I am a writing coach who teaches expressive writing for release and recovery. My classes and retreats are geared toward trauma survivors, many of whom are managing multiple mental illnesses. When Amanda Lauren wrote that it was better her friend died rather than continue her battle with schizo-affective disorder, I along with the rest of the internet was outraged. But this isn’t about her ableist and harmful essay (which has been retracted by xoJane and replaced with a too-little-too-late apology). This is about Lauren’s followup statement to Daily Dot in which she said she was not sorry and responded to learning many readers had been triggered by her essay with, “Well if that’s an issue for you, if it triggers you, why would you read the article?”
If this question sounds familiar, it is because you’ve probably stumbled over it in the victim-blaming echo chamber, albeit in a different form:
If you didn’t want men to look at you, why did you wear those clothes?
If you didn’t want to have sex with him, why did you let him into your home?
If you didn’t want to be triggered, why did you read the article?
I’ll tell you why.
When I teach my “Writing through Trauma” classes, I provide a weekly reading list rife with trigger warnings. I choose the fiction, nonfiction and poetry pieces specifically because they will be triggering, because they will bring memories and trauma to the front of the mind where they can be engaged on the page in an act of acceptance and release. Reading our triggers can be an excellent way to push ourselves into an open healing space—if we are ready for them.
Lauren’s essay was clickbait. For those of us who have lived with or loved someone with mental illness, safety plans and suicide prevention can take up a considerable amount of headspace. It makes us alert to the topic in all media venues. If I see a headline stating it was better that someone mentally ill died, I want to know more. What I don’t expect is blatant disregard for the safety and struggles of individuals who may be at risk for suicide. That’s not a trigger I come prepared for. Many of my students are have survived suicide attempts or have lost loved ones to suicide. I have lost friends to suicide.
Mental illness may sometimes make life hard to live, but it doesn’t lessen a person’s right to shared space in this world, even if her life is inconvenient to someone privileged enough to have no understanding of the reality of those struggles.
We read our triggers to educate and challenge ourselves. Those of us with mental illness seek out others living with the same in order to better understand our own needs and to know we are not alone. We join online groups such as #LinkYourLife, one I created when out of a deep need to surround myself with non-competitive voices that I could read and support and receive the same in return. In #LinkYourLife, we all share our very real and very triggering stories of human experience and practice holding space for one another.
In my classes, in which the goal is to learn how to hold space for ourselves. We start by laying the groundwork for de-escalating our anxiety. We ease into a writing practice exploring the darker layers of our psyches with the use of letters and free writing. When we turn to works containing descriptions of sexual assault or self-harm, we are ready to step into that darkness knowing the light is still accessible.
What happens when my students read their triggers is remarkable. It begins in their writing where I have the honor of witnessing them in a process I have been through many times myself. First, they are deeply overwhelmed and have to re-ground. Their writing becomes incoherent reflecting their search for understanding of our reading experience. Then comes “me too.” The sweeping recognition that they are not alone in what they have endured or are enduring. Finally comes transformation. They can now recognize their patterns from the outside. They see that it is, in fact, possible to step free of societal shackles perpetuated by all the Laurens who feel better off without them—to live and breathe the same air as those who are unaffected by the traumas they carry. They are able to set those traumas down, one at a time, in a slow process that includes another set of trigger warnings on the syllabus. And beyond the syllabus, in life.
It is a powerful practice. Reading our triggers takes us from victim to survivor.
So, Lauren, that’s why we’d read it.
So we can move on afterward feeling safer in a world that understands us, despite your existence in it. It is so we can heal. We read triggering material so we can manage our mental illnesses and continue surviving rather than drowning.
You will notice no work by Amanda Lauren is linked here. If you would like to learn more about this story, I encourage you to read “The xoJane Article That Called a Woman’s Death a ‘Blessing’ Was About My Best Friend” by Holly Leber.