riding a lawn mower ran over a man's foot. Blood splattered up onto the shocked faces of those standing nearby.

The scene was played for laughs. It is often cited as one of the show's funnier moments.

I burst into tears and cried painfully for several minutes.

That was the fall of 2009 and it was the first time I realized that it wasn't just shotguns going off or suicides that could get me. It was blood splatter.

Hell, eventually I realized it's not just blood splatter. I hate that Ocean Spray commercial where the young, dumb guy turns on the blender with the lid off and cranberry flies everywhere. How ridiculous is that?

One day not very long ago, I was putting away groceries and I dropped a jar of spaghetti sauce. The glass shattered and red sauce spread across the white tile floor between the refrigerator and the door leading to the garage.

I knelt down and I cleaned it with paper towels and I thought about how stupid it all is and I remembered.

"You can remember..." That is what he said to me before he did it.

Then I went to my bedroom and shut the door and I cried while things that should have been in the freezer defrosted in puddles on the kitchen counter.

In an attempt to protect myself, I feel like I am constantly trying to prepare myself for something that has already happened, something for which no one could possibly ever be prepared. I worry because I am not prepared for the next bad thing, whatever it might be.

Lately, I have had to face the knowledge that I thought I would be a lot better by now. That life would be a lot better, i.e. easier. That I was owed easier and the universe has failed to deliver.

There must be a room along the brain's twisting pathways and the sign on the door reads "Department of Naive Optimism." This room is where the brain employs all the drooling morons, holding oversized rainbow suckers and helium-filled balloons, and wearing tiny red beanie hats with yellow propellers on top. I think all the workers in that department look like that dumb kid with the flat top haircut and the striped shirt from The Far Side.

It is these drooling fools who trick you into thinking something impossible will be easy.

When my mom told me about her Cougar Town boycott, I told her about the "trigger warnings" that I often see on those stories about rape. How I need that warning on these stupid comedy shows in case I have my guard down.

I said, "Trigger warning. Ha! The perfect term.

"Even the warning is a trigger."

I think that, despite my zombie fangirl status and my eagerness to discuss how the apocalypse will go down, I would never actually be on the front lines, holding a gun (much less shooting one) and protecting my brain.

I would probably follow the advice of my spirit animal, Tina Fey.


  1. Trigger warning: Don't go see "Cabin in the Woods." I was talked into it last night, shortly after reading your blog, and there was one of those unexpected icky moments mentioned above. A WEIRD-ASS MOVIE, incidentally (all caps necessary).
    Also, that Tina quote above is my new favorite thing.

    1. Thanks. I generally try to avoid horror movies, mostly because I don't like to be grossed out. My son saw that movie with some friends and, like you, said it was WEIRD.
      I'll avoid it.

      Tina is a genius.


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