Earlier this week, I got asked as someone with PTSD, what it’s like to deal with it.
I didn’t think I’d have nearly as much to say on this topic as I apparently did. I ended up posting this as a stream of thought in chat logs.
There’s an earlier version of this article that tried to be more focused on how to write it, but I found myself split between two purposes: Trying to convey my experiences with PTSD as faithfully as possible, and trying to give advice on writing characters with it.
After some editors whapped me around the head with a rolled up newspaper - and love - I was told that talking about my experiences was the more interesting half of this.
I’ve transcribed the chatlogs of how I first replied to this here, because I think there’s a value in the rawness of that stream of thought. Honestly, though, I don’t think I have it in me to write it out again.
If you find that a barrier to reading, though, then you can skip to the second break.
The most important thing to remember is that PTSD is totally unfair.
You know how when you’re just walking down the street and your brain goes: “Hey remember that thing you did that you regret?” You suddenly get really sad for no reason? PTSD is what if that kept happening, but every single time it happened you curled up in a little ball and started crying.
At least, at first. It gets easier over time.
Sometimes you’re having a happy moment but the happy moment is ruined by:
“Oh I remember that smell, where do I remember it from?”
and then, “Oh yeah this is what it smelled like when-“
And then you pull a fainting goat.
For me probably the most archetypical incident of it was a guy in film school, who was lovely but a bit daft… I was explaining this to him, and I was like:
“So you can’t, like, playfully punch me in the arm or stuff because I handle it badly.”
He remembered that and tested that on me later.
He just threw a fake punch at my face and stopped short. The sheer force of me not reflexively like, going Hulk on him when he did that because I knew what he was doing
made me fall over
like I saw stars and just went
down like a board.
Vertical to horizontal
and then I yelled at him a lot and it was very embarrassing
I sincerely regret that most of my memories of film school are when I was still dealing with that, because having awful shit happen to you makes you an awful person.
You’re simultaneously aware of that, but you still don’t have control over it.
It’s not like being an asshole and not caring about it, it’s about being an asshole and caring extremely deeply about it and having no ability to be anything else.
Because it really is just, you’re very stressed all the time.
You know when you have a really bad day, and you know you’re taking it out on people, but you literally can’t stop yourself because your day has been so shit you don’t have the emotional energy to not be shit because of it?
You still see yourself taking it out on people, though, and that makes it worse.
That’s what PTSD is like all the time.
It’s like waking up on the wrong side of the bed every single day, and it makes people dislike you.
Which means you either have to stop caring about that, or you keep caring about that until that breaks you a little harder and _then _you stop caring about it, but with an even bigger chip on your shoulder.
Eventually you either find a way to deal with that in your own way - which for some people is becoming a functioning alcoholic, or drugs - or you have a small, very intimate group of friends who you can still care about. Who make you keep wanting to do better.
Until it doesn’t hurt anymore
For me, that took about 6 years, at a time when I was still very malleable and changeable.
But the most important thing I’d say about it is that it’s very very likely that the person who has it chooses to be angry as often as possible, simply because the alternative is depression.
It really does feel better to feel something than gaping nothing, punk and emo song lyrics really have the right of it there.
Constantly being angry puts you in life situations where your anger and isolation are justified. It makes people angry at you, which makes you feel very okay with not being liked or likable at times when you really need to be not okay with that.
Because otherwise you can’t function
A lot of this clicked for me when I was told that the human brain didn’t develop a moderate stress result. Intense office work to a deadline is indistinguishable to being stalked by a lion, at some level.
Unfortunately, that’s true in both directions
Feeling like you’re always about to be attacked and you need to defend yourself makes you seem like a perpetually stressed office temp, or a teacher’s aid during marking periods. Famously not fun people to be around
At this point, someone else mentioned:
A thing I try to keep in mind if I’m ever writing anything adjacent to that is that like…When the brain remembers a thing, it’s not like it’s stored in there as a movie or something, it remembers the sequence of inputs that created that memory and replays it
It touches every associated memory too
So when you remember something you are literally reliving it. As far as your brain is concerned you are actually in that situation again.
This is part of the reason why my agoraphobia goes away when I travel.
Like, I leave the house on average once a month. But when I went to Melbourne last, by myself, I spent all day just… walking everywhere.
Not even taking trains, or busses, or anything.
Because for me, everywhere near where I live is somewhere I’ve been attacked.
My local shopping center, my street, the parks near my highschool, my nearest train station
And I relive that a little bit every time I go near there.
When I was younger, I used to hallucinate a lot more. One time I took my dog out for a walk in a park I hadn’t been through near my house before, and my panic response picked up, because it was still pretty soon after I got mugged.
It started with me thinking; “this is brown snake territory”, so I started checking the tall grass for snakes.
You know how when you like… see a stick in the dark, or a coat rack looks like a silhouette
and you jump a bit? You get the ‘big spook’? But then you see it’s just the thing-that-it-is and laugh and feel silly?
I started doing that for every stick I saw, every leaf, until, after five minutes, the ground was made of snakes.
All grass was snakes
I was walking on snakes
Everything was snakes
It was like the Escher picture of the tesselating birds.
But that was the ground, and snakes. Moving.
I walked my dog home, curled up in a ball, and cried for forty five minutes. Just shaking, because my brain knew how scared it was. It had reverse engineered a legitimate reason to be that scared, since it couldn’t be scared for no reason.
It caused a feedback loop to cause the fear it already felt, so even though I knew it wasn’t real and I knew that’s what my brain was doing, that’s still what I experienced.
Now my brother gets that with cats, because it turns out that a lot of mental illness like this is partly genetic, right, but it won’t show up with people unless they make certain stress-break thresholds.
So we both had the genetic markers for schizophrenia, but it didn’t show until we had enough trauma to unlock it.
Tom’s traumatic break largely focused around an incident involving cats. So now, his issues seem to be anchored in that.
For me it’s way more of an abstract notion of being threatened. I get sleep paralysis of just shadowy figures that I know want to kill me. Probably because the guy who nearly killed me knocked me out with the first punch from behind.
Ultimately though, I think that’s the takeaway from it. A lot of what it means to suffer from these issues is to be aware of the issues you have, and how they make you act, but not being able to do much about them.
For me, that meant being angry. Other people turn to a chemical dependency, others just internalize shame and hide from people
This is where the chatlogs end. From here, I’ll add some more notes I gleaned from talking to other people who I know are dealing with this too.
I first want to emphasize how differently people can deal with this. The very first other person I talked to about this said that she couldn’t feel angry for nearly ten years after her trauma. Again - the first other person I talked to dealing with this had literally as opposite an experience with this as it’s possible to have as mine.
This is why I focus on talking about my own experiences. There are two ways that writing about this could go - I write about my own experience, or I try to write a general primer for PTSD. I only feel qualified to do the first one.
I do want to try to cover the different ways it can affect people, though. I don’t want to end at a place where someone else dealing with trauma doesn’t feel represented here because their experiences differ so much from mine.
I’m going to make a compromise effort and go through some other common presentations of PTSD and complex PTSD - complex PTSD being PTSD with multiple causes, or from a traumatic experience that occurred over a long period of time. I’m still going to try to relate them to my own experiences and understanding, though, because I can’t stress this enough: I feel like stepping outside of that borders on malpractice. If not legally, then ethically.
PTSD is wildly different from person to person, because how people express ‘stress’ is so wildly different. PTSD amplifies those stress responses, well beyond a ‘healthy’ person’s. Depending on your trauma, what stress response you have is probably tied to what you’ve had the best results with. You’ve most commonly heard about stress responses in the context of ‘Fight or Flight’.
Apparently there are actually four major stress responses: fight, flight, freeze and fawn. How people deal with PTSD is going to be a combination of the responses which best dealt with their trauma. If they have complex PTSD then they’re probably going to favour different responses in different contexts.
For me, my main response has been ‘Fight’, because it was a source of energy, and that felt the most justified in most situations I was put in. But the friend I talked to would have gotten into worse situations by being angry - until the point her brain stopped giving her that option.
The more I talked to others and asked about these other presentations, the more of my own experiences were contextualized for me. It was actually surprising to me how many experiences I related to that I didn’t realize were responses to extreme stress.
Freeze I talked about with the pulled punch before, but there’s apparently more to it. Freeze is apparently the fainting goat response I described earlier, sure, but it’s also the disassociation I talked around.
In a friend’s words:
“[D]issociation is a version of freezing, because you are essentially playing the best just warm corpse you goddamn can, so well even your brain forgot you were still there
In better language, you’ve been exposed to a situation where literally nothing alleviated the trauma, so many times, your brain checks out, and will force your body to play dead while your brain is taken away to a safe location.”
It used to happen a lot that, during periods of extreme stress, I’d curl up in a ball, find somewhere dark, and get crammed into a corner of my brain for a bit. For me, it’s a bit like going from being the person that you are, to just being a little figure inside that person’s head, locked away from the controls. You’re aware of what’s happening, in a distant sort of way. But you’re removed from the emotions, from the controls. You’re mostly taking notes like a blackbox recording.
If you’ve seen Get Out, it’s a lot like the hypnotism scene. What the movie describes as ‘the sunken place’.
If I were to guess, I’d say this probably happens because self-harm and suicidal urges are a branch of the fight-impulse, the anger. So freeze works in situations where the preferred stress impulse would have been harmful, unsafe.
Which would also explain why I just near-fainted on a guy when I fought so hard to not reflexively hit him.
The other important thing to note is that the freeze response makes you numb: it makes you commit to routines as long as they keep the Bad Thoughts away. Which means that it easily becomes, and blurs at the edges with, depression. Which can make it really hard to diagnose for what it is.
Talking about this with someone else, I think I used to Freeze a lot more, and I actually shifted to Fight as a response to that. Because anger gave me the energy that Freeze was taking away from me. You still burn out and get depressed with anger - it’s the emotional equivalent of a payday loan, and the total emotional burnout is the loan shark coming at you with a tire iron - but Freeze is what kind of keeps you in the numbing aspect of it.
But that numbness is protective for some people. People who have just been put on antidepressants are often more likely to attempt suicide because they find the energy, and feel the already existing pain, far more sharply in those first few weeks. You have to feel worse to get better.
It’s the PTSD of depression, baggy hoodies, and lying in bed.
Freeze response PTSD also seems to be tied to downplaying the severity of it, and people who fall into this response are the most likely to tell you they’re fine, even when they’re not. It’s not a conscious lie, either. For me, that meant I was upfront about what had happened to me, but insisting it didn’t affect me that much. I had a lot of issues, but that was just a bad brain, and bad genes, and I was working hard to get over it.
I was talking to a different friend of mine who has experience with this both as someone dealing with these issues, and as a trained counsellor. We’ll use her online handle, Heartshine. Heartshine describes an experience training in EMDR therapy. Part of the training involved receiving the therapy. She described it like this:
“This wasn’t a big deal. honestly it was fine. I don’t have any issues at all.”
Spends 10 sessions going through 31 years of trauma history
“I swear it’s not that bad.”
Which, big oof, huge mood. For me, I acknowledged my issues as severe and real, but when people asked about the incidents themselves, I was very quick to tell the stories as jokes, and laugh about them, and insist it really wasn’t that bad. To reassure people it wasn’t that bad.
Obviously, it was. I’m still feeling the effects of it ten years later.
I think the best way to tell if you default to a Freeze response is if you have a hard time making decisions. If your primary stress-response mechanism is to lock up, then the incidental stress of having to make a choice one way or another is hell.
With PTSD amplifying that, you start to associate that spike in stress with making decisions at all, not just to specifically stressful ones. That’s another one of those obnoxious feedback loops - like being angry justifying your anger.
I ran that by Heartshine, and she said that aligned with her own experiences. But it didn’t take long to come up naturally.
Freeze response PTSD means lying in your own bed, but still whispering to yourself, “I want to go home”.
It also means, after that, insisting you don’t have problems. What problems you do have are just things you need to hurry up and get over.
So that covers Fight and Freeze expressions, which leaves Flight and Fawn. Those two are coming last for different reasons - Fawn I knew nothing about, and Flight was just too dead-simple.
Here’s Flight: You make a really bad mistake at work? Quit the job. You fail a subject at uni? Better drop out. Fuck up with your friend group? Ghost all of them, and consider changing cities.
Anyone who tells you that you can’t run from your problems lacks commitment.
Flight means being prepared to run at any time. It means always trying to have your back to a wall and facing an exit. It means never sitting in the center of the restaurant where you can be seen. It means bouncing, always being ready to move.
Fight may be my default, but flight’s always there too. If I can’t just leave a situation - not even just physically, but emotionally, socially, mentally - then I start acting like a greased feral hog. My thoughts start getting drowned out by loud, crackling static. The only way to quiet the signal in my head is to get away from the source.
There isn’t really much more to flight that I can think of. Run. Hide. Avoid.
Fawn is more interesting, though.
See, it turns out that one response to stress is a social one. Ingratiating yourself to someone makes them less likely to hurt you… or at least, more likely to hurt you less badly. Fawning impulses are brown nosing, ingratiating, subservient behaviours.
Fawn is the impulse that makes the abused try to earn the love of their abuser, and to stay in dangerous relationships.
People who align with fawning behaviours go out of their way to be liked, and to neutralize hostility around them.
If you can’t protect yourself, you can feel safe either when nobody wants to hurt you, or when enough people want to protect you.
This can mean the kind of PTSD that goes out of its way to find substances to abuse and, it shouldn’t be surprising, hypersexual behaviour.
A sexual relationship with someone means they’re getting something valuable out of you. It means you’re firing off the pleasure parts of your brain which are so hard to stimulate otherwise.
Remember, all these archetypes revolve around the fact that you’re always stressed, and that means depression and burnout. It’s exhausting to always be prepared to fight a lion. So sexual relationships are… well.
Unhealthy people tend to have unhealthy relationships.
Heartshine wrote about this herself here:
“Taken to an unhealthy extent, however, these are the characters (and sadly, often people) who have gone through four partners in the past week, have a fifth whom they are sure is the new ‘love of their life’ on speed dial, and are actively waging a war against their liver. They may also be the ones who, in search of new experiences, are doing everything possible to make the dopamine receptors tingle because then you’re not feeling the fucking feelings that caused you to feel this way in the first place, right? Right? Glad we agree, now pass the heroin. I wanna feel gooooood.”
This resonated much harder with the first friend I mentioned, who couldn’t relate to the anger portions of what I describe.
Which makes sense. Fawn makes sense when fighting will make it harder on you, and flight isn’t an option.
It has to be said, though - if I’m around passive aggressive men who are much larger than me, or if you so much as throw an eraser at my head, I immediately switch to fawn mode. It’s like hitting a light switch. Because those have been situations where fight wasn’t a workable, safe option.
Fawn PTSD can mean needing people to like you, to be calm, in the same way that flight is eyeing the exits and doing leg stretches. Interpersonal conflict of any kind is a threat.
Fawn can mean you pay attention to the tone rather than the content of an argument. The first person who raises their voice is always going to be the problem - even if they’re right in their reasons.
As long as someone can say abhorrent things calmly, politely, then they’re not the source of the anxiety. The person raising their voice is. The fawn impulse is to resolve and de-escalate tension in the most direct way possible.
And if someone does threaten you directly when you’re in fawn mode; if they raise their voice, or they throw a tantrum, or they make you anxious… then the fawning impulse is to validate that person. To calm them down however you can, or to just be quiet and wait it out. To try and be closer to them to make that outburst less likely in the future.
It means sometimes your closest friendships are going to be the worst for you, because you find yourself providing constant validation for the kind of people that make you the most anxious.
It’s worth noting that these are all stress responses, and everyone gets stressed - you can identify with these reactions without having PTSD. The difference is that PTSD means your stress-response is more likely to be your default response. You’re always stressed, on edge.
Your fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode is stuck to its maximum setting, and it doesn’t really turn off.
This is also why people’s responses to PTSD can be so similar and different - because you’re very rarely just one of these at a time. You can be all of them, or none of them, or different in different times and contexts.
I probably identified more with Freeze-Fawn until I became a mostly-online presence and discovered that being a workaholic was a better solution for me. I got a major source of self-esteem which helped me pull out of a very bad depression hole.
My pivot to being a full time workaholic also aligned with me becoming angrier. What I needed from my stress response changed - and I’d at least defended myself enough times that ‘fight’ felt like a safe option.
Likewise, having your Fawn response stuck on all the time can get you into more harmful situations more often than even being angry all the time.
And your reliance on any given mechanism is going to change, over time, as it either benefits you or hurts you. You’re going to keep making adjustments as you work out the pros and cons moment to moment.
You can get better. But mostly, I think, it’s because you get better at it.