It’s typical. A loud noise sends a character back into a hostage situation, a war, or a gunfight. When faced with the majority of reporting on PTSD centers around combat-related PTSD (source), it makes sense that it’s the shellshocked veteran we often see in books, TV, film and comics. However, the civilian population that experiences PTSD is 13 times larger than its military counterpart. Of course, there are more civilians than those in the military, so naturally, that population is bigger. This article is not meant to dismiss those in the military who deal with very real and terrible side-effects from their time serving.
However, it does beg the question, what does a character with PTSD look like when their trauma is outside combat?
I think a very good study of this sort of character is Dr. Nicholas Rush from Stargate: Universe. There are many other characters out there that I could use, but I’m in a SGU mood today, so I hope you’ll forgive me.
At the beginning of the show, Dr. Nicholas Rush is a difficult man. Unable to deal with his wife’s terminal cancer, he drowns himself in work so he can avoid the pain of losing her. When she dies while he is off-world, this complicated grief drives him to focus on the mission of the ninth chevron because he has to make his absence from her deathbed mean something. After all, if he didn’t succeed, he would not have an excuse. Without the excuse, he would confront the nasty truth that he didn’t support his wife in her dying days because he couldn’t handle the grief.
The ninth chevron leads him to the Destiny, a ship far beyond the reaches humanity could ever dream to go, with a singular but ultimately mysterious mission. His doggedness to stay on the ship, and follow the mission is likely a reaction to his own inability to come to terms with the trauma of losing his wife.
Because of this, he approaches situations from an ultra-logical world that doesn’t exactly coincide with the emotional gray side of the human experience. That’s why when he felt that Colonel Young was repeatedly putting lives and the mysterious mission of Destiny in danger, he decided to… frame him for murder… and when that didn’t work, stage a coup.
I promise, within the confines of the show, those were actually both very rational decisions.
The coup was the last straw for Colonel Young, so he abandons Rush to die on a desert planet that has no stargate and therefore no possibility for escape. So, metaphorically, Young essentially commits the murder that Rush tried to frame him for.
It is there, on a sandy planet without food or water, that the narrative of Nicholas Rush’s PTSD starts.
While attempting to escape, Rush alerts an alien race called the Nakai to his presence as tries to fix a crashed alien spaceship. For the Nakai, it’s a lucky find because they are hell-bent on boarding Destiny. Why do they want to get on Destiny? I don’t know. They’re aliens. Sometimes you don’t get to know the why when it comes to aliens.
On their ship, Rush is tortured and imprisoned in a water tank (this is important later). So for the PTSD counter, we have both abandonment and abuse to contend with. His feelings about Young essentially murdering him for doing what he thought was right for the ship are compounded with being mentally torn apart by the Nakai.
Flash forward, Rush is accidentally rescued from the Nakai’s clutches due to a lot of plot points I’m not going to go into. Frankly, it’s very likely most of you haven’t seen the series—or have forgotten more about it than you remember—and the last thing I want to do is turn this article into a Stargate: Universe season recap.
So, back on the ship, Rush isn’t sleeping, which you find out after he commiserates with fellow torture victim Chloe. It’s assumed that it is for the same reasons as Chloe, which are vivid nightmares. For those of you keeping track, that is a classic sign of PTSD. The subsequent not sleeping because you’re afraid of having more nightmares is also a very strong indicator.
Unfortunately, insomnia leads to emotional decision-making, usually based on your experiences in that trauma. But let’s put a pin in that for just a moment, and we’ll fast forward to a later episode entitled “Pain.”
In “Pain”, the crew accidentally bring a tick onboard that causes vivid hallucinations, some of which are paranoid delusions. For everyone who experiences this, there is little rhyme or reason why the hallucination starts, and they go with it unquestioningly.
Rush, however, is different. His hallucinations are all triggered. When under the influence of the tick, Sergeant Greer (a proponent for Young’s leadership) threatens Rush. Because of this, Rush experiences flashbacks to the Nakai ship and sees everyone as a potential Nakai threat. Paranoid ideation is a symptom of PTSD. When I say “paranoid” though, I fear that this may be read dismissively. PTSD, in many ways, is a survival mechanism. It’s a set of prefab reactions because you have already experienced something similar. Essentially, it’s not paranoid ideation to you, because it’s happened before.
It is unclear if Rush himself was affected by the alien organism, but it seems very likely that his reaction was hinged on the perceived/very real threat to his survival. The fact that it has been established that he has not been sleeping for episodes now, and his hallucinations are of past experiences—such as the room flooding with water, or seeing other members of the crew as Nakai —it seems more than likely that Rush’s experiences in this episode are PTSD-related and not due to the tick.
This, however, is not our only brush with PTSD. Let’s move forward to the next season, where he finds the bridge of Destiny and hides that discovery from the rest of the crew.
One of the cool things about Stargate: Universe in the first season is that they never find the bridge of the ship. They don’t even know there is one because Destiny is so massive and broken, they haven’t found it yet… or perhaps the Ancients were so culturally different at the time they didn’t design the ship with a bridge in mind. Even if they did, there would be a fair chance the crew would have no idea how to use it.
So, Rush—who is established to still not be sleeping after an incursion with the Lucian Alliance—finds the bridge of the Destiny. Until now, he and the Science Team had been interfacing with the ship in what I think is probably a janitor’s closet, so this is an incredibly important find because it is vital for the survival of the ship and the crew. Naturally, that means Rush should want to share it, knowing what we know of him from before he was abandoned on the planet and then tortured by the Nakai. Before, it was the greater good. Now, it’s survival is first and foremost.
But no. Rush, instead, reasons that Young cannot be trusted with this find, and starts to lead a double life of surreptitiously guiding the ship (to disastrous results) and pretending like he’s still doing things from the Control Interface Room/Janitor’s closet.
But what led him to do this? After all, keeping this find under wraps leads to dire situations that compromise the survival of the crew, and indeed causes the death of one member. It is not a rational decision.
Except that it is. If there is one thing I want to make very plainly clear in this article, PTSD-sufferers reactions are rational, even if they don’t seem that way to an outsider. I think oftentimes we nitpick plots in fiction because characters make decisions that seem illogical to us. Sometimes this is deserved because an author did not sufficiently help us empathize with a character, other times I think it is because we don’t understand what it means to have PTSD.
You don’t have to be triggered to have PTSD affect your decision-making process. You see, unmanaged, PTSD gets you stuck in survival mode. It’s an undertow that drags you down with things that were true but aren’t necessarily true now.
So in Rush’s sleep-deprived, and exhausted state-of-my-mind, he reverts back to Young being the threat despite all the work they had done to repair the relationship. While some may be frustrated with this backstep, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that about his character. It explains the rationale for doing something irrational, and makes his character so much deeper.
The beauty of Stargate Universe is that it shows PTSD as it is. Even better, no one is excusing Rush’s actions because of it, and/or invalidating his experience. It simply is.
PTSD is so misunderstood, it deserves logical, rational representation, and it gets that with logical, rational Dr. Rush. I mean, let’s face it, there is logic to what goes on in a PTSD-sufferers brain, but it’s logic from a different time period. Dismissing it as irrational is insulting, and I love that Stargate: Universe never does that, and I think it is exactly why Rush is such a deep and meaningful character.
In the end, I think there is a lesson writers can draw from this: don’t be afraid to explore this within some of your characters. Understand their viewpoint, and what drives them to make their choices. If you do that, you will never have a boring story.