Marvel’s massively popular adaptation of its graphic novel, Alias, Jessica Jones, available only on Netflix, has sparked countless discussions of the show’s portrayal of the lead character’s PTSD 1. A debilitating and often disabling condition, PTSD is frequently portrayed negatively, often as a life-destroying mental illness. In contrast, the PTSD of Jessica Jones is characterized in a way that can be construed as being one of her superpowers. As someone who has Complex PTSD (also known as complex trauma or Developmental Trauma Disorder), this depiction is nothing short of mind-blowing. It has forced me to view my own condition with a completely different mindset, namely, to wonder if my disabilities are in fact my own superpowers.
Trauma as catalyst for superpowers
Jessica Jones’ recognized superpowers are superhuman strength, “flying,” and an enhanced ability to resist physical injury. In episode eight, “AKA WWJD?” it is revealed that she gained these superpowers after a car accident that took place during her teen years, though it is unclear if the trauma of the accident itself caused her powers. (Side note: I find it interesting that even before the discovery of IGH, Jessica herself speculated as to how physically traumatic events might have caused her’s and Luke Cage’s superpowers.) Jessica’s PTSD developed as a result of additional trauma exposure sometime after the onset of her recognized superpowers.
An unusual take on PTSD symptoms: the beneficial results
Jessica Jones’ PTSD symptoms cover the expanse of typical PTSD symptomatology, as well as symptoms of Complex PTSD. Of note, she experiences benefits from the following symptoms:
- Explosive, aggressive anger
- Preoccupation with revenge
- Isolation from and distrust of others
- Distrust of others
- Difficulty sleeping
- Repressed memories of trauma
Explosive, aggressive anger: Jones’ anger burns just barely beneath her surface interactions at all times. When it erupts, it combines with her superhuman strength to create an enormous display of power. In episode four, “AKA 99 Friends,” this explosive anger works to intimidate jewelry designer Audrey Eastman, who had plotted to kill Jessica, to the point where Eastman agrees to leave town and never return.
Preoccupation with revenge: Her preoccupation for revenge is what drives her in all of season one, as first she seeks to put a stop to Kilgrave, then determines that she must kill him instead.
Isolation from and distrust of others: By keeping herself isolated and continually distrusting others, Jones manages to temporarily protect herself from Kilgrave using his powers of mind control to attack her through someone close to her.
Hypervigilance: Always remaining alert is a key benefit to her job as a private investigator. She remains ever watchful of her environs and those around her, inspecting and questioning slight details in an obsessive manner. Not only does she pick up on small details, but she is alert to threat at all times.
Difficulty sleeping: Another symptom that greatly benefits her work as a private investigator, Jones’ difficulty sleeping means that she’s often out on the streets at night, working. These night time ventures often result in leads and encounters that would have had little chance of being discovered or taking place during daylight hours.
Repressed memories of trauma: As Jessica’s repressed memories of her time as Kilgrave’s abductee slowly come back to her, she is able to pick up on clues that enable her to discover his whereabouts, and potential motives and weaknesses. These memories also serve to enable Jones to identify other victims of Kilgrave, and to identify with and even occasionally empathize with some of them. Her connections with the other captives plays a huge role in advancing her plans to put a stop to Kilgrave.
As these side effects of PTSD are so beneficial to Jessica Jones, they could easily be classified as skills or “abilities” (often used in the show to mean superpowers) instead of as a disability. Which begs the question, if these “abilities” are superpowers for Jones, why can’t they also be for me?
My extra-enabled life: a different mindset
Those of us with disabilities are essentially taught that these disabilities are only inhibitors to our lives. I’ve yet to meet anyone who was taught that their disabilities could in any way be beneficial to ourselves or to others. After all, the very definition of “disability” is that of weakness, incapacity, and “the condition of being unable to perform as a consequence of physical or mental unfitness.” “Disability” is presented only as a negative, as lacking, as being without. Using Jessica Jones as an example, I argue that the definition and the perception need to be reframed. This is not an argument for the use of the phrase “differently-abled” instead of “disabled.” Not at all. It’s an argument about reframing how we think of the word disability and the conditions it entails. Our disabilities — those of mine and others — can include extra abilities, “abilities,” or even superpowers.
I have learned that some of the symptoms of my disabilities have ways of working in my favor. These are just a few examples.
- My hypervigilance has helped to prevent me from being mugged when most of my friends have been mugged multiple times.
- My memory impairment allows me to revisit books and films over and over again before I start to feel as though I know what is going to happen (I appreciate that I can easily access novelty when entertainment can be so expensive).
- Having Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome means that I can entertain others by pretending to be a contortionist.
- As a person with narcolepsy, I get to take doctor-sanctioned naps on a daily basis — and who doesn’t love to nap?
- When I sleep, I dream vividly; the content of these dreams often comes out in my writing.
- The hypersensitivity I experience as a result of c-PTSD has led me to becoming so empathetic that I can put myself in anyone’s shoes.
And though not symptoms of my conditions, I have come to experience important side effect from my years of health problems. First, I have become very organized and resourceful regarding health and social service systems. This has led me to not only improve the quality of my own life, but has allowed me to assist others in their journeys as well. Second, because I have had so much practice at it, I have become very adept at communicating my story, my thoughts, and my needs to anyone, be they people I know well or complete strangers. Thanks to this, I have grown to be a great advocate for myself and others. Third, my multiple health conditions have helped me to realize that everyone has a story, even if they are not open to sharing it. This recognition has led me to believe that everyone deserves to be treated as equally interesting and important as everyone else. In short, my health conditions have made me a better person.
Without my multiple conditions, I would likely not experience any of these things. The state of my health has actually enriched my life. While I can’t do some things, I have been enabled to do others — and some of them I can do so well that they have become my special abilities… my superpowers.
Conclusion: Disabilities don’t define us, but they can enable us
As Rose B. Fischer says about Iron Man in her essay, Iron Man, Disability and Me, the hero’s disability is “just a part of the larger picture.” Jones’ PTSD symptoms are just a part of her larger story. While clearly contributing to her life and assisting her in her cases, they don’t wholly define her as a person. What they do is provide her with extra abilities — or “abilities” — that others do not have. They don’t inhibit her; they don’t disable her. She utilizes them for maximum benefit to her work. Her symptoms are an unrecognized superpower — and so are mine.
1. It should be noted that Jessica Jones’ PTSD stems from the consequences of spending a prolonged period with Kilgrave. She exhibits symptoms of PTSD, but she also exhibits the symptoms that come from prolonged trauma(s). As such, her diagnosis would actually be Complex PTSD.