As a part of GeekDis, a creative collaboration to shine a light on disability representation in pop culture, I am bringing you my three favorite characters with PTSD to talk about what the writers got right. PTSD, or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, is a mental health condition that is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event. PTSD is not something that only affects soldiers. It can affect you; it can affect anyone. It affects me. I knew GeekDis was the perfect opportunity to finally talk about some of my favorite characters who also suffer from PTSD as well as discuss what the writers got right about PTSD and how it affects us.
Please note that I am not a professional, and I am simply basing this on what I have gone through as diagnosed by my therapist as well as the official definition and symptoms of PTSD. All experiences will vary, and no case of PTSD is the same as another.
Before I go any further, I want to give a special thank you to Heather at Just Geeking By who put together this amazing collaboration! GeekDis is a month long discussion on disability representation in pop culture. Make sure to follow the previous link to read all about GeekDis and how to participate and support this wonderful collaboration! Make sure to give Heather a follow on Twitter so you can see/read what everyone else is contributing as well!
Korra (The Legend of Korra)
Korra is always the first character that comes to my mind when I think about PTSD in pop culture. The Legend of Korra was meant for those who grew up watching Avatar: the Last Airbender, and the writers tackled a lot of more “adult” issues within just four seasons. The one that stands out the most to me is how they portrayed Korra’s mental health after a hard, almost life-ending battle with Zaheer, the main antagonist of Book 3. To save herself from the poisonous metal threatening her life during the final battle with Zaheer, Korra’s body was pushed into the Avatar State. The result was that Korra’s body was left ravaged by this poisonous metal, and her ability to connect to her past avatar lives was severed forever. Korra was, in every sense of the word, broken. She became deeply depressed and used a wheelchair due to the hard battle that littered her body full of poisonous metal rendering her unable to walk. Book 3 closes with Korra looking out into a crowd of people with lifeless eyes, shedding a single tear, as her mentor thanks her for her service and celebrates the new airbenders returning to their roots and serving people of all nations.
We meet Korra again in the following season of Book 4. Towards the end of the very first episode, Korra is engaged in a cage battle duel that ends in defeat. She has cut her hair and appears to be angry and depressed as she takes her “payment” from the ring announcer after losing in the duel. The episodes ends with the ring announcer commenting that she looks like the Avatar, and he wonders what happened to her. Korra responds “I wouldn’t know.” Why is this short scene important? We were watching Korra avoid her past and mental state by literally pretending not to be the avatar and engaging in self destructive behavior to escape her feelings and traumatic memories. Avoidance and self destructive behavior are both symptoms of many mental health conditions, including PTSD.
The following episodes give an insightful look at someone in the throws of PTSD with incredibly powerful illustrations as we see the events between the ending of Book 3 and where we see Korra at the beginning of Book 4. Korra experiences intense flashbacks of her battle with Zaheer that leave her always on guard as well as shaking and breathless, much like a panic attack. The intrusive memories even haunt her sleep which result in nightmares and difficulty sleeping, something that I have dealt with most of my life without knowing it was tied to my mental health. These are all signs of PTSD. At the end of Book 3, when Korra is in a wheelchair and unable to walk, the writers are able to show us her journey of healing her physical body to be able to walk again. The correlation between the physical healing and mental/emotional healing is not lost on us as Katara, one of Korra’s mentors, uses her water bending to help Korra’s body heal. Katara reminds Korra that her body is safe even though it believes she is in danger as she tries to help Korra walk again. When I find myself back in that state of mind whether it’s a panic attack or a flashback, I have to remind myself too that I am safe.
It takes two years for Korra to physically recover, but her mind is still haunted by Zaheer’s attack, and she still cannot enter the avatar state. During this time, Korra isolates herself from her friends, only writing back once to Asami to confide in her that she fears that she will never fully recover. While Korra is in this place of fight, flight, or freeze, she begins to show more symptoms of depression and PTSD like hopelessness about the future, feeling detached from her friends, and overwhelming shame. Those of us with PTSD as well as depression experience these feelings too, but seeing it played back through animated flashbacks, watching Korra experience those things too, made me feel seen and validated.
Korra’s mental and emotional healing does not begin until she meets Toph, a friend of the previous avatar, who informs Korra that she still carries the poisoned metal in her body despite other metal benders believing they had managed to remove all of it. Korra quickly uses the poisoned metal as the sole reason as to why she cannot get back to her old self and enter the avatar state. It feels easier to blame outside forces rather than look within ourselves to find the root of the issue. However, when Toph tries to pull the metal from Korra’s body, she is unable to do so. The argument that ensues ends with Toph pushing Korra to address what – or who – she is really fighting and why she is holding onto the metal inside of her… herself. With Toph’s help, Korra begins to bend the metal out of her own body, all the while being reminded by Toph that her fight is over, her enemies that are appearing as flashbacks are there to help her figure out a deeper message, and that she no longer has anything to fear. Incredibly, Korra is able to bend the remaining metal from her body and finally go into the avatar state once again.
While PTSD is something that can be worked through with the right therapist and the right tools, seeing Korra able to begin that emotional journey of repairing herself by taking that first step of removing the metal from her body, brought tears to my eyes. Unboxing my trauma often feels like I am opening old wounds, wounds that are filled with poison that only I can remove.
I want to start Sango’s segment of this post by saying the series never explicitly states that she has PTSD, and the following is my opinion and take on how InuYasha handled Sango’s mental health leading me to the conclusion that she most likely has PTSD. If you are unfamiliar with Sango’s story, I will try to give you as much detail as I can but it has been several years since I watched the anime. I will do my best with what I remember and some help from Google.
Sango was born into a demon-slaying village, led by her father. She was one of the youngest to become a demon slayer and had mostly mastered her craft by the time she was a teen. She also had a younger brother named Kohaku who she trained and loved dearly. One fateful day, the village’s best demon slayers were called to slay a spider demon by a local lord. This included Sango, her father, and her brother. This demon slaying assignment would change Sango’s life forever and take away everyone she loved.
The demon slayers arrived to the lord’s castle and were greeted by the lord, his son, and their guards. They explained that they believed there was a spider demon tormenting those in the castle. Kohaku, unbeknownst to the other demon slayers, became controlled by the spider demon while everyone was distracted. He brutally slaughtered the demon slayers who were caught off guard by his attacks, including his and Sango’s father. Sango realized what was happening to Kohaku. Unfortunately, the lord’s guards fired arrows to kill Kohaku in order to stop him. Sango jumped in front of the arrows to save her brother and took several arrows to her back, collapsing then in defeat. The remaining castle members realized that the lord was the one who was possessed by the spider demon and had controlled Kohaku with his web. The lord’s son slayed his father and had the demon slayers buried in the castle’s garden, including Sango who they believed was dead.
Sango awoke in the burial plot and pulled herself out of the dirt, refusing to die. The lord’s son tended her wounds, and Sango was told that her entire village was slaughtered as well while they were away. The best demon slayers were purposely pulled away on assignment so that a supposedly powerful half-demon could kill the entire village while they were away. While Sango was feeling this emotional turmoil and physical pain left from her wounds, she was tricked by Naruku, the series’ main villain, into letting him put a jewel shard from a powerful jewel into her back to subside the pain long enough for her to take revenge on the wrong half-demon… Naraku’s plan failed, and Sango instead joined InuYasha’s group to seek revenge against him, the actual demon who planned her entire village’s and family’s murders. Naraku revived Kohaku using more jewel shards in order to manipulate Sango’s emotions for almost rest of the anime.
These traumatic events are enough for anyone to develop PTSD. Like myself, Sango experienced multiple traumas back to back – her brother murdering their father and fellow demon slayers, her entire village being slaughtered while they were away (filling her with immense guilt), and constantly being reminded that her brother who was killed now walks the earth, unable to do anything more than be controlled by the demon who had planned it all. Sango has plenty of causes for developing PTSD, but I want to take it a step further by explaining many of the symptoms of PTSD that Sango displayed throughout the entirety of the anime to solidify why I believe her character was a good example of PTSD portrayed in pop culture even though it’s never explicitly stated.
Throughout the series, Sango experiences constant flashbacks. If you were an avid watcher of the show like I was, you could probably repeat the lines of dialogue every time she experienced a flashback because they were played so often. These flashbacks always included seeing Kohaku murder their father, turn to attack her, and Sango realizing she needed to stop him only then to jump in front of the arrows that were meant to bring Kohaku down. Sango also felt hopelessness, constant despair, and sadness while Kohaku was under the control of Naraku, still manipulating her emotions as such that Sango betrayed her group of friends to save Kohaku on more than one occasion. Finally, Sango silently made a plan to kill Kohaku and then herself, feeling as if she had no other way to stop him from committing anymore heinous deeds on behalf of the evil demon Naraku. Thankfully, she did’t go through with this plan thanks to InuYasha interfering just in the nick of time, but it goes to show how truly desperate and hopeless Sango was feeling while trying to heal from trauma that was being constantly thrown in her face.
Sango is also quick to anger. While she may not have yelled and thrown things, she was known to cast the darkest of glares if someone annoyed her or said something harsh to one of her friends. She is also known to snap at people, even those in her friend group. InuYasha got a taste of this each time he made some less than admirable comments about Miroku, the lecherous monk in the group who Sango had a crush on. While comical and sometimes a tension-relief, I think this is yet another symptom of her PTSD. Having a short fuse isn’t uncommon. I get set off very easily sometimes and don’t realize it until later that something triggered my hot-headed reaction. She can also be reckless for someone who is usually level headed in battle. Sango shows this on more than one occasion by recklessly rushing into a fight, especially when it concerns Kohaku who is an obvious trigger for her. Kohaku is a constant reminder of the trauma and pain of losing those she loved most, including Kohaku as he was being controlled by Naraku and only kept alive by the jewel shards in his back. He was not the Kohaku she knew before that fateful demon slaying mission, at least during this time before he had his memories returned.
So where did Sango’s PTSD go once the series finally wrapped up? If you think her PTSD disappeared simply because she got a happy ending with her marriage to Miroku and her brother saved and given life without Naraku’s control, you would be sorely mistaken. PTSD doesn’t disappear once things are “better.” Instead Sango did some soul work that many may not have even realized she was doing. We see Sango slowly start to open up to InuYasha, Kagome, Shippo, and Miroku. She begins to trust them, and she sees that trust reflected back even when she makes mistakes. Her friends show her compassion and understanding when she needs it the most. She took in all of that love from them and helped herself heal.
Even Kohaku helped her heal. Once he was no longer being controlled by Naraku and had his memories returned, including that of murdering the demon slayers and their father, Kohaku ran from Sango because seeing her brought back those memories of what he had done. Sango knew exactly how he felt as she had those flashbacks when she would look at him too. Instead of pushing herself on him, Sango sat back and patiently waited until he was ready, all the while letting him know that she still loved him and wanted him to be with her as a family again. By helping Kohaku heal, she also helped herself heal.
If I hadn’t had a solid support system while I was working through my trauma, it would have been a lot harder for me to heal. Like Sango, I had loved ones I could fall back on when I felt my weakest. I had compassion and understanding from my spouse each time I felt myself slip back into that dark place. Even though Sango and I had to do the work to heal from our past traumas, having friends and loved ones at our sides made the process a lot more bearable.
Sinon (Sword Art Online)
I have written often about my love for Sword Art Online and a specific character, but this character is special to me for a different reason. Sinon (Asada Shino in real life) is introduced in the Gun Gale Online (GGO) arc which takes place a year after the events in Sword Art Online. Kirito, the main protagonist of Sword Art Online, becomes a player in Gun Gale Online after being asked by the VR Crimes Division to help them investigate a series of deaths where a player is shot in game and immediately disconnected then found dead in real life soon after. There he meets Sinon who mistakes him for a girl as his avatar is feminine. Sinon takes the time to help him get the lay of the game as she believes he is a beginner player. Later it is revealed that Kirito is a boy, and Sinon pledges to kick his butt in the upcoming tournament in revenge for “tricking her,” and he kind of deserved it.
During the Bullet of Bullets tournament, Sinon is targeted by Death Gun, the individual that the VR Crimes Division believes is behind the mysterious deaths that occur both in and outside of the game. During the tournament leading up to the final battle and Kirito’s investigation of Death Gun (which he shared with Sinon), it is slowly revealed that Sinon has PTSD from a traumatic event where she and her grandmother encountered a robber at the post office who drew his gun on them. Sinon, having already lost both of her parents (one to a car accident and the other to the trauma they experienced as a result of the car accident), wrestled the gun from the robber and shot him to protect her grandmother. The event left Sinon with an intense fear of guns and apprehension towards men. In order to help her cope with her fear of guns, Sinon’s friend, Kyouji, convinced her to play GGO. Sinon quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the game, but she still struggled in the real world with her PTSD.
This in particular is what captured my interest in Sinon’s character as I also have a fear of guns. Most people don’t know that about me, but I am choosing to share it now with you. While the events around my trauma are not similar to Sinon, I still hold a fear of touching guns or firing them due to my PTSD. My incident is centered around a childhood memory where I did not feel safe and was shunned for having feelings. Sinon also did not feel safe during this incident and struggled with feeling safe afterwards.
Sinon didn’t have any other friends besides Kyouji. In fact, many of her classmates bullied her, using her fear of guns to scare her. She was bullied throughout elementary and middle school. She also experienced flashbacks of the traumatic event both in real life and in GGO. A pivotal moment in GGO occured when Death Gun finally made his move to take out Sinon. He was using the same gun that Sinon had used to kill the robber years ago. This triggered a hallucination of the robber taking Death Gun’s place as he leered over her, gun pointed at her head. Luckily, Kirito’s interference broke Sinon’s hallucination, and he was able to get her to safety.
This scene really sticks out to me as so far, it seemed as if Sinon was completely over her trauma while being her avatar in GGO. Real life crossing into the virtual world when she saw that specific gun brought back those flashbacks immediately. Hallucinations are common with PTSD. The freezing is also common. We’ve heard of fight or flight, but many forget that freeze is also an option that people can fall into, especially those with trauma.
Kirito asked Sinon to help him bring Death Gun down, but Sinon couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger again. Again, this was further solidifying that Sinon’s PTSD didn’t just leave her when she was in GGO. It could affect her anywhere, even places that she thought felt safe. She began to have a panic attack as Death Gun pursued them. Kirito helped Sinon through the panic attack and then helped her finally pick up her sniper rifle to attempt to fire at Death Gun’s horse which he was using to chase them. Sinon pulled the trigger but missed, hitting an explosive tanker instead. Luckily, the explosion kept Death Gun at bay.
During a heart to heart, Sinon learned that Kirito was a survivor of the Sword Art Online incident wherein players were stuck inside a VR game and if they died in game, they would die in real life. She also learned that he had to kill people in the game (thus killing them in real life) to protect himself and others. She asked him how he was able to overcome the memories of the people he killed, mirroring her own experience of killing the robber at the post office. Kirito said that he didn’t overcome those memories; he learned to accept them to atone for his actions.
Eventually, the pair discovered that Death Gun was working with two others. Death Gun would shoot the player in game (with the same pistol he had planned to use on Sinon), and two accomplices who would sneak into the player’s home and kill them with a lethal dose of succinylcholine which stops the heart thus killing the victim. He theorizes that they probably gather the home addresses via the game and target those who live alone. Kirito warned Sinon that if she lives alone… she is probably next. Together, the two defeated Death Gun in the game and won the tournament.
Right after, Sinon got a knock on her door. It was her friend, Shinkawa Kyouji, the one who had gotten her to play GGO who wanted to congratulate her on her big win. After a short conversation, Kyouji confessed his feelings for her. When Sinon rejected him, things turned ugly. Kyouji produced a syringe from his pocket, telling Sinon not to move or scream, threatening to inject her with the syringe of fluid that would paralyze her, eventually stopping her heart. Sound familiar? Sinon asked Kyouji directly if he was working with Death Gun. He confirmed her theory and spun a tale of committing double suicide with her; if he couldn’t have her, no one could.
Using all of her mental strength, Sinon decided to fight for her life, and grabbed the syringe to rip it from Kyouji’s hands. Unfortunately she failed, and he pushed her into her desk. One of the drawers opened, several items spilling out onto the floor, including a model gun she had won in a previous GGO tournament. She had touched it without fear, a feat that she had to put aside while she saved herself. She pointed the gun at Kyouji as if it were real. In a struggled that left Kyouji seemingly unconscious, Sinon made a break for her apartment door only to be stopped by Kyouji who wasn’t out cold as she had thought. Sinon managed to unlock her door and Kirito threw the door open, much to Sinon and Kyouji’s surprise. Kyouji had to let go of Sinon in order to fight off Kirito. After getting Kirito on the ground, he appeared to inject Kirito with the syringe. Using this opportunity of freedom, Sinon grabbed her stereo and hit Kyouji in the head with it, knocking him out for real this time.
After defeating Death Gun and Kyouji being sent to prison for his crimes, Sinon’s healing took a big step in the right direction. She had conquered her fear of touching guns in real life because her life depended on it in that horrifying moment with Kyouji. She was also able to keep calm when threatened with a gun in later episodes, and even used one while pretending not to be afraid of it even though she most certainly was afraid. Her classmates could no longer use guns to bully her either. She also met a woman who survived the post office incident; she told Sinon that she saved herself and her daughter. Though it did help Sinon with her journey to healing, saving people did not lessen the burden of the person she killed on her conscience. She continues to look for ways to atone. In fact, Sinon forgives Kyouji for what he tried to do to her, and she hopes to help him become a better person when he gets out of prison which just shows another layer of healing that Sinon is doing for herself.
While we didn’t quite have a front row seat to Sinon’s journey to healing, there’s quite a lot of little things that happen in future episodes that leaves me to believe that Sinon is working every day to conquer her fear of guns. I think this is most realistic for a character that makes up the main cast but has already had her arc that was dedicated to her story. To me, Sinon is one of the deepest characters to come out of SAO’s arcs and one that can easily be identified with when it comes to mental health and gaming. She’s not a scared, helpless girl. Sinon is actively working on herself and overcoming her trauma and PTSD. Just like me.
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