A little dot can make watching television safe for anyone with triggers from traumatic experiences.
By Andre Carter
People who live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder face the prospect of re-experiencing their worst memories while doing the simplest of things, such as sitting down on their sofa and watching the hottest television series. Believe it or not, such a simple everyday occurrence can be a daunting experience for individuals who live with PTSD.
“It’s always very tense,” says software engineer Danielle Leong, who was the victim of two sexual assaults and is the creator of a computer application that she named, Feerless, to help viewers keep bad memories in check while watching movies and television shows. “You’re always on guard and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some days it’s better, some days it’s worse.”
The 29-year-old from Oakland, Calif., was having a good day in 2015, when she decided to catch up on Sons of Anarchy, an FX show about motorcycle gangs that was streaming on Netflix. Her sister knew Leong was a fan of motorcycles and recommended the series to her. Leong always took into consideration her past when trying anything new. But this time, she let her guard down. She was enjoying the popular program—until the other shoe dropped. A gang rape scene in one of the episodes brought back memories of her assaults. Leong was unprepared for the scene, her PTSD was triggered, and she lapsed into panic attacks for three days.
The feeling of helplessness was an experience she didn’t want to go through again, and ultimately led to an idea. Leong kept wondering how many other people experienced similar feelings while watching a show or movie. She couldn’t be the only one who had a previous traumatic experience haunt her following an unexpected scene. She thought long and hard about this, and the idea sprung to develop an app that would alert Netflix users, who are living with PTSD, to a potential scene coming up in a movie or series they are watching that could reopen old wounds.
Feerless was born.
“I thought, ‘What if I had known this was going to happen?’ I would have been more prepared,” she says. “This app is for
people who need it and want to get their lives as close to normal as possible.”
The app is available in the Chrome app store as an extension for Google’s browser. The free app has been downloaded almost 1,500 times since it was created. It operates very simply: When a questionable scene appears, users have the option of pressing a button on their computer screen. The app retrieves the show’s info, including title and episode from the Netflix video, plus the moment during the episode when the button was pressed, and it stores the data. When another user loads that show afterward, the app will ask if there is anything for it. If there is, it will cue up the list of notifications. Thirty seconds before the potentially triggering event occurs in the scene, a bubble will appear at the bottom of the screen as a subtle warning to the viewer, who then will decide whether to avoid the scene or watch
Programs are separated into various categories, including sexual assault, LGBT hate crimes and war crimes. Leong says many of the users are women who have experienced something traumatic in their lives; they are always suggesting categories to add to the current mix, ranging from vomiting and medical procedures to car crashes. Among the scenes that have been flagged are ones from Daredevil, Orange is the New Black and Mad Men, due to the latter’s depiction of sexual harassment.
Leong says the app isn’t a form of censorship, and she adds that criticism of it has been limited because of its opt-in format. She also believes because so many people only associate PTSD with military veterans, critics are hesitant to critique anything that helps people who have PTSD. Bob Dylan famously said, “Take care of your memories … for you cannot relive them.”
The project is deeply personal for Leong. Four years ago she was sexually assaulted for the second time and she has become an activist for sexual assault education. “I wanted to name the app after something that is aspirational,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be about being a victim. I wanted it to be, ‘You want to live life
to the fullest, without fear.’ That’s why I called it Feerless.
F-E-A-R was taken as a domain, so F-E-E-R is something a little more memorable.”
But after creating Feerless, she discovered that it had reached a group of people who had felt powerless. “They love it,” Leong says of the people who have downloaded the app. “A lot of people are grateful that somebody took the time to think about mental health and PTSD. Women don’t usually talk about the bad things that have happened to them. They just want to keep contributing and helping grow the community because knowing you’re not alone in something like this is very powerful. It helps you move forward because you have the support of others around you.”
The buzz surrounding the community continues to grow as Feerless’ popularity increases. Leong is working on a desktop version that will expand the community even more. She hopes to eventually make it compatible with other streaming services, including Hulu and Amazon Prime.
“This is so needed and long past due,” comments one user. “It normalizes our experiences and helps us feel less isolated
Adds another: “I cried tears of relief when I discovered something with trigger warnings had finally been invented. Now, I can watch movies with my partner without fear of dampening the evening with panic attacks. I can also feel safe watching on my own.”
As Leong has seen the strength of the Feerless community increase, she is feeling stronger, too.
“It’s been part of my healing process to be able to do something about my PTSD and do an active thing toward healing,” she says. “It’s been helpful with my recovery. I no longer have severe PTSD. I’m down to moderate. Trauma permanently changes us, and it’s vital we forgive ourselves for not being the person we planned