I Treat My PTSD By Watching "Law & Order"

I have Sam Waterston's home phone number, which over the last 15 years I have called four times, when I was having a panic attack and knew that hearing the sound of his voice on his answering machine would soothe me.

I was 10 when I first developed a fascination with sociopaths. I’d been watching the news, tracking the hunt for Alton Coleman, a spree killer on the loose. I remember locking and re-locking all the doors and windows in the house one night because my parents were out. I was still unused to not having a babysitter and I was perilously afraid that Coleman was going to break in and kill me -- an extension of the fear I’d been living with since I’d had conscious thought, which was that I would be kidnapped in my sleep and wake up somewhere else and never, ever be safe again.

When "Law & Order" premiered my junior year of high school, I was immediately drawn to what seemed like a complicated but important dramatic structure. I got lost in episodes, not always able to follow all the twists and turns, completely enthralled. I wanted more legal procedure, more justice.

I read "Helter Skelter" and learned about Charles Manson’s use of mind control on his “family,” and how sociopathic anger is often founded in ignorance and distortion. I watched documentaries on serial killers, pedophilia, and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. I read up on criminal profiling. I realized that asking “why” people do the things they do was a waste of time because there was no answer to the question.

That truth was unsettling, and "Law & Order" became a weekly antidote to the violence and chaos I saw around me on the streets of Chicago, where I grew up. Before long, the chung-chung between scenes had the power to tether my body to the earth when my head was busy spinning out.

By some coincidence, the actor that played ADA Jack McCoy in the original franchise, Sam Waterston, spoke at my graduation from the College of Santa Fe in 1996. Because I wound up working in the public relations office of my alma mater for several years, I possess a copy of that speech with Waterston’s hand-written edits on it. I also have his phone number, which over the last 15 years I have called four times.

Three of those times were while I was having a panic attack at work, when I knew that hearing the sound of his voice on his answering machine would soothe me. The other time was also from work, when a student was having a panic attack in my office. I offered to call Sam Waterston’s answering machine on speaker phone and she enthusiastically accepted.

It was during the summer after college graduation, with the confluence of having seen Jack McCoy in the flesh and A&E beginning to syndicate the show, that my L&O obsession became full-fledged. I was living with family in New York, working as a receptionist, because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I was positive that my only alternative was turning into a schizophrenic homeless person overnight -- a fear that woke me up from a dead sleep in October of my senior year and only increased as the school year wore on.

That summer, I spent a lot of time in an Irish café in the Bronx. I bolted every night at 10:50 so I could get down the block and upstairs in time for my 11 p.m. fix. A few months later, after I moved back to New Mexico because that’s where I felt the safest, I timed the fastest route home from work so I would miss only the cold open of the 5 p.m. airing.

I soon met the guy I eventually married and he will tell you that one of the first moments he knew I was weird enough for him to have a long-term thing with was when he turned on the TV to the middle of an episode of L&O, and after hearing -- from another room -- Briscoe, Logan, and Van Buren heave a few sighs and comment on a cup of coffee, I called out, “The son did it! He killed his dad because he’s embarrassed to be a super’s kid!”

When I was 28, I started therapy and was diagnosed with serious chronic post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from prolonged child abuse. I’m not ready to get into the nature of the abuse in a national forum, but let’s just say it’s considered shocking and unusual enough that it’s been depicted only once in the history of "L&O: Special Victims Unit."

My therapist, who died two years ago, explained PTSD as a fundamental change to the nervous system due to fear, a chemical malfunction in the fight-or-flight response. I perceive danger where there is none, sometimes even when good things happen. When there is a potential threat, I perceive it as life-threatening -- even if it’s just someone running behind me on the sidewalk or the sound of someone whispering.

Often, I just freeze. My body locks up around my pounding heart; my vision swims; my mouth goes dry; it’s difficult to form a thought. Sometimes I lose the power to speak at all. I was abused from such a young age that my nervous system permanently functions this way. I’ve had enough therapy now to be able to understand intellectually what the actual danger level is, but my body doesn’t know the difference. My body will continue to flip the fuck out for weeks after a completely resolved minor ripple in the self-constructed even flow of my adult life. It’s not good for my health.

Watching episode after episode of L&O helps me maintain an even keel. I have seen every episode of every franchise at least a dozen times (except for the season of "Criminal Intent" with Jeff Goldblum and Saffron Burrows. No.) If we’re talking Original Recipe, my favorite assistant ADA is Claire, followed by Abbie. I came to appreciate Stone later in life, after years of preferring McCoy. I really liked the seasons with Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson and thought the franchise was canceled at the height of its creative renaissance.

I know many people find SVU problematic because it presents sex crimes for entertainment, but in its early years, before they ran out of believable plots and the acting got awful, it was trying to do something important. There are a few episodes I won’t watch, but in general, even the most objectionable material fades into the background because my brain just wants the structure of the thing, not the thing itself.

My all-time favorite L&O team is Bobby Goren and Alex Eames. When Vincent D’Onofrio first showed up, pointing and leaning and touching the dead, I couldn’t stand him, but then they started revealing Bobby as a person. I felt such a kinship with him. Our backgrounds have some similarities, but what I really responded to was his unapologetic interest in psychology mixed with emotional damage so obvious it radiates off of him.

Though I know the actor is attractive, my primary connection is cerebral. My husband teases me because I actually find Bobby hotter the wilder and more shambling he becomes during the run of the series. (I know it was a topic of media gossip at the time, but I’m not speculating here on D’onofrio’s own mental or physical health.)

In the eight-episode farewell season of "CI," Bobby finally goes to therapy. The final season premiered just days after my own therapist died, and spanned the months between getting a diagnosis of and then treatment for thyroid cancer. Bobby’s sessions with Dr. Paula Grayson were a gift to me when I was in a prolonged state of panic. Like Bobby, I tend to confuse what I’m good at with my value as a human, and seeing him learn to trust her made me feel like there was hope in the world. His friendship and working relationship with Eames is also endearing. She brings the snark. I like them best when they pretend to be an overbearing wealthy couple in order to get information.

Netflix Instant makes it possible to play "Law & Order" continuously. I turn it on for background noise while I’m writing. I turn it on to drown out the PTSD voices in my head that like to tell me I’m worthless. I turn it on in celebration when something good happens. I turn it on before a nap on a particularly triggering day, so I won’t get scared by silence. I turn it on when I stretch. I’m going to turn it on right now, just for finishing this article.

Do you have any shows you use to self-soothe? How do you banish your nasty inner voices?