The story of how I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be narrowed down to this: because of my father’s distaste for Christmas he took my family on a Caribbean cruise in the 2006 holiday season. At the second destination of Limon, Costa Rica, he and I were exploring the town, sticking to a map of safe places to be a tourist. We walked out onto a wooden pier and were confronted by a man with a gun. We didn’t have money on us, which is what he was asking for, and when the barrel of the gun pointed at me, my dad attacked in a fit of parental rage. He was shot in the chest and the gunman ran.
I carried my bleeding father through the streets of Limon, stumbling a few times and offering up prayers (I was still Catholic at the time), and we eventually found help outside of a bar. We made it back to our ship, and after a whirlwind tour of Costa Rica’s judicial system, on paper everything turned out okay. He’s alive, I’m alive, we even had the rest of our vacation.
My brain was broken though, and I didn’t have a lens through which to frame my experience. Our society has reserved those four letters for war veterans, only recently expanding the scope to paramedics (which is a great step in the right direction), but for a long time I was not even sure it was something I was allowed to have. Later, when I was told that I did have it, I felt guilty. I wanted it to go away.
Almost immediately after I had returned to my normal, safe life in Toronto I was told to get over it. Everything had turned out alright. People would get kind of indignant and condescending, telling me about something they read in the news that was way worse. I was supposed to feel better because the bad thing that happened was over and nobody died.
I discovered very quickly that, when you’re traumatized, the unafflicted become experts in the currency of personal tragedy. Commonly, I’ve found that PTSD is confused by onlookers with grief rather than a persistent mental disability. And why not? The stories we hear and read and watch every day establish that to be fixated on trauma is not normal. You can’t have ten seasons of police procedurals if your characters keep talking about that guy they shot in the first episode.
The lack of positive representations of PTSD in the media was a big problem for me in 2007 when I first started to experience its symptoms. My flashbacks, nightmares, guilt, anger and anxiety were all incredibly fresh and confusing, and the least alienating character I could find on TV or in film to relate to was Batman: a person so incapable of processing his personal trauma that he elects to shed his humanity, don a cowl and fight crime.
Bruce Wayne’s childhood gun-versus-parent scenario is framed as the starting point of an inescapable tragedy. The idea that trauma claimed Bruce’s future is framed as his sacrifice that allows the unafflicted to live a little bit safer. The narrative – that trauma consumes one’s life for the benefit of normal society – was not helpful to my 19 year old brain that had just been chemically scrambled. I had plans, and they didn’t involve a lot of sneaking around and beating up criminals.
Batman is still one of the better representations of PTSD in the media since it at least frames Bruce Wayne’s disability as a superpower. Other culture usually frames trauma survivors as something much more dehumanizing. Cowards, monsters and sad jokes are more common than Dark Knights. Watching The Simpsons I worried that people would see Seymour Skinner’s public Vietnam flashback breakdowns and begin to view me as that uptight, emotionally stunted war veteran caricature.
Dr. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), a character on Grey’s Anatomy didn’t exist until September 2008, but he is the most terrifying of all television characters with whom to share a defining trait. Traumatized as a an army medic, Dr. Hunt returns to America, becomes romantically involved with Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) and strangles her while having traumatic nightmares. Attempting to murder the people you love in your sleep is not a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but to your average Grey’s Anatomy viewer it could be.
So, to run down the list, according to the representations on TV and the movies, the best case scenario for me would be that of the procedural drama, in which I was unaffected completely by my trauma. The next best scenario would be to sacrifice my future in the name of self-righteous vigilantism. I could become an impotent man-child like Principal Skinner, a homeless pile of a man in the background of a scene about normal people, or I could become a sleep-murderer.
Thankfully, on Valentine’s Day of 2007, 51 days after I saved my father’s life, I was laying prone on my couch at eight o’clock and Lost came on my old tube TV. Serendipitously, the episode that aired that night sent the character Desmond Hume an a journey to become the post traumatic hero I needed.
That Valentine’s Day, the one after this whole Christmas cruise ship kerfuffle, was my first encounter with a tradition in the small niche of sci-fi PTSD narratives, and while it didn’t offer me a solution, it did give me sympathy. The episode of Lost that I watched as I was barely keeping my shit together was called “Flashes Before Your Eyes” and it evoked Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in order to talk about trauma.
Lost begins with a traumatic event. On a flight from Sydney to LA, Oceanic Flight 815 is pulled out of the air by a mysterious force and crash lands on a mysterious, magic island in the South Pacific. Following the survivors of the crash, as they attempt to live together while waiting in rescue, the first three seasons dedicate each episode to exploring a character’s past through flashbacks. This allows Lost to switch genres week to week. Episodes about the defacto leader of the castaways, Jack, are medical dramas, while those focused on washed up rockstar Charlie Pace are addiction tragedies. As new characters are introduced, many of whom were not victims of the initial plane crash, they are each given their own flashbacks. My favourite character, Desmond, is featured in episodes about time travel.
Desmond Hume was already on the island when the plane had crashed, subject to an insanity inducing data entry job inside an underground 80’s sci-fi bunker known as the Swan Station. He had to push a button every 108 minutes or an apocalyptic electromagnetic pulse would be released. Desmond’s introductory arc in Lost’s second season climaxes with him detonating the Swan Station by turning a failsafe key, as the memory of his lost love Penny Widmore adds voice over:
“…all we really need to survive is one person who truly loves us.”
On Valentine’s Day, this is the last I’d really seen of the character, aside from a few small scenes of erratic behaviour. Desmond destroyed the Sawn so that everyone else could live. And they did and so did he. Everything worked out, but Desmond was not alright. He had become unstuck in time, which when looked at from a Vonnegutian perspective, is literary shorthand for PTSD.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonist Billy Pilgrim is dislodged from the time stream and his consciousness moves back and forth from his traumatic experiences in World War Two, his present day life as an optometrist, and his fantastical sci-fi future as a specimen in a transdimensional zoo. This is the same way that Desmond’s condition operates, fitting into the awesome tradition of people with PTSD having time travel powers.
What’s most important, though, is how Desmond interacts with the past. In “Flashes” he relives them with knowledge of the present, but no matter what he does to try and alter the events that lead to his trauma, he can’t. The episode ends with the line that marks the start of his journey:
“You can’t change it.”
Desmond isn’t halted by this conclusion, though. He actively tries to prevent future trauma – the death of fellow islander Charlie Pace – despite his knowledge of an immutable timeline. This is the journey. After a traumatic event, a person with PTSD may become hypersensitive to reminders of his or her trauma. The modern parlance for these reminders is “triggers”, and they result in the kind of erratic behaviour experienced by Desmond in his futile attempts to save Charlie.
After Charlie eventually drowns in front of Desmond, the post traumatic hero arc continues in the season four episode “The Constant”. Triggered by crossing over the strange time-bubble that encases the island as he crosses it, Desmond experiences life threatening flashbacks. The time crisis is given exaggerated stakes, but is an obvious parallel to post traumatic flashback experiences and crucial to the PTSD narrative. In order to move forward, Desmond must connect with what the show calls a constant – something important from before his trauma that is still in his present. In his case this is a person, Penny Widmore, the love of his life. They connect in one of the loveliest scenes in all of TV, and Des finds his stability.
Finding my constant was an important part of my own journey with PTSD. While the stakes were lower and time travel wasn’t involved (though flashbacks really do fuck with your mind enough that it might as well be), in my worst lows I needed to find something from my past and connect to it in the present. Doing this allowed me to release my trauma from the dominant place I had been keeping it in terms of my personal narrative.
The ending of the post traumatic hero’s journey is one of acceptance, and in Lost, it becomes the focal point of the final season. While Desmond is the PTSD hero of Lost, all of the show’s characters are traumatized people. Their trauma culminates in a time-travel mission to blow up the island in 1979 so that their plane never crashes in 2004. They have an opportunity to do what I desperately fantasized about for countless waking nights.
In Limon, as my dad and I were approaching the pier where he would be shot, there was a right turn we could have taken instead that would have lead us back to our ship unharmed. I have convinced myself that this was the exact point in time that my traumatic event causally hinges on. I have thought about it so much that when I re-experience that day, I begin with a sense of dread as I decide, “I’ve got nothing else to do today other than drink on a boat. Why not walk a bit further?”
In Lost, like in life, you can’t change the past. It is a hard set rule, and while it might lead to disappointed audiences, the showrunners’ ability to stick by it is important for PTSD representation in media. The show’s final season explored a “what if” scenario based around the assumption that the nuclear bomb actually fractured time. The plane never crashes because the island doesn’t exist, and everyone lives a normal life until, triggered by magnetism, Desmond Hume becomes aware of both realities. He is presented with the post traumatic hero’s climactic choice: a world of imagination in which he has everything that he believes his trauma has denied him, or the full life that acknowledges his struggles. He chooses the latter.
Connecting with his constant, Penny Widmore, Desmond understands his trauma in the context of his entire life. He then travels the alternate trauma-less universe and connects the others with their own constants. They don’t all choose to go with him, because everybody’s life is different, but each and every one comes to understand their times of suffering as an important part of who they are.
Desmond is an important character because his journey is a representation that trauma can be empowering, that it doesn’t need to make you into a monster or brooding vigilante, and to deny it as if life were some kind of procedural crime drama is a disservice to your personal narrative. It serves as a reminder that, as Penny said before Desmond turned his traumatic failsafe key, all we really need to survive is someone who loves us.
While that may seem like a tall order, or even an impossibility to some of us stuck in our own traumatic timelines, it is an important message. Don’t laugh at us, don’t be scared of us, help us connect to the things that make us stable. It can be a long journey, and for some it might not end well, but for anyone reading this suffering with PTSD, until you can find the help you need, if anything goes wrong, let Desmond Hume be your constant.