I'm a Psychiatrist and Yellowjackets Is One of the Best Portrayals of Trauma I've Seen On TV
For those who have yet to catch on to the buzzy and completely addicting new Showtime drama Yellowjackets, I admit the plot can be a hard sell. "It's about a high school girls' soccer team that gets in a plane crash and after being trapped in the mountains, they end up becoming cannibals," I've explained to my friends, only to have them respond with a look of horror or shock, clearly wondering what liking this kind of show says about me. And, yeah, it likely made my own therapist wonder what the selection says about my current mental state.
The truth is, I worried it was too dark for me, too, as I don't like horror — and the world, especially in my job as a psychiatrist, is dark enough lately. But, there is something powerful in the storytelling that drew me in and made me care about the characters instantly. I want to understand how they get to the point of cannibalism, and who they choose. Some questions which remain unanswered after watching the season 1 finale. (If you aren't caught up on season 1, now's the time when I caution that there are spoilers ahead!)
At its core, Yellowjackets is really about the raw experience of being human, and what happens in the face of an unthinkable trauma. A storyline like this is particularly magnetic as we are nearly two years into surviving our own collective trauma. In their own ways, Tai, Natalie, and Shauna model for us that we will be OK. At the same time, seeing their future PTSD symptoms shows us that avoidance only leads to more problems. Asking for help (including from a professional), despite the fear of doing so, is important for healing.
Sure, the pandemic is a different stressor than a plane crash. Still, watching the aftermath feels validating of our own emotional experiences. We see how the same trauma can look different in different people. For example, the teens who were more prepared to jump into action had some past trauma that was serving as a skill set of its own. Right after the crash, Natalie and Travis, who we find out both had abusive fathers, and Misty, who has been bullied, are able to help immediately with hunting or helping the wounded. I saw this at the beginning of the pandemic as many of my patients who were already connected to mental health treatment told me they weren't struggling with worsening anxiety or depression like other people they knew. They knew how to survive all of the unknown, and had already developed techniques that worked for them to do so. They could function with a baseline of stress and anxiety that was completely throwing others — the Jackies of the world, let's say — off their axis.
We are also given permission to feel the spectrum of emotions. Let's take grief, for example. People do not all grieve all at once equivalently, even if they all suffer the same loss. We see this in Javi and Travis and their responses to their father's death (hint: one keeps chewing the gum he was given by his father for days, the other makes him spit it out). We can also still feel positive emotions, without diminishing the pain or loss we feel. We see this on screen as they dance together to "Kiss from a Rose," and Travis and Natalie, and Taissa and Van, fall in love. These storylines emphasize that there is simply not one correct response to a trauma or even one typical one.
I think Natalie said it best in Episode 7 when she explains to Taissa and Shauna, "You guys are just as fucked up as I am. You are just better at lying to yourselves. You're not healthy, you're not stable, you're living on the brink just like me."
As a psychiatrist, I often watch television shows and feel like they model a limited, almost unrealistic view of the experience of a traumatic event and the subsequent development of PTSD. In shows like Law and Order SVU or Grey's Anatomy, characters with trauma almost universally experience nightmares and flashbacks, considered to be intrusion symptoms, or negative mood changes, like crying in the shower or being too distraught to leave their beds. These symptoms are often triggered by reminders as simple as a song or photo, and can pull the person right back into the experience, including in their body, of the trauma acutely. While these symptoms happen, they are not all I see in my office. They might not even be the most common.
Yellowjackets models other possibilities. There is a category of PTSD symptoms that is called 'alterations in arousal and activity', and those reactions, like irritability, aggression, risky or destructive behavior, difficulty sleeping, and hypervigilance, are highly visible in the characters in the show. By showing this diversity, a person watching might be more likely to see themselves in the symptoms portrayed, and actually identify their experiences as PTSD. Identification not only validates the lived experience of a survivor, but it is also the first step in knowing you might need help.
The characters, however, do not ask for help — and that only compounds their symptoms. The truth is that the decision to avoid trauma-related thoughts or feelings, as well as any external reminders of the trauma, including each other, is also realistic behavior of survivors. They might see this as protective, as many of my patients do, but it is actually a symptom that needs to be further explored. Realistically, too, part of why they do not talk to anyone is that they also blame themselves. Feeling that various experiences are "your fault," especially for the Yellowjackets where some experiences might even be considered a crime, will obviously lead people to silence.
Silence and attempts to hide their feelings, with drugs and alcohol or acting out, just prolongs suffering. We see this emphasized throughout in both timeframes — the younger teenage versions and their 25-years-older selves. Seeing both, we can understand how people react in the moment to trauma, but also how it can, and does, have long-lasting effects. In other words, emotional responses to an event often do not end when the trauma ends, or in this case, when they are rescued. Sometimes they even get worse. Time is only further blurred when we don't even know how long they have been away. We see this often in survivors of longer-term traumas, like kidnapping, but we've also seen it in people currently living through the pandemic. We don't know what day it is anymore, as every day is simply another day to survive. Just like I regularly see in my office, trauma has no timeline, and it is not somehow a weakness if you are experiencing a reaction to something from 25 years ago. It is just realistic.
PTSD looks different in Shauna, Taissa, and Natalie, but each portrayal feels like a person I might see in my office.
For Shauna, we see her symptoms become activated when she feels she's losing control, something that's experienced acutely during a traumatic experience. We see her hypervigilance, a state of constantly assessing threat, and increased startle reflex, like overly jumping in reaction to the confetti cannon sound at the reunion. She often reacts with impulsivity, instead of reason, to protect herself. In the very first episode, we see her kill a rabbit who is eating her plants, basically defending her home symbolically. Later, a similar response leads her to assume Adam is a threat.
Like many other trauma survivors, she is also stalled emotionally at the time of the crash. We see this the most in her relationship with Adam as she gets excited about getting someone to buy her beer and going to a Halloween party in New York City (where her actual teenage daughter is!). She also seeks and exhibits risky or destructive behavior, as a way to find positive emotions, like jumping off a bridge.
For Natalie, we see that she is transient, living out of a suitcase and storage unit. She is untethered physically and emotionally and tries not to form close connections to anyone or anything, so she cannot lose them, like the people in the crash. If she is not numbing herself with substances or bonding herself in love with someone, mainly Travis, she reacts with anger. Anger is a common trauma response and a way to shift focus and bring all our attention towards one thing, survival, when faced with a threat. This reaction can become almost stuck, causing someone to respond to all threats in this mode. This happens regularly to Natalie as her explosivity often seems disproportionate to the event and leads her to throw things in her room when she can't get through to the bank on the phone, or break the vending machine when her food gets stuck.
And, as Shauna does with her knife skills, Natalie falls back on a skill that helped her survive in the wilderness, and before that with her father: shooting a gun whenever she feels threatened. Violence is not a common trauma reaction, but it is what she knows. It helps her regain control of a situation, or, at least feel protected, but paired with her impulsivity in the moment, can also be dangerous.
And, finally, for Taissa, when she is stressed or triggered, she starts "sleepwalking" and doing things that she does not remember. The one time she snaps out of it herself, she ends up in a tree, biting her own hand. Sleep, in itself, can be scary for people who have been through trauma as you can't protect yourself while you are sleeping, but it goes a step further for her. She seems to be dissociating and a different version of her ("the bad one," per her son) is the one acting out. Taissa's memories often are represented as an eyeless man or as a wolf hallucination when she feels triggered. This is realistic in that the flashbacks are not usually clear-cut images sending her back to the exact memory as we often see on screen, but still activate her mentally and physically. She often dissociates to protect herself from those negative feelings and memories, but the images show up unexpectedly, like when she's doing shadow puppets with Sammy, her son, at bedtime, or when she eats meat (a reason she typically avoids meat altogether).
In all three of these characters, their trauma is tangible and realistically portrayed, but so clearly unprocessed. They frame their silence as protecting the secret of the experience for everyone. Misty says, "We couldn't get help, we couldn't betray the team," so we know they feel bonded by an implied or stated promise to keep what happened when they were lost a secret. And so they each carry it alone; Shauna does not even talk to her husband or daughter about her experiences with the team, and Natalie avoids the subject when in a group therapy session in rehab. But, talking about it to a professional is not the same as talking about it to a reporter, the police, or someone with secondary gain in mind. They need to relinquish some control of their experience, and themselves, in order to truly heal.
If there's one thing the women have in common in their present-day lives toward the end of the season, it's that they survived, but are not okay. Their trauma has continued to follow them through life, and some of their actions are clearly a reaction to that pain (and causing much more of it). As we continue to live through this pandemic, we can learn not to wait 25 years to admit we are not fine. The loss, the stress, the exhaustion, it is all real and valid and worth discussing out loud. Talk to trusted friends and family, and, of course, talk to professionals like me. Avoidance never works, and the only way to truly heal is through it. Perhaps, by watching the show, we can get through it together.
Jessi Gold, M.D., M.S., is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis.