Every good Netflix binge needs a few essentials: A take-out feast is a must. Heaps of blankets and pillows will definitely enhance the experience. And you should probably keep a bottle of klonopin nearby, just in case you’re hit with a wave of anxiety and nausea that leaves you shaking and crying for hours.
At least, that’s the checklist for the millions of Americans who live with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental illness characterized by flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. When a person with PTSD is triggered, they can experience symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to complete disassociation, a psychological condition marked by feeling disconnected from one’s body.
While PTSD is primarily thought of as a veteran’s illness, the majority of American PTSD sufferers are women. As one of those women, I’ve experienced first-hand the physical and emotional agony of being unexpectedly triggered by a piece of seemingly benign pop culture. For me, attempting to unwind after a long day at work can involve tremendous fear and discomfort. If I want to catch up on what everyone’s talking about—say, an episode of Jessica Jones or How to Get Away with Murder—I have to judge, based on what I know about the show, whether I’m likely to run into upsetting material. I'll often self-spoil, reading synopses of episodes before I watch so I can be prepared for scenes of violence, abuse, or assault. (An ex teased me for the habit, until I was unexpectedly triggered by a superhero movie on date night.)
The process can be so exhausting, it’s often easier to not watch TV at all. I half-jokingly tell Netflix-and-chill dates that I only watch “documentaries and cartoons,” the least likely genres to send me into spiraling, chest-tightening panic. While a national debate may be raging about the value of flagging disturbing content for so-called "coddled" college students, for trauma survivors, the need for trigger warnings extends far beyond the classroom.
Thankfully, my David Attenborough days may soon be over: I recently learned that an Oakland-based software engineer and assault survivor named Danielle Leong is trying to make Netflix a safer place for people like me—and her—with a new app called Feerless. Leong, 28, designed Feerless to provide the trigger warnings that pop culture doesn’t. Free to download as a Google Chrome extension, Feerless allows users to flag potentially upsetting content in Netflix's streaming shows, improving the experience for the rest of us. If the show you’re watching is about to take a grisly turn, a small white circle pops up in the corner of your screen—a wordless warning, giving you the option to look away. Users can specify what kind of content they want to be warned about, so whether you're likely to be triggered by animal abuse or war violence, the app has you covered.
I recently spoke with Leong about the launch of her game-changing new app, living with PTSD, and what's next for the project.
As a fellow binge-watcher living with PTSD, I can’t tell you how long I’ve wished that something like Feerless existed. Where did the idea for the app come from?
I was watching an episode of one of my favorite shows, Sons of Anarchy, and there was a scene where one of the main characters was gang raped. I have PTSD from a sexual assault and the scene triggered me very badly—I ended up losing about three days of my life. When I came out of the fog, I remember thinking, “If I had known that was coming, I wouldn’t have watched it.” But there just weren’t trigger warnings for TV shows like that.
I remember seeing a list of trigger warnings for the third season of Orange Is the New Black floating around Tumblr and being so grateful, because I could actually get through the whole season, even though there was a major storyline about abuse and several rape scenes.
Yeah, I had a similar experience. I was excited to watch the new season and a bunch of my friends were like, “Uh, just so you know, this happens.” I got enough of a heads up that when I was watching it, I could decide, “Today, I feel strong enough to watch this.” I think that speaks to the power of being prepared for what you’re seeing and deciding when it’s okay for you personally. That’s why I made Feerless: I thought it would be great if we could crowdsource that information, so we can let our friends who suffer from PTSD know—just like my friends let me know—when something might be upsetting.
Where did the name come from?
The app is not about censorship; it’s about choice. By giving people the choice to engage or not engage with graphic content, it’s helping people with mental illness live their lives more fully. It’s completely opt-in, it doesn’t disrupt the viewing experience, and you don’t have to stop watching if you don’t want to. So many people with PTSD feel powerless, and they feel so much fear that they can’t live their lives to the fullest. Feerless is about choice and empowerment. I want to help people live as fearlessly as possible, to be strong and brave and courageous. Part of that is helping them take control and conquer their inner demons.
There’s a lot of controversy about trigger warnings in mainstream media. Have you gotten any negative response to Feerless?
Not personally, no. I think once people realize it’s for people with a mental illness, they’re a little more cautious about what they say. Plenty of people don’t care about “PC culture,” but for whatever reason, they take a medical diagnosis seriously.
Should people who don’t have PTSD still download Feerless?
Absolutely. One of the things on my very long to-do list is to create an "ally mode," where people who don’t have PTSD can still help flag triggering content without receiving notifications. The power of this app is that its crowd-sourced, so ideally, we’d have as many people as possible contributing to our database, whether they have PTSD or not. Plus, if you don’t have PTSD, it’s easier to actually watch and tag this stuff comfortably.
When I was checking out the app, I remember thinking, “Oh, I wish my ex-boyfriend had this when we were watching Netflix together.”
Oh yeah, it could definitely be helpful for partners of people with PTSD. One of the hardest things about being a partner to someone with PTSD is that you want to help, but there’s not a lot you can do. This is a way to do something active—flagging triggering content—that actually helps people with PTSD. Plus, if you’re watching something together and the trigger warning comes up, that gives you a heads up that you might need to pause the show, but it also gives them a heads up that they might need to go into caretaker mode.
I feel like this is a huge example of why diversity is so important in tech—
Oh, I completely agree. I’m actually pretty heavily involved in diversity in tech. Technology can really help people in underrepresented communities. I saw this need in the mental health community, I looked around the marketplace, and I just didn’t see that much out there for people like me, people with PTSD. The more diversity of people we have in the industry, the better our products will be, and the more we can help our users.
Seriously, thank you again for this. It’s such a small thing, but it makes such a big difference.
All we wanna do is watch TV! (laughs) Watch it in peace, like everyone else.
Haylin Belay is a NYC-based writer and sex educator exploring the intersection between identity, sexuality, and health.