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.