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Ted & Trauma
[Warning for discussion of panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD, and suicide.]
That’s a list of heavy topics, so I will certainly put the majority of this meta post under a cut so you can skip it if you need to.
Like so many, I am fascinated by the story they are telling with Ted. Through him, they are showing us a man who has lost his father to one of the worst outcomes of untreated mental illness. It’s a very ambitious story, to explore the direct impact and rippling, intergenerational effects of depression and male suicide. I still kind of reel when I think about that, and I’m emotional just thinking about how important it is for this story to be told.
One criticism I’ve seen for S2 is that it didn’t feel as light-hearted as S1. It’s definitely true that S2 is darker and heavier, but I would like to illustrate, if I can, how much S1 laid the foundation for what would come and did so in subtle, powerful ways. We were always gearing up for a heavy, difficult story about loss, trauma, and mental illness. So let’s talk about S1 with the information we were given in S2. I’m probably going to leave stuff out here and return to threads if I don’t get to all of it in this post.
S1 suggests Ted has experienced a significant loss. In 1x08, Ted says that his father passed away when he was 16. Already, we can imagine how that loss might have affected him, but S2 crystallizes just how much pain and trauma Ted has been carrying, how deep his trauma goes. It starts with what happened off-screen when Ted was 16.
In 2x08, it’s revealed that Ted’s father died by suicide. In 2x10, we learn about the specific trauma Ted experienced, that Ted came home from school, heard the gunshot, and that he was the one that found his father.
I am fascinated by the decision the creators made to cut these crucial scenes with Rebecca’s own traumatic incident. I think it was necessary to do this because the reality of that is unspeakably horrific. That scene mirrors the buffer the mind puts up in order to protect it from the intensity of a traumatic incident. There’s a reason we don’t linger on the moment of Ted finding his father; we only get “I screamed, cried” and then we’re in the aftermath. We know he went upstairs, called 9-1-1, grabbed one of his dad’s Coors Light, drank it, then called his mom at work and said she needed to come home.
I have no doubt that Ted has post-traumatic stress disorder. When a person experiences trauma, the mind will protect itself from the experience. This can manifest in different ways. I think Ted developed a set of core beliefs in order to make some kind of meaning of the event and move forward, onward: 1) Don’t quit on your family, and 2) You need to make sure people know they might be hurting. The first one is the really important for understanding Ted’s mental health struggles in S1 and S2 (and I suspect the latter will be explored in S3 with Ted feeling guilt about missing how Nate was hurting).
Both of these core beliefs are understandable ideas to have adopted in order to push through the emotional turmoil he experienced from his father’s suicide. We know, from Ted’s own admission, that he didn’t go to the funeral “because he quit on his family, quit on himself.”
I think that first core belief of “don’t quit on your family” also created a strict set of rules for himself that unraveled when he realized divorcing Michelle was what she needed. In 1x05 he says, “I promised I’d never quit anything in my life.” Michelle tries to reframe it (”You’re not quitting; you’re letting me go.”), but realistically that wasn’t going to be enough. From this moment on, Ted’s carefully constructed belief is challenged, and that starts Ted down a path of worsening mental health struggles. Ted feels like he’s abandoning his family, just as he feels his father did (“that happened to me and my mom”); Ted sees the divorce as a failure to live up to this core belief he developed to survive that trauma. He experienced and witnessed the negative effects of this perceived abandonment on his family, himself and his mom, and the idea of recreating that sense of abandonment for Henry becomes increasingly crippling, particularly in S2.
I think that Ted experiences a crisis point at the karaoke bar in Liverpool in 1x07. He already believes he’s quitting on his family by agreeing to the divorce, and now he has to make that official by signing the papers. Then Rebecca starts singing Let It Go, and I suspect the trauma Ted has been holding in for so long begins to surface. I’m sure you don’t need these lyrics, as you probably already know them, but:
The snow glows white on the mount tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation
And it looks like I’m the queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in; heaven knows I’ve tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal; don’t feel
Don’t let them know
Well, now they know
That’s what Ted has been trying to do for 30 years: to push all that pain and loss down because it was too much to cope with. We don’t know if Ted has told many people, if any, about this horrible trauma he experienced, but I suspect he’s been holding it in for a long time, and this is the moment it all starts to come back up; Ted can’t hold it back anymore because he needs to let Michelle go, even if that means he’s ‘quitting on his family’.
But that means Ted is now at odds with the core belief he’s been telling himself in order to make meaning and keeping moving forward. He believes he’s quitting on his family just like he believes his father did, and that opens the entire incident back up because the old story he told himself is crumbling. That’s when the panic attack starts, and it eventually leads to the first few steps of healing in the journey we see him take during S2. The defense mechanisms that were formed from the initial trauma incident and its aftermath start to fail and no longer adequately do the job of protecting Ted.
The body demonstrate fight or flight (or freeze) responses to deal with a threatening situation (the trauma incident). When a person is triggered, it’s often by a situation that evokes the same feeling of threat, and it can bring the person back to the incident(s) of trauma. We see Ted on the verge of a panic attack in 1x01 during the press conference and 1x02 during the first practice. Both of those situations are stressful to the body and mind; being put on the spot and interrogated, worrying about what might happen, how things might go wrong, worrying that you might be in over your head. In retrospect, the signs of anxiety were already there, but Ted was triggered into a severe panic attack by the convergence a perceived threat, the disruption of his previous meaning making of the event, as well as the resurfacing of the trauma itself.
One way of recovering from trauma is telling the story in order to make new meaning and develop different coping strategies. We see Ted doing both in S2, developing breathing techniques to cope with his anxiety, to deal with stressful, potentially triggering situations. But he is also able to open up about the incident of trauma itself, and Sharon helps him reconnect to what he loved about his father, which allows him to start processing the loss, to face it instead of cutting it off at the knees because his mind couldn’t go there for so long.
Ted tells Dr. Sharon that his dad was a good man, a good dad, and Ted wishes he would have told him more. There is still a big thing Ted needs to address, and that’s his guilt. He feels guilt about his father’s suicide, like if he would have done or said more, maybe his dad wouldn’t have done it. And that’s the trouble with Ted’s second core belief, that he won’t let anyone get by him without knowing they might be hurting inside. I hope Ted learns that it’s not his responsibility to fix and heal everyone, that his father was mentally ill and died from it, and that’s not his fault.
I’m so happy that Ted is seeking therapeutic help for his mental health. By doing that, he’s addressing the fears and doubts he has about himself as a father, stemming from the loss of his own, and learning to forgive his father (and himself!) as easily and reflexively as he forgives others. I believe Ted will do that and be able to reunite with Henry to build a different legacy for the Lasso men. He’s already started a new one: A legacy of self-care as well as caring for others, asking for and giving help, and sharing difficult emotions rather than suppressing them. He is such a beautiful character.