UNPOPULAR OPINION: I Have PTSD, And It's Not A Joke

I’ve been struggling with this illness for more than half my life now, and I can assure you: it’s not funny.
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Alison Downs
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I’ve been struggling with this illness for more than half my life now, and I can assure you: it’s not funny.

Sometimes writers make questionable decisions for the sake of comedy. They might drop an f-bomb for comedic emphasis, or use shocking words for dramatic effect. Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing new trend: using “PTSD” as a humorous term. In the same manner that we’ve begun to remove the words “gay” and “retard” from our “comedic” vocabulary, I believe the same consideration needs to be applied to the term PTSD.

Case in point:

On November 11, xoJane posted two otherwise harmless articles. One, about silly underwear, said: “…I have tween angst PTSD...” Another, an article about expensive beauty products, had a quote that read in part, “I still have 'poor kid' PTSD…”

These articles were both published on Veterans Day, a day meant to honor those who serve -- many of whom suffer from PTSD themselves. I’m sure this wasn’t intentional, but it was the poorest possible timing.

In the context of these articles, Poor Kid PTSD and Tween Angst PTSD are supposed to be amusing. You’re supposed to imagine that being an angsty tween and a poor kid, respectively, was so traumatic that they now have horrific flashbacks about it. But being embarrassed about shopping at Hot Topic or being afraid that you might experience poverty again is not the same as actually having a PTSD flashback. 

As a PTSD sufferer, I have trouble looking the other way when this term is misused, and it bothers me that we are perpetuating this improper use on xoJane. I’ve been struggling with this illness for more than half my life now, and I can assure you: It’s not funny.

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The English language is very dynamic. Over the years, the meaning and usage of terms tend to shift. People become a little lax with the words they use, causing their misuse to become commonplace (“literally” now means “figuratively,” for example). 

In the case of medical terminology, however, this can be extremely damaging. Using PTSD in a casual, joking manner contributes directly to the deterioration of the term as a whole. Misuse encourages misuse (“Selfie,” anyone? It’s short for self-portrait. There should only be one person in it) and before you know it, you’re dealing with a bunch of people who think they know the proper definition of PTSD, when they actually just know how it is used in comedy writing. It’s dismissive to those of us who actually have the disorder. Imagine the scene:

Me: I think you should know, I have PTSD.

Friend: I know exactly what you mean. I got a really bad haircut last year and I totally have PTSD about going to cheap salons now.

That is not PTSD.

PTSD is not a slight aversion. PTSD is not an embarrassing thought that still makes you cringe a little when someone reminds you of it. PTSD is not a fear of haunted houses or horror movies or clowns. 

PTSD is a scratch across the record album that is your brain, forcing your memory to get stuck in a rut and skip. PTSD is a harsh interruption and a reminder of terrible incidents -- truly terrible incidents. Incidents that were so disturbing, your brain didn’t know how to process them… so it continues to try.

When I hear people use PTSD in improper context, one thing becomes perfectly clear to me: these folks do not understand what I have gone through. The same way people use the term OCD when they mean “particular” or “well-organized,” using PTSD to mean, “I worry I’m going to get a bad haircut,” is alienating to those of us who suffer from the disorder. 

PTSD can be a very solitary illness -- one of the symptoms is self-isolation -- and hearing someone misrepresent it only seems to further drive home the fact that when it comes to our illness, we are truly misunderstood and alone.

During a PTSD flashback, your brain rewinds to the worst moment of your entire life. Then that horrible moment is amplified and played over and over again. Every nasty sight, sound, smell, and physical sensation, replayed in your brain in an infinite loop. You hate it. You don’t want to see it, you don’t want to think about it, but you are powerless to stop it. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) has been shown to help, but there are two caveats: EMDR is expensive, and it also tends to make your flashbacks worse before it makes them better.

The truth of the matter is, my own PTSD -- a result of childhood trauma that I’d rather not disclose -- is very mild. I have persistent, recurring thoughts, and I am hyperaware of the danger lurking in any given situation. (I like to think of it as being prepared for all possible outcomes, but it means that I can come off as an extreme worrywart.) 

The worst of all my symptoms, however, is that I startle easily. Inexplicably, I actually enjoy haunted houses, but in my normal waking life, I’m liable to scream (and sometimes, punch!) if someone approaches me too quickly, or shouts my name from another room. These symptoms have been very difficult to deal with, so I cannot imagine how hard it must be for people who are suffering from severe PTSD.

“How do you have PTSD? You haven’t been in a war.” 

That’s what my mother said when I was first diagnosed. Yes, war veterans are extremely likely to suffer from PTSD (more than 30% of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime, and between 11-20% of veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have had PTSD in a given year). But the fact is, PTSD can be caused by just about any traumatic experience: being in an automobile accident, being the victim of a violent crime, witnessing death or injury, being sexually abused, and of course, facing combat.

About 10% of all women (that’s 10 out of every 100) will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, so it’s likely you may already know someone who is suffering silently from the disorder. I urge you to exercise some sensitivity with your use of this term. It’s a real and painful illness, not something to weave into your comedy routine.