For the better part of two seasons Grey's Anatomy has been telling an important and socially relevant story: Owen Hunt's battle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The storyline has garnered much critical acclaim and both GA and Kevin McKidd have been nominated for 2010 PRISM Awards (which honor accurate depictions of substance abuse and mental health issues in the entertainment industry).
Veterans and their loved ones (including many wives) have expressed their gratitude to GA for shining a spotlight on PTSD and for telling a difficult story well. Despite this, there is a small but vocal minority of fans that views Owen Hunt's behavior towards his girlfriend, Cristina Yang, as abusive. The views that follow are a combination of my observations, research and conversations with mental health professionals. I, however, believe Owen's actions are not abusive and are, instead, unintentional manifestations of the extreme trauma and psychological wounds he received as a result of serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq during a time of war.
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The introduction of Major Owen Hunt in the season five premiere was memorable. This brash, opinionated military trauma surgeon managed to make a medical splash while simultaneously sweeping Cristina Yang off of her feet. Still, after a passionate kiss with Cristina, Owen went back to Iraq to finish his tour of duty.
Just three episodes later, Owen resurfaced a very changed man. He was thin and gaunt with sad, haunted eyes and a tense, tightly-wound demeanor. We found out that his entire unit had been killed in an RPG ambush and that Owen had been honorably discharged.
Many of Owen's PTSD symptoms were slowly revealed. Burying himself in work, he was hypersensitive and emotionally fragile. He had a complete breakdown in Cristina's shower. He suffered from panic attacks and fitful, restless sleep. It is crucially important, however, that Owen NEVER hurt Cristina physically when he was awake and aware of his actions.
But when unaware of his actions, he could be quite violent. After he choked Cristina while having a night terror, he was horrified that he had hurt her and insisted that they should stop seeing each other. Cristina refused, saying that she knew her own limits. When she found her limit and realized she was afraid for her own safety, they broke up, despite their love for each other. They were both devastated and Owen immediately got physical (a brain scan) and mental (therapy) help, having hit rock bottom. After several more episodes of tortured separation, Owen and Cristina found their way back to each other in the season finale.
As season six opens, we find both Owen and Cristina in therapy with Dr. Wyatt. Owen continues to show deep concern for Cristina. He is afraid of hurting her again and doesn't want to burden her, admitting to her that if they proceed as a couple "my problems will become your problems". They do move forward together and Owen is doing a lot better. The story for the first part of the season even shifted away from PTSD and focused on the hospital merger and Cristina's professional frustrations. But PTSD is an insidious condition which can be triggered at any time, sometimes without warning.
It's significant that the catalyst for Owen's flare up seems to be the arrival of friend and colleague, Teddy Altman, who served with him in Iraq. Under the best of circumstances this would be problematic as Teddy's mere presence is a daily reminder of the worst period of Owen's life. It's more complicated than that, though, because Teddy admits to having romantic feelings for Owen and engages in a passive-aggressive pursuit of him, despite the fact that he's told her he's in love with Cristina. Teddy is also Owen's primary competition for Cristina's "affections" as Dr. Yang grapples between love and career.
I'm a big believer that Teddy is the main trigger for this latest bout of PTSD. A medical case in "Suicide is Painless"
takes Owen's flare up to new heights as he is overwhelmed by memories of Iraq and proceeds to close up and shut down emotionally. I believe he is trying to protect Cristina while trying to come to grips with this latest PTSD cycle. I also believe he is in a surface-level denial of sorts because on a deeper level he's terrified of what may be happening to him ... again.
That brings me to Owen's (completely unacceptable) behavior in "Sympathy for the Parents
". He lashes out at Cristina in the OR (believing falsely that she'd ignored his directives and had been insubordinate) and can't let it go despite both Dr. Altman and Dr. Torres both coming to Cristina's defense. Afterwards, he leaves quickly realizing, I believe, that he's behaved like a real jerk. That night he makes dinner for Cristina as an apology of sorts and is his normal, rational self. Then the sausages burn. Owen's frustration and anger all rise to the surface as he slams the pan into the sink.
It is critically important to note that Owen's feelings are directed at the pan and not at Cristina and that he throws the pan into the sink, not at her. He, like many of us, has temporarily lost his temper while under extreme stress. It's not a pattern of behavior but rather a momentarily lapse. His usual way of communicating with Cristina is respectful and loving. He apologizes to Cristina at once and is stricken to realize that she's afraid of him.
I believe Cristina's "flinch" is an instinctive reaction rather than a belief that Owen will attack her in some way. Her fear is not so much Owen himself but rather that the PTSD is accelerating again. To his credit Owen realizes in this moment that he must return at once to therapy and he holds back, only touching Cristina when she reaches out to him first. I see this as a hopeful gesture and a sign that they will fight the PTSD together as a couple.
To me, this story is not one of abuse, but rather about the healing and redemption of a man undone by the horrors of war. I look forward to seeing what happens next and sincerely hope that the message ultimately sent is that veterans and the people they love can learn to manage PTSD and go on to build good lives and strong, healthy relationships.
(Image courtesy of ABC)