Editor’s note: The writer’s name has been changed to protect their identity.
Last year, I was sitting in class and out of nowhere our graduate student instructor started talking about a case where football players sexually assaulted a female student at a Texas university. As I sat digesting what I was hearing, I could feel my face get hot, my heartbeat quicken. I could feel my eyes start to water. I knew I was about to cry but I held it in. Finally, we broke into small group discussions and I excused myself to go to the bathroom.
I had barely stepped into the hallway when I began to sob uncontrollably. My brain was simultaneously numb and overstimulated with a thousand different thoughts, and they were overwhelming me to the point that I had no idea what to do with myself. So, I paced. In those few moments, all of what had happened to me freshman year was made worse by the fact I had become visibly upset in public and in front of my peers.
To make matters worse, in an effort to hide my distress from my peers, I now had to try to conceal my meltdown from strangers in the hallway. I was trying to do the impossible: shut down memories that had a habit of reemerging up like the moles in that Whack-A-Mole game — erratically, suddenly and in the worst moments.
A few moments later, my GSI stepped out of the classroom to find me. For a little while, we sat together on the stairs silently.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”
That was all she could say. I could tell she knew what had made me so upset, but because of her obligation as a GSI to report sexual violence, she didn’t say much more. And I thank her for that.
After some time, she had to go back to class before other students could wonder why she had disappeared for so long. I stayed put in the hallway.
She came back a little later with the belongings I’d left behind. She was kind and caring. I am grateful every day that I had a GSI as understanding as she was. But in that moment, I felt like a bug under a microscope — like every move I made was being watched.
When I finally started to head home, I walked at lightning speed to avoid human interaction at all costs. I had a meeting in less than an hour, but there was no way I was going to make it. Not in one piece, at least. So, after sending a vague and potentially alarming email to my professor, I crawled into bed. That’s where I stayed for a better part of the afternoon, feeling uncontrollably upset, as if what happened three years ago had happened yesterday.
My freshman year, I got a boy’s number at a party. A few months later, I went to his house. I hadn’t put everything together as I made my way over, but when I stepped into his room, I almost immediately started feeling scared and uneasy. I realized what was about to happen. But he was bigger in size, intimidatingly so. I didn’t know anyone in his house, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get home. I was trapped. So that’s where I stayed. Trapped.
This night turned my world completely upside down. For a while, I was almost always on edge, always looking around me to make sure he wasn’t there. I was startled by people who resembled him; I would begin to breath heavily, my face would get hot, my throat would constrict. I would hear my heartbeat in my ears. Now it’s gotten a little easier, but I still shudder when something reminds me of what happened or when a random thought of that night intrudes my headspace. And there are still moments when I think I’ve seen him and I panic.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” one of my friends said to me one day after I could have sworn I saw him on the street. I smiled awkwardly.
“I’ve just had a day,” I told her.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years was the hardest. I had only told one person about what happened, and, more than anything, I hated myself. I felt stupid and ashamed that I’d been in that situation, because I felt responsible. To this day, I still often question whether I could have done something differently.
That summer, I was very quiet and I stayed in bed a lot. There were times when I just felt overcome with sadness. I looked sad, too, and my mom would ask me if everything was alright. It wasn’t, but I told her it was. She and I are best friends, and I could tell she knew something was wrong, but just the thought of telling her sends me into a panic.
I can never be 100 percent sure what would have changed had I known beforehand what we were going to talk about that day in my discussion. But I do know I was not prepared. As a result, I couldn’t participate in the conversation. We should never shy away from talking about sexual assault because it’s important, but it’s equally important to give survivors the tools to allow them to comfortably talk about these things. Just a simple email or a note in the syllabus when a class is talking about a topic that could elicit a very emotional reaction would help immensely.
So, no. I don’t want trigger warnings so I can skip out on class. They aren’t so I can shelter myself. I’m not asking that we water down these important conversations to accommodate survivors. Trigger warnings would allow me to participate in these tough discussions with my peers because I would know what to expect.
When I found myself in this situation last semester, I had no time to stop for a moment and breathe. It was all hitting me like a train that I couldn’t stop. I was glued to the tracks and couldn’t step off. So, the next time you question the importance of trigger warnings or roll your eyes because you think that it’s politically correct culture “back at it again,” think about if you were me. What would you want?
Alexis is an LSA senior.