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A Note on Trigger Warnings

In this post, we want to share examples of how bloggers use trigger warnings, as well as perspectives on the use of these disclaimers. We’d like this discussion to be a starting point for your own exploration of the subject, so you can decide whether or not trigger warnings are appropriate for your own blog.

Image by Benson Kua (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you read a lot on the internet, chances are you’ve seen a trigger warning on a post — a disclaimer used to warn readers that the material that follows might be potentially traumatic, objectionable, or offensive. It might look like this:

Trigger Warning: This post discusses self-harm, bulimia, and eating disorders.

Or simply:

TW: racism, sexism.

In this post, we want to share examples of how bloggers use trigger warnings, as well as perspectives on the use of these disclaimers. We’d like this discussion to be a starting point for your own exploration of the subject, so you can decide whether or not trigger warnings are appropriate for your own blog.

Examples of trigger warnings

Many writers use trigger warnings in their introductions. See The Belle Jar‘s “How to Undermine a Rape Victim 101,” Feminiam‘s “We Have All Been Touched By Evil,” and ischemgeek‘s “The Case Against Stupid.”

Blogger Aaminah Khan placed a trigger warning for child abuse within a post title itself (“[TW: child abuse] Cry of the Tiger Cub”), while author Drew Chial, in his recent post on Fred Phelps, offered this introductory note to his regular readers:

This post comes with a trigger warning. Discussing a hate group and their leader, I had to chronicle what they’ve done. For those of you who come to my blog seeking writing advice, short fiction, and memoir entries, an article on Fred Phelps might seem off topic. I’ve met the man on two occasions, and as a commentator on trolls, cyber bullies, and internet culture, I felt compelled to weigh in.

The debate over trigger warnings

While 2013 was dubbed the Year of the Trigger Warning, these disclaimers have been around for some time: in earlier years of feminist blogging, trigger warnings were used to preface material to warn readers — particularly survivors of abuse, assault, and rape — of what was coming next. This heads up allows a reader to avoid the material if they so choose.

But talk of trigger warnings has been frequent lately, as students at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus requested that professors include trigger warnings in their course syllabi, while an alumna of Wellesley College wrote an open letter to the campus art museum about the installation of a statue of a sleepwalking man in his underwear.

There are interesting discussions about the use of trigger warnings, specifically within the college environment. As Jenny Jarvie writes on the New Republic:

Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

Or Laurie Essig writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Trigger warnings are a very dangerous form of censorship because they’re done in the name of civility. Learning is painful. It’s often ugly and traumatic.

In “I’m Triggered By Your Triggers,” Danielle Henderson, who was sexually and physically abused as a child, writes that “there’s something to be said for learning about trauma without experiencing it all over again.” As a former instructor of gender studies, she found trigger warnings in the classroom to be tricky.

Using trigger warnings on your blog

As writers and readers on the internet, many of these ideas and questions are relevant to us. Our blogs are our spaces, and our readers visit our online homes because they want to: they’re interested in what we have to say, and probably come to our blog knowing what to expect. Our readers might click over because they enjoy our work, want to engage in a discussion, be intellectually piqued, and safely explore new ideas. (Of course, this might not always be the case — we all have varied interests and browse the blogosphere for different reasons.)

No matter what you write about — from essays on race and gender, to pieces of memoir exploring an abusive childhood, to thoughts on bipolar disorder — it’s ultimately up to you to set the tone for your blog. You might not bother with trigger warnings, or you might feel strongly that, given your readership, a disclaimer for a specific post might make sense.

If you’re writing a post with sensitive material, here are things to think about as you consider your approach:

  • Why am I writing this piece? Is it to confess, expose, heal, help, or enlighten?
  • Am I harming anyone by publishing this piece?
  • Who are my readers, and what is my relationship to them? What sort of connection do we have?
  • Have I written something that makes me uncomfortable?
  • Is this piece unexpected or very different in tone or topic from what I normally write?
  • Have I included content, written or visual, that might not be “safe for work” or appropriate for a younger reader?

If you’re interested in reading more about trigger warnings, we encourage you to read the pieces linked above.

 

 

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  1. Thank you so much for this post. These are the things that I am grappling with at the moment and have held back quite a few posts because of not wanting to cause discomfort for anyone else. I am thinking of starting a separate blog where the reader will be aware from the start that the story deals with childhood abuse and experiences. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I think trigger warnings are overused, I do think they’re important when you’re dealing with graphic photos. Those should either be hidden behind a link or people should be given every opportunity to avoid seeing them. People react viscerally to visual images much more to text, and they should be given an opportunity to avoid those images if they want. I recently ran into an image while giving feedback that I completely wasn’t expecting, and still upsets me to think of it. Needless to say, I won’t be going back to that person’s blog…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Reblogged this on a day with depression and commented:
    This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit, as many of the topics I write about are very difficult for me and I imagine they might be triggering for others. I’m not always sure whether a particular post needs a trigger warning, though; maybe I should just put a generic warning on my blog? Any thoughts/feedback on applying trigger warnings to my blog, based on its existing content, would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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    1. I think the idea of a general content warning would be sufficient, however with the word “depression” being in the title of your blog, I think most people could figure out that tough subjects would be covered.

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  4. This is really interesting as I have never had to really think about this. I was prompted to think about movies. They have a rating system to “warn” us. I appreciate those ratings when I sit down to watch something with my kids. Words are just as powerful as the images on the screen, so I have to feel that warnings for a writing piece are just as appropriate. I think the benefits out-weigh the possible negative outcomes at the moment. Great post! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There is a real danger in either generalising, or lifting what is appropriate in one medium or format and applying it to another.

    The cases quoted in your article that are nervous about TWs in a learning context are valid and credible – students have chosen to enter the classroom, there is a teacher there to monitor reaction and moderate the potential triggers if required. Perhaps more importantly the students have entered into a (social) contract in which they have agreed to have their boundaries stretched.

    However, in a blogging or web type environment there is almost no control over the audience. As a writer I have a commitment to my words, and a compulsion to be faithful to inspiration and not to self regulate the art. However as a human being I have an obligation to those who may unwittingly encounter the end product. So if I write erotica I should take steps to make sure children are protected.

    That’s all a bit motherhood and apple pie. Who would object? The interest is of course in the grey areas. I have written and photographed reflections on suicide. A mental health group I collaborate with (very politely) declined one of those submissions, and I understand why. Their readership is a closed group, self selected for an interest in mental health, best not throw a hand grenade into the mix.

    But I didn’t TW the posts on my own blog. The triggers, to my mind, were not so strong. But ultimately the responsibility for how I share my art is mine, and the judgement is one I have to stand by.

    So there’s my challenge – an artist who does not understand the potential impact of their work has done a half arsed job, it is an ill formed thing thrown to the wind. An artist who understands their work, has to make a decision, and live by it.

    I reserve the right to make bad decisions. If I make bad art then shoot me.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Absolutely love this. I have noticed many trigger warnings in several posts, maybe even my own. However, I hope everyone finds relief in writing, and does not actually attempt to harm themselves or their loved ones…or anyone for that matter. Feel free to check out my blog! Xoxo!

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  7. ‘Trigger Warning’.

    I wasn’t familiar with the term as it’s used. My mind instantly shot to the image of signage that I AM familiar with; the dual-language safe distance warning, ‘Stay Back X Feet, You Will Be Fired Upon’. As it turns out, in this case it’s only a disclaimer.

    DISCLAIMER. CAUTION. WARNING. All these work, I don’t see the need for one more term. I understand it’s something that someone thought was a good idea because they have a friend who heard about a friend reading a blog post that turned out to contain graphic material that made the friend reading it to remember something awful that happened to them and freak out.

    To me it smells like a writer afraid of being the McDonald’s to someone’s hot-coffee-is-hot lawsuit and working only to prevent it.

    The term ‘Trigger Warning’ is a trigger in its own right. But I see no warpath to take up against its use. I just don’t get it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I am an abuse survivor, so I understand triggers very well. I really believe they’ve been overused and become more of a tool used to censor people and to attempt to shame others into silence.

    Ironically, the overuse of the term “trigger” starts to offend me more than content ever has. When the term is used so casually and frequently, it starts to cheapen and demean the experiences of those who have dealt with genuine triggers. A trigger will either send you into a panic attack, or place you on the ceiling looking down on the world. A trigger is not vague feelings of discomfort because you don’t like the opinions being expressed by another person.

    One more note on triggers, they can be healed. Those broken places can be transformed from weakness to strength. Very little has the power to trigger me these days and if I am even the slightest bit worried about something, on the internet, one click and you can make it all go away.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Ironically, the overuse of the term “trigger” starts to offend me more than content ever has. When the term is used so casually and frequently, it starts to cheapen and demean the experiences of those who have dealt with genuine triggers.

      Well said.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I swear a lot… so after noticing a minister having visited my blog I opted to add a warning on my header. Not that I think only ministers would object to it (and I’m sure there’s those that don’t), but I figured it would be handy for those that do mind it to be informed of it straight away so they don’t have to be subjected to it.

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    1. I totally get it. Most of my readers are adults and men (I write about soccer referees), but when I got a 12-year-old reader it really made me watch the f-bombs

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  10. I can certainly get wound up by stuff- conservative evangelicals writing about homosexuality, trans-exclusionists writing about trans issues- which goes to the heart of who I am. I sought them out, as a means to desensitise myself. I would not say everyone can do that, others are traumatised worse than I am, but I found it useful.

    I would rather write “certain people may find this offensive” or whatever, then blame any commenter who calls me out for offending them.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I have thought about this but I think I probably won’t use TW because the whole point of my blog is to get readers reflecting and debating… if I put up a TW it may well turn them away from thinking about the issue I write about.
    Many thanks for the reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I really enjoyed reading this! My other blog: Journey out of the abyss on wordpress is of my own healing journey from multiple traumas: sexual, physical, spiritual, the works. I really liked your input. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I have not used any trigger warnings, since everything on my blog is PG-13 at worst. However, I have occasionally used a “trigger warning” if the post made ME emotional to write… such as my 76th post on this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I think our problem as a society is that we’ve become a culture of people who “don’t want to step on toes”. Some of that, I think is because people are so quick to cry “foul” just on the case that someone expressed an idea that was uncomfortable. I think trigger warnings are somewhat unnecessary. If you happen to be reading something that offends you, and you no longer wish to–stop. If you hear music or a tv show you’re uncomfortable with, turn it off. You ( as a reader or consumer), and only you can decide what’s for you. As a blog writer, write what you wish. It’s your space, and those who read your thought do it because they like to. We can’t simply avoid expressing ourselves because we may hurt someone. Life is full of those risks, take one and learn something.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree 100% with what you have said and I do exactly what you recommend. Let’s hope this trend towards becoming a culture of politically correct little snowflakes who melt in the presence of any “heat” and have the expectation that adults ought to be treated like little babies is reversed and replaced with taking personal responsibility to use our common sense. If you don’t like it then don’t read, watch or listen to it – click out and move on.

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    2. I don’t think trigger warnings are necessary for things that are merely offensive; but a ‘trigger’ in psychological terms is something that causes a person actual harm. The sites that I’ve seen that arguably over use trigger warning tend to be written by people who have some personal experience of this and are then understandably wary in provoking the same response in others. I don’t adopt it myself but I wouldn’t judge anyone too harshly for taking the better safe than sorry approach, after all, readers are welcome to disregard the warning where it doesn’t apply to them.

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  15. Interesting topic.

    I think I mainly agree with the quote from Jenny Jarvie, who says that it’s next to impossible to anticipate every possible “trigger.”

    How’s this for an unanticipated “trigger,” by the way:

    On Facebook I’ve “liked” a Bettie Page–ahem—page, so I frequently see pinup pictures in my feed. Recently I commented on one that was VERY mildly BDSM, and my aunt later sent me a private message saying, “Could you please not post such pictures in the future? Some of the comments from the other people were disgusting, and incidentally, I find the subject matter of that image to be disgusting, as I have done a lot of charity work with battered women’s shelters.”

    Okay, so can we all agree that my aunt is out of line on this one?

    Not only did I not “post” anything, but I was being blamed for the “disgusting” comments of others. Now, props to her for helping women in need, but Bettie Page? Despite her career choice, the woman was not only an icon to men, but even feminists. She thinks “battered woman” when she sees the most popular pinup model of all time with a wide-eyed look, a piece of silk between her teeth? Ha! I see a young lady who showed up, used her sexuality as currency at a time when the the women’s rights movement was a couple of decades away from picking up any steam! She later retired into anonymity with her nest egg, never to be heard from again until we heard that she had died.

    …needless to say, I unfriended my aunt after I gave her what for.

    Good riddance. Ha!

    Anyhow — “triggers.” While some are harder to predict, some are no-brainers. I’m not going to write about religion, abortion, touchy political issues, etc, without anticipating a little flack.

    The name of my blog is essentially a trigger in and of itself:

    http://www.theoffensiveplaybook.wordpress.com

    …and a play on words, I guess.

    I hope anyone who stumbles upon it thinks, “Okay, this is either about sports or it MAY contain something that I won’t necessarily agree with.”

    Hint: it’s not about sports.

    It’s just about fun.

    My fun.

    But I like to think my readers have fun, too. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I don’t normally comment on these posts, but I figured I’d comment to say thanks for the link, and also to point out that trigger warnings are not just for mental illness (though mental illness triggers are by far the most common and most diverse. If you make flashy/strobey gifs or videos, or have loud patterns such as stripes or zig-zags, that can trigger people with photosensitive epilepsy to have seizures. Epilepsy can be dangerous – every year, more than 50,000 people die of epilepsy in the US.

    If you post a flashy/strobey gif or video and you don’t warn about it, you could seriously injure or kill someone, either from seizure-associated injury or from status epilepticus if the trigger doesn’t stop, as with looping gifs. Status epilepticus has an overall mortality rate of 20%.

    So, just pointing it out. A lot of my friends have photosensitive epilepsy, and it could literally kill them if they fall for a screamer or if someone posts an autoplay flashy/stroby gif. So, if you must have your flashy/strobey graphic or video, please give an epilepsy warning. It’ll take you 30 seconds, but it might save someone’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so right! I have light/pattern triggered epilepsy, and the crazy thing is that since it’s “absence” type, once I have one of those flashing patterns in front of me, I can’t turn the page because I’m stuck in seizure-land! Thanks for bringing this up.

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      1. I’m glad it helps.

        Also: Needles are another thing that can be dangerous if you don’t triggerwarn. People who have a vasovagal response to needles (like me), regardless of whether or not they’re actually phobic of needles (a lot of us are because fainting is scary and painful if you smash your face of something) can have a catastrophic drop in blood pressure and heart rate even just seeing a photo of someone else getting a needle and then we can pass out. There are ways of mitigating the response and avoiding passing out, but we can only apply them if we know we might have it triggered ahead of time.

        The vasovagal response is an inherited hyperactive reflex, and no amount of desensitization or training will eliminate it, although degree of response is variable and there are strategies to mitigate it. The drop in blood pressure from a hyperactive vasovagal response can be dangerous to those with heart conditions, and has been known to induce strokes and heart attacks.

        For this reason, I stay away from stories about vaccination: the seemingly-obligatory photo of the restrained screaming toddler getting a needle induces the vasovagal response. I’ve smashed my face off stuff too many times to risk it anymore if I’m not prepared.

        (getting stitches in your scalp from smashing your head off a desk when a nurse wouldn’t let you lie down for an immunization is fuuuun when you have the vasovagal response */sarcasm*)

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      2. Bummer. I’m an acupuncturist, and I have specific points for needle-phobic clients. I really empathize with you…seems like we can hardly get through a day without being accosted with some kind of needle imagery. Stitches in your scalp…more needles…but at least you didn’t have to look at those! And I bet that vaccination nurse learned her lesson from you, or we certainly hope so!!! Be well and take care,

        Laura

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  17. The Value of Trigger Points
    *******************************
    Regardless of how entertaining we may try to be when we write, we might regard all writing as some form of nurture that is often a healing art. Audiences may often be attracted to a writer’s work to fulfill a need that may be obscure to the reader themselves.
    A good writer helps people explore themselves to learn about themselves; best of all, a good writer may often help some, if not all, of their readers to heal.

    The primary healing mechanism a writer employs is called ‘catharsis’. A good catharsis always requires a strong trigger point, or often several trigger points building up to a powerful climax.
    It can be difficult to know what will act as a trigger for a reader, and yet every good writer must define their audience’s trigger points to really reach them where it hurts to help them heal.

    People bury their worst traumas as deeply as they can, hiding themselves from the pain, shame, fear, and anger their trigger points evoke. However, these buried emotions fester, people are often helpless as their minds work tricks of association to displace the intense associations of memory and emotion represented by trigger points into safer areas.
    These safer areas can become a person’s private triggers. A memory of an old photo, a beloved toy, or a favorite place to visit on a walk can all become triggers. Trigger points need not be confined to topics about prejudice, violence, or abuse.
    Trigger points are often culturally reinforced. Movies, magazines, television, and the internet help turn some images into cultural icons that trigger specific emotions for their viewers. For instance, swastikas have become symbols that trigger rage in some people, albeit they still trigger pride in certain other folk.
    It may be difficult to identify effective trigger points, however if we do not use triggers to draw our readers’ attentions to topics that may hurt then we may fail to reach our readers effectively.

    Enjoy!
    love, Grigori Rho Gharveyn

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I feature at least one photo on every post I publish. The majority of my photography is nature related. Since I know that several of my friends have creature issues, if I include a photo of spiders, snakes, other phobia triggers, I do have a warning at the beginning of the post.

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  19. As a writer on mental illness and child abuse, I have chosen to use “trigger warnings” extremely sparsely. My regular readers know what I blog about, and they know that five’ll get you ten it’s going to be traumatic. The only time you will see a “TW” is if I need to blog on one of the horrendous cases of child abuse that I have seen during my time as a pediatric emergency physician. I put a warning on these posts because they could easily CAUSE harm to the reader! Hell, I might as well label them “Danger: Mine Field Ahead. Proceed At Your Own Risk.”

    Why do I write these horrific posts? Well, for two reasons: first, because it’s MY blog and I get to write what I want; second, because eventually this blog will, after extensive pruning, become part of my memoir. And, probably most important, as therapy for my own PTSD.

    Thanks for opening this great topic. It’s something a lot of us have thought a lot about, judging by the comments!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree very strongly with Dr. Schulman, and I’ll expand on what I agree with, in a moment. There’s a two word phrase I learned many years ago, and it has always stuck with me. The phrase is “Meta-communication.” A meta-communication is a communication about a communication. What this means is I am going to tell you something, but I need to tell you something about what I am going to tell you, i.e.: trigger warning. We’ve been warning people forever. For example “Please sit down dear, I’ve got something to tell you.” Sound familiar?

      I suppose in a way they have their place. If my friend was smiling and singing as I walked into her house, it might not be the best time to blurt out that I just ran over her dog. People aren’t usually that stupid. However, and this is the other extreme, (did you notice that trigger warning right there?) people can be cruel, and on purpose. There are people who’s minds are way left of center, who get their jollies by shocking people, and the more trauma they cause, the better the jolly. Hopefully if someone has a heart condition, or something like that, they’ll never have to run into that person, but it does happen.

      Stephen King is a shock writer, and I am not saying he is like Mr. Jolly up there at all. I happen to love his writing, and love horror films, and so on. That’s me. I would probably not recommend one of his books to the 8 year old who lives next door, nor would I give one to my 97 year old aunt with a pacemaker, and movies, and books are reviewed and rated ahead of time, so that people will have an idea of what to expect.

      This brings me to my agreement with Dr. Schulman. Her readers are going to know ahead of time what to expect. If a first time reader were to happen by, and it was on a day when the post was particularly gruesome, they wouldn’t have to continue reading until they had an aneurism, they could stop way before that, and be none the worse for wear. As I write this, I’m noticing that I’m apparently both for, and against trigger warnings.

      I would like to say that I believe that EVERYONE has felt fear, shock, trauma, triggered, unpleasant, pain, grief, heartbreak, and immense sorrow. I know I have felt all of those things. We are all triggered and we are all suddenly shoved right back to that painful painful place where the memory was created.Yet there are others who don’t seem to be as affected by it. They really do appear at least, to come out still in tact. I happen to have recently suffered through an extraordinary period of time, that had it happened to anyone else, I would have expected to hear about it on the news. It went on for about 5 months, and my two young sons and I didn’t leave, we escaped, leaving everything behind, except what we were wearing. It was horrifying. The damage it has caused my children, may not ever be fully known. They are forever changed. It nearly killed me. Does that mean I just cornered the market on PTSD, and that everyone else should just go home, because my trauma was bigger? Not hardly. It is not about what happens to us, its about how it affects us.

      I just realized that I am up on a soapbox, no where near the topic, so I’ll be getting down now. I apologize for writing this ranting, and disjointed encyclopedia in the comment section. If we took better care of our kids, and focused on raising them in ways that no longer created Mr. Jolly, and we were kinder to ourselves, and each other, there would be no need for trigger warnings, but what I just described is Eden.

      I’m not sure I should even post this. Talk about being triggered :(

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  20. On a more personal note:
    We ourselves have many triggers, we may easily become trapped in our locked up emotions, psychologically and emotionally paralyzed by innocently spoken words or the pain perceived in the glancing look of a stranger’s eyes.
    You cannot protect us from all of our triggers; nor can we, nor should we protect ourselves. We need our triggers to grow. Our triggers become doorways through which we may more safely approach our pain to observe it, to begin to feel safer with it, and eventually, to heal it.

    Thank you, though, for your concern and courtesy, for trying to do the ‘write’ thing by warning the public.

    love, Grig

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  21. Extremely interesting conversation. I’d not heard about trigger warnings for blog posts. But I agree that blogging can be cathartic for the blogger and possibly helpful to others struggling with similar issues. I don’t think I’ve written anything so far that could be a trigger for others, but I imagine that those who have loved ones suffering from drug addiction could find the stories I share painfully familiar. But that’s what makes them real, and hopefully, cathartic.

    On the other hand, I’ve realized that I needed to go “underground,” to blog anonymously, to protect the people I write about. Their addiction has strongly affected my life, so I need to write about it. But I don’t feel I should expose them unnecessarily.

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    1. Try asking your friends if they want to be protected. Addiction seems to need honesty for recovery, you may be enabling rather than healing when you protect your friends too much.

      We understand the need to treat the people you love with compassion, but real compassion requires direct action; asking your friends what they want opens the door for them to consider their circumstances safely with a trusted friend and perhaps gather the courage to make better life choices.

      love, Grigori Rho, et al…

      Liked by 1 person

  22. I find the warnings helpful, as a survivor of abuse I like to be able to walk away before I’m halfway down the void. That’s me though.

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  23. Reblogged this on Radically Mad and commented:
    Personally, I like the idea of *content* warnings, as opposed to trigger warnings, if you’re unsure about if your post will be triggering to anyone. Just a quick summary of the content, a few lines (or even just a list of words), at the top. I do trigger warnings for obviously-triggering topics like self-harm, suicide, etc, and content warnings for the rest. :-)

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