I’m a strange case, without a doubt. I’m sensitive to visual stimuli. For example, during a tour of old slums in Edinburgh, we saw a flickery candlelit room with fake bodies in burlap bags to portray the results of the black plague. I fainted. I was eleven years old. For months afterward, I slept with the lights on, wondering what had happened and what was wrong with me.
Yes, now that I’m older, I’m medicated. I’m on antidepressants and they help me. But I still maintain a phobic relationship with images that are gory in nature. I overreact, and I am crazy. There’s no question about those things for me now. But it wasn’t something I could control. I was just trying to keep my mind, and I was only eleven, twelve, thirteen years old. I was shameful of my fears, of my abnormal reactions to things that didn’t seem to bother other students at all.
I had many experiences in succession through my adolescence—watching documentaries and fictional films about massacres caused a deep disturbance in me that I did not recognize in my fellow classmates. While they watched on, indifferent, sad, scornful, I stared at my notebook, my head reeling. Reeling is the perfect word to describe the state—the fear sent my head freewheeling, rearing back, in defense yet defenseless.
I learned that for the sake of my sanity it was better to keep my eyes down on the desk, but I still heard everything in class. I couldn’t stop my imagination though. I should have left the room. But there was something about getting up and walking out that felt wrong. On a few occasions, I doodled in the back of the classroom while mutilation flickered on the screen at the front. I wasn’t bored—I was trying to focus on something else so I wouldn’t be deeply disturbed.
Once, it clicked with me that if I respected myself at all I would tell the teacher that I couldn’t watch. So I waited until after class, built up some courage, and asked her.
“I’ve seen how graphic movies can affect students through my own son. I remember him coming home after some things that had just made him so sad. Some kids are devastated. Emotionally overwrought” she said. These were the emotions she could see. They were certainly valid. But they were not mine.
“I’m hearing a lot about sadness,” I said. “But did you ever see fear?” She looked me in the eyes for a few moments.
I once told a friend. “You’re overreacting.” he said. He told me to quit diagnosing myself from the internet and just try to forget about it. His dismissive response further instilled in me a sense of shame. If what I had wasn’t a real disease, then it was nothing. But this “nothing” ruled big parts of my life. I had strange rituals to get myself to sleep. I avoided all reminders of subjects related to what had disturbed me. This turned me off of homework for months for history and English classes. It shut me down to learning. This “nothing” was something I couldn’t talk about, because I was either overreacting, or really, really crazy.
I have seen and felt the stigma against “crazy” carried out at school through my entire education. At school, our minds are very valuable, perhaps the most valuable thing students are considered to have. When something’s amiss up there, it’s not hard to see why a school would be intolerant, even if it wasn’t conscious of it.
“Trigger warnings” is an idea that has been thrown around in the academic world since I’ve been a part of it. Many higher education institutions are starting to develop policies around triggers, mandating that a warning must be given before showing or discussing anything in class that could aggravate a student. There are blanket trigger warning rules for topics like rape, other sorts of violence, and racism.
There is pushback against trigger warnings that demonstrates just how little academic faculty “get it.” They have asserted that trigger warnings threaten their freedom to teach what they think is important, and what they think the nature of an education should be. Teachers think they need to make students feel uncomfortable, that delving deep into difficult topics is central to a modern education.
Well yeah, duh. We should be learning about racism, sexualized violence, and other kinds of violence. It’s important to show the younger generation how much that kind of stuff sucks to ensure that fewer of them perpetrate it in the future. But when I’m having a panic attack in the back of a classroom because I saw some mutilated horrible thing, I’m not uncomfortable. I’m having a real, legitimate, reaction associated with a real, legitimate mental disorder that doesn’t fall into the realm of normal human behavior but is incredibly common nonetheless.
I don’t suggest we have a blanket rule to warn students before discussing paperclips, just because one person might be disturbed. That would be impractical. But triggers are often very specific and unique to a student, and don’t necessarily always “make sense.”
They’re still valid though.
I want to learn about difficult topics in human history. I just want to circumnavigate very, very, small, specific visual teaching materials. I think I can learn about human injustice fairly thoroughly without having to look at dead mutilated things.
My vivid imagination is enough, thanks.