Words are important. Words have power. And there is something very powerful in being able to use words consciously. Not so long ago, I discovered how healing it can be to have the right words to verbalise your experiences.
It happened while reading a book for the feminist book club I had with my friends from university. We met once a month to discuss books by different female authors. That month’s reading was Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I think Morrison is a wonderful writer and the powerful reaction I had to Beloved is a testimony of just how good her writing is.
I remember that at some point in the story (no spoilers!), the book started shaking in my hands. I felt cold, and then sick and dizzy. I looked up from the page but everything around me was calmed, just another ordinary day. Inside, I was in turmoil, struggling to breathe. I couldn’t stop shaking and I felt this unbelievable sadness that came with memories from a painful time in my past. I needed to finish the book. I told myself to swallow whatever it was and push through, It’s nothing, just a memory. I told myself but the sickness would not leave, and the more I read, the worse I felt. Memories flooded me, pain assaulted me. I was outraged, It’s been years! I am over this! I’ve done the work! What is happening? It was overwhelming. It was such a strong bodily reaction that my mind could do little to contain it. In fact, my mind only made it worse. The memories seemed tangible, they seemed like not-memories-at-all. My mind painted them over reality until they seemed more real than the book in my hands.
Finally, I admitted defeat. I closed the book and started crying. I cried all day.
Days after, I sat quietly gripping my tea in a coffee shop surrounded by my friends. I was excited to listen more than to speak. I felt like back at university when I hadn’t done the reading for that week’s seminar and I kept my head down hoping that the tutor wouldn’t notice me. Everyone shared their first impressions of the book. I nodded my agreement when someone said that it had been a hard story to read. I hadn’t planned to share my reading experience with my friends. I felt ashamed and freaked out. I had labelled myself overly dramatic and tried to forget about it.
But when it was my turn, I confessed: “I couldn’t finish it. I don’t know what happened. I just started crying and then I couldn’t stop. I felt awful. It reminded me of something and… I just couldn’t go on.”
And then one of my friends said, her voice full of empathy: “Oh, yeah. Trigger.”
The others nodded in agreement and they all looked at me, with eyes of understanding.
Trigger. I was struck by that word. I repeated it silently to myself, Trigger.
I had heard it before, along with the words: Trigger warning. But I hadn’t really grasped its meaning until now. It took a bit of research to find out what exactly was a trauma trigger, or what was trauma, for that matter.
Learning these words, along with a few related ones like anxiety, flashbacks, post-traumatic stress, panic attack… helped me make sense of myself and my processes. These words became tools, they became guides that allowed me to understand my experiences, and thus, be less afraid of them.
I now have realised that humans are so attached to words because they give us a measure of control over things, they help us shape our reality. Words are tools, powerful ones. And like all tools, their role in this world depends on the one who wields them.
Words can be limiting, words can be hurtful. Words can create conflict and misunderstanding. They can create the opposite too.
Words can convey love, hope, and light. They can create friendships and spark romance. They can bring about forgiveness and redemption. Words can heal. Words can soothe your soul.
Toni Morrison’s words helped me heal by unearthing the remnants of trauma that were still buried deep inside my unconscious. And giving a word —Trigger— to my reading experience of Beloved made me feel peaceful. It allowed me to understand and therefore, not be afraid or judgemental. It shifted my perspective from being irritated with my reaction to being loving, caring, and respectful of my feelings. I had gone through a traumatic event at a young age, I had worked hard to heal it; if it was still showing up years later the only thing to do was to continue the healing, to be extra loving, extra patient, and extra kind to myself. To be present with my feelings and to honour them. So I did just that.
I am grateful for that trigger because it allowed me to work on past trauma, to look at it again, and to bring it to the light of my consciousness. It enabled me to heal. Having the word “trigger” is a shield with which I can face whatever comes my way that will awaken past pain because now, I will know it for what it is and will, therefore, be able to work with it instead of being at its mercy.
I am grateful to words and I am grateful for triggers for one grants me understanding and the other provides me with opportunity. Opportunity to let go, to let out, to heal, and to move on. I am also thankful for trigger warnings because they allow me a moment to breathe, to prepare, and to choose.
I am grateful for Toni Morrison’s words and stories which show us a traumatic collective past in need of healing.
I am grateful for my friends whose experiences have made them empathetic and given them words to share that provide healing for others.
Since then, I have gone back to Toni Morrison’s Beloved with a new sense of understanding of the novel and of myself. As I read through to the end and closed the book, I sighed in relief and thanked the healing power of words.