on discomfort and triggers

[CW: discussion of triggers, sexual assault, suicidality]

There’s a tumblr excerpt that goes around every once in awhile about respect. Though I’m sure I can’t quote it verbatim, the gist of it is that there are two types of respect: “you treat me like a human” and “you treat me like an authority.” The post goes on to point out that some people, usually those benefiting from immense privilege, leverage that discrepancy to make “if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you” into “if you don’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a human.”

I think about that post a lot, both because of its direct relatability to my life and the broader applicability it has to other words commonly used in two different ways. One in particular has stuck in my mind as of late: uncomfortable.

The concept of comfort, like many other things in the world, exists on a spectrum. There’s ultimate comfort, which I imagine is being snuggled up on a bed made of clouds with the best book you’ve ever read, but there’s also the moderate amounts of comfort and discomfort we carry with us every day. Still, as our discourse evolves—especially online—this concept of uncomfortable also continues to change. Now, the word often means that squirmy feeling that comes with someone being called out for (or talking about) problematic and/or abusive behavior. That “I don’t want to confront this” feeling. In music school, it’s often used as a plea for students stuck practicing the same five things: “get out of your comfort zone.” Stretch a little. Push toward a new version of the artist you are.

But if you carry trauma or the negative effects of marginalization(s) with you, uncomfortable is often the best word we have for when people’s words, actions, and ideologies try to shut us down.

Sometimes this is overt and (somewhat) aggressive; it’s the dick jokes and the suggestive comments and the casual demeaning of gender-marginalized students and girlfriends and wives and vocalists. Sometimes it’s the things—topics, words, actions—allowed into rehearsal spaces. Sometimes it’s the mistreatment we’re expected to put up with on the gig that our privileged male peers don’t even consider as part of their workload. Sometimes it’s the disproportionately foul treatment of marginalized identities. Sometimes it’s the weight of all of the above that comes crashing down when you enter (and reenter, and reenter) the place or places where they frequently occur. I recently recounted, on Monica Shriver’s Brave Musician podcast, the last time I had a severe setback in a professional environment: I went home (immediately) and dissociated for six hours. Straight. The lights were on and nobody was home, and it took my partner returning for me to come back to reality. That’s not just “I’d prefer not to discuss this.” That’s not just “I’ve been called out because I said something unkind.” That’s my body going “hey, we felt like we were going to die, so you’re not going anywhere until we think it isn’t going to happen again.”

That last time, featuring six hours of not really being in my body, was during the last semester of my masters degree. At CalArts. When an aggressive peer interrupted a lesson and was on the cusp of turning violent, leaving me with no viable escape routes. And while yes, that isn’t something I expect to run into every day, I also know that severe dissociation isn’t the only problem that pops up when something kicks my trauma—even just the physical symptoms can vary widely depending on the severity of the event and other related factors. Managing that, in the end, is my job, but that’s also why I speak out about being uncomfortable, spoken over, dismissed, insulted, threatened, et cetera—because my body’s giving me warning signs about what’s coming next.

And the best way to communicate the moments before that happens is to use that word.

So why do we say we’re uncomfortable when we mean something is kicking either our marginalization or our trauma? Well, if you’ll allow me to be blunt, it’s usually because you—the greater audience of usually immensely privileged people around us—don’t care when we try to tell you exactly how much something hurts. The term “trigger warning” has in many spaces been turned into a joke. Half the people I spend time with don’t even fully understand what dissociation is. When we do speak up with more articulate words, trauma survivors are often laughed at or brushed aside. And, especially for our straight, white, cis, male friends, uncomfortable is perhaps the closest feeling we can associate with what we’re actually feeling. Because even in our trauma, we are expected to be polite.

“Hello, this is trying to kill me. Would you be so kind as to reconsider?”

That doesn’t mean it’s a direct correlation, that relationship between uncomfortable and what we’re actually feeling. And that doesn’t mean it can be reduced down to the “something feels vaguely icky” that it’s used for in common parlance. But, infuriatingly, it often is—an admission of discomfort from a marginalized voice (especially in music) is often met with encouragement: “it’s good to be out of your comfort zone!” The problem is, people don’t stop to think about why or how someone might be uncomfortable, which prevents everyone from responding appropriately to a body on the warpath. This one-size-fits-all approach to discomfort might work for people fortunate enough to live with minimal trauma, but taking that mindset and overlaying it on top of someone who has to use “uncomfortable” to mean three or four or five things does a disservice to everyone involved.

Because here’s the other thing: when a trigger kicks your trauma, your body’s reaction can vary, but the response is prompted because it senses that you might be in mortal danger (again). That “this is trying to kill me” quip earlier is pretty accurate; sure, there might not be an axe flying at your head, but triggers are your body’s way of acknowledging that an action (/object/phrase/etc.) has previously meant something catastrophic was coming, and as such, you’re very likely in danger again. But oftentimes, if you’re honest about that feeling, if you come out and say “that makes me feel like I’m dying” (or, a similar one for folks dealing with suicidality, “that puts me back in that feeling of wanting to die”), you’ll get a batch-applied set of consequences that often don’t actually address what’s going on. If you pay attention to mental health discourse from casually suicidal people, you’ll hear a lot of similar concerns: admitting you are more suicidal than wherever your resting/normal level is will often (/almost always) instantly vault you into suicide watch or other inpatient programs—even when you are already correctly applying your coping mechanisms and are really just looking for input on how to lessen the problem causing the symptoms.

In those cases, that’s not the care folks need—and with what I know about institutional bias and Title IX and major instances of large bodies trying to micromanage without attention to detail and nuance, it’s not a stretch to realize that pulling back the curtain on that trauma-trigger “uncomfortable” in an institutional or academic setting is most likely to increase the burden on the person already having the worst time.

But if we’re not talking about a violently-triggering trauma, if we’re only (“only,” I mutter to myself with a derisive snort) talking about marginalization—you know, the kind that contributes to the hostile work environment status Title IX cares about but that doesn’t meet the one-time threshold of severe incidents—things can feel a little sticky. I can’t speak for other folks, but as someone who carries both trauma and marginalization, I sometimes feel awful for using the same language I use for pre-trigger situations to talk about how the constant sexism of my field and my life wears me down. Because the world tells me, to a certain extent, that my marginalization is just part of my daily life and shouldn’t be its own layer of being, I’m frequently made to feel like there’s no point in telling people that the things they’re saying make me feel subhuman.

Or, to put it another way, the ways in which our society and our profession condition me quietly tell me, “there’s no point in complaining about this when you’ve had worse.” The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf immediately springs to mind; I don’t want to feel like speaking out about my marginalizations will make me look lazy or entitled or weak, but I do worry. I do wonder when someone chooses not to run with me anymore. I do see the signs when I’m becoming more of an inconvenience than maybe my peers or my superiors or the gatekeepers in my city would like to deal with.

It is very easy to look at those signs and want to step back, to fade into the tapestry of people who mostly put up with these things, to fool myself into thinking that maybe if I stopped complaining I would be treated well.

But then I remember that in the past I have been as unobtrusive as possible, and my community still treated me as less than. But then I remember that I am expected to smile and take on extra work assigned to me for the wrong reasons and not say anything about it. But then I remember that I still live in a world where I choose to limit my opportunities, to not bring my music to a venue, in part because I don’t think they’d listen to me if I told them they needed to stop booking sexual predators. But then I remember that I spend most of my time around friends who I love and simultaneously who need to do better. But then I remember that I have been told, outright, to leave my female-coded body at the door, like it’s a second skin I can take off and have the rest of the world batch-apply to me.

The criticism I take in lessons? The feeling when I mess up badly on the bandstand? The uh-oh that comes when someone I highly respect tells me I need to put in more work? If that was what uncomfortable felt like, I would live my life on a fucking cloud compared to what it means to me now. And I know so many other people who navigate the world similarly, whose best day-to-day coping strategies are choices of harm reduction and not increased happiness or joyful exploration or anything that’s a net positive.

So, in the end, we’re back around to that tumblr excerpt. There are a lot of different kinds of uncomfortable, but by prioritizing one (1) over a myriad of others with much longer-lasting impacts, we—as professional musicians, as people of relative power and privilege, as gatekeepers and community leaders—tell people carrying marginalizations and trauma that they only count if they can manage their emotions and power through their (frequently more severe) fears in the exact same way as the middle class, allocishet white man next to them. And when they (we) dare to speak up, the response is the same: “if you don’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a human.”

And somehow, these are the ideas I keep coming back around to, these ideas of seeing and respecting and understanding, because it is becoming increasingly clear to me how little I am seen and respected and understood within many of my musical communities in Phoenix. I’m continuing to realize that for many of my peers and superiors and gatekeepers, the idealized, gender-inclusive world they might construct in their heads is one in which we fade into the background as an interchangeable puzzle piece. It’s symptomatic of how I see gender-marginalized people treated now—as pawns only thrust into the spotlight when it is politically convenient, as teaching tools for our male peers.

I’m beginning to see what others who came before me have known for a long time: that within the Phoenix musical communities, there are very, very few opportunities for a gender-marginalized person to occupy a position of power and be seen as equal to their cis male counterpart(s).

In Phoenix jazz, as far as I’ve seen in the last half decade, there are none. And it is damn hard to stay when there are no ways to climb that ladder.

To put it mildly, I spend a lot of time being uncomfortable. It’s just not for the reasons you’d assume. ♦

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post and would like to tip me, head on over to my Ko-fi page. For more analysis and commentary like this in your life, check back again soon, and consider subscribing to my mailing list (at the bottom of the page or in the sidebar) for quarterly update emails on my biggest projects. To support the long-term work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.

To listen to my episode on the Brave Musician podcast, click here.

This work doesn’t happen without the help of a small village. Many thanks to Vincent Thiefain for his contextual fact-checking help prior to publication.