PTSD, Hypervigilance, and Cartoon Characters

By Mercy WengerJune 13, 2022

For the first 27 years of my life, I felt like a cartoon character. I would be washing dishes, brushing my hair, or performing any other mundane task—and then a family member, a friend, or maybe a co-worker would come up behind me. They would start to say my name, and I would jump or scream like the over-dramatized character in kid’s shows who is always afraid of their own shadow.

I’d walk around a corner and see someone, unexpectedly, standing there and I’d jump. Scream. My heart rate shooting through the roof. Body trembling. Sometimes these jump-scares hit me so hard that my chest would burn and I’d have to collapse for a moment to regain my strength. Most of the time, I was left feeling like I’d just finished running a marathon.

“Why am I like this?” 

This is the thought that arrived after every single incident, like an acidic chaser following a bitter draught. Shame would fill my stomach, sour my soul, and all I could do to hide it was to smile sheepishly and play the cartoon character.

“Geez, you scared me!”

“Guess I wasn’t paying attention—how stupid of me.”

“Sorry, I’m just a little jumpy right now.”

But the reasons I gave never eased the embarrassment gnawing at my insides and burning my cheeks. Everywhere I went I earned a reputation for being the quirky ditz who would scream if you walked up behind her, or, the unstable space cadet who might throw a punch if you approached without prior warning.

I was the cartoon character of every group. 

“You’re so dramatic,” some would say. Others would apologize, just as startled as I was. But many would go out of their way to get these over-the-top reactions, laughing as I predictably leapt into the air or released a horrifying scream when they crept up behind me.

I didn’t know what to do except play along. I tried for years to control my reactions, seeking to remain aware of everything at all times so that nothing could surprise me. But it never changed who I was—that skittish creature who was good for a laugh.

When I turned 27, I started therapy at the start of the year. By the time autumn leaves were falling to the dying grass, I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wasn’t that something only people who fought in wars experienced? Surely I wasn’t traumatized enough to “qualify” for it. So maybe my childhood was a little bit rough, but I was lucky compared to most. And hey, my nightmares sometimes left me alone for a couple of nights in a row, and occasionally I could endure the discomfort of surprises. I didn’t deserve a diagnosis that would let my shame off the hook.

But the truth has a way of haunting you until you pay attention to it. With the help of my therapist, I faced the ghost. I confronted PTSD and the hypervigilance that comes with it. It was a slow process, and still is, but I am starting to realize that I’m not a cartoon character or an actor who changes diagnoses like costumes on a stage just for dramatic effect. I am a soul that spent a childhood in unsafe situations, regularly fearing for my safety both mentally and physically, always on the look out for a threat.

My body and mind learned to protect themselves the only way that they knew how at such a young age, and my flight or fight response became a very delicate trigger that is easy to pull. It has nothing to do with overreacting.

It’s been a year since my Complex PTSD diagnosis and I’m still easily startled. My chest still hurts when I’m scared, and my body still reacts like a frightened deer at the most innocuous sounds or disruptions. But I have a tool in my kit I never had before, a weapon clutched in my hands that I forged in the fires of self-compassion and grace.

I am not ashamed that I endured an unsafe childhood and came out of it with some scars. I don’t see myself as a character in a show, too dramatic to be a real human being. I am real. And my trauma is, too.

If you’re stuck in that place where you can’t stop gaslighting yourself, if your symptoms don’t seem to match the disease, I want to promise you that you’re real. Your trauma and the consequences of it are valid.


You’re more than your pain, more than what happened. You are strong enough to heal from the heavy you carry. We encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at info@twloha.com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Anne Wenger

    I am so sorry that you suffered as you describe. I am glad therapy has helped relieve some of your reactions. I pray for complete healing in time.

    Reply  |  
  2. Jenn

    I think you wrote this about me. This is me every single day. Nightmares ‘overreacting’ to every loud noise. Hate the dark.

    Reply  |  
  3. Rick

    Thank you for sharing

    Reply  |  
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