It’s okay to not be okay: Top Five Portrayals of Trauma

Hello friendos, dears, and queers.

I’ve talked a lot about my own struggles with mental health. While I don’t want to make this blog about that, because while it is a part of me it is not who I am, I try to be vulnerable to show that there is nothing to be ashamed of when one has a mental illness. One of the reasons I try so hard to put this message out there is because the media is very much against people with mental illness. There are so many negative, harmful portrayals of mental health that listing all of them would take all day. Even picking a top five would be difficult; it would be like picking between being shot and being stabbed. Neither is great, and both hurt like hell. There’s no winning.

Trauma is one of the ones portrayed really badly. It’s either resolved in one episode and everything goes back to normal, or the person with trauma is a violent person who hurts everyone around them. Neither of these things are accurate. Yeah, people with trauma can lash out and be violent, but that’s not everyone. That’s not even a minority of people living with trauma, it’s a minority of a minority. And let me tell you, it’s extremely difficult to try to get better after trauma when the people around you treats you like you’re weak for “still being sick” or like you’re a time bomb waiting to go off.

However, things are changing, and they’re changing for the better. Yeah, there are still portrayals of mental health and trauma that are troubling, but writers are starting to do their research to tell the stories of others, and starting to tell their own stories, and people are starting to listen. I wanted to highlight a few of my favourite portrayals of trauma in pop culture. While none of these are perfect, there’s still value in these depictions.

Fun fact: this started as a general mental health list, but as I worked I realized everything I picked was depicting trauma. I’m biased. I have PTSD after surviving an abusive relationship. I look for media that makes me feel less alone, because trauma makes you feel alone. It makes you feel like no one gets you. So when I find a good portrayal of trauma, I watch the ever-living shit out of it. I’m really excited to be able to share all of this with you today. Maybe it will help you feel less alone. Maybe you’ll see someone you know in a different way. Maybe you’ll just be entertained for a few minutes. And honestly, any of those are fine with me. Let’s have our own trauma-rama as we discuss my Top Five Portrayals of Trauma.

I will disclaim, before we get into these, that while I have some of the conditions depicted, I don’t have all of the conditions that these media pieces portray despite having the main issue of PTSD. I do not aim to speak for anyone else, I am just using my own educated observations to say why I think a certain way. If you have your own opinions, or want to chew me out, comment. I am always open to dialogue.

I also want to trigger warn. I’m going to talk about some messed up shit. Mental health, abuse, torture, you name it, I’m talking about it. If you choose to leave this page, I completely understand. Come back next Monday for a more hopeful topic.

Without further ado…

Silver Linings Playbook

  • Media form: First was a book, then a movie. I’m talking about the movie, because I haven’t read the book.
  • Release date: 2008 (book); 2012 (movie)
  • Synopsis: “After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.” (IMDB)
  • Conditions portrayed: Bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression (maybe?), borderline personality disorder, trauma
  • It’s not perfect: A person using drugs is diagnosed with a mental illness (you can’t really diagnose certain illnesses while someone is in active addiction because a lot of their behaviour is linked to use of the chemical of choice), therapist blurring professional boundaries (luckily, just by hanging out with a client outside of the therapy setting, not the way it often is shown), love conquers all trope
    • However: it’s worth noting that most of the articles I found were written by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, not people with mental illnesses themselves. While I appreciate their insights, they are not one of us, and I am taking their words with a grain of salt.
  • But it’s still pretty good: Matthew Quick, the author of the book, does have a mental illness himself. He himself has stated that “You’re never laughing at somebody that has a mental health illness, you’re laughing at the absurdity of what’s going on, for all the characters involved”. That’s the view I got from the film. I remember the scene where Tiffany and Pat talk about the meds they were on, and I was nodding along because I’ve taken most of those meds or knew someone who took the ones I hadn’t been on. The characters are very complex, and that’s what I appreciated. Characters with mental illness are often portrayed as a stereotype of their disorder, or as a victim. Pat and Tiffany were not victims, not even of themselves. They had a life outside of their mental health, and they had flaws and strengths. Pat and Tiffany were both extremely traumatized, Pat from catching his wife cheating on him, and Tiffany from the death of her husband. These traumas, to everyone on the outside, seem to have broken Pat and Tiffany. But they haven’t. They’re still people, they have hopes and dreams, and they deal with their trauma one day at a time. So, while there are problems, this movie did a wonderful job of portraying people with mental illnesses as people first, illness second, and people with trauma as people first, and what’s happened to them second.

  • Media form: Video game fight
  • Release date: 2017
  • Synopsis:
    • Of the game: “Batman and his allies work to restore the pieces of society following Superman’s dictatorship, but a new threat to Earth may hinder their efforts.”(IMDB)
    • Of the fight: Harley is going after Scarecrow, and he uses his fear gas to induce a form of psychosis in order to escape. She hallucinates her ex-boyfriend and abuser, the Joker himself. In the hallucination, he forces her to wear her old classic costume and tries to get her to kill a hallucinated version of Batman. Harley decides against killing Batman, who she’s been working with in the world of the story, and the Joker tries to kill her because he wouldn’t do what he wanted. Harley fights back and engages in a fight with the Joker.
  • Conditions portrayed: Post Traumatic Stress disorder, drug induced psychosis (fear gas)
  • It’s not perfect: From my own observations, because I’ve been having trouble finding people talking about it, it seems like a pretty good portrayal of PTSD and psychosis (coming from someone who’s experienced both). Some of the angles are unnecessarily sexualized, for such a serious scene, but the mental health portrayal is good. Also, the Joker seems to be based on Jared Leto’s Joker, and I hate that version of the Joker. So much.
  • But it’s still pretty good: Harley Quinn’s fight is a short part of the game, but is one of the most impactful portrayals of PTSD in anything I’ve ever seen.
    • For one, as Extra Credits has noted, it acknowledges that trauma doesn’t go away because the abuse has stopped, even if the person who perpetuated can’t hurt you ever again. This isn’t a perspective that you see often in media, especially in things like games. Trauma is often wrapped up in a single episode, and never acknowledged again. This is unrealistic. Trauma stays with you. It might never leave.
    • The scene also shows that Harley is not a “perfect victim” . She isn’t a delicate flower crushed under her abuser’s boot who never wants to see him again. She has complicated emotions towards her abuser. It’s kind of expected, when you survive domestic violence, that you hate the person who did it and never want to see them again. But abusers make connections. They integrate themselves into your lives, and they make you feel like there is no you without them. Joker literally does this by putting Harley in the clothes that he wants her to wear, not the outfit she starts the scene in that she chose herself. He tries to break her down and make her think that she’s still the person he wanted her to be.
    • But the reason this is one of my favourite scenes is that Harley fights back. She does this all by herself, with only her own will power to break through the Joker’s control. Even when he gets violent, she isn’t afraid of him. Even though he’s tried so hard to break her, she refused to bend to his will even under threat. She meets his violence with self-defence, and beats him in a fight. This is a powerful portrayal of triggers, but also of the power of the survivor to become stronger, and to fight back and become their own person. Again, as Extra Credits says in their excellent video on the fight, Harley is not okay, and she is allowed to not be okay. And that’s what people with PTSD want to be told.

  • Media form: Animated TV Show
  • Release date: 2012 (show first aired), 2014 (Book Four)
  • Synopsis:
    • Show: “Avatar Korra fights to keep Republic City safe from the evil forces of both the physical and spiritual worlds.” (IMDB)
    • Episode: “While Korra is struggling with PTSD by the metal poison Zaheer injected in her, she sets off on a journey to try to connect with Raava. Amidst all of this, Tenzin and the others realize that Korra has gone missing after 6 months.” (IMDB)
  • Conditions portrayed: Post traumatic stress disorder, depression
  • It’s not perfect: I’ve seen other fans point out that Korra has to deal with a lot more shit than Aang, the male hero of the previous series. I can’t find the tumblr posts, but this article speaks to it. While I don’t know if I agree completely, it is a valid point. I personally don’t like that the person who hurt her is the person who helps her heal, but that is just from my admittedly biased perception of trauma. I don’t think most therapists would recommend bringing your abuser into session, in my defense.
  • But it’s still pretty good: God DAMN. If the short fight scene from Injustice 2 was a bite-sized look at recovering from trauma, Korra Alone is an expanded look at the recovery process in all it’s bitter glory.
    • After Korra is almost killed in the previous season, in a really messed up way that reminds me a lot of sexual assault, she has not bounced back. Korra has nightmares almost every night. She’s despondent and disconnected from everything around her, and she pushes all her friends and family away before peacing out entirely, telling no one where she went.
    • Then, she has to deal with a hallucination of herself, representing her trauma and self-loathing as a result of what she went through. Unlike Harley, she doesn’t beat it through force of will alone. And that’s okay.
    • You can deal with triggers by yourself, and some people deal with trauma well without outside help. But that’s not reality for everyone. A lot of people need help from others after their self-destructive coping mechanisms burn them out. I’ve been there. I know how that feels. I do the same things Korra does, and push everyone away because they don’t understand and I don’t want them to understand, so they can’t carry my burden. She eventually finds a mentor to help her bend the poison out, and she finds the man who tortured her and confronts him. He then volunteers to help her.
    • While I would rather never see my abuser again, ever, until he’s in the ground and I can vandalize his headstone, I also see real world parallels with restorative justice. In short, restorative justice is where everyone affected by a crime or action sits in a room, talks, prays and comes to an understanding, and comes to an agreement on how the person who committed the action should make amends. I appreciate that, as Korra is portrayed as being Inuit, and restorative justice is an Indigenous way of performing justice. But the point is that this is an excellent portrayal of mental health struggles.
    • Korra, like Harley, isn’t a perfect victim. She’s angry, and self-destructive, and she fights with the people who try to help her. She’s not okay, and that’s okay. Even when she gets better, she’s changed by the experience. And that’s also totally okay. You’re not going to be the same person after. But the person you become is completely up to you.

  • Media form: Anime
  • Release date:
    • Manga: 1989
    • First anime: 1997
    • Movies: 2012
    • Second anime (the one we don’t talk about): 2016
  • Synopsis: Set in a medieval Europe-inspired dark fantasy world, the story centers on the characters of Guts, a lone mercenary, and Griffith, the leader of a mercenary band called the “Band of the Hawk”. (Wikipedia)
    • And then Griffith *spoilers* betrays the band of the Hawk, rapes Guts’ lover Casca, kills all Guts’ friends and leaves him with only one eye, one arm, and a brand of sacrifice that makes sure he’ll be chased by demons for the rest of his life
  • Conditions portrayed:
    • PTSD, depression, psychosis
  • It’s not perfect:
    • Oh lord. Where to even start with Berserk. It’s not perfect. There’s occassional gratuitious rape, use of homophobic language from the main character, use of ableist language, graphic violence, violence against women, nudity….this shit could not get shown on TV here, is what I’m saying. I also dislike that it shows Casca’s mental health differently than Guts’, and she’s essentially fridged for most of the manga. And, while the show deals with mental health, it’s not the focus of the show, so it does not go into the same depth as other shows on my list. Don’t worry, I’m going to explain myself shortly.
  • But it’s still pretty good:
    • Guts is an imperfect victim. He is an angry asshole who beats people up, kills people and generally acts like a callous jackwad. But I absolutely love this portrayal of trauma, because you never get to see men who are this traumatized act like real trauma victims.
    • While the data isn’t in for non-binary people, people who identify as male and female experience trauma differently due to socialization. Women are a bit more sad, as women are encouraged to hide their anger and never show aggression. Men, on the other hand, are socialized to be angry. They’re also socialized not to show sadness, because that makes you weak. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.
    • What I also appreciate is that we see why Guts acts like such an a-hole. We see him making grand statements about how weak everyone else is, and crying the whole time. It’s clear that he’s trying to explain away his sadness, and to hide it by covering it with bravado and trying to build himself up. He’s hurt. He’s deeply hurt. Sometimes he hurts others, like his girlfriend Casca. Sometimes he hurts himself by going into battle without thinking or without any self-preservation. He’s a man in pain, and he’s allowed to cry, be angry, and be self-destrcutive without any of his actions being portrayed as being right.
    • But Guts also gets better. That’s the important part.
    • He slowly learns to trust people again, through the people who decide to follow him due to his strength. They see something in him he doesn’t; that he is strong enough to survive everything life throws at him. And he’s still not okay. He’s still moody and depressed, but he’s allowing himself to learn to trust again. And he’s not doing the typical ‘male’ thing and going at it alone. He’s getting better through others helping him.
    • Men are told not to seek help. I think, in seeing this extremely manly man going through pain and learning to trust through forming bonds with the people around him, it can really help people.

  • Media form: Animated TV show
  • Release date: 2013
  • Synopsis: A team of intergalactic warriors fights to protect the universe, but the combination of three highly trained beings and one quirky young boy leaves the team struggling to overcome the dangerous scenarios that are put in front of them. (IMDB)
  • Conditions portrayed: PTSD, anxiety
  • It’s not perfect: While Steven has persistent mental health problems throughout the show, I feel like the plotline occassionally gets dropped. That’s the nature of episodic storytelling, but the reality is that this is a problem that is seen a lot in portrayal of trauma. Pearl dwells on her sadness about losing Rose and it makes her act in toxic ways. Lapis hurts the people around her. Shit happens. But…
  • But it’s still pretty good:
    • Let’s start with Pearl. Pearl’s big arc is working through her trauma and complex emotions around losing her love, Rose Quartz. Her path to healing isn’t linear, and sometimes she hurts people. And while that’s typical of PTSD portrayals, she also is called out for it in a kind, gentle way that helps her see how her behaviour affects others—and she changes the behaviours that were harming others.
    • Lapis has extreme PTSD after being abandoned on Earth after the Gem War. She has problems with other people, and lashes out at the people around her. Then, unfortunately, she gets in what is an obvious parallel to abusive relationships and is further hurt by that. She, like Harley, chooses to stay away from her abuser, even though she still has complex emotions towards her. Also, female-on-female abusive relationships are so rarely portrayed, though they happen. A lot. However, she makes friends. She gets better. She chooses her own path forward.
    • Finally, let’s talk about Steven. This poor boy has it rough. He’s a big part of a war, with a lot of responsibility put on him, even though he is a young teen. And he cracks. Several times. He’s anxious. He isolates. He has trouble with nightmares and with connecting to people. But he learns how to deal with his trauma. He learns meditation. He leans on his friends. He goes to a medical professional – by choice! The court isn’t forcing him, he goes by himself! He learns that he has a medical illness that is normal, a powerful message for the young audience.
    • I just love this show. So much. To pack this much mental health and trauma education into a short show is just incredible. And while they drop that through line in some of the episodes, it doesn’t go away. It keeps coming back, and coming back, and the characters grow and learn and change.
  • That’s the big message I want to put out. That if trauma happens, you can still be a full person. You are a full person. You can grow, you can learn, and you can change.

So, what are your favourite portrayals of trauma? Let me know down below!

Here are some resources for anyone reading who is going through PTSD. You’re not alone. You’re not broken. It wasn’t your fault, and there’s help and hope. I have so much faith in you, and I know you can get better.

Thanks for joining me for trauma-rama. I’ll see you next week for another mental health list, but one even more focused on solutions and recovery.

With love,

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Elka Scott writes short and novel-length fiction as well as poetry. She studied creative writing and psychology at university and is currently working to become a creative writing therapist. Elka lives in Saskatchewan and recently received a grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board to write her first graphic novel.

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