Trauma is Drama: New Television Series Highlight Prominent Characters with PTSD

Innumerable entertainment sources from film to television to books shine the spotlight on trauma, yet fail to directly address the psychological impacts of trauma by using direct mental health terminology. I like to say that “trauma is drama.” Frankly, it is difficult to avoid witnessing traumatic depictions in entertainment. You see characters traumatized, and often, there are realistic depictions of ensuing Post-Traumatic Stress disorder symptoms. What’s missing is any character uttering the term “PTSD," let alone anything depicting a recognition of the disorder, diagnosis and treatment. Select mental illnesses are more commonly addressed in entertainment media, such as depression and anxiety. But in the abundance of trauma depictions with post-traumatic character symptoms of PTSD, direct mentions of the disorder are overwhelmingly omitted.

In 2015, two new television series featured title and supporting characters with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: the Netflix original series Jessica Jones, and the FX series "You're the Worst."

You're the Worst is an FX comedy series by created by Stephen Falk that features the character Edgar Quintero, played by actor Desmin Borges as Edgar Quintero. Edgar is an Iraq war veteran with PTSD. His illness and symptoms are brilliantly woven into the comedic tone of the dark comedy. "Can PTSD ever be funny?" asked The Washington Post in a profile piece on the series and Stephen Falk. As someone with PTSD, I can attest - it is incredibly funny. And real. I'm sure not all would agree. The references can be graphic, and the responses comically cruel. Excerpt:

"And yet on “You’re the Worst,” FX’s stellar sitcom about two undateable people who find themselves dating each other, one of the four central characters is a veteran named Edgar, played by Desmin Borges. Edgar has post-traumatic stress disorder and, as he explains, “mild-to-medium battlefield-induced psychosis.” This extraordinarily unfunny ailment is the source of some of the smartest, darkest humor in the show." - By Jessica Goldstein, The Washington Post. Read the article.

Jessica Jones is a Netflix original drama series by Melissa Rosenberg based on a fictional superhero appearing in comic books published by Marvel. I've personally long connected the superheroe archetype to Post-Traumatic Stress disorder survivors. Did Batman or Peter Parker (Spiderman) have PTSD? Hmm... traumatic childhoods, witnessing the brutal murder of one's parents, etc. Most superheros, and villains alike, have their character origin in trauma. Trauma is capable of re-programming the human nervous system and brain, to the degree that certain abilities become hyper-sensitized. My family calls it my "spidey sense" - hyper-instinct and intuition on people's intentions, hyper-empathy, sensing when something is "off", heightened sense of hearing and sight, sensing danger moments before others (ie. that car is swerving at us), etc. This hyper-awareness (also called hyper-vigilance) is often harmful for PTSD survivors, but as many of us know, it differentiates us from others and can be harnessed for good. And here comes Jessica Jones, starring Krysten Ritter. Jessica suffers immensely from her PTSD. She directly addresses her PTSD diagnosis and symptoms, as do her co-stars. The depictions of her PTSD symptoms are intense and realistic, ranging from powerful flashbacks, to hyper-vigilance, difficulty connecting with others and nightmares. But she's a super-hero, in that she harnesses the power of this darkness for good. She doesn't want to be a super-hero per se; in fact, she verbally rejects the label. Yet she doesn't resist her instinct to protect others from trauma. Her powers are dramatized in true Marvel comic book style - she is super-human, and possesses super strength. As a character though, she represents the conflict and intense drive so many PTSD survivors have to use our darkness for light. The series also showcases the darkness of trauma and PTSD, depicted in the villainous character Kilgrave played by David Tenant. One can't even consider empathy for his character until scenes from his early childhood are shown depicting what appears to be child abuse in the form of painful medical experimentation at the hands of his parents. Kilgrave represents the darkness of PTSD; sufferers of PTSD are at an increased risk of suicide, and at times, violence against others. The plot line, screenwriting, directing and acting are incredible. It is a riveting series. As a female PTSD survivor, while I found some scenes to be triggering, I overall felt empowered by the series.

Both "You're the Worst" and "Jessica Jones" should be viewed with caution by PTSD survivors; both contain multiple triggering scenes and dialogue. Whether you view these shows or not, that we are being represented on mainstream television alone represents great progress for both military related PTSD and civilian PTSD.

Further reading:

"Jessica Jones Is a Show About Trauma That Doesn't Skip Over The Complexity of PTSD" - Katharine Trendacosta in Gizmodo

‘You’re the Worst’ mines comedy from an unlikely source — PTSD - The Washington Post