Sometimes fear keeps us safe and sometimes fear holds us back

Scandal’s lead character, Olivia Pope, uttered these words in the recent episode of the TV series and I could not agree more.

Watching the episode, you can’t help but acknowledge post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a truly crippling disorder.  Jake referenced it concerning Huck, “…say, you are a soldier with PTSD that went AWOL.”  Ironically, Huck is a soldier with PTSD whose mind disassociates and goes “AWOL” when he is overwhelmed.  Because of his PTSD, Huck is empathetic to Olivia’s struggle with trauma recover, “she came in. That’s something.”

Throughout this episode and last, we see her body tremors.  This is our bodies’ “flight or fight” fear response.  Oftentimes, it is a physical symptom of anxiety as the nervous system is over stimulated.  We witness her flashbacks and see her isolation.  Abby relays her concern over her hyper-vigilence as evidenced by her carrying a gun around her apartment.

I point all of this out becuase:

  1. the writing of this is phenomenal in documenting PTSD;
  2. people need to see and recognize the symptoms of various mental illnesses;
  3. it has not yet touched on the reason why she doesn’t seek treatment, but I will speculate about what it will be; and
  4. this is a setup to what she needs to do for herself and what others can do for someone facing similar situations.

Regard the third point, there is a stigma around being strong and not “succumbing” to mental illness.  Olivia describes herself (and those around her) as a #gladiator. Gladiators DID NOT have PTSD.  Gladiators were strong, virile, and not afraid.  WRONG!  I suspect many did have PTSD and this may be why they stayed in battle.  Soldiers with PTSD will tell you the only place they feel “normal” is in battle around other soldiers, maybe because normal is relative to our surroundings.  Also, gladiators often drank excessively upon their return.  After the “party” ended, I believe they consumed in excess to “numb out” and avoid their own emotions (much like Olivia and her white wine this week).

In order for there to be true success in the field of mental illness and PTSD, barriers must be broken down and the stigmas associated with them removed.  A truly strong person knows when they have reached a point when they need help.  Like I tell some patients, even the strongest body builders use a “spotter”.

Shonda Rhimes may also be leading into a discussion of how mental illness often is frowned upon in communities of color.  #Scandal may be pointing out that communities of color historically have had a negative view of mental illness and, in many cases, denied its existence.

So, if we acknowledge it, then what.  Follow these steps until someone wants to seek professional help.

  • Celebrate their small steps and triumphs.  Let them know you notice and acknowledge the pain that may be present.
  • Try to help them identify “the something good” they need right now.
  • Listen to them talk.  When they share, much as Huck did at the end, LISTEN.  Let their story come out of “the hole.”
  • And most of all, be patient! And know things will never be the same, but they can find a new “normal.”