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Silver Linings and Trigger Warnings

Silver Linings Playbook - now showing

Watching Silver Linings Playbook was how I’d imagine a shiv being shoved into my ribs would feel. Over and over and over again. And just when the plunging stops, the wounds would get doused in battery acid. For good measure.

Days on and I’m unsure whether the sweet and hopeful ending compensated for the too-close-to-the-bone gut-wrenching-ness of it all.

Days on and I’m unsure whether it hurt just a little too much for even a committed masochist like me to enjoy.

One aspect I did appreciate however - before it all become a blur of despair and smudged mascara - was the idea of music as a trigger.

Silver Linings Playbook - trailer

“Trigger warning” is a phrase used mostly on-line to head up discussions of topics like sexual violence, depression or self-mutilation: warning, warning, the material contained within might make you sad/sadder/saddest.

Personally, I’m conflicted about the usefulness. Are triggers really so predictable? Who would have thought that a book’s scant mention of a person cleaning chopsticks would briefly put me in the foetal position last year? And yet it did. Because I’d like to think that most of us aren’t like light switches when it comes to distress, but instead, are triggered by the curious and the surprising and the completely bloody bizarre.

In a chapter I penned recently about vegetarianism, I discussed the horror film Dread (2009). As a child, Cheryl (Hanne Steen) had been sexually abused by her father who had worked as a meat-packer. As an adult the smell of meat was her trigger; hence her vegetarianism.

Dread (2009) - trailer

Reading about molestation wasn’t the red-flag for Cheryle, rather, the far more personal, esoteric and visceral trigger of smell tipped her.

For Pat (Bradley Cooper) in Silver Linings Playbook, it was music - just one single song in his case - that perpetually put him in a red mist rage.

I so get this. Not the rage - I’m not all that rageful myself - but the ability of certain songs to sabotage a moment completely.

A handful of years ago I was in a department store in Moscow. Sia’s Breathe Me - months before Coles de-activated it for me during the 2008 Beijing Games - was playing and I was doubled over at the cosmetics counter.

Coles “Olympic Mums” ad (2008)

Late last year, I was eating with a friend at a restaurant which normally only ever played musak. That night - timed perfectly with my friend going to the bathroom - the hellhole dining establishment cranked up David Grey’s Babylon. And I fell apart.

The entire Bob Dylan catalogue is on my banned list, pity then that the bastard keeps turning up in the most unlikely places - including in Silver Linings Playbook. Once upon a time his Just Like a Woman was playing in a bong shop that a rebound guy had lead me into. Hearing it was the proverbial last straw.

The Tragically Hip’s Bobcagyeon at an airport Starbucks. Damien Jurado’s Sheets while at a radio station a month ago. Every single time those bloody hipster coffee shops try to indoctrinate clients to Stars and Deathcab for Cutie. Yes, my list is really, really long.

For Pat, his spiral of psychological demise was triggered by Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”.

“My Cherie Amour” - Stevie Wonder

Judging by the extensive laughter in the cinema, “My Cherie Amour” doesn’t seem like the kind of music that would prompt psychosis. But really, isn’t that the whole point?

It’s much less about the song and more so about the time that it first meant something. It’s not that I like David Gray - I really don’t - and it’s not like I’d rank “Breathe Me” in my Top 100. But such songs get inextricably bound to a moment, to an emotion, to a person, and hearing them unexpectedly can be transportative for better or, as in my case, usually much worse.

Silver Linings Playbook was in fact one very long trigger for me, broken up with a handful of bonus emotional explosions just in case I got any delusions of respite.

Because triggers are unpredictable.

While watching it, while sobbing away, I wondered whether a Trigger Warning would have had any effect on this occasion; whether I would have resisted buying a ticket. I doubt it. Wet paint? Ah, but how wet really? Surely I’m brave enough to touch it just once…