But the confusion, and sometimes the aggravation, over the ghostly love affair and the “maybe, but maybe not!” brain disorder surrounding the exhausting Izdennex storyline on Grey’s Anatomy has nothing on the public awareness and education actor Kevin McKidd’s character, Major Owen Hunt, has the potential to bring.
Although I don’t think anyone’s clearly stated it onscreen just yet, Hunt – Seattle Grace’s newest Mc-something (“Badass”? “Manly”? “Kill-a-pig”? I’ve read so many) – certainly seems to be bringing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to the charts. Where some GA storylines have left a bit to be desired (Rebecca/Ava and her borderline personality disorder) and some have flat out flopped (anyone remember that chainsaw-wielding emergency room patient a few seasons back, the one who got a quick prescription before he promptly removed his own leg?), Major Hunt’s character could very well be poised to successfully blend entertainment and mental health awareness.
To get a good grip on just how important it is for us to understand PTSD (as if the current state of so many of our soldiers and war veterans isn’t enough), I’ve solicited the help of PTSD survivor and seriously passionate advocate, Michele Rosenthal.
Alicia Sparks: All right Michele, you don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy (gasp!) but surely you know what kind of buzz it generates each Thursday night. When it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) awareness and education, what do you hope Shonda Rhimes and the rest of the GA writers do – or don’t do – with Major Owen Hunt’s character?
Michele Rosenthal: Don’t hate me because I’m not a GA junkie! I used to be, but then life got in the way: I was deep in my own PTSD experience when the series began and the hospital drama just wasn’t something I could continue to watch. I applaud Rhimes and the crew, though, for incorporating this growing mental health issue into the show.
Did you know that of the 1.64 million service members deployed by October 2007 approximately 300,000 veterans now suffer from PTSD? And that’s just the diagnosed cases. Add that number to the civilian estimate that suggests up to 20% of people will experience some form of PTSD in their lifetime and the number jumps to over 30 million, so this is an extremely timely topic for GA to explore. My greatest hope is that they show the variety of symptoms that manifest as PTSD, including re-experiencing traumatic events through flashbacks and nightmares; avoidance of memories through diminished emotions and efforts to avoid any reminiscent or triggering details; emotional numbing; hyperarousal: irritability, anger, insomnia, exaggerated startle response; and finally, the deep sense of isolation that PTSD experiencers suffer as a result of their symptoms and traumatic experience.
What I hope GA does not do is show exaggerated symptoms without exploring the thoughts, feelings and struggling psychological motivations behind the erratic actions. GA has a unique opportunity here to educate viewers about PTSD. I hope they approach that aspect of the storyline with great honor and care.
AS: Oh, Michele, like I could blame you for avoiding the abuse! Moving on, in a recent Times Online article, Kevin McKidd stated it was “brave to put a character who’s suffering from post-traumatic trauma and is talking about a war that is still ongoing in a prime-time show.” Why do you believe McKidd thinks it’s “brave” to include such characters and themes?
MR: First, I think because PTSD is a hot topic right now. As McKidd says, this character’s history is in relation to the ongoing war – a war that is singlehandedly bringing PTSD to incredibly high levels in the military. A show must tread carefully in how it presents this topic when there are real people and their families for whom this subject is going to hit very close to home.
Second, recently the Pentagon decided to award Purple Heart medals only to soldiers who do not have PTSD. There’s been a huge outcry in the media on both sides, so stepping into the PTSD camp and supporting the reality and honor of PTSD is a courageous act. (Actually, it would be interesting for the show to pick up on this ‘invisible wounds’ debate.)
Finally, I think PTSD – any mental health issue – invites stigma. The challenge is to portray a character with such subtlety and nuance that viewers see the humanity and say, I get that. That’s how I would feel. In order to do this topic justice, GA must introduce a character whose emotions and behavior are such that an audience immediately feels compassion. PTSD is a complex psychological (and often physiological) entity; you’d have to have courage to think you could write and inhabit a character who remains plausible in reality even while his experience is exactly driven by a complete disconnect from that reality!
AS: From what I understand, McKidd spent a considerable amount of time talking with experts who deal with veterans with PTSD while preparing for his role as Major Hunt. It’s pretty obvious that not all actors or even writers do this when creating roles that deal with mental health issues. In what ways do you think or hope the research will help McKidd’s portrayal as a veteran with PTSD?
MR: I hope McKidd’s portrayal shows the human side of PTSD, the side that aches, the side that questions, feels alone and gropes for ways to cope, manage and live with the demons PTSD unleashes inside. In my own PTSD experience I was lucky that for the 25 years I was undiagnosed and suffering in innumerable ways that led to really difficult experiences for my family, they continued to stand by me. It’s very hard to love a person with PTSD, but I hope that McKidd’s portrayal shows the person beneath the disorder so that viewers come to understand how much those of us with PTSD struggle, and how much we need people to support us even as we beg them to stay away.
AS: Is there one element or one symptom of PTSD you wish filmmakers, television writers, and actors would always remember to include?
MR: The feeling of isolation. The feeling that there’s a large gap between you and the rest of the world, between you and yourself, between you and some joyful way of life. PTSD’s visible symptoms are so superficial compared to the pain, sorrow and despair that only deepens with this sense of being alone. In all of the PTSD support groups in which I participate, and in the emails I get from my blog audience, the feeling of being different, alone, misunderstood, unreachable, incurable, etc. is always a big topic.
PTSD is not one simple symptom, it is the cumulative experience and that culminates in a strong sense of isolation, which leads to further alienation and inertia, which inhibits healing. What all PTSD experiencers need to do to begin healing is to bridge that gap between themselves and the rest of the world. I hope that any theatrical vehicle that includes PTSD delves into this incredibly deep and personal aspect of it so that audiences become aware of the importance of treating the isolation factor of PTSD as much as they treat the more visible symptoms.
AS: As someone who has experienced PTSD first hand, what do you think about the ways it’s portrayed on television and in the movies?
MR: I think there have been some good renderings of it, actually. MTV’s True Life series recently had a show that focused on PTSD. I liked their approach very much as they showed the struggle of PTSD along with the idea that we can make progress. Certainly, Matt Damon’s character had subtle PTSD symptoms in The Legend of Bagger Vance, and although PTSD wasn’t explicitly addressed it was a nice illustration of, for example, the intrusion of a flashback when Damon hears the guns of war.
My PTSD friends would also add the following films and television shows that they feel appropriately present PTSD symptoms, situations and experiences: Apocalypse Now, Reign Over Me, In the Valley of Elah, Black Snake Moan, Between Heaven and Earth, and the character Olivia Benson on the show Law and Order SVU.
AS: When it comes to the media and mental illness of any sort, there’s room for improvement; however, every now and then there’s a gem of a flick or plot line that goes beyond just being “entertainment” and actually works to educate people. What is your favorite television show, movie, or even celebrity moment that did a good job of educating about or increasing awareness of PTSD?
MR: I loved last summer’s Jodie Foster flick, The Brave One. After suffering a traumatic event Foster’s character, Erica, goes through so many right-on phases of the PTSD downward spiral: shock, sadness, depression, and isolation into the deep hell of lethargy, nihilism and despair. “There is no going back,” Erica says, “to that other person, that other place. This thing, this stranger, she is all you are now.” This is so true! I remember thinking that myself for so many years. And then, finally, Foster’s character begins to pull herself together. She’s become agoraphobic, but slowly she inches closer and closer to the day she emerges back out into the city that has continued to bustle despite her experience. She finds ways to optimize her life to accommodate her symptoms. And then, she finds a way to appease her psychological state.
Now, I’m not condoning the revenge killing spree she goes on! But I like the metaphor of rising up to slay the demons once and for all. I like that the character goes to the depths of despair and then resurfaces like a phoenix. It’s very inspiring, and very true, too: I think we all have the capacity to reach inside ourselves and find the strength we need to heal. The question is, will we do it? Foster does, and I applaud that impulse.
AS: One of your goals with your blog, Parasites of the Mind, is to “Bridge the Gap.” Tell us more about that slogan.
MR: Over a century ago, the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot described unintegrated traumatic memories as ‘parasites of the mind’. He believed that because of the timeless and fragmented nature of these memories PTSD experiencers remain tied to trauma as a present event, instead of being able to accept it as something belonging to the past.
To me, the biggest impact of trauma is that traumatic events cause a break in the narrative of our selves. We know our identity as one person, and then it is shattered in a wide abyss in which we see ourselves as someone else. We retreat from the world, and allow a great chasm to expand between us and our families, friends, colleagues and lovers; between we who have suffered and those who have not. The possibility of a normal, symptom-free life seems farther and farther away and as unreachable as the moon. In order to heal, we must – we must – provide a way to move from one experience to the other, from whom we were Before, through whom we became After to whom we choose to be Now. Healing comes when we make the effort to bridge all the gaps that trauma and PTSD cause. When we do this, the traumatic experience becomes integrated into our consciousness. Finally, it becomes a small part of the larger identity that we own. This is the crux of healing; this ability to bridge our experience, our understanding, our perceptions and interpretation of events and how they affect us is the key difference between letting trauma rule our lives, or ruling over the trauma in our lives forever.
AS: Are there any celebrities out there who you think help bridge that gap?
MR: I think all of the celebrities who go public with their struggles and stories and challenges help to bridge the gap because they do, literally, bridge the gap between their private lives and the public’s experiences, which can often help bridge the public’s gap of isolation and knowledge. When you see someone else struggle with (and overcome) exactly what you’re dealing with it provides inspiration, hope and a model for action. I think this is especially true of celebrities like Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crowe who not only divulge their personal experiences but then go on to advocate for awareness, education, treatment and healing. I wish someone would take on the cause of PTSD! With all of your CP contacts, can’t you do something about that?!
AS: Don’t I wish! Thanks so much for your time and insight, Michele! It’s truly been enlightening.
MR: It’s been my pleasure, Alicia. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to highlight this really important topic. My goal with my healing PTSD blog and the PTSD advocacy organization I’m founding (check for the web site to go live by the end of March at www.healmyptsd.com) is to advance the idea that PTSD is not a terminal disorder; it can be healed. If I could suffer with PTSD in such deeply psychological and physical ways for 25 years – and get to where I am today: completely healed and PTSD-free – then there’s hope for everyone. It’s my desire to help others not suffer as much or as long as I did, and to spread the word that it is possible to bridge the gap between PTSD and a joyful life. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do that. I hope your readers will visit the blog and feel free to email me with questions, stories, struggles, challenges and successes. We are all individual in our traumas, but our PTSD experience is universal. There’s no reason to feel alone; together we can heal!
Michele Rosenthal is a survivor of trauma and chronic/extreme PTSD. Now completely healed, she advocates for PTSD awareness, education, treatment, healing. Michele blogs about healing PTSD at http://parasitesofthemind.blogspot.com. She welcomes email at email@example.com.