Today on the blog, I am joined by the lovely Jacqueline Silvester for the Wunderkids blog tour. Jacqueline is answering 25 questions in 25 days across 25 blogs to celebrate the release of her (in my opinion, brilliant) novel. Today Jacky is joining me to discuss a topic that we both have personal experience of: post-traumatic stress disorder. Join us with a coffee whilst we answer a question posed by the lovely Amy of Golden Books Girl.
This week, I am drinking Aricha, an Ethiopian filter coffee from my favourites at Clifton. Jacky is drinking a cinnamon chai latte (which sounds delicious!)
I posted on Twitter asking for questions people had about living with PTSD and Amy posed this question, which both Jacqueline and I loved.
What TV shows, movies or books do you feel portray PTSD well? Have you ever found an offensive representation in media?
Initially, I thought this was going to be an easy question to answer, I had some ideas from TV, but far fewer from books. In my experience, books with a theme of PTSD tend to focus on war and military PTSD, which is not what happened to me.
One story that came immediately to mind was Mindless by Louise Cole, which explores the relationship between the body and mind after a trauma, and I can honestly say that it’s the closest to my own experiences that I’ve seen in fiction. There are a couple of quotes particularly that spoke to me and my experience:
“…we should get to the point where we can recall traumatic events without being there, be able to say what happened without feeling it. But that’s nonsense. Sometimes the body gets woken up and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to put it back to sleep. It’s an animal. And now it knows the world isn’t safe“
“Being run over, other stuff, doesn’t just stay in your head. It happens to the body and the body only knows now. It doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not.“
Both show the relationship between the mind and body after a trauma, the way that PTSD blurs the boundaries of time and the body feels as though the trauma is happening all over again, which has certainly been true of my own experiences.
Two of my favourite TV series also have representations of PTSD.
In Grey’s Anatomy, we see two different experiences in Owen and Cristina. Owen experiences PTSD after leaving the forces. His symptoms are more violent and body focused: he is triggered by a ceiling fan and “wakes” to find he is choking Cristina, but has no memory of that happening or why. Cristina’s experience is quite different and is the one I more closely identify with. Her symptoms manifest weeks after her initial trauma (when she operates on Derek as a man hold a gun to her head), when someone drops a tray in an operating theatre and Cristina re-experiences her trauma in a flashback. We see her laying on the theatre floor, talking to Meredith, saying
“I can’t feel anything. I can’t move my legs. I can’t feel anything.“
which is something I experienced a lot during episodes.
Later, we see her sitting in a bath, staring into space, obviously disconnected and emotionally numb, replaying the events of a plane crash to Owen. This emotional numbing is a classic PTSD symptom and one which I very closely identify with.
Lastly, I want to talk a little about the representation of PTSD in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In the episode “Normal Again“, Buffy is affected by demon venom and no longer knows what is reality. She is experiencing her actual life alongside life in an institution where she is believed to have schizophrenia. Neither Buffy, nor the viewer, know what is real and what isn’t and this shows for me the way that trauma sufferers experience trauma as though it is happening again, with the same urgency and immediacy as the actual event, something that I have experienced. Visually, Buffy is quiet, pale and withdrawn. We can see that she is hurt and confused and that she doesn’t know what’s real and not:
“What if I’m still there?”
The episode that most resonated with me, however, is “Life After Death” where Buffy has been resurrected, has clawed her way out of her own grave and is trying to slot back into life again. When she is first resurrected, she goes back to the tower: the site of her death, looking (as many survivors do, and as I myself did) for some kind of explanation and some way of piecing her fractured memories back together, to make sense of what happened.
In “Life After Death“, Buffy sits outside talking to Spike. We see her more distant than normal, quieter, needing to be alone. We see that her experience has changed her, but that she is trying to be the brave and strong one for her friends and family. The part that most struck me is where Buffy says
“Everything here is hard and bright and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch. This is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that,”
where she shows how hard it is sometimes to just function in a world that no longer makes sense. This episode is one that I watched obsessively before I was diagnosed, because I found it comforting to see someone on the TV feeling like I felt.
I can’t say that I have ever found an offensive representation. I think that everyone’s experience of PTSD is different and it’s important that books and TV, films etc show these different experiences.
Now, over to Jacky…
For years I was in denial about having PTSD. I believed that PTSD was reserved for people who had been through what I deemed at the time to be ‘real trauma;’ serious traumatic one-time events, like watching someone die or being in an accident. I was wrong.
I’m not really sure where my PTSD originated, whether it was when my parents and I got mugged at gunpoint when I was little, or when my mom was assaulted whilst pregnant with my little brother, or on some other occasion. There are few potential culprits, none of which I deemed to be ‘real trauma,’ or ‘trauma that warranted PTSD.’ In the meantime I wrote off my hyper vigilance (i.e. sleeping with a Hello Kitty baseball bat) and my vivid nightmares and panic attacks as artistic quirks. I now see how backwards my thinking was. Realizing that I actually have PTSD was very freeing; because it was not something I could blame myself for, or control, and it explained why I behave in the way that I do.
Now on to the question at hand, the portrayal of PTSD in books and film… I’ve never encountered an offensive portrayal of PTSD, mainly because I’ve only been honest with myself about having it for a little over a year. I’m sure there are plenty out there, and I would love to open the floor for anyone reading this to list any they may have encountered. One thing I can say is that I wish I saw more reps for PTSD that weren’t caused by returning from war or watching someone die. There are many things that can cause PTSD, some less intense than war or death (but still very real). Perhaps I can find a way to rep that side of the syndrome in my own books. Maybe if I had seen more alternate portrayals of PTSD I would have realized earlier that I needed to seek help.
Another criticism I have is that I think TV shows/films use the symptoms of PTSD (vivid flashbacks, erratic behavior) as plot devices to keep the drama going and they overlook the quieter, less visually dramatic symptoms. When I go somewhere new I like to map out the exits when I get there, I like to think of which items around me can be used for self-defense, and how I will react if and when danger strikes. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember and I would love to see a character on screen grappling with these more subtle symptoms.
As far as plot devices go it’s easier to use trauma as a one-time catalyst on screen; it carries more impact, but for some it’s not one singular trauma that led to their current state, it’s prolonged and repeated trauma on a smaller scale (like abusive relationships.) I can’t speak for anyone else but I think that for myself it was that combination of various traumas that led to this state. Personally, I struggled very much with the realization that the world wasn’t safe for the people I love or for myself. Trauma can build up and stack, until it all crashes and you no longer feel safe in regular everyday situations. My character Izaya deals with this in the sequel to Wunderkids.
One of the most positive portrayals of PTSD I’ve ever come across is Kaz Brekker in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. What I like about Kaz is that here is a character that can break your bones with his cane, con you out of all your money, and pull off the heist of the century, all within the space of an afternoon. He is strong and resilient and clever and admired and a complete badass. Yet, he is also suffering from PTSD, a syndrome that handicaps him to the point were he is physically unable touch the woman he loves, because it makes him relive his trauma. I love Kaz Brekker so damn much, both as a character and as a symbol, because he shows you that PTSD is not weakness or fear, one can be fearless and strong like him, yet still suffer and relive past trauma through simple everyday acts, like holding someone’s hand.
I grew up with the idea that weakness is the absence of strength, you can blame social or cultural conditioning for that, and for ages I thought my issues made me weak and afraid and frail. People would tell me that I “was afraid of everything,” but also that I “was the strongest person they had ever met” and I didn’t have room in my head to fit both of those ideas. The truth is, it takes a different kind of strength to live with PTSD, and a different type of fearlessness to face those simple things that launch you back into the thick of the trauma every single day.
Thanks so much Jacky for your wonderful post and for sharing your experiences with us!
Wunderkids is available to buy now, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.