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bear by san

March 2017

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tea

people go and stay where they should not. they don't do it like i would.

I blame Donald Bellisario.

suzych posted recently on pain, and how the reality is much different from the fiction.  

And it got me thinking, I sort of wish the media (and writers) would stop mythologizing post-traumatic stress. It doesn't annoy me quite as much as characters enduring enormous trauma without visible after-effects, but in the past thirty years or so, there's been an increasing trend towards treating the survival of violence as an interesting character flaw, and it makes me tired. Tired people don't finish the books they are reading.

It's not the acknowledgment of psychological damage due to trauma that bugs me: I want to see more of it. What bugs me is lack of research and understanding, or treating psychological damage as sexy.

First of all, not everybody who is exposed to a major trauma or a series thereof suffers clinical PTSD. In fact, the majority will not. Incidence increases with severity, duration, and repetition of the trauma. On the other hand, sometimes all it takes is once.

The thing that many people seem to miss is that post-traumatic stress is an injury. It's not an interesting character flaw. It doesn't make your protagonist less of a Mary Sue to hand them some PTSD. It also doesn't define them: "traumatized" is not a character trait. It can lead to character traits, because suffering generally affects who we are, but all by itself it's not a character.*

(It's been interesting for me, writing Todd in Shadow Unit, because while he's certainly got some internalized adaptations to violence, I've never thought of him as a PTSD sufferer. And yet, there are fans for whom it's hard to image him without that label. People see what they expect to see, and PTSD is trendy like a trendy thing these days. Magnum: PI, this is all your fault.)

There's also a lack of understanding of what post-traumatic adaptation is, and how it manifests. It is, in fact, an adaptation. It is your body's way of protecting itself from similarly awful situations in the future. Don't do that. Defend yourself. This is dangerous.

(Post-traumatic adaptation can be exploited, by the way, by unscupulous persons who manipulate that adaptation: this is how brainwashing works. You put somebody in an untenable position, don't allow them time to think or police their boundaries, inculcate guilt and self-hatred, force them to repudiate deeply held beliefs, and they will latch onto the ideology you offer them with unbelievable fervor, because it's an ego-defense against the reality of the self-betrayal you have pressed upon them. In even more interesting neurology, Stockholm syndrome works in similar ways to domestication. If you make somebody dependent on you, they will come to love you. Because they need you so badly, it's adaptive to feel a bond.)

But it's really not sexy. Trauma cannot be smoothed away by the love of a good woman. Or hot, sweaty manlove, for that matter. (Manlove. It's what's for dinner.) Certainly, human contact and friendships comfort the afflicted, but it doesn't make the adaptations go away. A feeling of safety can back them down (if we are safe, we don't need to be ready for the apocalypse!) but since so many people who have suffered some kind of trauma are hypervigilant, that feeling of safety can be hard to find.

Another issue I see in fictional trauma survivors is that their crazy is kind of random, and it doesn't really work like that. The walking wounded are actually kind of predictable. They're called trigger issues for a reason, and those of us who have them will pretty much reliably always react in the same way to certain kinds of stimulus--either with anxiety, confrontation, or both. The really lovely part of that is that we're sensitized, so our brains will pick out the slightest trace of whatever it is that sets us off in an otherwise innocuous conversation, and *bang,* zero to panic attack in no seconds and we're all up in your face with the pre-emptive strike.

Part of recovery is learning your trigger issues, and how to manage them. Part of managing them is making other people aware of them, but also taking responsibility for them yourself. And realizing that if you have trigger issues, sometimes you will feel yourself triggering in situations where that response is not adaptive. I hate unsolicited advice, and everybody who has hung out here for a while probably knows all about that. It's a trigger issue, and it dates from the years I spent being told that whatever I was doing, I was doing it wrong.

On the other paw, I have had to come to accept as an adult that I have friends whose relational style is based on giving advice, because for them advice is comforting and nurturing. For me, it's an assault on my personal boundaries and an indicator that an attack! is! imminent!, and it sends me to red alert. You try to learn to compromise. You also try to learn to ask for what you need. So, using me as an example, because I'm here, I will tend to see condescension and scorn and attempts to control me in even the best-intentioned advice, and I know I can be violent in defending my boundaries.

On the third paw, I have the right to ask people not to put me in a situation where I feel uncomfortable and stressed and triggery and angry and anxious. Fist, face, right to swing ends at my, etc.

This is really too enormous a topic to cover in a reasonably-sized blog entry, but suffice it to say, generally speaking, people who have suffered trauma will have boundary issues. Either they'll have no boundaries at all, or their boundaries will have no give. (When I ask for a certain kind of space, I suspect by now my friends know that to cross that line is to trigger a targeted explosion. There is no play in those lines. In interacting with people I don't know, I try to set my boundaries further out than they really are, so there is some play in them, because I try to take personal responsibility for managing my damage.)

But the thing that really gets missed in literature, I think, is how boring trauma survival is. Boring and painful. This is not the sharp, interesting pain of a broken heart or a broken leg. It's the stultifying, crabby-making pain of fucking physical therapy every day for the rest of your life if you don't want to allow the trauma to make you a cripple. Pain is dull. Unless you glamorize it, which I think is ethically questionable.

(This is the treason of the artist, wrote Ursula K. Le Guin. The refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.)

So if pain is boring, what's interesting?

Adaptation, I think. And the indomitable human spirit. And really cute cats.


But I Digress:

*You know, not to totally derail the conversation with irrelevancies, but I'm going to. Possibly because I have been reading all this FFWM (fat fantasy with maps) lately, I'm also thinking of the idea that anybody with dramatic coloring (especially red hair or black hair and bright blue or green eyes, or very fair or very dark skin) must be a Mary Sue.

I kind of have some dramatic coloring of my own--including, yes, Jewel-Toned Eyes (random people in bookstores comment on them)--although these days I'm much more a brunette than a redhead or a blond (I've had phases of both). But I come from a family of redheads on the Swedish/Irish side, and it seems to me like there has to be a way to have redheaded people in my fiction without it being an instant marker of how much I suck and how stuck I am on genre tropes.  

Comments

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dramatic coloring

Lavender eyes bother me the most.

Re: dramatic coloring

I used to know a guy with amber eyes. No, really.

And another one with gray/lavender eyes with a charcoal ring around the iris. *g*
THANKS for writing this. It really, really resonates for me.

And yes, I'm predictable as hell. And it's not sexy. And no one can just up and fix it by being predictably around or whatever.
We love you despite your trigger issues. *g*
But the thing that really gets missed in literature, I think, is how boring trauma survival is.

Truth. And I speak as an adult survivor myself.

(I've really wanted to write a story where a woman is violently attacked and permanently injured and goes on with her life JUST FINE while everyone freaks around her. Because you know, there ARE people who do that, who RECOVER and live happily every after the worst; but the whole PTSD thing has been romanticized so much that most people would expect such a character to be a long-suffering tragic weepy crumbled up ball of a person. When, NOT. heheheheh. But then I'd get slammed by victim advocacy groups for being flippant about survivor trauma. *sighhhhhhh*)
Y'know, write the story - get around the advocacy groups by having your heroine be one of several, and have one get the shakes (or whatever) while the other recovers fine (for a given definition of fine). . compare and contrast. If you want to make it annoying, make the gals twins.

*You know, not to totally derail the conversation with irrelevancies, but I'm going to. Possibly because I have been reading all this FFWM (fat fantasy with maps) lately, I'm also thinking of the idea that anybody with dramatic coloring (especially red hair or black hair and bright blue or green eyes, or very fair or very dark skin) must be a Mary Sue.

I kind of have some dramatic coloring of my own--including, yes, Jewel-Toned Eyes (random people in bookstores comment on them)--although these days I'm much more a brunette than a redhead or a blond (I've had phases of both). But I come from a family of redheads on the Swedish/Irish side, and it seems to me like there has to be a way to have redheaded people in my fiction without it being an instant marker of how much I suck and how stuck I am on genre tropes.


Completely ignoring everything before this because I have nothing constructive to add other than "Right on!", the Mary Sue thing is starting to drive me batty meself. I have dated several men with those striking blue eyes and dark or black hair with fair skin. It's like the M&MS/Santa commercial "They do exist!" Not everything is people inserting their ideal or wishful selves into the story. In fact, I'm willing to bet that most of those characters aren't ideal selves but are at worst projections of "the one that got away" or "the person everyone wanted to be in high school"!
I have dated several men with those striking blue eyes and dark or black hair with fair skin. It's like the M&MS/Santa commercial "They do exist!"

This made me laugh out loud. I've also dated a man who was Syrian-Irish, who had the gorgeous black hair and amazing blue-green eyes, with a complexion somewhere in-between. Hoo, boy, was he handsome.
I appreciate this post. Thanks.

Le Guin can really say it, can't she? I have panic disorder, and yes, one of the worst things about it these days is that it's boring, tiresome. When I'm awake at three in the morning dealing with the pain in my body and my mind, no one in my family is awake with me anymore -- they got tired of it years ago. And I wish I didn't have to be awake with me.
God, it's so fucking boring.

I think I remember when my trauma was Interesting (obsessional, even) but that was a long time ago. It stops being romantic when you realize you're going to have to live with it forever--like the guy who always shows up out of the blue with spontaneous plans and sweeps you off your feet for adventures is great until you're married to him and trying to get to WORK. Except without the spontaneous and the adventures.
But the thing that really gets missed in literature, I think, is how boring trauma survival is. Boring and painful.

Speaking of boring literature...
...last week we (we, the Am. Lit class) were taking a look at some of the accounts of early explorers in the Americas. The particular account was that of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (one of 4 survivors of a party of 400). The teacher was talking about how the tone of the account was very disconnected, very third person...and I was (like), "Holy PTSD!" Then we both sat there and discussed the elements of PTSD in the written account while the rest of the class figured us for literature nerdz.

And it was, and it clicked, and the little mushroom cloud appeared over my head and all of a sudden the writing had new meaning. Total Achilles de Cabeza de Vaca.

What is interesting here is that no one inserted the elements of PTSD --- they were just there, and once discovered they made the writing style and tone connect.

So, all that to say: "Yes Bear, I agree."
Not to detract from the serious topics being discussed, but...the guy's name was "Cow Head"?!
Soldier with PTSD = The Wounded Warrior, so it makes sense to me that people want to use it in fiction. Personally, I think there are plenty of other mental issues that can be used just as well.

Oh, and in case you've not read them (I haven't) a blog I read on interrogation an politics recommended the work of a psychologist named Joost Meerloo, who wrote on brainwashing techniques.
Thanks for the rec!

(I'm not just talking about soldiers.)
Pain is strange. I have, through carelessness of my own, aquired some ripped cruicate ligaments and while the intensity of pain varies, it's always there (thankfully, mostly an inconvenice than actually hurting, if that makes any sense). It isn't, mostly, interesting, though, just look at how boring my description of pain was.

Change, on the other hand, tends to be interesting. Or at least varied. Util it becomes change for change's sake and it dives straight back into boring. Saying that, I get the impression that none of your fictional characters have come out the other side of a novel (or short story, though the only one I recall having read is The Girl who Sang Rose Madder) unchanged.

On the flip side, I don't find "red hair, pale skin, blue eyes" that strange a colouring at all. I'd guess at least 10%-15% of the people I grew up with had that colouring; more, if I am allowed to extrapolate "red" to mean "from strawberry blond to reddish-brown" (that'd probably get the numbers up to 30%-45%). However, that'd be growing up in Sweden.
The thing I notice about pain--chronic pain--is that one stops noticing it until it goes away. And then one is shocked by how much better one feels.

Seriously! There are whole COUNTRIES full of redheaded people! They're not that uncommon!
Thank you. Another very well-stated bit on current trends and writing. You said some of the stuff I've said to other people. Only more coherently!

Scalzi had a post on Mary-Sues the other day. I think I've got my own rant coming up on them. And how not every skillful or striking character is one. I think if you look at yourself in the mirror (the generic you, that is), you often see something that could be Mary-Sueish. If you look around at your friends and acquaintances, you see a random sampling of Mary-Sueish traits. Sometimes, you even get a whole mess of them in one person. (I've got one of those in one of my classes this semester.) People have gotten too knee-jerk on outstanding characters.

I also think it's got a lot to do with personal preferences. Like I think the main character in The Name of the Wind is annoyingly Mary-Sueish. But I know other people who love the book and aren't irritated by him.
Word. I've had plenty of claims on people with Bad Things In Their Past cross my desk*--most of them would have been ready to trade it all on for even a used car that didn't run, let alone one that would start.

Also, that really fair skin thing--rosacea, sooner or later, if you're not lucky. Or so my mirror tells me.

*unsolicited advice warning*

Including the downside of a particular coloring type is sort of anti-Sue. (I wonder if there's ever been a Sue with melasma?) So are other not-automatically attractive features--I'll bet there's a lot of mileage in non-perfect noses, or mouths with very thin lips, and all of that sort of thing. Eyes too close together. Receding chins. Or ginormus chins, they're good too.


*There's a fine vicious circle out in the world of "welfare" recipients, and I'll bet you aren't a bit surprised to read that.
Rosacea, yeah. I've got some. *g* Also a lifetime subscription to zits.

The problem with the eyes-too-close-together thing is that it's played enough to get its own entry in the Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Frequently referred to as the "mouth too wide for beauty" problem. Also, Mary Sue never thinks she's pretty, but everybody else does.
Yeah. I have exactly one friend who doesn't seem to have any expectations of what my past trauma is supposed to mean to my present life. If it comes up, most people use it to label me forever. it's almost comical, if I have a bad day I can be sure that first someone will ask if it's ptsd (or the equivalent) and then ask if my glucose levels are low, because if you are diabetic and a survivor of abuse then there's only two reasons in the world you'd ever be in a bad mood.

I will admit to the fact that aspects of my personality are certainly the result of good and bad experiences in my life but I am not defined by something I have no control over.

It's annoying in fiction, but it's more annoying in real life. I worked with kids who had also suffered abuses and what I keep saying , sort of like a mantra is "this does not define you and don't let anyone make it define you". It holds true for illness as well-it doesn't define you.

People are really, really resilient. Fiction and the media often portray people as unable to cope with any trauma at all but this is simply not so. LeGuin is right, evil *is* banal and I really believe that the really interesting thing about humans is we typically move beyond our hurts and live pretty wondrous lives.

Eye color though. That is a sore spot for me. I thought mine were blue, but put a picture of them online and have been told they are green. At 47 this has sent me into a crisis of identity.
If it comes up, most people use it to label me forever. it's almost comical, if I have a bad day I can be sure that first someone will ask if it's ptsd (or the equivalent) and then ask if my glucose levels are low, because if you are diabetic and a survivor of abuse then there's only two reasons in the world you'd ever be in a bad mood.

Oh my god THIS. Just replace diabetic with asthmatic.
Truth.

I've noticed lots of people have very interesting eyes when I really look. Mine are a looming thunderhead colour I'm quite fond of. However, I grumpily just call them gray, because most people who remark upon the colour are being slimy. Anyhow, the colour is balanced out by them being a bit too close together. *g*
Somehow the discussion of eye color in a post iconned with purple things coming out an eye socket was...kinda weird. :-)

Re: trigger issues and adaptation

Nose breaking, counterindicated. Even when it feels justified. *g*
I disagree with you on so many levels I can hardly comment. but this really stands out:

"Another issue I see in fictional trauma survivors is that their crazy is kind of random, and it doesn't really work like that. The walking wounded are actually kind of predictable. They're called trigger issues for a reason, and those of us who have them will pretty much reliably always react in the same way to certain kinds of stimulus"

Maybe for you. Definitely not for everyone and certainly not to the people around them (if no one can figure out what triggered it, it clearly appears random). and for many trauma survivors, or anyone with mental health issues, neither they nor their therapist can figure out why this time and only this time that sound, that smell, or that word triggered an extreme reaction that ended up with a trip to the psych ward... again. Speak for yourself.
Fair enough.

I'm speaking in the context of constructing fictional characters, which is mostly what this blog is about, and of course everyone else's experience it going to differ from my own.
I have had to come to accept as an adult that I have friends whose relational style is based on giving advice, because for them advice is comforting and nurturing.

Thanks for the eye-opener. This has been playing out in my own personal dynamics for years, and all I've been able to define it as has been trying to be helpful.

Which it rarely is for me, because damn! Did I *ask* for help?!

So, I usually end up pissed and annoyed and biting my tongue because this is a loved one. And I just had the ah-ha! moment of the parental dynamics which inspired this behavior.
Yeah. It's a hard one for me, too. :-P
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