Captain America & The Need For Trigger Warnings

*Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen Captain America: Civil War yet, you may want to bookmark this post for later . . . some plot points discussed herein. 

No, that’s not the title of the next Captain America movie . . . I don’t think. And no, I’m not confusing Captain America for the controversial new X-Men billboard. But, thanks partially to this controversy, the subject of content and trigger warnings (CW and TW) have been on everyone’s lips of late.

What Are Trigger Warnings?

Trigger warnings are called for when discussing subjects that may negatively impact someone’s mental health. These usually encompass things like sexual assault, physical violence, in-depth descriptions of eating disordered behaviors & symptoms, etc. By placing a TW or CW at the beginning of a post, it allows people to make a choice: is today a day I can handle reading about this subject?

There are those on the other side of the argument, however, who worry that trigger warnings coddle people, allowing them to live in an unrealistic “safety bubble”.

If you’re wondering what the heck all this has to do with Captain America, well, allow me to explain:

The Cap’ Connection

Cap’s best friend Bucky was thought to have died in WWII. We learned in the last movie, however, that Bucky not only survived, but had been brainwashed into a super soldier by Hydra, a Nazi-adjacent group of villains.

Bucky begins to rehabilitate, and while he’s still having a hard time sorting out right from wrong, and which thoughts are “Bucky”, and which are “brainwash”, he’s doing alright. UNTIL . . . a man comes along who knows all the code words needed to trigger Bucky into full Hydra assassin mode again.

Lots and lots happens (it’s a long movie) and, in the end, Bucky decides to cryogenically freeze himself until the rest of the Marvel gang figures out how to deprogram him. This way, he’s no longer a danger, so long as he’s in sleep mode.

How It Relates

Anyone who’s dealt with a mental health issue, be it PTSD, eating disorders, or something else entirely, can tell you how difficult sorting “me” thoughts from “disordered” thoughts can be. It often feels like you’ve been brainwashed: you can understand the logic of what your treatment team is telling you, but the illogical thoughts associated with your mental illness have taken over. Some days the wellness thoughts are stronger, some days the illness thoughts are stronger. The closer you get to recovery, the more “well” days you have.

Like Bucky, however, a few poorly timed trigger words can quickly send you tumbling back into illness mode. When that happens, most people are more of a danger to themselves than others, but a danger they become, nonetheless.

Unlike Bucky, none of us has the benefit of cryogenic freezing. We can’t just shut down until such time as we are no longer triggered – it doesn’t work that way. We have to live in the world, and do the work of recovery with trigger words flying all around us.

This is where the trigger warnings come in. Early in my recovery from both my eating disorder and PTSD, I was triggered by EVERYTHING, so if I had the option of eliminating some of the bigger triggers, I took it. This allowed me to simply survive what I was going through.

As time went on, I did the work, and got stronger, I was able to handle the occasional trigger. For example, the first night after I left residential treatment, I went to see a notoriously anorexic ballerina perform. Because I was prepared and aware, I could take the necessary precautions to keep myself safe. Weeks later, however, unexpected triggers like diet talk among classmates could still turn a good day into a disordered one.

Nowadays, well into recovery, I still like having the trigger warning option. On days when I know my anxiety is a little more active, I can skip reading about things that will make it worse. Other days, when I know I’m rock solid, I can choose to be more informed.

Why It’s Not About ‘Coddling’

None of us knows how long healing will take. It could take months, but for most people it takes years. Not a single one of us gets to decide when someone else is ready to deal with triggers. Having the trigger warnings available empowers people to make the decision for themselves.

Trigger warnings aren’t an excuse for people to sit back on their haunches and have the world bend to their will. They simply provide a bit of a safety net for those struggling to hold on. When they’re out of immediate danger, people are more able to do the brave work of healing. Even if they’re not ready to do the work, your poking them with triggers isn’t going to motivate them, and will more likely put them in danger. If you wouldn’t throw rocks in the path of a blind person because “they have to learn to deal with obstacles in life!”, don’t be similarly cruel to those dealing with metaphorical obstacles.

It can be difficult for those of us who were raised in a less “PC” world to come to terms with this new way of doing things. I often hear, “We didn’t have trigger warnings in MY day. We had to just deal with it!” But for how many of us does “dealing with it” involve a bottle of wine before bed, a disordered relationship with food, or a host of other unresolved issues? The next generation is screaming out for a new way of doing things, and I think we owe them (and each other) a chance to not just survive the things that happen, but to thrive on the other side.

And hey, if you got this far and are STILL mad about trigger warnings, why haven’t you objected to my use of a ‘spoiler alert’ for the movie at the top of this post?


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