Sunflower Skins

July 27, 2015

Trauma Recovery vs. Trigger Warnings


Trigger Warnings & Resilience

Resilience is a huge part of my life, throughout trauma and after. As an abused child, I had to rely on myself to survive, and as an adult, I find Trigger Warnings uninformed and harmful. They do disservice (dare I say injustice?) to my own inner resources or to my therapeutic work, as it seems counterproductive to stress reduction and downright cruel to my sense of self to be rendered equally helpless each time I’m confronted by a trauma reminder. In the Real World—whether at home, at school, or at the mall—trauma reminders can be everywhere and in everything; they are common-place, even boring items that I own and must use because they are part of life. Though their threat levels vary emotionally, they do not compromise my immediate safety and need no “warnings.” Because resilience is contextual, I must prepare for vulnerable situations of all kinds but particularly for when I actually find myself in a traumatic situation, like distressful news, an accident, or a crisis. I could hide forever, but then I wouldn’t even trust myself. Therefore, it remains my responsibility to build my capacity skills and nurture my inner safe space.

Case One: Reacting to an object and situation in private directly to trauma: my bed and sleep. Feeling comfortable in my own apartment, even in my own skin, tests me daily. To prepare for one of the most basic aspects of life, I have established a lengthy bedtime routine so that I am relaxed and able to rest. Some of my tools involve stretching to calming music; looking at art; deep breathing; containment exercises; lucid dreaming exercises; watching online animal cameras (including live streams of rhinos, bears, and puppies); taking medication; and taking a few minutes to engage both my tactile and visual senses with my plants, soft plush toys, and light-reflecting objects like crystals, geodes, and tumbled stones.

Case Two: Reacting to an object in public indirectly related to trauma: a stranger wearing the same style clothing as my abuser. I was unnerved and confused the first time I saw someone in an identical jacket as my abuser, but I was also semi-prepared, as being out of my home should always bring with it primitive awareness. Fight, Flight, or Freeze kicked in and I had to address the severity of the threat; turns out, none, as the person walked past without noticing me whatsoever. Suddenly the idea of an inanimate object “hurting” me seemed ludicrous, for the threat was only ever from the person behind the object. Furthermore, the jacket was such a common style at the time—same cut, colour, men’s, women’s—that I still see it on adults in my city, and now consider it regular positive exposure therapy for a more directly vulnerable situations.

Case Three: Reacting to something in public emotionally directly related to trauma: overhearing an argument or encountering disturbing material in class. In other words, I am having flashbacks and dissociating. Therapy and self-discipline comes into play now. First I must ground myself by stating what date it is, what city I’m in, where I am, and who I’m with. Then I must work on breathing exercises while assessing the threat level, that physically I am safe but feeling emotionally exposed. Addressing these feelings and actively attempting to engage more with my environment rather than withdrawing often brings context and relief. Occasionally I learn something in hindsight from the experience, like that I can relate to other people’s problems too instead of feeling all alone, or that I can appreciate a song for being a good song within itself (Formalism, which I will address further below). However, it is still within my agency to remove myself from situation if other methods do not work.

Case Four: Reacting to a crisis: being contacted by or seeing my abuser. This is a much more direct threat and, because I have built up my resilience, I am able to remain present and not dissociate, to not have a panic attack, and to have some measure of independence and control. This is what it means to not be a victim anymore.

Do you want to know what really invalidates my experiences? It isn’t when a university lets someone who disagrees with me speak, or when I read something upsetting that I’m not expecting. My experiences of both trauma and post-traumatic growth are impeded and invalidated by inaccurate mental health application, by censoring voices, and by denying me rational coping mechanisms like critical thinking, threat assessment, conversation and debate, and post-traumatic growth. Micromanaging and assuming you know what’s best for other people feels less like empathy and more like fascism, as all possible growth becomes restricted and stagnant, if not regressive. Furthermore, being reminded of my traumas doesn’t have to be a disturbing or debilitating experience; art has a beautiful quality of moving and empowering the viewer by allowing individual access and assessment on a very intimate level. If already labelled somehow, the viewer engages with the material based not on content but within a biased context and false narrative chosen by others, which is, in a way, quite re-victimizing. Where are trigger warning advocates’ respect for those who have lived through trauma and have the right to feel their own emotions and decisions? Unfortunately, politically-incorrect comedy, overt sexuality in both women and men, and violence of all kinds are censored and demonized rather than regarded as positive coping mechanisms and therapies. I feel extreme comfort when encountering very direct references to my experiences in TV shows like South Park, The Simpsons, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files, or from writers like Kathy Acker, Robert Cormier, Alan Moore, and Virginia Woolf because I can learn things about myself and the world through the frame of the show or book and come to new understandings of my past. Particularly I find ways to laugh and release grotesque tension and fear, or as Thomas Gray and Samuel Beckett might say, “laughing wild amid severest woe.” Part of resilience is integrity, or “the capacity to affirm the value of life in the face of death, to be reconciled with the finite limits of one’s own life and the tragic limitations of the human condition, and to accept these realities without despair” (Judith Herman, M.D., Trauma and Recovery, 1992). With such integrity and awareness, trauma survivors can achieve integration, meaning less dissociation, fragmentation, fear, and instability—healthy progress, I’d say.

Likewise in academia, for the engaged rather than offended student: the material, the professor, the classroom, the time spent studying in the library—indeed all aspects of university life—become a positive way to explore “dangerous” ideas. I myself have had bad encounters with professors, but accusing them across entire faculties of being insensitive to their students’ emotional needs is lazy and narcissistic. If you’re paying attention, professors already do provide context and engaging strategies for difficult material: lectures, classroom discussions, office hours, and the expectation that students at least be open to different modes of learning; rightly so, for after all, for what reason are you at university? One of my favourite topics from class was Formalism, as in, studying and appreciating art in and of itself, objectively, without author or reader context; learning this method was a relief and a pleasure, and I consider W.B. Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” one of the greatest poems ever written, thanks to the controversial professor who taught it to me word by word. University is about dropping your guard and your former beliefs, even if just for a few moments; the degree should be symbolic of the work, knowledge, effort, and intellectual strife. Exploring different ideas and having your worldview challenged, especially for those who’ve experienced trauma, brings a catharsis social justice could never imagine.

Life is full of a lot more things than just sexual and physical assaults, and I would much rather be able to move freely than seek ways to constantly relive the worst parts of my life. I like that I’m responsible for my own safe spaces, which includes my apartment, my therapist’s office, and my inner resilience. Discovering personal coping mechanisms instead of relying on others to soften the world restores the control and self-worth I was denied as a child. I say this especially to young people struggling with trauma, identity, academics, or even just trying to understand everyday situations: would you rather find ways to be resilient in the face of trauma or find ways to be victimized by it? I will not encourage you to forego general self-care in lieu of a warning; if somebody once denied you the ability to make your own choices, as my parents once did to me, let us not deny ourselves such agency now. Take care of yourselves, as you—only you—have the ability to choose how to act and react in this world, and though it takes work, practice will bring some catharsis and personal empowerment.

November 17, 2011


Filed under: editorials — Tags: , , , , , — Sunflower Skins @ 5:42 pm

I am an Occupy Writer. I am writing this to ReOccupy.

A few weeks ago Sunflower Skins sent 100 Feed the Whales books to the People’s Library in Zuccotti Park, hoping to inspire and sustain hope for our fellow protestors of Occupy Wall Street. Our books were part of the collection that was destroyed by the NYPD via Bloomberg’s orders on November 15th. Those were your books too. Everyone’s. Barely a month after celebrating Banned Books Week and our freedom to read and access information, too. What a terrible, terrible shame.

But—do not lose hope. You cannot bear to lose sight of that beautiful vision of the future, one free of corporate corruption and endless greed. Please do not give up.

Resist despair.

I am writing this for myself too. I need to remember this every day when I read the news, when I see continuing police brutality and social injustice. Mass arrests on peaceful protestors. Pepper spray used on the elderly. Batons on the unarmed. I could go on, become distracted—disillusioned—even as I write this. But today is the Day of Direct Action and everywhere everyone has been called, including myself. I cannot physically be present at any of the occupations; how I wish—desperately wish—I could be in Foley Square at this moment. And so I must write this for myself, and for you—reader, story-teller, protestor, citizen: protect your books, honour your free expression, uphold the First Amendment and the Fundamental Freedoms, your democratic rights and constitution. The police state may try to squash it, but we continue to grow stronger, and if the 1% do not honour, as you do, your right to an equal, economically-just society, have heart yet; you can destroy a book, but you cannot destroy an idea, a movement, a revolution. Resist despair.

Please visit the People’s Library and Occupy Writers.

September 29, 2011

Banned Books Week & Kathy Acker’s BLOOD AND GUTS IN HIGH SCHOOL

September 24th – October 1st is Banned Books Week in the United States, celebrating our right to free speech while recognizing the problems of censorship that still prevail in communities all around the world. Just this past week the Missouri school that removed Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Sarah Ockler’s “Twenty Boy Summer” from its shelves has allowed the books back into their library—on a shelf closed to students without parental permission. As I have suggested elsewhere in my writing, restricting access to information, historical accounts, art, and ideas that may not necessarily agree with our own is not where we begin to cure problems of racism, sexual abuse, violence, and intolerance; that is simply more intolerance. Free speech requires responsibility, so let us enjoy our freedom and responsibly continue to create and share provocative, inquisitive books that perhaps take us out of our comfort zone and challenge our own ways of life. For more about Banned Books Week, visit the American Library Association’s statement about celebrating the freedom to read. Canada’s own Freedom to Read week is February 26 – March 3, 2012.

Taking part in the Virtual Read-Out, Sunflower Skins presents a selection from Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School:

[Though I didn’t do my best Acker imitation, which is, I’ll admit, pretty good, I donned my Kathy-in-her-undies Nymphomaniac tee. Thanks to Thom for patiently putting this together.]

 And now some of our favourite moments in ‘scandalous’ literature:

“Kidney of Bloom, pray for us

Flower of Bloom, pray for us

Mentor of Menton, pray for us

Canvasser for the Freeman, pray for us

Charitable Mason, pray for us

Wandering Soap, pray for us

Music without Words, pray for us

Reprover of the Citizen, pray for us

Friend of all Frillies, pray for us

Midwife Most Merciful, pray for us

Potato Preservative against Plague and Pestilence, pray for us.”

(Ulysses, James Joyce)

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore it up.

(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)

He kept standing there. He was exactly the kind of a guy that wouldn’t get out of your light when you asked him to. He’d do it, finally but it took him a lot longer if you asked him to. “What the hellya reading?” he said.

“Goddam book.”

He shoved my book back with his hand so that he could see the name of it. “Any good?” he said.

“This sentence I’m reading is terrific.”

(The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)

“It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether….”

            (Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad)

Finally Brother Leon looked down.

“Renault,” he said again, his voice like a whip.

“No. I’m not going to sell the chocolates.”

Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence.

(The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier)

That evening while the Stupids were watching television…

… everything went dark.

“I can’t see a thing,” said Mrs. Stupid.

“We must be dead,” said Mr. Stupid.

“Oh, wow!” said the two Stupid kids.

            (The Stupids Die, Harry Allard)

August 13, 2011

The Myth of Pornography: An Open Letter Regarding Statements Made by Megan Walker

Filed under: editorials, News — Tags: , , , , — Sunflower Skins @ 11:55 pm

Censorship of any kind concerns me, in particular when relied upon as a blanket argument: “Mainstream pornography sexualizes and normalizes incest, sexual violence against children, and the rape and torture of women” (Megan Walker, The Truth About Pornography).

I do not know Megan Walker, so please do not misunderstand this as a personal attack. I am writing this because, as an artist, her remarks of late worry me very much. By overstating the obvious (“pornography sexualizes… incest”) and using the same arguments against pornography as could be said for any middle-of-the-afternoon television commercial (“Although the women in these pornographic videos are indeed over the age of 18, they are presented in childlike ways: petite, with small breasts, childish expressions, and hair in braids or pony tails”), Walker suggests that all pornography is violence-related and only for men: “While pornography is often discussed as a women’s issue, it is largely about men. It is made primarily by men for men. Men profit from selling it to the men who masturbate to it. Pornography is, at its core, an issue for men.” I believe that Walker’s six-page array of sensational descriptions and accounts from “porn users” as a means to ban any type of pornography is the wrong message to send to our youth, to our artists, to visitors of London—and to all the women and men who live here. As a recent graduate trying to establish myself in the London community and getting to know my peers, my focus is on censorship because that is what affects my friends, my family, and me the most. I am saddened Walker’s recent anti-pornography calls amongst the community, as well as the recent ban of the Everything To Do With Sex Show at the Western Fair District; it is strangely disarming to discover how conservative a city this truly is, especially one that prides itself on being neighbours with arts-oriented Stratford.

Not all pornography is violent, perverted, paedophiliac, non-consensual, or in some way bad. That is the myth about pornography. True, there is that which crosses the line, whether legally, emotionally, physically, or morally (incest, pedophilia, non-consensual, trafficking), but what I really wish to stress is that pornography cannot all be described by, and therefore judged by, one set of standards. If we blanket-censor pornography and access to it, we will begin censoring a lot of sexually-related texts and works of art or media that aren’t actually pornographic. Censoring all pornography sends the message that sex is bad and that we shouldn’t discuss it in any safe, public situation, like in a demonstration or in a library.

There are many things throughout Walker’s letter that worry me—not just the suggested prohibition of “any directly or indirectly city funded boards, commissions and departments from leasing or renting space to any pornography industry sponsored events” or the recommended “immediate filter [of] all London Public Library computers against access to pornography;” not just these newly-proposed policies but the “facts,” statistics, and often far-fetched conclusions Walker uses to defend them. Briefly I want to mention some of the absurd points in her anti-porn statement:

Firstly Walker blatantly ignores the female sex workers who willingly participate in and even enjoy the violent aspects of sex and pornography; they aren’t all sexual deviants who were abused as children. In fact, there are probably many sex workers who would be quite offended by the idea that their work supports “rape-culture” and pedophilia; what they do is for consenting, legal adults, and whether their work is misconstrued and misused is not by their choice or in their control.

Secondly accusing the average healthy adult male who enjoys pornography of supporting rape culture is an awfully lot of guilt to assign to an individual who is, more often than not, far from the original source of said “rape culture”; aren’t these men becoming a little bit like victims themselves? I understand that Walker is trying to explain that not all sex is consensual and that a lot of women are taken advantage of by men, however I feel that she is taking advantage of men in general as a scapegoat for larger problems, specifically, as Jon Stewart says, the mass media’s “bias towards sensationalism and laziness” (Fox News Sunday). Mainstream pop culture uses scare tactics and phrases to overtly focus on deviancy in easy targets rather than actually attempting to build a better social structure though more effective means such as education.

Lastly, “In the world of pornography, women do not exist as human beings with a sense of privacy, boundaries or authentic desire. No part of the female body is off limits to male inspection, evaluation, use and abuse. In this world, women are f**k objects.” In other words, no woman could ever appreciate, enjoy, create, or support pornography. I and my friends prove otherwise. I view pornography—certain types, of course—as art, as do many of my fellow artists, academics, and, I believe, fellow Londoners. And even if it isn’t high art, I should still have access to it and the right to partake in it if I so choose.

Walker writes, “No one claims that all men who use pornography become rapists, or that rape would disappear if there were no pornography,” however the rest of her letter, the Conference on Pornography that took place in June, and the growing anti-pornography mob screams otherwise; the movement to ban all city-funded access to pornography and its industry suggests that censorship is where we begin to “cure” sexual abuse. As a concerned citizen I hope that my city doesn’t fall for the old censorship trick: that all is either good or bad, and that everything will be better if we ban what’s taboo. Let us not require another sexual revolution in 30 years because we’ve gone too far in the wrong direction.

Read Megan Walker’s full anti-porn letter here.

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