The climb

The climb
Climbing together

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A word on Westworld, Flashbacks and PTSD

The idea for this post came to me suddenly, while I was applying makeup for no reason at mid morning. I have always thought of makeup as a kind of "war paint" - adding flesh colored layers on top of my true face, to create a mask that stimulates different kinds of reactions depending on emphasis on eyes or lips, the color scheme, the number of layers, etc.

Makeup is without a doubt artistry, you can peruse Instagram for some exquisitely shining and also exquisitely horrific examples of this art, with the array of gender identities becoming the socially acceptable canvas for expression, with the makeup artist using their own face, the faces of others, or a combination of both. Makeup artists can make a healthy living these days, and the use of makeup for movies, TV, special effects, and even for the more mundane events of life, that are cause of celebration but as commonplace as grass, like bridal parties and prom and QuinceaƱeras and Bat Mitzvahs. We humans love our makeup.



What does this have to do with Westworld, the 1973 sci-fi movie that has been reincarnated as an HBO miniseries with all the associated high budget, visually stunning and gut-wrenching effects, have to do with makeup? Oh, the layers, my friends. Come on a journey into my convoluted thoughts.

First of all, applying makeup is a self care strategy I use when I begin to dissociate in a PTSD reactivation-triggered state. For example, if a large man comes into my bedroom in the middle of the night, I will probably have a seriously bad next few days with intrusive memories, unwanted thoughts, and flashbacks where I relive the experience that I have somehow associated this trigger with. It's sort of like having a thorn permanently embedded in your side, which you usually protect and can forget about, but sometimes gets accidentally hit and it feels excruciatingly painful and then throbs off and on and eventually subsides back into just a twinge that you can manage through avoidance.

I put on my mask, take some selfies, post on social media and I get reactions. It's like, hi, I'm here, I exist in this moment and you are seeing me. I am loathe to actually interact people and get a response because that would be really over stimulating. I have to think to walk. 

Sexual Violence in Entertainment Media and Purposeful Triggering


I started watching HBO's reboot of Westworld on a whim. I have HBO Now on the Roku streaming stick, which I subscribed to for the purposes of Game of Thrones, to be perfectly honest. There have been countless criticisms of the excessive sexual violence in the Game of Thrones series, and yet as a survivor of sexual violence I find the show very engaging. The violence depicted doesn't seem over the top, to me. I am probably revealing a bit too much by saying that but...it just seems more real to me than most entertainment. The relationships are ugly and complex. People get hurt, die, and endure what seems like impossible torment - and they survive. They change into something else, right before your eyes. It's a demonstration, to me, of what it means to survive trauma and continue to exist in a world that is, in reality, quite frankly traumatic.

I love how the author describes her purposeful triggering through entertainment media because that is the flavor of what I experience. Little bits of traumatic trigger in spaces I have prepared (read: I always watch the series alone), with appropriate pauses , etc. It's like interval training with trigger reactions. You do it in little bits and it becomes less problematic and almost routine to automatically cope. I usually diffuse with humor. I once laughed out loud, almost hysterically, at what ended up being a sincere proclamation from a character about to die. I don't even remember the topic but the futility of his assertion and belief was strikingly amusing. Pretty sure that reaction would have horrified a lot of people. I was alone, folding clothes, and I scared the dog with my witch cackle.

Similarly, Westworld has been prone to criticisms about excessive violence, and two of the show's stars have come to its defense. I won't link various criticisms ad nauseum, but I want to mention the completely unscientific and low-grade level evidence that I have via anecdote and observation that people who have been exposed to trauma tend to prefer these vivid HBO series that have been decried for violence, or at the very least they watch them on the regular (barring an opposition to the old West theme, which I can understand. It's a somewhat tiresome trope for me, too). People who have a healthy sense of what is violent, who have a healthy sense of personal emotional boundaries, who have not developed a degree of numbness and experience that makes the viewing of these shows more tolerable might not be as drawn to them. 

The show features androids in a park, called the hosts, who are available for the guests who pay a high cash price for their entertainment. The guests can literally do whatever they want to the hosts, while the hosts are programmed to be unable to harm a living being. Early in the show we see that a kind of viral infection takes hold of some of the hosts, one that spreads, allowing them access to self-examination and reflection leading to sentience and the ability to harm living things. Having not seen the entire show I can't say as to whether the pattern and progression of the "infection" (I use this only because it seems contagious, but the effects are not directly negative).

A word on the philosophical frame that scaffolds this conceptual exploration


Pause for a minute to allow me clarify that I generally don't attribute labels like negative or positive unless in direct interaction with those who use those labels. I have a decidedly Buddhist outlook, and that has been an intentional path. There is a great book written in 1967 that I recommend on that account (so please understand the author's use of the socially appropriate terminology of that time, the "Yellow Races" - I cringed, but there is value in the teachings.) It's one of the most concise and elegant distillations of a selection of the fundamental concepts that anchor Buddhism as a philosophy - not a religion, as there is no deity nor a creation story within this outlook, and those are two of other little boxes that must be checked to qualify as a 'religion'.

Interactions lead to effects. Those effects move in directions based on the nature of interaction, and the karma, or the directional flavor or nature of the various stimuli that cause the effect. This is just a personal process, so take it or leave it. Thus a traumatic event is essentially neutral, and positive or negative impressions are externally imposed states. Here, an event becomes a stimulus leading to a cascade of reactive effects that are perceived as one thing in the individual experience, and perhaps another in the social sphere of interaction. The more traumatic the experience, the more ego-rending. You literally feel like you are dying, in some sense you actually do. 

Being that our self-concept is just a socially constructed set of concepts and memories that change with every passing moment, the illusion of self, so to speak, comes from a perceptive quality that allows the spaces between the causes and effect flashes to be so imperceptible as to be pragmatically invisible. A good analogy might be the refresh rate for your screen (whatever device you're looking at, even mobile). The movie becomes engrossing and convincing. This is getting abstract.

The most perfect depiction of a Flashback


Without giving away too much, as one might expect, the plot features a program update that allowed for something that they called "reveries". The thing that differentiates a host experience during a reverie and a human experience during a memory is precisely the same thing that differentiates an uncomfortable experience from a true traumatic trigger. With a PTSD trigger, the sufferer literally re-experiences either some or all of the traumatic event in vivid detail. There are recollection distortions, at least in my experience. Experiences of smell and sound become more vivid in flashbacks, for me.

In the HBO series, hosts that are deep in a reverie may be prone to actions that are outside of their bounds of behavior demanded by current context. For example, vividly re-living a previous software build where their storyline ends in their murder, a host may act out while lost in the memory and slash an innocent bystander's throat, things of that nature - literally seeing, hearing, feeling, and experiencing the past situation rather than the present.

Unfaithful to HBO, I am
One of the most humbling pieces I have ever read on the experience of post-traumatic dissociation was written from the perspective of the boyfriend of a woman who was a rape survivor. Bless men like the girlfriend's exboyfriend in this story, who are capable of taking on the task of being a sort of anchor for a traumatized, dissociated person to hold onto in a confusing and tumultuous sea.

My Thoughts

As much as these series on HBO have been criticized for being violent, objectifying women, displaying sexual violence that is the opposite of what we would like to believe about humanity, when safely encased in the bubbles and enclaves where decent behavior is still understood and expected, they reflect something very visceral and real, in a way that someone - who has not been violently assaulted, grown up in a chaotic war zone, survived a horrific natural disaster where they witnessed death, injury, and both the basest and most angelic responses to the suffering of those around them - may not find appealing. 

It's easier to pretend that humanity is fundamentally good, and incapable of horrific behavior, if you have never experienced it first hand. It's easy to deny the animal nature that is part of humanity, and has been reflected in our behaviors during the worst events in our history, if you just don't remember it. Gaslighting, and magically changing the interpretation or recollection of something to make it more palatable but also less based in what actually happened while vigorously denying the veracity of claims that are closer to the truth of a shared experience, is also a great tool to that end.

Is it worrying to see this kind of thing portrayed in such a manner in entertainment media? Not to me. It's nice to have a convenient pop culture reference to use when describing your experience. 

Moving forward, having a shared understand of trauma-informed care might be a good step toward not only providing improved care and less days of lost productivity for people who are survivors of trauma, but also may provide a pathway toward reducing the epidemic of traumatized people that are currently circulating the world today.

MAN UP

Curdmudgeons and conservative liberatarians out there might be declaring that one should simply "man up!" as our ancestor clearly did, and just swallow your feelings, eventually dying of a chronic disease process related to the increased levels of circulating cortisol in your bloodstream that never got resolved because "stiff upper lip."

Yeah, I'm calling it out. Pretending that everything is OK is bad for your health. Ignoring things that make you unhappy, upset, or injure you on a regular basis will eventually be at least partially the cause of your death.

IME the current approaches used in modern medicine are not appropriate for people who have survived trauma. You might get lucky and find a caregiver who doesn't have compassion fatigue (and good luck with that), who is capable of instinctively or intuitively providing the necessary support, but for the most part - as with breastfeeding education among healthcare providers who don't specifically pursue IBCLC licensing, trauma-informed care is simply an afterthought.

Rather than creating a generation of soft people who are incapable of withstanding difficulty, the result could be a generation of emotionally intelligent individuals who far surpass previous generations in their capacity for both empathy and resilience. Rather than withstanding the storm, the resilient individual is able to fluidly accept their reaction, process in a healthy manner, and use the experience of trauma, aka "weathering the storm," to become stronger, deeper, more human and more capable of providing a sophisticated level of interchange between themselves and their community that is sufficient for coping with the exponentially increasing complexity of our daily lives.

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