[cw for descriptions of symptoms of PTSD; spoilers for Arrival (2016)]
I share a lot about my mental illnesses on social media, in no small part because community of experiences is something which has been very very important to my overall ability to heal from trauma and thus address my more severe symptoms of PTSD.
One of the more severe symptoms of PTSD which I experience is flashbacks. While normally I’ll have a flashback every month or so, they don’t tend to be very visceral or “realistic” and it’s fairly easy for me to ground myself quickly. Unfortunately since Wednesday my flashbacks have been jarring (ie. they catch me off guard), and they are immediately visceral (which is to say that that they are whole-body experiences). The last time I experienced flashbacks in this way was 2012, and that situation took 3 weeks to reach full intensity whereas it’s taken approximately 2 days to reach (what I hope is) full intensity this time.
The only precursor required to experience symptoms of PTSD is a single traumatic event. In such cases where a single event has occurred there are various therapeutic modalities which may be considered, such as situational rescripting or exposure therapy (to name but 2). While there isn’t a number I can reference specifically, I can say that there are more years of my life where I experienced recurring situations of abuse than those where I did not. This means that “frontline” PTSD treatments just… aren’t effective for me. However generally I will go through periods of time where a single event or single time period (usually abouts 4-6 month blocks) will be more pressing than others. When I experienced a mental breakdown in Summer of 2017, for example, there was a specific series of incidents in Summer of 2013 which I would consider to be the loci of my symptoms. Currently my flashbacks are focused across 3 distinct time periods, with various specific incidences attached to each. This is making keeping track of my triggers… impossible.
It’s important for [everyone with PTSD, I’d assume, but specifically here] me to avoid some triggers more than others. As such it’s really difficult for me to do things like watch new media (movies, TV shows, etc) because it can be dangerous for me to not be anticipatory. With that said: I HAVE to watch new media, because as someone who has experienced abuse over such a long period of time any media I consumed while in situations of abuse has the potential to be a trigger.
Tonight I’m watching Arrival.
Quick refresher summary: Arrival is, essentially, a movie about what communication may look like with an alien species whose linguistic form is completely distinct from anything experienced on Earth. In an example of Sapir-Whorf hitting the audience over the head, the linguist (Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams) who comes to communicate with these aliens also gains the ability to experience time as the aliens do. This is to say that she begins to experience non-linear time, and subsequently experiences events in the future as though they were occurring in the present.
As a movie I know doesn’t contain any major triggers for me I’ve watched Arrival probably once every month or so since I first watched it in November of 2016, so I’m admittedly fairly familiar with the narrative. However it’s taken me until tonight to realize that the narrative is effectively a [likely accidental] metaphor for what it’s like for me to experience symptoms of PTSD (except, obviously, in reverse). There’s no “now” and “not-now” for Louise, but rather as she begins to understand the structure of the alien language there progressively becomes ONLY “now.”
[Quick side note: I’ve written about asynchroneity pretty extensively through my dysfluency tag, if you’re curious about other ways non-linearity can play out.]
Just as with flashbacks there is a collapsing of time, rendering experiences (not memories; experiences) out-of-order. This distinction between “memory” and “experience” is so important to note because while it’s relatively simple to cognitively express that time passes in a linear way, when it comes to PTSD it can become affectually impossible (as is the case with flashbacks).
Despite not having any anthropologists in it Arrival for me is an anthropological narrative. When it first came out linguistic anthropologists were abuzz about it, and when I finally got around to watching it myself it was within the context of a anthropological coursework. Media anthropology, and specifically the use of media-as-ethnographic-data, has become such an important aspect of my degree for a number of reasons. However specifically the use of an ethnographic lens in media analysis allows me to experience a closeness to material while still recognizing that I’m separate from said material.
Now I’m by no means saying that anthropological training is the same as receiving treatment for PTSD, but I am saying that my ongoing treatment for my symptoms of PTSD is absolutely aided by the fact that I’ve received training to enter and exit from participant observation and subsequently analyze my experiences as existing in a time period other than the one I currently exist in. PTSD for me is a disorder of overlapping experiences, and having the skills to (slowly, but surely) put those experiences back in an order–or, at least, to put those experiences in boxes of “now” and “not now”–is unbelievably valuable.
Shout out to Arrival for reminding me of that.