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This wasn't quite an appropriate response for the Tumblr conversation I saw so I'm putting it here because there is something here I've been trying to figure out how to say for awhile. Context is that people were saying John Reese from Person of Interest is not depicted as having PTSD. I strenuously disagree.

I have PTSD and Nonverbal Learning Disorder which I think is considered an ASD cousin. To me, it looks like John might have some non-PTSD neurodivergent things going on but his PTSD is front and center in most of the show. This is going to get rambly because I’ve been thinking about it since I saw the fan reaction to Iron Man 3.

I think there’s a reluctance to perceive characters as having PTSD despite having obvious symptoms because of a combination of four things.

A. Splashy symptoms get attention. For PTSD this usually means blackout flashbacks and blatant panic attacks. They’re unambiguous and can’t be hidden. The problem is that it looks like that kind of settles into people’s heads as “that’s what PTSD looks like” or the not much better “anything short of that is mild.” They get so much attention that the lack of them looks nonexistent and introducing them means “finally” giving the character PTSD.

B. There’s a reluctance to view traits that are considered admirable as a sign someone is struggling. This applies to everything from mood disorders pop culture links with creativity to the way some people will inappropriately express jealousy over certain OCD traits. John displays a number of behaviors that, since PoI is plotted as an action story, are praised by the narrative. In his very first introduction, John is attacked and responds swiftly and violently. He needs weapons, he seeks out an illegal arms sale. He shoots people on a pretty regular basis. He keeps more ordnance than he can use at one time readily available. If he likes someone, he will at least attempt to give them a weapon. In season 4, it’s played for laughs but he insists that shooting people’s kneecaps is acceptable because it prevents worse things from happening. And the thing I’d say that ties all that to PTSD is that he stayed with Finch when he knew this was going to be the job. Being Team Machine doesn’t cause him to act that way, it gives him permission. His hypervigilance isn’t really a problem because there’s really something to watch for. His violence isn’t really a problem because he’s dealing with violent criminals. He doesn’t have to worry about investigating everyone because the Machine gives him a starting point and the mission gives him a reason to scrutinize as closely as he wants. Which is in socially unacceptable detail.

C. “Well, that’s normal behavior for X group.” A lot of what I see as John’s PTSD behavior is normal for torture survivors and/or combat veterans and/or field agents operating in enemy territory. Those groups are by definition, trauma survivors. But because it’s expected to a degree, it seems like the association between the experiences and the behavior is weakened in people’s minds. Which is related to point A in a way. There’s what I perceive as a desire to believe that people can make it through unharmed. That people with PTSD were the ones injured by the experience but other people make it through just fine.

D. People not understanding that PTSD is adapting to an environment as well as about the emotional baggage of having survived the thing. The criteria lays out what to look for but it can manifest in a number of ways based on the trauma, the personality, and the way it's been handled since. John living in perpetual crisis mode is validated by the show. As nogoawayok said, there's is an amount of "rah rah willpower" to something like that but there's another aspect for combat vets. Returning to the environment of the trauma can be calming. They can feel more in control when they're back in life and death situations. I've seen any number of people say things like how it simplifies things, they feel they know what they're doing, they stop worrying about locating the threat because it's right in front of them. My PTSD isn't combat related but I was hooked up to a heart monitor for medical reasons to get ready to do something that had been haunting my nightmares for weeks. My heart rate was 76 bpm.

To quote Myke Cole:

[PTSD] is the curtain pulled back, the deep and thematic realization that life is fungible, that death is capricious and sudden. That anyone’s life can be snuffed out or worse, ruined, in the space of a few seconds. It is the shaking realization that love cannot protect you, and even worse, that you cannot protect those you love. It is the final surrendering of the myth that, if you are decent enough, ethical enough, skilled enough, you’ll be spared. The warriors that the media ascribes so much power are the first to truly know powerlessness, as death becomes commoditized, statistics that you use to make an argument for promotion, or funding, or to score political points.

I recommend reading the whole thing here: http://mykecole.com/blog/2013/03/what-ptsd-is

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December 2016

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