McCullough's PTSD In 'Orange Is The New Black' Season 6 Says So Much About The Prison System
The consequences of the Litchfield riot on Orange Is The New Black unfold throughout Season 6, some more serious than others. And not all of them are about the inmates. For example, Corrections Officer McCullough's PTSD on Orange Is The New Black is a major concern, and represented in a thoughtful, thorough way on the Netflix series.
Throughout the season, Artesian McCullough suffers from various symptoms of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress. She has insomnia, and tries to take on a night job as a Lyft driver in order to busy her mind and cope. She's also self-harming with small cigarette burns. McCullough is aware of how trauma is affecting her, but not getting the help she needs just yet. Remember, this character is a military veteran who has already served at least one tour in Afghanistan. It's possible that she sustained traumas overseas as well and has been dealing with this even before the riot. She doesn't really say, but things are decidedly not going well.
It all comes to a head in Episode 12, when kickball practice gets slightly out of hand, the ball pops, and McCullough is triggered. She screams at the inmates, threatening violence, though it's clearly not the game that has bothered her. "I heard they shook you out there," says fellow CO Tamika Ward to McCullough in a later scene. "No," replies McCullough. "That was on me, not them." What's happening to McCullough is about more than "forgive and forget," an important point to make about PTSD as a mental health issue.
When Ward questions her further, McCullough delivers this monologue:
"Forget? I wake up in sweat puddles from nightmares every night. I jump if I hear a loud noise. And I will never f*cking forgive them. I mean, shit, if I'd had a gun on me in that yard, I would have mowed them down without thinking twice about it. But those girls were just excited about playing kickball. They are horrible people who have hurt me, and they are regular people who just want to play a game. Or get through the day. Or feel human. And I just get so messed up when I can only see the horrible, which is pretty much all the time. But I don't know how to exist in the world with so much hate inside me."
According to the United States Department of Veteran's Affairs, while characters in history and literature have displayed symptoms of PTSD for centuries, it was not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980. One of the symptoms, according to the DVA, is "persistent alterations in beliefs or mood that have developed after exposure to the traumatic event." — which is what she is describing in the monologue.
This is not the first time that PTSD has been represented on screen. Many may have first learned about the disorder thanks to an episode of The West Wing — the year 2000 Christmas episode "Noël" in which Josh Lyman is triggered by carols and diagnosed. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does not ignore its titular character's PTSD, sometimes to measured comedic effect. Jessica Jones has PTSD, and The Punisher also has several characters, who are veterans like McCullough, coping with traumatic stress.
Likely because film and television are visual mediums, the most common representation of PTSD on screen is through flashbacks that characters experience when triggered. What Orange is the New Black does by showing these other symptoms (the trouble controlling thoughts and actions, the isolation, the outbursts, the self-harm) and having McCullough describe the worst of her feelings is slightly different. There's something raw and remarkably nonjudgemental and matter-of-fact about this scene.
When Tamika found McCullough, she was taking a moment in the woman's bathroom to cool off after the male guards (who were also traumatized during the riot) used some seriously dehumanizing language to demean the inmates, including her former friend Taystee. Tamika doesn't take sides, because this issue or experience is far from morally black and white, but she takes it all in — and it feels radical that a piece of art would put these scenes back to back for our (and her) comparison. Interesting, isn't it, how the men externalize their hate by openly wanting revenge and torturing the inmates, whereas McCullough has been internalizing it? Luschek even jokes, midway through the season, that McCullough's trauma has made her "hotter" — another can of problematic worms entirely.
The series always does an excellent job of painting human beings as flawed and worthy of support and empathy all at the same time. McCullough is not exactly a villain, but as a guard she is complicit gross and abusive behavior. There are certainly inmates who are suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and depression due to incidents that happened during their incarceration as well.
What the OITNB writers have done so well here is show that the criminal justice system's flaws, especially those of private prisons, hurt everyone — prisoners and employees alike. According to Psychology Today, research shows that there might be a link between police brutality and PTSD.
McCullough needs professional help to break what could become an even more viscous cycle.She should not be working at Litchfield Max alongside the very women who caused her trauma, even though the "power dynamic" has been restored. Maybe especially because it has. If anything her mental health journey this season highlight the real-life issues surrounding mental health in the prison system and, just as importantly, shows how PTSD doesn't always present itself how people might assume it does.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of PTSD, including self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National PTSD Hotline at 1-877-717-7873. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.