So you’ve chosen to play a character with PTSD. Or a history of it. Or a future of it.
Good luck. If you’re anything like me, it’ll give you all kinds of anxiety even if the character makes it worth it.
First off, though, does/did/will your character really have PTSD, or have they just been traumatized? “Lingering fears and relevant reactions post-trauma” are not the same thing as PTSD. Post-traumatic symptoms are normal after a situation where the “fight or flight” instinct is triggered and neither fight nor flight are possible. PTSD is not a normal reaction. Not to say the psyche that acquires it isn’t normal. PTSD from what I understand is more like a psychological injury than a psychological illness—not acquired through some immune deficiency or a failure of the body to protect itself, but through sheer bad luck. It’s why two people can come through the same trauma and only one has PTSD.
PTSD has a ton of symptoms, all chronic (lasting longer than a month, in this case), all severe enough to wreck your everyday life, none willing to go away without outside help. Post-traumatic reactions like nightmares and an exaggerated startle response can happen totally independently of PTSD. If the symptoms are severe but last less than a month, it’s called Acute Stress Disorder, or ASD. Before deciding on trauma as a fun thing to do to your character, read all about it. Hurt/comfort and angst may be fun, but real trauma goes way, way beyond the cathartic and into the upsetting.
I’m going to do the easy thing and use my own character as an example, so SPOILER ALERT for the Hornblower miniseries. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the character of Archie Kennedy starts out as a victim of an older midshipman on a ship in the late 18th century. Whatever is happening between them, it’s bad enough to give Archie seizures. At one point, his abuser attempts to murder him and instead gets him captured. Kennedy then spends an undetermined amount of time as a prisoner of war. After several escape attempts, he is controlled by being stuck in a hole in the ground with no room to stand up or lie down. After spending a month like this, he’s taken back out, half-crazed and unable to walk and very much ready to die. Fortunately, the series’ protagonist has a hard time giving up on hopeless causes and gradually nurses him back to health and hope. Every bit of this happens in canon. None of this is headcanon. None.
Ask my friends—any time anything remotely related to Kennedy’s past traumatic experiences comes up ICly, I freak out. I freak because real people go through these things and I’m terrified I won’t get it right, and someone will be offended. We may or may not have ex-POWs in the games I play in, but we definitely have victims of abuse and people who’ve lost loved ones (the latter being relevant with Archie’s later death). Maybe we don’t have ex-POWs, but we probably have people who were locked in tight spaces against their will.
So take a time in one of my games when everyone was huddled in some tunnels for safety. Archie’s (headcanoned) claustrophobia is not severe, but a cramped, dark, underground space would have to trigger him considering his canon experiences. But how badly? Could he sit uncomfortably with his eyes closed and breathing slowly and make it through okay, or would he start panicking? Frankly, after his experiences, I know I’d be in all kinds of hysteria, but I’m not him. Archie was crammed into the brig with Bush and Hornblower in canon and didn’t panic, and even his agitation during that scene can be chalked up to the fact that three of the four lieutenants of the ship are in the brig as the ship is going into battle and they are probably going to die (continuity in this series is not always great). So on the sliding scale, we’re probably closer to the “sit uncomfortably” reaction. The thread was purposeful, though, so the character of Jack Aubrey could show his captainy side in calming down and bucking up an emotional sailor, so Archie was made to be visibly on the verge of losing it without actually losing it. This worked for RP purposes and seemed IC, so I considered my bases covered.
Even a decade or so after his abuser’s death, violence and touch are tricky subjects to tackle with Archie, especially since canon doesn’t really address such things. Sex is worst of all. Something some people may be surprised to understand is that ten years after their initial trauma, many survivors are only beginning their recovery. Archie is very lucky in that regard, having come so far with no professional help in so little time. It’s without doubt to anyone who’s seen the series that he had PTSD in the third and fourth films, during and after his time in prison. It’s handled extremely well in the films, which, I’m sad to say, makes the third one pretty hard to watch sometimes. Even in the fifth and sixth films, we see him alternating between flying into a fury and bursting into tears over Wellard’s situation. So in short, what you think is a realistic length of time to carry baggage from a trauma bad enough to cause PTSD is probably questionable, and this goes for me, too. If a year or two after the trauma your character is acting and feeling like it never happened, that’s not very realistic. On the other hand, if ten years after the fact they’re acting just like they did the day after, that could also be a problem. Not that people in real life don’t have, or appear to have, similar recovery times, but in general, PTSD touches every day of the rest of your life. Archie can heal and has a relatively normal life now, but will still have nights when he wants to be alone, or doesn’t want to be touched. As someone who has had PTSD, he has an increased risk of developing it again if he’s traumatized again, or relapsing given strong and/or recurring triggers (contrary to the belief that PTSD is a little like the chicken pox and getting it once “strengthens” you somehow when it’s more like spraining an ankle and being prone to re-spraining it for the rest of your life).
Now, I will fully admit that, while Simpson’s abuse of Archie is 100% canon, the sexual nature of it is only implied and never outright stated. I think the writers as well as Simpson’s actor must have thought there to be some sexual abuse happening (“It’s been a long time--Jack’s missed you, boy,” he says, leaning in with a smile and not at all looking like he’s about to hit him), but Kennedy’s actor said in an interview that, while the idea is fascinating to him, he hadn’t thought of it at the time. To me, sexual abuse seemed the interpretation that made the most sense, even if I definitely don’t think the abuse had to be sexual in order to be severe enough to give Kennedy his notorious seizures. I certainly don’t think anyone who interprets it as strictly physical/psychological is wrong. Many people get PTSD from physical abuse. No, I went with that route because it seemed to fit all the clues, period. In choosing that interpretation, I chose the consequences of it. I don’t deny it would be easier to play Archie without that layer, and I would suffer less anxiety in RP. I can’t even say the rewards outweigh the troubles. But I can’t complain about how hard it is, because I chose it. I don’t regret choosing what I still feel to be a sound interpretation, nor would I do any differently now. Choosing any character with a background like that comes with emotional consequences you should be aware of before committing.
Ten years after the fact, it’s common for abuse survivors to still flinch if someone, say, shouts and smacks a table. Some modern-day war vets hate fireworks to the end of their days. Those sorts of spontaneous, seemingly unrelated triggers are easy to miss in RP. When caught, they are even easier to over-react to. Yes, Simpson beat Archie. But if Bush loses his temper and kicks a chair over, Archie should by no means tremble like a rabbit and hide behind Horatio. Archie’s not afraid of being hurt by Bush, or really even afraid of being hurt at all at this point. Frankly, if (IF) he jumps at the sound of Bush kicking the chair over, it’s because his body is reacting before his mind catches up with him. He’s not even consciously thinking about Simpson. When trauma occurs, it’s not just the mind that’s conditioned, but the body. Afterwards, will Archie know why he started? Yes. Will he feel off for a while, or gloomy at the reminder of something he really doesn’t want to think about (in other words, a trigger)? It’s possible. But he’s still not going to be afraid of Bush, because he has a sense of reality and knows Bush isn’t Simpson.
Will he be anxious around men who are about the age his abuser was, regardless of appearance? Many are. Made uncomfortable by people with tics or habits that remind him of Simpson? I tend to portray him as so, but not incurably so. The “fun” thing about triggers is that when one is conditioned away, very often another takes its place. Archie is no longer bothered by, say, invasion of personal space (which visibly agitates him in the third film), but nowadays he’s far more upset when he hears about other peoples’ traumatic experiences when at nineteen he could somehow fit it into his bleak post-prison worldview without blinking.
Even trickier is the fact that no two people react the same way to the same trauma, or have the same triggers. Archie and Wellard were both shot and killed in canon. If we choose to treat this as traumatic in a game, we can say maybe Wellard gets upset or depressed when he smells gunpowder or jumps when he hears gunfire, but Archie doesn’t seem bothered in the slightest by either. On the other hand, when someone else dies, Archie is out of sorts all week while Wellard doesn’t seem troubled beyond the grieving aspect of it. So reading all about someone else’s experiences and symptoms and trying to copy theirs exactly isn’t going to be natural for your character.
Now, maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse. What is psychological trauma, exactly? The term is misused so often to describe “negative events that leave a lasting impression on one’s psyche” that the word’s meaning might change entirely within our lifetimes (I hope not). I do apologize, but your character probably was not traumatized by the loss of their grandmother to old age, even if he or she still cries every day about it. If your character wakes up terrified she felt bedbugs crawling around after living through an infestation, they’re still not traumatized. If your character watched their grandmother get tortured to death (by bedbugs?), or hit by a car, that’s actually traumatizing. Psychological trauma happens when you are completely helpless to stop something from happening to yourself or a loved one (even a pet). This can include seemingly “small” things like muggings and car accidents as well as the big stuff like war and rape. As stated above, it’s when the “fight or flight” instinct is triggered and neither fight nor flight are possible. That’s to paraphrase psychologist/author Judith Hermann. Fear and total helplessness (not just the feeling of helplessness) are the big factors here.
Maybe your character wasn’t traumatized when her grandmother died of old age, but it’s still very hard for her. She thinks about her and is inspired by her every day, and that loss shapes her life in ways nothing else does. That’s a completely different hardship, and should not be counted as a lesser one than something that’s actually traumatizing. It’s just different, although trauma is a type of loss. There are many, many ways for people to endure hardships, and the common mistake in writing and RP is to treat trauma like the only one.
Let me hold up another of my muses as an example. Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, yes, went through some stuff as a kid that was traumatizing without turning into anything chronic, but that’s not the stuff that makes him tip himself over a balcony in one book. Honestly, I doubt he remembers much about barely escaping assassination in a lightflyer with Captain Negri’s face melting off, or crashing at Vorkosigan Surleau, or fleeing through the mountains with Cordelia and Bothari. He was too young to really understand what was happening at the time, and nowadays he’s old enough to understand that he was being taken care of every step of the way by people who were loyal to him. No, what makes him suicidally depressed has nothing to do with that. He grew up under the loving care of Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan. You couldn’t ask for better foster-parents. His security kept him as safe as possible at all times, and his birthday was a planet-wide holiday from the time he turned five.
That’s why he attempted suicide. Well, that and he learned his father was a crazy sadist who tortured pregnant women.
Growing up with no self-identity, never sure what he could be for his own sake, never allowed to take risks when his cultural identity is all about risking one’s life in service, spirals him to make the same sort of attempt that Archie made in his canon because of trauma, even though Gregor isn’t traumatized at the time of his (drunken and self-aborted) suicide attempt. Does that make Gregor wimpy, whiny, or emo, or weaker than Archie? Absolutely not. His sense of futility and helplessness are very real and very potent, even if they don’t exist in a traumatic situation.
This is all really depressing stuff, and we writers/RPers tend to be emotional people. This is one reason I try to be very careful about playing characters with actual psychological trauma, and have only one muse who ever had PTSD. Too much can really mess with you. With that in mind, I’m going to share some of my personal rules for RP and trauma. These rules aren’t for everyone, and it’s not wrong for someone else’s rules to be different, if they have any. Not everyone is that affected by depressing things happening to people who don’t exist. Consider these tips, just in case you have similar tendencies to myself and want some advice about keeping things moderated.
1. I will be respectful. This is the key to everything. No matter what my character has been through, I will assume a player in my game has gone through the exact same thing and is stalking all of my threads. I will respect their experience.
2. I will not headcanon trauma for my character if it’s not already implied or a viable explanation for (a) symptom(s) that can’t be otherwise explained. Chances are, my character has already been through enough in their canon. These are characters. They always go through crap. Piling it on doesn’t make them more sympathetic or interesting. On the contrary, some characters reach the point where they’ve been through too much trauma to be relatable to your average person (pick a Whedon character).
3. I will avoid collecting muses who have the same trauma. I’ve broken this rule, since two of my muses are orphans (Gregor and Irvine), albeit under totally different circumstances, one of which wasn’t necessarily trauma since Gregor wasn’t even there for the deaths of his parents and was informed about it gently by two people who cared very much about him. Still, it’s pushing it for me. I know for sure I can’t handle another character with a similar background to Archie, and he remains my only muse who has ever had PTSD.
4. I will read. There are a lot of writings about psychological trauma and the more I know, the easier it will be to moderate. For example, I didn’t always know flashbacks are extremely uncommon even for those who have them. Depending on the person, anyway. Some people with PTSD never have them, and those who do might have one or two over the course of their lifetimes. It’s rare for someone to have them often, and they “feel” different for everyone. Knowing this made it easier, because I could headcanon that Archie has never had a flashback and his canon nightmares were his main method of re-experiencing the trauma and I don’t have to torture him more than canon already does.
5. I will ask myself if a trigger moment is worth derailing a thread over. Sometimes the answer is yes. At least as often the answer is no. I can tailor my character’s reaction either way and generally get away with it based on my character’s current mood, mindset, circumstances, etc. If it seems unavoidable, it could wind up being a pretty interesting moment between our characters. If ever in doubt, though, I will contact the mun I’m threading with. Sometimes players aren’t comfortable with threading out a trigger moment, so always give them a way out. If they are, sometimes it’s worth the risk. I had an early experience where Archie was triggered during a playful thread, causing crazy mood whiplash and the opinion of Jack Sparrow that Kennedy is completely nutters. I was terrified I was ruining the thread, but the other players loved it!
6. Like anything of value, special moments dealing with the trauma should be rare. If Archie goes around telling everyone he was locked in what was essentially a shoebox in the ground for a month, other players aren’t going to feel special that my character and theirs have unusual mutual trust and shared a special moment. They’re going to be irritated that Archie blabs to everyone about something he shouldn’t want to talk about at all. Archie has some very close friends in Luceti who know little to nothing of what he went through, including two of his castmates, the way I knew a close friend for years and years before I ever knew she was sexually assaulted when she was thirteen. Similarly, trigger moments should generally happen quietly when they do happen. Trigger moments that are obvious to other characters will be more likely to rattle CR than strengthen it. One of the best near-misses I can think of involved horseplay between Archie and Jack Sparrow. Archie wasn’t triggered, but he wasn’t comfortable, and at a word from him, Jack switched tactics and the horseplay continued with no triggers. That did far more to strengthen Archie’s physical trust than a trigger moment followed by soothing words and “talking it out,” and it was far more IC. Moreover, if the person I’m playing with is canon-blind, alluding to Archie’s post-traumatic quirks without getting explicit creates a sense of mystery, which is more intriguing than a backstory dump any day of the week.
7. I will remember that my character’s trauma does not make them unique or special in any way. So my character’s world blew up. Big deal. Your character’s world blew up, too, and HIS parents and pet goldfish blew up with it! And Al, over there? When his world blew up, he was captured by the guys that blew it up and tortured for fifteen years until he became a shell of his former self, utterly subservient to his captors until he finally snapped and killed them in a rage, discovering his dangerous powers that he can’t always control and now he hates himself for what he did! So there.
8. No matter how tantalizing it is to submit to the temptation of woobification, my character has a personality. Sure, Archie Kennedy went through some stuff, but what people are really going to notice about him is that he’s a high-spirited, poised, sensitive individual who likes trolling and Shakespeare. If I’m doing it right, most people shouldn’t even be able to guess at the things he’s been through when they first meet him unless they’re fiction-savvy enough to know that writers just love torturing the cute, innocent ones. We meet and talk to trauma survivors all the time and don’t know it. Heck, when we first meet Archie in canon, I’d never have guessed the sorts of things he’d already been through off-screen. All I’d see was a grinning, upbeat teenage boy talking the seasick Horatio’s ear off. And then cackling without the slightest degree of sympathy when Horatio proceeded to demonstrate his last meal all over the deck. Abuse victim? Really?
Now, I know some of you will read this entire rambling and be like, “YES! THIS!” when in fact you are guilty of dealing with trauma unrealistically or insensitively.
THAT IS OKAY. I’m guilty of it too.
There is never going to be a point where I get it all right. Never. It’s a complex and monstrous subject and I don’t expect anyone without a related degree to get it right. No matter how much I study history, I’m never going to stop having small historical inaccuracies now and then, or even big ones. Psychology is even more vague than history. So it’s okay! This isn’t your master’s thesis and you don’t have to defend everything you do with your character. Frankly, you CAN’T defend everything you do with your character because no one is perfect. I know I cringe at some choices I’ve made. It doesn’t make me a bad RPer, it makes me human. The point isn’t to get defensive as if our pride in our good RP is all we have. Misunderstanding PTSD is such a widespread problem and the answer is so elusive that what we really need to do is forgive ourselves and each other and keep trying to get it right instead of turning up our noses at other peoples’ mistakes as if we don’t make our own. I mean, I’ve never been traumatized, thank God. If I had been, my experience with it still wouldn’t be Archie’s experience or your experience. Reading up on it helps a ton, but it’s still possible to overdo (or underdo) it. That’s where I have to listen to someone as they explain to me where I got it wrong and alter my perceptions accordingly. My pride isn’t worth my ignorance, not by a long shot.
Fact is, none of us get it all right. I think as long as we follow rule #1, respect for those who’ve been through similar circumstances, other mistakes are acceptable. Trauma isn’t a tool to gain sympathy for your character. It’s a real thing people go through every day. It might even be something you’ve been through yourself, but if you haven’t, you know people who have. As long as you hold to that, everything else should fall into place.
Make note: I’m not a psychologist. My degree is in music. I just do a lot of reading on this, and still not enough to be any kind of an authority, so I beg you not to take me as one. There are lots of resources out there you should go to first, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
I want to end with an apology to anyone reading this who I’ve offended. I know it irritates me when I’m lumped in with a statistical group as if I’m only defined by one thing. If you’ve been traumatized and I’ve made you feel that way, you have my most profound apologies. Sometimes we think we’re being as sensitive as we can be and we still screw up, and for that, I’m truly sorry.