January 29th, 2009


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.  
can't sleep books will eat me

to when the pretty young girl in the hightops in writing poems in a flat in rathmines

Book # 8: Lilian Jackson Braun, The Cat Who Went Bananas

...every time I think these can't get more nonsensical, they somehow manage. They don't even actually involve mystery solving anymore, just murders happening in the background and eventually being resolved by a deus ex machina. (I read it because I had it, okay? Left over from airport bookstore desperation, and my brain needed a break from things with facts or plots.)