Josh, Donna, and PTSD on The West Wing

The West Wing covers a broad scope of incidents in the White House, as I’m reminded with every rewatch. Domestic crises, international ones, attempted shootings, bombings…in many ways, it was a forewarning of what we would experience in the decade after the show went off the air, and I often find myself putting on an old episode in response to some recent event, using pop culture as a way to connect with reality.

As a show that was fundamentally a narrative about the people of the West Wing, one of the most fascinating things The West Wing explored was the very physical and emotional cost of working in the White House. There was Leo’s heart attack, of course, brought on by stress and worry and the intense fear of failing the President in the midst of a vicious argument about Middle East peace negotiations. But there was also PTSD for both Josh and Donna, who struggled after traumatic incidents that they wound up in because of their jobs. The show’s handling of PTSD for both characters was different, but also striking — and the decision to handle it differently was also a reflection of how it can manifest in variable ways from person to person.

For Josh, the show’s writers and producers took the route of showing Josh experiencing flashbacks, struggling with triggers, and refusing help. In an episode dedicated to his PTSD, Josh struggles through a session with a psychologist brought to help him work through the trauma of the shooting. Viewers learn much about Josh through the session, but also about PTSD, as Josh and Stanley work on identifying his triggers and trying to create functional means of coping. It’s a shift away from narratives about PTSD where people are expected to be strong and conquer it on their own — and stories where characters magically get better.

Throughout the series, Josh recognizes that he’s at risk of being triggered, and so does Donna. She’s the one who recommends calling Stanley in stressful situations that she thinks will exacerbate his symptoms, and she’s the one who works side by side with him as a partner to help him manage his condition. While at times the relationship between Josh and Donna can be frustrating, with her placed in the mothering role instead of being allowed to be an independent, confident, professional woman, this part of their relationship, as one of caring and respect, is intimate and bold. This is not about a romantically wounded man and the woman who loves him, but about a man and a woman who have been through a great deal together, and who know each other well.

Donna, too, experiences PTSD after the bombing, but she turns to Kate for help, seeking advice and mentoring from a woman who has been through similar situations. In some ways, the show minimized her PTSD by not showing her with a counselor, although she states that she’s been to counseling. In others, though, the show highlights the fact that what Donna is experiencing is PTSD, and it is serious — from the scene where Kate offers help and Donna turns away to the moment where Donna shyly approaches her to articulate why, though she knows she needs help, she’s afraid.

‘I’m not ready,’ says Donna, and then she goes on to say that she knows that this is one of the signs, that she’s been warned that turning away help is an indicator that she needs help. She acknowledges the paradox in the refusal to acknowledge vulnerability and the desire to bottle feelings inside, knowing these are further indicators that she needs someone. Kate, one of the show’s late additions and a powerful one, can speak to Donna’s experiences because she’s been there, in the Middle East, taking fire, in a world that many think is reserved exclusively for men.

The West Wing largely managed to avoid romanticising PTSD or turning it into a fun intellectual exercise. It showed the frank, everyday reality of PTSD and the fact that with variable presentation, people experience it in many different ways. For some, it may be intense flashbacks and disabling levels of anxiety and stress. For others, it may be the ability to front, to fake it, with the acute and uncomfortable awareness that behind that front lies a part of you that feels as though it’s falling apart. Donna and Josh both try to front, with varying degrees of success, and they also experience crashes, even as they also grow, change, and learn to turn to the people around them for help.

What the show does manage to accomplish is this: At no point does it suggest that PTSD is something to be ashamed of. It doesn’t say that Donna or Josh should be perceived as weak or unable to deal with the world because of their mental health condition. It doesn’t say that PTSD is their fault, or that they should be ostracised by their colleagues. It says, simply and plainly, that PTSD is a thing that happens, that is not within the control of the person experiencing it, and that what people with PTSD need is support and compassion, respect and love. This is radical, for a society that does not understand PTSD well and often depicts it poorly in pop culture.

The West Wing also asks an important question of viewers: How high is too high a price for service? While the focus here is on the cost of serving the White House, the implication extends to other branches of government and government work as well. As we see Josh and Donna experience PTSD and live with the fact that it will be with them all their lives, how does that make us feel?