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What Fifty Shades of Grey Taught Me About PTSD

Let me start with two simple disclaimers.

  1. I’m not endorsing or advocating this book series or its contents in any way. I’m not suggesting you read it. I’m not suggesting that this book series serves as a valid help guide or textbook for explaining PTSD. I’m just the wife of a Wounded Warrior who read a book that was all hyped up and made some interesting correlations to real life in the process.
  2. I love Jesus, I love my husband, and I do not generally spend much time reading erotic novels. I never could have imagined that I’d someday be confessing my fall-to-peer-pressure AND writing an article about it, but here I am willing to risk my reputation on this one because people who know me, really know me, and people who don’t, don’t matter.

Moving on.

After my hundredth friend posted on social media about Fifty Shades of Grey, I had to know what the fuss was all about. Trashy romance novels have been around forever. What could be so taboo about this one? And why did everyone love it? And why was everyone obsessed with Christian Grey? I had to know. 

If you’re not familiar with the story line or if you’ve forgotten (like anyone could forget), college senior Anastasia Steele has a purely coincidental run-in with gorgeous, young tycoon Christian Grey. She’s all Converse and klutziness. He’s all cufflinks and coolness. They have a number of encounters and find themselves attracted to one another. Christian makes Anastasia the most indecent of proposals, and the rest of the book is about their ability and/or inability to be together. Anastasia is young and innocent. Christian is a bit older and was an abused child with mommy issues that compensates by leading an extreme BDSM lifestyle. Opposites may attract, but these two could not be farther apart on the spectrum of worldly experience. Anastasia’s naivety and Christian’s constant mixed signals clash from the start.

After their third or fourth encounter, his mercurial disposition had my spidey senses on high alert. This behavior was eerily familiar.

Though the book never once cited PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I recognized the symptoms immediately. Christian was controlling, jealous, demanding, and angry. But he also was incredibly thoughtful, generous, and chivalrous.  He would swing from calm to out of control in no time at all. 

While Christian Grey is portrayed as a character who is seemingly out of touch with his emotions, thanks to author E. L. James, Christian does a great job explaining his feelings. The more his past is revealed, the more Anastasia (and the reader) begin to understand his plight … and the more I began to understand PTSD.

Lesson No. 1: People with PTSD often feel the need to control their surroundings.

In the story, Christian Grey take this idea to the highest extreme. He has to control everything down to what Anastasia eats, drives, and wears. While I doubt most warriors with PTSD take control to such extremes, it’s not uncommon to hear families discuss concerns about their warrior’s desire to have control over their loved one’s circumstances. Christian’s demands for absolute obedience at all times is an exaggerated version of what many wounded warrior families face. 

My personal takeaway from this lesson is that warriors with PTSD are not controlling because they are jerks. They have suffered great offenses that they could not control, and it is only natural that now they wish to maintain control of all things because of it. Their military training also shines through, reminding them that orders are always meant to be taken seriously and followed exactly for the better good of everyone involved. When a warrior gives an order, he expects everyone to obey for his or her own good.

Christian dominates Anastasia and his employees, giving orders and demanding they be followed. In return, he pays his employees well and he showers Anastasia with gifts. He knows his demands are high and he compensates for them accordingly. In the real world, individuals with PTSD rarely recognize when they are being unreasonable or illogical. It leaves both the warrior and those around him or her feeling hurt and confused. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs states that warriors may not be aware of how their thoughts and beliefs affect those around them. A misunderstood veteran may face hostility from family, friends, or strangers as a result of his or her pushiness, only feeding into his or her need to obtain more control. It’s a vicious cycle and nobody wins in the end. 

Lesson No. 2: Hypervigilance is part of a fight or flight response.

It also comes from a place of love.

Christian is notorious for being hyper-vigilant about safety issues. Anastasia is only allowed to ride in the safest vehicles. He goes as far as refusing to let her drive her own car. He sends armed guards to follow her the moment he is concerned about her well being. When he takes her up in his helicopter, he double and triple checks her safety harnesses. He is always excessive in his pursuits to keep her safe.

For most warriors with PTSD, it’s nightly perimeter checks, door checks, window checks, and alarm checks. It’s not letting his or her family out of sight. It’s not trusting that they are truly safe when they are away from him or her. It’s scrutinizing and analyzing every one he or she comes in contact with. It’s always looking for danger and expecting to find it.

Why? Because when a person is traumatized, his or her brain becomes “stuck” in a position of being constantly on guard. PTSD UK explains that this hyper-vigilance also can manifest itself in heightened suspicion, paranoia, and catastrophizing.  The site reads, “With the brain resources on constant alert, the results can be inappropriate or even aggressive reactions in everyday situations.”

Personally, I can relate to Anastasia’s reluctance to be micromanaged by Christian, leaving her feeling as if he doesn’t trust her to take care of herself. But, like Anastasia, I have also learned over time to appreciate the amount of love and concern that comes with every annoying order to be safe. I know women who would do anything to have a husband who cared about them even half as much as mine cares about me. It’s all about perspective.

Lesson No. 3: Intrusive memories are more than just nightmares and flashbacks.

Before I married my husband, the only symptoms of PTSD I was familiar with was flashbacks, nightmares, and jumping when a car backfired. I had no idea.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian reacts to a number of intrusive memories. When he is in a dominant relationship with a woman, he insists that she let him braid her hair. We later find out that he used to do this for his mother. (Remember those mommy issues I mentioned above?) He will not let anyone touch his chest and later we find that young Christian was used as an ashtray by his mother’s pimp resulting in scars that he won’t allow anyone near. 

Intrusive memories are so much more than just nightmares and flashbacks. They are anniversaries of mourning losses or remembering traumatic events. They are days of reliving survivor’s guilt and re-examining all the shoulda, woulda, coulda’s of missions gone wrong. They mean talking for hours about what happened or never ever talking about it at all. These memories can bring fear, regret, shame, depression, irritability, or self-destructive behavior according to the Mayo Clinic

What I learned is that whatever these memories bring, they are not mine. I can be supportive. I can be reassuring. I can be patient and understanding. But these memories are not mine and I cannot determine how they should be handled. I cannot keep them from returning, and I cannot erase them from the calendar every year. But I can pray for healing. I can listen to stories and look at pictures. I can ask questions and apologize when I’ve asked too many.

Above all else, what Fifty Shades of Grey taught me about PTSD is that this disorder is so much more complex than I could have ever imagined. Unusual behaviors can usually be explained, and the things that frustrate/hurt/annoy me the most have been caused by injustices inflicted upon my husband far greater than anything that has ever been inflicted upon me. Christian Grey is a fictitious character with many layers … many shades … that are the result of unimaginable pain and trauma. He considers himself to be “fifty shades” of messed up. (He used a different word.)

But my husband and thousands of warriors like him are real heroes with real families and real wounds … and I’m the only woman lucky enough to love him and be loved by him through it all. Oh my Fifty!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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