In the tenth episode of the second season of The West Wing, Josh’s behavior inspires Leo to force Josh to speak with a therapist about the lasting implications of his shooting. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Trigger Warning: For talk of PTSD, triggers, abuse, violence. This whole episode is like one giant reminder that triggers are indeed real and not just some social justice fantasy, so take that.
I’ve lived with PTSD for at least the last decade. I didn’t know what the name of my experience was until I was in my mid-20s and finally had insurance that covered therapy sessions. All I knew was that I couldn’t stop reliving what had happened to me in my hometown. And that’s the important distinction made in “Noël”: It’s about reliving, not remembering. It’s not that I simply remember traumatizing events in my life. It’s the sensation that it’s happening to me all over again, that I am pulled back through time just to experience it all over again. It’s the inability to forget the intimate details of being abused and bullied. It’s why I’m able to recall these events so vividly whenever I write about them. I can’t forget them.
What we see over the course of this episode is something I’ve had to live with for a long time, and I’m thankful that there are still people in this world writing and performing material like this to help explain it to those who do not experience PTSD. This is so accurate that it’s downright uncomfortable. I’ve been in the same position! I lashed out at myself and others, I was staunchly defensive about my own mental health when presented with overwhelming evidence that I had been suffering from PTSD for ten years before someone told me what it was. And when that therapist very plainly explained to me that what I was feeling was something that had a name, a definition, and a history that I could read and look into, it was like someone had finally stepped into my head and given me a light to shine in the darkness. That doesn’t mean I’ve been perfectly cured since then. That was back when Mark Reads Harry Potter was just starting, so I hadn’t gotten to Order of the Phoenix. My first introduction to Dolores Umbridge is honestly a pivotal moment in my life and a big reason why that book is my favorite Harry Potter novel. Obviously, getting that sort of validation of your experiences is a big deal, but it’s also a fantastic demonstration of how triggers work and why I take them so seriously. Having to read about a person in a position of authority viciously mistreat a student took me instantly back to my own traumatizing experience. Sharing that moment with millions of people, though, was a way for me to try and do what Stanley asks Josh to do here: remember the event without reliving. So I gave in. I relived it so that I could move towards simply remembering it.
This has happened a few times over the course of my Mark Does Stuff career, and I feel privileged to be amongst a group of readers, friends, and fans who allow me to feel comfortable enough to talk about my triggers and traumas. I got to open up about why I was an atheist through The Amber Spyglass; Buffy allowed me to talk about rape and queer representation, though not without a disaster of a response, which doesn’t negate the fact that I did get to talk about it; that one episode of Battlestar Galactica hit real close to home in terms of my relationship with my mother; My Mad Fat Diary gave me the opportunity to open up about my body image issues; and now, watching The West Wing, I get to witness an absolutely incredible portrayal of PTSD that aired on national television, was treated with care, and ends with a message of hope: We get better.
There was no cure for me, but time and honesty has dulled the pain. I still relive a few things from my childhood and teenage years, and I think I’ll struggle with my issues around closure for a while. But putting distance between myself and my pain has truly helped me, and so have all of you. I owe you thanks for that.
God, this might be my favorite episode of The West Wing when all is said and done. Even all the non-Josh storylines are wonderful. C.J. returns that painting to a wife who realized it belonged to her husband and was stolen by Nazis. (And even that plot deals with trauma and PTSD. That painting triggered a very specific reaction in Rebecca Haussmann.) Donna is adorable and supportive as usual. And the pairing of Yo-Yo Ma’s performance with Josh’s recollection of the shooting is one of the most haunting, memorable things I’ve ever seen on television. I’m just so happy with how this unfolded. I’m ecstatic that Leo, someone who knows a whole lot about trauma and heartbreak, did what he could to make sure Josh was fine. That monologue he gives at the end is just too much for me because I know what it’s like to finally have a friend to help you out of that hole. Those people are now in my life, and I count many of you as a part of that.
Thank you. And thank you to The West Wing for this episode. It means a lot to me.
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