Friday, 21 February 2014

An honest, too honest, post about being triggered

Before I start this post, I’ll check we all know what we mean by being triggered. It is when something unexpected happens that reminds you of something painful or violent, and it causes a painful reaction in you. Some of the common triggers in feminist writing are discussions of sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. It’s why we put trigger warnings above blogposts that tackle these subjects. It helps to create a safe space for women (and men). 

I am not a victim or survivor of any of the above beyond a couple of incidents of ‘non-severe sexual assault’ and so although I often read articles about violence against women and girls and feel a sense of pain, horror and outrage at the violence committed against women as a class, it doesn’t ‘trigger’ me on the level of a personal experience. 

However I have been a victim and survivor over the years of men abusing me online. And it was this that gave me, the other day, my first experience of being ‘triggered’ in the way I describe it above. 

So, how did this happen? 

A friend of mine tweeted a line-up for a conference and, being nosey and searching for ways to distract me from work, I had a look to see what it was about. The conference had an interesting title, and I wanted to know more.  

One of the speakers shared a name – let’s call him John Smith – with a man who, for a while, persistently left patronising, and then aggressive, and then abusive comments on my blog and, a while later, on my Twitter feed (I blocked him on Twitter pretty swiftly).

Seeing that name, John Smith, made me feel dizzy. I had felt the same when his name turned up in my Twitter @ mentions, after I thought he had decided to leave me alone. I felt sick, and like I wanted to cry. I felt that heaviness in my stomach and that tightness in my chest. I felt angry that he would be speaking at a conference, and then reassured myself that it probably wasn’t the same John Smith. Even so, I couldn’t still the questions in my mind. What if it was same John Smith? What if this conference was giving a platform to a man I knew had written horrible things and had truly upsetting views on women? How could I know for sure? How could I know for sure that he wasn’t the same man, and that he wouldn't be greeted with applause, when all the time he had written these things. My heart was racing and when my colleague tried to ask me something I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. 

And then I felt embarrassed. I felt embarrassed to be triggered by an experience of online abuse. After all, I told myself, it’s just online. I have no cause to feel triggered by this, when so many of my sisters all over the world have survived such awful violence. I felt guilty for reacting so seriously. And then I felt ashamed, like I was some kind of coward. And then I felt furious that a name, a name of some unpleasant man who has since disappeared from my online life, could leave me feeling so shitty, so long after it all happened. 

I’ve had worse abuse than the words he dished out to me. In lots of ways, he wasn’t that bad – he didn’t threaten me, for example (it’s so ridiculous that I think it wasn’t as bad because it wasn’t a rape threat but hey, that’s the world of being a woman online). Regular readers will know I went to the police over worse abuse. I think my main upset was caused by the fact that this was the first time it had happened when someone kept coming back for more. While it was happening it felt so persistent. It was the first time I felt that someone was targeting my blog, was watching for everything I wrote, and was using what I wrote as a reason to intimidate me. His words had a pattern, as they went from merely patronising, to aggressive, to outright abusive. 

Why am I writing this post? Partly because of the confusion of emotions I felt after seeing that name – the confusion of horror, upset, guilt, shame and anger. I still feel guilty even writing this. I feel I have no right to these feelings over something that seems so trivial. I feel like I have to keep pointing that out. I have to apologise for being over-sensitive, I have to apologise that something so relatively small on the scale of violence against women had an affect on me. 

And I wanted to write this because I also want to say something about the impact online abuse can have on you. It doesn’t disappear when you delete the comment, or hit the block button on Twitter. There’s some feeling that remains, after you know someone has targeted you with such rage and hate. There’s a feeling that remains. 

But I think most of all I wanted to write this because I don’t want this to happen again. I don’t want some stranger with a common name to have the power to make me feel that shaken. I don’t want him to have that kind of power over me. 

I hope that I won’t allow him to have that power over me again. I am determined he won’t have that power over me again. 

It’s just a name. He was just a nasty coward. He has no right. He has no power to upset me. 

This post is very honest, and as such it’s not that well written. But I needed to write it. 

1 comment:

em said...

I agree, that was an important post. Not just as catharsis — valuable though that can be — but also because this kind of experience isn't as unusual as any right-thinking person would want it to be.

For the reasons you gave — guilt, fear of 'making a fuss', ambivalence about feelings that are 'irrational' or 'hysterical' or otherwise contradict our self-understanding as a holistic, active subject — there is a silence around how people (especially women) actually react to aggression and harassment. There's still an expectation that a strong and able person will have an infinitely thick skin and the ability to rationalise anything. But there is no correlation. Abuse is designed to frighten, destabilise and harm, and there is absolutely no shame in (and nothing irrational about) experiencing it as fear, anxiety and pain.

You are blessed with the eloquence, the insight, and the determination to get your thoughts and feelings down in print, so that others may see bits of their experience in yours. Thus it hurts me to see you comparing your experience of harassment so negatively with other women's — the similarities are at least as important as the differences. And I feel a jab of pain when you describe your experience of sexual assault as "non-serious", because what is the opposite of serious?

But let me assure you, this is the pain of recognition: seeing my own reactions in yours, that reflexive tic of turning the blame inward. You are right to try to prevent it from happening again. But if by chance it does, your reaction will not be any more shameful, nor John Smith's behaviour any less.