Guest Column by Casey Libonate | Trigger Warning
October 30, 2013, 5:55 pm · Updated October 30, 2013, 9:30 pm·
I believe strongly in the importance of advocacy. However, while raising awareness about a given issue is necessary to enact change, advocates should be aware of how they go about their work.
Often times, the best meant actions can cause major setbacks for the very people advocates are trying to help. What may seem like a simple campaign to increase awareness may actually lead to panic attacks and deepening depression. Before any advocacy can truly be effective, the ethics of advocacy must be discussed. There needs to be a dialogue and it needs to include the people that are being advocated for.
I am passionate about this mainly because I have experienced the negative effects of advocacy. I was prompted to write this piece after being especially triggered on Locust Walk by a body image campaign that included posters with facts about eating disorders. One sign read, “95 percent of people with eating disorders are between the age of 12-25.”
To be triggered means to experience symptoms or relapse of a mental illness. As a person living with anxiety and an eating disorder, being triggered is just an everyday part of life. Triggers take many forms and are unpredictable, although I personally know that certain things — like hearing about another person who has an eating disorder — will set me off.
I would not have written this guest column a year ago. Back then I was too afraid to let people know about a huge part of myself — I wanted to be perfect. Only, I wasn’t “perfect.” I was in the middle of recovering from anorexia, something I had been diagnosed with at the start of my senior year of high school. Although I didn’t keep it a secret, I also wouldn’t admit (even to myself) that I wasn’t entirely better. I didn’t want to appear broken and I was willing to make up any excuses necessary to keep up the mask of flawlessness I was literally killing myself to uphold.
For a while, life at Penn was everything I wanted it to be. I was in Benjamin Franklin Scholars and Civic Scholars; I partied and stayed up late. By the beginning of October, however, things began to go downhill quickly, and I soon realized that being a typical Penn student could not coexist with my health or happiness. I began to focus only on academics and my activities at Civic House. I went from 130 pounds, which was already about 15 pounds underweight, to 100 pounds.
The worst part was that I felt trapped, isolated and no one at Penn seemed to notice. When I went home for Christmas break it was decided that I had to take a medical leave. At that point in time, I really didn’t think I ever would come back to Penn. The idea of the campus and most of the students put me over the edge and I hated that. The campus itself was a trigger. What should have been my first spring semester became an endless round of hospital visits and therapists. I vowed never to return to Penn; I could not picture myself existing on campus.
After a lot of painful work and reflection I made the decision to return to school this fall. Thankfully, I’m in a much better place now than I was a year ago. However, I am not “better.” I am not “fixed.” And it kills me to admit that. It is just not how mental illness works. I am still very susceptible to triggers and have to work around them and through them on a daily basis.
I think it is important that Penn students continue to advocate for what they care about. I just think that there needs to be a heightened sense of awareness about how the advocating is done.
Turning a serious mental illness or topic like sexual abuse into a slogan on Locust is never okay and doing so only makes people less likely to talk about their experiences. Instead, I invite you to explore issues by talking to the people affected by them (only if they are comfortable with that) and realizing that your cause is somebody’s life. At the very least, please include a trigger warning in all of your advocacy activities.
Casey Libonate is a College sophomore. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.