On TV Shows and Trigger Warnings

Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

Warning: Contains spoilers

I'm in line at Midway Airport, waiting to go through security. It's already a less-than-ideal situation - I'm late, my bag is heavy, I'm hungry. The woman next to me is talking loudly. It's impossible for me not to hear her say, "It's annoying! He's just so OCD sometimes!" I bristle. I think, "OCD is not an adjective." I think, "I'm lucky that I haven't had to deal with mine in a long time."

That woman might have cursed me, because I spent the New Year ringing in a fresh set of intrusive images, a major component of the OCD experience that is excluded from the average person's understanding of the disorder. My mind gets stuck sometimes, cycling the same thoughts over and over. I lie in bed forcing myself to push images out of my mind, fighting what feels like myself but is just my diagnosis. On December 30, 2015, I started season 3 of House of Cards. The Netflix Original series follows  Frank Underwood, an incredibly corrupt House majority whip who connives and manipulates his way to becoming President of the United States. Perhaps he eventually becomes king of the planet later in the series. I don't know, because I couldn't make it past the first episode of season 3.

Douglas Stamper is Frank's right hand man. He does the dirty work that leads to Frank's success — bribing Congressmen, killing prostitutes who know too much, and more. In the first episode of season 3, he wakes up in a coma. The cinematography is excellent, but harrowing. He can't move. He's scared. All he wants to do is go back to work for Frank, who is directly responsible for the terrible injuries he's been hospitalized for. When he recovers, Frank doesn't want him, that’s when  my empathy kicked in. He had thrown his life away for this man, and without him to work under he has nothing to live for. He relapses on alcohol, after abstaining from drinking for 14 years.

For four days, I saw Douglas Stamper's bruised face in my head sporadically every hour of the day. Dancing at a club on New Years, working, laying in bed to go to sleep. I stopped watching TV before bed because I couldn't handle it. The minor keys in the Mad Men theme scared me. Bob's Burgers scared me. I was afraid, and it felt like I was afraid of myself.

I believe in trigger warnings, but I had never expected them to become so widespread. My first experience with the word "trigger" being used in that context was in a mental health treatment center in Wisconsin when I was sixteen. Thinking I was very, incredibly punk, I wore my favorite shirt — black, with an image of a cat with a machine implanted into its’ brain. It said, “CONFLICT: THE UNGOVERNABLE FORCE” and below the image, “TO A NATION OF ANIMAL LOVERS.”  I didn't know that one of the patients on my ward's OCD was oriented around the death of her kitten growing up. When she asked me to not wear the shirt around her, I listened. We were all very sad in there, each with unique but similar struggles, and I wanted the other patients to feel safe. I wanted them to have the best chances of recovery, so I wanted them to be comfortable. We all helped each other. If someone turned Law and Order SVU on the TV, I could say it triggered me and the channel would be changed without argument. When another patient who had an intense fear of germs and bodily fluids needed to do exposure therapy, an element of treatment that involved exposing yourself to your fears in a safe environment, her behavior specialist asked me to take a TB test so she could watch. I held her hand after when she shuddered.

Trigger warnings meant recovery, they meant compassion and safety and community. I never expected to encounter them in a place outside the hospital. When they suddenly appeared in popular culture outside of a hospital context, I was surprised, but excited. It made me feel like the world was becoming a more compassionate place. Maybe it was naive, but I never expected people to dislike them. But then again, I had never been neurotypical.

A trigger warning could never have prepared me for the way that House of Cards scared me, but there are many instances where  a trigger warning has helped me in the past. When I left the hospital, regular life took a lot of getting used to. I got nervous going to the mall because there were so many people around me. All I wanted was for the world to be more like Rogers Memorial. When trigger warnings started showing up on social media years later, I had adjusted to real life and didn't feel that I needed them. At the end of the day, trigger warnings are focused on cultivating empathy. — you can never know what someone else is experiencing. There is nothing wrong with being kind and considerate. No one should fault another for taking the time to warn someone, to say, "Hey, I don't know your experience, but if it includes this specific thing, you might not want to read/watch/listen to this."