Joanna was traumatised as a child. She has mild PTSD which has made her an anxious person. Her anxiety in turn has prevented her from becoming a rounded emotionally mature person even if she is highly talented. Her tendency to retreat from human company has probably also helped fuel her talent since painting is known to be a meditative activity but is also representative of a passive way of reaching out to other people to express herself. This was the inspiration for the skeleton of her character structure. When I was writing her chapters, I tried to live Joanna’s experience. I asked myself questions like, how does an anxious person who doesn’t know how to deal with their anxiety cope? That’s where her weed and tobacco smoking and coffee drinking come into play but also her painting. In creating Joanna’s narrative, I used my understanding of PTSD to flesh out how Joanna might react to moving house, seeing a ghost, getting into a relationship.
PTSD is a very real condition and also an elusive diagnosis. PTSD can remain hidden for years and suddenly be triggered then never stop triggering. Triggers are thought to form links in the sufferer’s brain for example, a panic attack is triggered by a red car seen on a road. Once triggered, the trauma keeps coming back and the road reminds the trauma victim of the red car and becomes a new trigger itself. Then the front gate becomes reminiscent of the road, the path reminiscent of the front gate, and so on with each becoming a trigger linked to the other until, in extreme cases, PTSD sufferers become completely housebound.
In Joanna’s case, there are two initial triggers. Firstly moving house doesn’t exactly trigger her trauma but ‘primes’ her for the next trigger. Because of the upheaval of the unfamiliar situation, she becomes stressed and vulnerable to PTSD attacks. Without realising it, she ups her self-administered doses of weed, coffee and tobacco which destabilise her state of mind further. Her trauma is finally triggered definitively when Aroha makes her first appearance and then Joanna begins to lose her sense of reality. She struggles to trust her own perception and falls faster into self-doubt and a sense of hopelessness. As the story unfolds, you can see how the combination of society’s treatment of ‘sick people’, the particular dilemma in question, namely of Aroha’s disturbing presence and Joanna’s ailing self-esteem conspire to make her buckle under the stress of unfolding events but also not feel as if she can share her problems for fear of being judged.
At the same time, Joanna’s is determined and talented. Just because somebody has PTSD doesn’t mean they can’t be a high achiever. She has at least in one respect made a huge success of herself. She is also the product of a loving and diverse childhood environment, at least, after the traumatic events of her story’s beginning. Joanna isn’t troubled by confusion over gender expression or identity, these things were handed down to her implicitly as she grew up. She doesn’t think about them, she doesn’t know what she knows and that’s why Aroha’s out-dated judgements confuse her. They are of another time when such things were in huge flux. But she still suffers from a crisis of confidence and wants to be liked and desired as much as anyone and is more than most, prone to worrying that she won’t be. She’s therefore only got a handful of people she’s close to and she leans on these close relationships and drugs to cope. Her artwork is a testament to her determination but also her desperate need for self-expression. Her clipped knowledge of the world and inexperience with adult relationships show how her trauma has curtailed her maturing into full adulthood with the result being disproportionate fame and a somewhat withered personal life.