Trauma Culture: Who’s a “Normal” Now?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was unheard of when Erving Goffman published Stigma in 1963. It was first identified as shell shock (WWI) and later as combat stress reaction (WWII), always associated with the trauma of battle. Now, we know that PTSD can arise from experiencing a natural disaster, rape, child abuse, racism, a serious car accident, and exposure to a violent event. Trauma, as they say in the lit., is a normal response to an abnormal event.

PTSD is a stigma of mental health, what Goffman would call a “discreditable” identity, a “blemish of individual character” that marks its bearer tainted and undesirable. For the sufferer, it means managing a discrepancy in differences between the virtual identity (what is seen by others, including on facebook) and the actual identity (the hurt self, the symptoms of the trauma). In turn, this creates tension for the person with PTSD because they have to control information about their failing in social interactions, there is a great fear of being found out and seen as not normal. Social life is a constant question of whether or not to disclose potentially discrediting information: “To display or not to display, to tell or not to tell, to let on or not to let on, to lie or not to lie.”

For the “normals,” (the unafflicted, those who do not depart negatively from society’s expectations) people suffering a stigma are inferior and not fully human and because of this, they act discriminatory and cruel; which ultimately, lessen life chances of the stigmatized. Everyday life is tough for a person with a mental health disorder like PTSD. It means living a life feeling slightly apart from others and fully aware of not possessing the “right” attributes but having to make a show of being well adjusted anyway, so as not to upset the normals.

PTSD is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the U.S. It is characterized by these basic symptoms: hypervigilance/hyperarousal, intrusive experiences such as nightmares and rumination, and emotional numbing (dissociation). Often the person is capable of only feeling fear, anxiety, and sadness. The symptoms are also deeply distracting and make it difficult socially, leaving the sufferer further vulnerable to having their differentness discovered by a normal.

So, who is a normal? A normal is most likely White or light-skinned, middle or upper class, contained in body and spirit and a person who is thought of as “friendly” or “honest” (regardless of whether they actually are). They are an ideal and they are everywhere. They are on our TV’s, in our movies and magazines, on the boxes of products we purchase to improve ourselves. The constant cultural message is “you’re not good enough, buy this.” There is a sense, I think, that being “normal” might be equated with being “perfect.”

And here is where I pose a question. Who is a normal now? Who out there is untainted? If Erving Goffman was here, I’d want to ask him this, is it possible that nobody is normal, because from my purview, our culture feels traumatized and collectively numb. We are sicker and sadder, and there is plenty of evidence that the great shifts in how we work and play have left families with weaker ties and workers adjusting to a growing trend toward pensionless temporary and part-time work, especially for professionals.

Then there are the attacks on September 11, 2001. For weeks, we were saturated with images of death, disfigurement, and grief. Fiery images played repeatedly, and we were helpless not to watch the desperate jump to their deaths or listen to testimony after testimony of survivors. It was an abnormal event and our very normal response—given the media onslaught—was to consume the violence as if it had happened to us. Because in many ways, it did.

In fact, one research study found similar levels of PTSD in those who witnessed the attacks in NYC and those who only watched them on TV. According to neurobiologist Robert Scaer, “We’re a frozen culture. The country is traumatized and dissociated.” Furthermore, he argues that the institutions of the culture—schools, government, healthcare, and the legal system—are also traumatizing to deal with because they are “so adversarial.”

We were a shaken culture after 9/11.  The U.S. is also privileged in that unlike other wealthy nations, terror and domestic conflict are something outside of us, it happens but it’s rare, wars are something we do elsewhere in places with names that most Americans can’t find on a map. Seeking security, we found it in seemingly limitless credit that offered the chance to buy whatever we wanted, including SUV’s and houses with expansive square footage. One of the ways that people emerge from a traumatic experience is to seek security, a means to turn off the fight or flight and hunker down in order to create a sense of joy and relative peace in everyday life. That lasted until 2008 when the bubble burst and sent us into a recession. It’s 2015 now and despite media claims, economic recovery has been a long, slow crawl.

PTSD is an individual’s normal response to an abnormal event. Is it possible though, for a whole culture to be traumatized? Most of our worst, chronic illnesses (including mental health) can be traced back to early childhood trauma. Moreover, we are living through a postmodern era of globalization characterized by a feeling that there is no absolute truth, traditional authority is corrupt and cannot be trusted, and that ethics are relative, meaning there is no clear sense of how we are supposed to act and behave. On a daily basis, I read facebook status updates nostalgic for a time of meaningful connection and near tribalism, a deep need to feel “happy” and safe.

Modernity, we asked for it, we got it. But, we are finding that we don’t like it or what it is doing to us. PTSD is a new disorder but a fitting one for the complexity of postmodern life. It is not just for soldiers anymore, we have all been exposed, and nobody is normal anymore despite their best efforts at impression management.  Welcome to the trauma culture.

3 thoughts on “Trauma Culture: Who’s a “Normal” Now?

  1. 1) When it comes to PTSD, social stigma is not as straightforward as we find with older, “traditional” diagnoses such as schizophrenia or, say, psychopathy. While, yes, there is negative stigma, especially in male areas of culture that puts high value on ability to withstand adversity and carry on–this value is especially high in military culture–on the other hand, in out-patient therapy, among both clients and therapists, different values prevail, and, in fact, I would submit there is a tendency to seek out a diagnosis of PTSD over and above more stigmatizing diagnoses such as borderline personality disorder. PTSD is unique among psychiatric labels in that it puts the “cause” of the illness outside the individual. It is not my fault this is happening to me. This is why therapists are so in love with this label.

    2) I would expect from an ethnographer a more nuanced and (including emic and etic) perspective on a psychiatric diagnosis. The writer failed in this respect. All psychiatric diagnoses are, after all, cultural artifacts themselves.

  2. Hi Lewis,

    Thank you for your two-part commentary. I would like to know if you would be willing to provide some research regarding differences in value for the PTSD diagnosis vs. “traditional” diagnoses as you describe. I am interested in hearing more about that from someone who works as a mental health professional. I agree with you (as you say on your blog) that the mental health field is “dominated by ideology, fads, wishful thinking, and overconfidence.”

    I am not a mental health professional nor am I an Anthropologist (emic and etic). I am a sociologist and a person who suffers with PTSD. Though I did not talk about my personal experience in my blog piece “Trauma Culture,” I do have the viewpoint of a person from within the social group. One thing I didn’t mention (and since you made me think about it here) is that viewing PTSD as a problem of “military culture” is misinformed and does little good to help other victims of trauma, such as sexual abuse and daily, ongoing racism (e.g., rape victims suffer much higher rates of PTSD than vets do). I would even go so far as to suggest that the inherent sexism and institutional racism that exists within the mental health field at present (and historically) do much to influence that disconnect.

    For example, when I read the phrase “It is not my fault that this is happening to me” and an analysis that that is why therapists love that “label” (vs. diagnosis?) I think that is something I usually hear when the victim is being blamed. Of course, that may not be your intent. Perhaps your intent (and others who’ve spoken that phrase in the context of who gets to claim victimhood) was not blame at all but to create psychic and social distance from something fearful that isn’t understood. Social stigma in PTSD is not well understood and is only barely understood by the mental health profession. From my perspective within, I have observed mental health practitioners use that phrase regarding others to manage their own discomfort as it arises from their own emotions and attitudes, including superiority and judgment.

    In my academic brain I agree, a psychiatric diagnosis is just a cultural artifact. But, from my lived experience, oh hell no, this is a pain in the ass thing to deal with that is not my fault and that I didn’t ask for. I did not ask my stepfather to come in my bedroom when I was 8 years old, rape me, and then continue to do so for four years. I didn’t ask my stepfather’s male family friends or my grandfather to hug me so close or set me on their laps so I could feel their hard penises on my leg while they “kissed” me. Nope. And, I didn’t ask for a mother who died refusing to acknowledge my abuse and her own and called children violating other children “Child’s play.” It wasn’t my fault and if it weren’t for the brilliant assistance of a therapist in 1998 (cognitive-behavioral therapy) I’d probably be a mess, rather than a working class kid who prevailed.

    In fact, there is so much stigma around PTSD that I’m kind of scared to post this where people I know can read it. What will they think of me now? I guess this is the time, because there are too many of us who have been silenced and stigmatized by our families, our teachers and schools, our friends, and yes, mental health professionals.

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