Double (XX) Fest: Writing About PTSD

It’s Not Really Suicide, Is It?

February 21, 2012 by Persephone Vandegrift

Double (XX) Fest 2.0 playwright and frequent Stone Soup Collaborator

PTSD. Post traumatic stress disorder. Long name for a silent killer. There are so many different ways PTSD surfaces and it isn’t always obvious. Many forms of PTSD can lay dormant for years – all it takes is a trigger, a scent, sound, taste. But PTSD brought on by war is one of the most devastating. The heartbreaking rate of suicide amongst war veterans is rising, and so is the criticism. Despite what we believe about suicide, whether we are religious or not, unless you are a veteran, none of us are walking a mile, or even a minute, in their shoes.

Most of you don’t know me from any other writer. I am not here to support or to rally against suicide. When I set out to write a short script or play, I never know exactly what the subject matter is going to be until it hits me over the head.

And how it presented me in this short play was via the supernatural. “Okkkkay”, I said to my muse, “let me have it.” (I know better than to argue with my muse) A ghost story – on the stage…how hard can it be?

I didn’t set out to ‘choose’ PTSD, war & suicide; it chose me. Yes, it is as simple as putting a pair of socks on, although it may take a couple weeks before the sock (subject matter) actually ‘gets out’ of (the muse’s head) drawer (into my head) and then onto my foot (page). And it was not long after I got sock #1 on that I decided…my main character, Brian (a decorated war veteran), decided that he would be the one suffering from PTSD.

And thus began the roller coaster writing ride.

For many years, PTSD, like domestic violence, was hush-hush. But because more people have stepped out of their comfort zones and talked and written about it, it has made society stand up and take notice. Whether you suffer PTSD from a car accident, witnessing a crime or victim of a crime, or you witnessed abuse or have been abused; PTSD is a world-wide epidemic. And the devastating fact is that more and more of our war veterans are losing their lives to it.

Tossing something as extensive as PTSD onto the stage in a short format…was I crazy??? How could I make it work? How could I do this subject matter justice without sounding judgmental or pontificating without any foundation?

I had many versions of the play, and readings, and for a while, it felt like I was chasing it around and around. I honestly couldn’t ‘define’ it. That was until I let go of my insecurities and just simply allowed my characters to react to the situation I put them in. There were many, many challenges, but my priority was to not stereotype Brian’s struggle with PTSD. Many doctors dismiss PTSD leaving soldiers to try and struggle on their own or with their family’s help. The strain it puts on relationships – platonic and intimate is immeasurable. War changes us – whether witness or participant. We may not process our experiences with it until years later. That is why it is so difficult to catch PTSD in time, you can’t do blood tests for it. It is a silent killer eating away at the psyches of our bravest.

I don’t know everything there is to know about PTSD. The easiest way I could approach it for It’s Not Really Suicide, Is It? was to start at the end – or the aftermath, more appropriately. Brian is home between tours. He’s been suffering for some time – mostly in silence. His family has, in the past, staged intervention but without proper training, the interventions fall flat leaving Brian to suffer and end up in an abyss so deep he can see no way out. There’s only so much a human being can take, and only we know what those limits are and when we have crossed them to the point of no return.

Knowing he could not face another deployment, Brian commits suicide. This is not ‘something new’.  This is the reality for thousands of soldiers. Brian’s estranged younger brother, John, is at the wake trying to piece it all together. Brian’s on/off again partner, Nicki, the one who found Brian, is also on her quest to understand Brian’s choice.

Nicki and John gave me the biggest writing challenge because given their particular relationship histories with Brian, how would they decide to navigate through their grief? Could they find a way to forgive Brian or would they let it run interference in their lives forever?

I thought many times about giving up on the play because I was worried I would not do it justice. But it was the fear of giving up on it that I kept going back to it because I felt like I was abandoning it. There were already so many veterans already abandoned and I could not bear to add my name to that list.

It’s intimidating to address it on the stage because it is an uncomfortable subject; a truly heart-wrenching subject to research and write about because we don’t want our warriors returned to us destroyed on the inside that they do not recognize themselves anymore. We hear over and over that that’s the cost of war but its commodity is souls; lost, damaged, altered and shredded. It’s a difficult path for humanity to be on.

But if we can at least try to keep the conversation open and not attach the subjective stigma of shame or judgement to those who suffer hell because of PTSD then the path to healing is made stronger. We can not control the actions of others, but we can control how we react to them, how we process them, and how we find a way to understand them.

Theatre is different things to different people. For me, it has always been THE sacred of spaces where the trials and tribulations of life can be displayed without regret. It allows me to access the divine, the tragic, the ordinary and the extraordinary. I believe theatre allows us to examine our observations, perceptions, test our beliefs and relationships without hindrance. It has the power to move us in strange and fantastic new directions.

It can make us humble and cower and yet fill us with such a sense of pride.

And so it is a perfect venue, therefore, to explore the impact war, suicide & PTSD has on humanity’s capacity for love and forgiveness. The question mark at the end of the title was an unintentional addition. If its one thing I enjoy doing, it’s to keep the audience’s journey open for interpretation.

__________

Persephone Vandegrift is a Seattle and East Coast-based writer, performer and producer. She was seen during last year’s Double (XX) Fest as Carrie in Hypochondria by Deborah Harbin. Her full-length adaptation, Revenge and Sorrow in Thebes (Euripides’ The Bacchae) premiered in the DownStage during July of 2009, produced by her company, Flying Elf productions. She has also done a few stints as Stone Soup House Manager!

It’s Not Really Suicide, Is It? premieres at Stone Soup’s Double (XX) Fest 2.0 May 3rd – 6th in Seattle, WA directed by Julianne Christie. The  festival itself runs April 19th-May 6th, dedicated to works written and directed by women.

For more info, check out Stone Soup Theatre’s Double (XX) Festival

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4 Comments

  1. Persephone, thanks for taking on this subject in this genre– a real challenge, no doubt!
    I loved your comments about writing; your sock analogy really spoke to me, as did the note about the character deciding what comes next. I love the magic of sitting back and listening to the characters; I feel like their secretary– or perhaps more appropriately like a voyeur– secretly transcribing their conversations.
    Wish I could see all of these fantastic plays; I love you all already!

  2. Thanks. Hope you will get a chance to see them all or some of them. There’s a great batch of women writers that I’m super proud to be part of for this festival. Thanks be to the phenomenal Carolynne Wilcox for putting it all together.

    • Margy’s got a play in the festival too! But is in Tennessee and sounds like she won’t be able to make it out. 😦

  3. For more info about PTSD, please check out this author’s work http://www.mybacktothewall.com/ten-truths-about-ptsd-1-5.html


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