I should start this by saying that this will be a long post. There isn’t a trigger warning here, but this is going to be a bit of a “come to the campfire” meeting. For those of you in the American south, you’ve heard of this under the name of the “come to Jesus” meeting.
For each of us as writers and readers—some of us are both—there are things we each have that are pet peeves in things we read. There’s one big one for me that I don’t generally talk about, but I will today.
That pet peeve is how I see so many authors write a character who has anxiety, depression, or post traumatic stress. I have several friends with PTSD stemming from abusive relationships, trauma experienced from so many sources—be it crime, bullying, their profession, or being a witness to something they couldn’t forget. I myself have anxiety and depression—those two afflictions being unwanted gifts of chronic pain, but that part isn’t what’s important here. The part that is, is that I have personal experience with how anxiety and depression not only twist the mind, but more importantly, how it affects the body.
The things I see so often in writing for a character with anxiety is that they experience a moment of fear or worry and then it’s over, like a click of the fingers. It doesn’t work like that, neither does depression, or PTSD. There are many, like myself, where the anxiety doesn’t even necessarily come with uncontrolled thoughts or wild worry—most of the time, the mind is easiest part to control. But when an anxiety attack hits, what you experience is a wide range of physiological symptoms—racing heartbeat that commonly also has an unsteady pattern; nerve firings in your muscles that lead to lungs feeling compressed, your hands shaking, even your eyes vibrating—not that you feel your eyes vibrating, but you do notice that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to focus enough to read something no matter how large the print.
Adrenaline floods your system, and you’re left in this heightened state of fight or flight that doesn’t go away until *it* wants to go away. Sometimes that a few minutes, sometimes it’s *hours*–yes HOURS. And when it does finally break, you suffer for it. Headaches, exhaustion, inability to focus or communicate effectively. You almost feel like a zombie. And guess what? “Popping a Xanax” as I’ve seen in so many stories, doesn’t fix it. It might calm you down, but that takes up to 45 minutes to kick in. It’s not immediate.
Depression is a little different. You’d give anything to have that rush of adrenaline when a depressive episode hits because all you feel is listless. The building could fall down around you and you wouldn’t have the energy or drive to move out of the way of danger. The things that mean so much to you—for me that’s writing and reading—you just have no energy at all for. Taking a shower, cooking a meal, making freaking toast, feels like the impossible task. Just getting out of bed to go to the bathroom and come right back to bed after is EXHAUSTING. Most drugs prescribed for depression will help you find a balance, but don’t prevent or even stop the episodes from happening, and they also come with a hell of cornucopia of side effects—from chronic low level nausea to not being able to keep anything down, to gaining 30 or more pounds even when you change nothing at all about your diet at all or change your diet to vegan/gluten-free. The worst part of them all though, are that almost all (90%) antidepressants have a common side effect of suicide thoughts or ideation.
PTSD—that’s its own bag of mixed nuts. And I say that with the greatest respect. Some moments of PTSD can be a dissociative episode where it feels like you’re walking through a dream, completely disconnected from everything around you, and you’re just going through the motions. Other times, your mind can take you back to reliving whatever happened over and over again on a never-ending loop. Some can still do their daily tasks when this happens, others can’t do anything at all. A tap on the shoulder or the slamming of a door can put you into fight mode, the flash of a neon light catching you at the wrong angle or the blaring or a car horn will trigger a memory that you hadn’t thought about in a while—a memory that is more powerful than you are prepared to deal with in the moment. And unlike the movies and TV shows would have you believe, most of the time, you’re not “transported back into that moment”, but those memories do flood your mind until you can think of nothing else.
PTSD never goes away. Let me say that louder for those in the back. It NEVER goes away. You learn to manage your symptoms, you learn to control your mind and your environment, you learn coping mechanisms to keep the episodes you do experience from being so devastating, but it never leaves you. For those of my friends who have support dogs, that dog can sense when their charge is going into a panic attack or a PTSD flare and is trained to help calm them down, to give that person a center balance. For those who don’t have a support animal, their coping mechanisms may look to the neurotypicals (aka “normals”) as being OCD—checking all the locks and windows, looking for points of entry, marking the blind spots and corners covered in shadows.
And, for the record, TRUE OCD is devastating. Much more so than I feel qualified to go into. But I will give you this insight into it. A person with OCD will wash their hands, check the locks, open and close a door multiple times in a row, etc to the detriment of their own personal hygiene, safety, and normal functions of life. If the person stops being able to function normally in society, that is the true definition of OCD. It makes no sense to anyone on the outside looking in, but to that person, if they do not perform whatever task it is, in the exact order it needs to be done, and the exact number of times that they do, there is the belief/fear that something bad will happen—from the house catching fire to someone breaking in to themselves or a family member dying—as a direct result of not performing that task.
The thing I am saying here, and why I’ve offered all of this information, is to please write for accuracy. There is a marked difference between a moment of sadness and depression, a moment of worry and anxiety, learning coping techniques to control your reactions in order to manage your PTSD and actual OCD. Oh, and for the record, some of the most noble professions will have the greatest occurrence of PTSD—ER nurses, firefighters, EMTs, police, federal agents, military personnel—to name a few.
Actors/Actresses, musicians, and entertainers in the spotlight can get PTSD, too. Don’t laugh that off. Instead, think about how you would feel to have every moment of your life under someone else’s microscope, to have people trying to touch you or harass you on the street, break into your home, hack into your accounts, etc. Even for those entertainers like Kate Winslet, Patricia Arquette, Jensen Ackles, Jared Padelecki, Micha Collins, Jason Momoa, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Lawrence, and others who are very open to fans approaching them and speak out about loving to meet them—they, too, can experience trauma from overzealous fans or paparazzo. Hell, remember that John Hinkley Jr. shot President Reagan for the sole purpose of getting Jodie Foster to notice him.
A few resources for you all to check out, use, and save. (And yes, these are only a few of what’s available):
– Title: 20 Tweets That Capture What Anxiety Feels Like
— Link: https://www.health.com/anxiety/what-anxiety-feels-like
– Title: What Anxiety Disorders Look Like in Adults
— Link: https://www.additudemag.com/anxiety-disorders-in-adults-symptoms/
– Title: What an Anxiety Attack Really Feels Like
— Link: https://www.additudemag.com/anxiety-attack-panic-attack/
– Title: 11 Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
— Link: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/anxiety-disorder-symptoms
– Title: Physical Symptoms and Side Effects of Anxiety
— Link: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322510.php
– Title: YouTube: What Anxiety Feels Like—Living with an Anxiety Disorder
— Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYT3BXMIF5o
– Title: The Effects of Depression on the Body and Physical Health
— Link: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322395.php
– Title: The Effects of Depression on Your Body
— Link: https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/effects-on-body
– Title: The Link Between Depression and Physical Symptoms
— Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC486942/
– Title: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors
— Link: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/156285.php
– Title: PTSD: Five Effective Coping Strategies
— Link: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319824.php
– Title: PTSD Service Dogs
— Link: https://www.pawsitivityservicedogs.com/ptsd
– Title: NIMH: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
— Link: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml
– Title: Obsessed Jodie Foster Fan, John Hinkley Jr., Shoots President Reagan
— Link: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/obsessed-jodie-foster-fan-john-hinckley-jr-shoots-president-reagan