Dean Winchester and Childhood PTSD: An Examination of Personality Traits Common to Adult Survivors of Untreated Childhood PTSD
Warnings: The following warnings apply:
Writing meta is a lot like writing essays. You’re not supposed to get invested. You're supposed to remain objective. I’ve debated writing this particular meta (I’ve written it and re-written it and deleted it and written it again) because this isn’t something I can do objectively. This is intensely personal for me, because part of what attracts me to Dean as a character is how much I identify with him. I see a lot of myself in him, and so it is next to impossible for me to examine his childhood, his trauma, or his resulting PTSD without getting personal.
It’s scary as hell, putting yourself out there, opening up old wounds so that you might better understand a character—and might, through that, better understand yourself. But I think it might also be important, because I think a lot of people tend to dismiss Dean’s PTSD. Either that or they ignore his childhood PTSD in favour of examining his Hell PTSD. And that’s the thing about Dean. He keeps getting re-traumatized. Trauma on top of trauma that has left his psyche shattered beyond recognition. It’s impossible to look at one crack without looking at the whole. And it is impossible to look at the whole without going back to the beginning.
So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write about Dean and his childhood trauma. I’m going to write about why I think Dean was showing obvious signs of undiagnosed PTSD long before he went to Hell. And I’m going to talk a lot about my own experiences, so that people understand that PTSD is nothing like what you see in the movies. It is a very misunderstood disorder, but also one that I think is integral to who Dean is.
I’m going to start by talking about the common misconceptions people have when it comes to PTSD. Most people who are exposed to PTSD are exposed through television or film. They understand a very basic, very stereotypical view of the disorder. They think soldiers returning from war. They think loud noises triggering flashbacks. They think a short-term group of symptoms that immediately follow a traumatic event.
I had a friend, years and years ago, who was at ground zero during 9/11. She had to hide in one of the buildings when the wall of debris blew past. She had to walk out onto the street and wade through ankle-deep soot, the ash of people still raining down around her, and then fumble her way home, still not entirely sure what had happened, but traumatized all the same.
In the days and weeks and months that followed, she experienced classic symptoms of PTSD. Nightmares. Flashbacks. Disassociation. Naturally, she entered therapy (because unlike a lot of people she was a well-adjusted person who understood the benefit of good mental health). She was treated and recovered (to a degree) but the secondary symptoms of PTSD didn’t just go away. You see, the human psyche isn’t like an arm. You don’t just set it and have it heal. It stays damaged and even when you manage to get past the worst of it (through talking about it and medication and meditation exercises and CBT) you’re still left with lingering damage.
You’re left with depression and anxiety and phobias you’ve never had before. You’re left with a lingering sense of unease, an inability to feel safe. My friend, whom sadly I haven’t spoken to in a few years, 5 years after the event still cringed every time she heard an airplane overhead. She still couldn’t stand the press of tight buildings, even though, by all other accounts she had been successfully treated for her PTSD.
Because PTSD is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s the list of symptoms that follow a traumatic event. But we never really recover from our traumas. We only learn to deal with them.
But Dean, Dean didn’t learn this. Dean’s life following the death of his mother (Trauma #1) taught him repression. It added new trauma (the trauma of hunting, the trauma of responsibility—aka Dean’s caregiver role, the trauma of abuse/neglect/poverty, the trauma of grief—aka everyone Dean has lost, the trauma of Hell, and so on and so on and so on.) And the thing that people forget to mention about PTSD is that new trauma triggers old, so you can’t look at one point in Dean’s life without going back to the source.
Because at the root of it is Dean’s untreated childhood PTSD. We see signs of this as early as seasons 1 and 2. These aren’t classic symptoms. Too much time has passed for that. Dean isn’t having nightmares or flashbacks—nothing the laymen would expect with PTSD. Instead he exhibits classic personality traits of adults later diagnosed with untreated childhood PTSD.
I say personality traits because diagnosing children who have experience trauma with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a relatively new thing. It isn’t something that would have happened in the 1970s (when I was a kid) or the 1980s (when Dean was a kid). Certainly even taking a kid to a psychiatrist after a traumatic event wasn’t something a parent would do. It was mostly ignored, so over time symptoms we’d recognized today as reactions to trauma would dull, eventually becoming quirky personality traits (my childhood anxiety, for example, was seen as a “quirky personality trait" instead of an obvious reaction to psychological trauma).
It’s easy to trace these personality traits back to their source now, because a lot of research has been done on the subject. There are several personality traits common to adult survivors of untreated childhood trauma, and Dean (and I) showcase quite a few of them. I’ll get to those in a minute, but just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m going to take a minute to highlight some of the trauma Dean experienced during his childhood. Trauma that both contributed to and worsened his PTSD. We’ll start with the obvious.
Dean lost his mother at a very young age under very traumatizing circumstances. It is very probable that he witnessed the event. Certainly we have evidence from John’s journal (canon companion) that this was traumatizing enough to stop Dean speaking for a period of time. There is also a canon reference to Dean wanting to be a firefighter as a child, no doubt a direct reaction to the fire that killed his mother. Several of his existing personality traits no doubt stem from having lost his mom. There is a direct correlation between children who have lost their mothers at a young age and lower self-esteem, lack of security, and heightened anxiety, for example.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. Dean was then taken out of his home, stripped of his security and thrust into a life where his worst nightmares were made real and he was responsible for killing them. Certainly Dean’s vigilance and righteousness stems from this. His world almost from the start became black and white, good vs evil. This is also where Dean’s codependency stems from. Without the security of home and family he became very attached to both John and Sam (and I’d argue the Impala) because they were the only representations of home he had. His need for home, for family, both of which are predominant themes in season 1 and 2, likely stem from this trauma.
So already we have a fairly traumatized kid who has been placed in an environment not conducive to healing. Dean’s childhood is lacking stability, lacking stable adult figures, lacking peers (given how frequently they moved, it is very unlikely Dean ever had friends). It is, at times, lacking the basic necessities of living. Credit card fraud aside, it is no great stretch to suggest Sam and Dean grew up in childhood poverty. Dean’s eating disorder undoubtedly stems in part from this—I know mine did. But it doesn’t end there, because into all of this, enter John.
Whatever your thoughts on John, at the very least we have canon proof that he was a terrible parent. He was negligent, leaving Sam and Dean alone for days/weeks at a time—that’s childhood abandonment for those keeping count. Certainly he was guilty of child endangerment, given how he raised them (can you imagine the things they saw, child soldiers that they were—as early as 10 we see Dean wielding a shotgun, confronting a Shtriga). Certainly he practiced authoritarian parenting (look at how quick Dean is to obey his commands, how he automatically comes to attention around his father).
The above is canon, but I also believe there is evidence to suggest John used corporal punishment to keep Dean in line. We see Dean wincing when John raises his voice, trying (often in vain) to play peacekeeper and mollify his enraged father. I also believe he was prone to violence in high-stress situations (Dean’s flinch when talking about his father’s anger after Sam ran away). I won’t get too into it here, because I’ve talked about it elsewhere, but I believe the SPN canon gives us ample evidence to suggest John Winchester was at times physically abusive.
So as you can see, Dean’s childhood has no shortage of trauma. When we are introduced to him he is a broken man, filled with self-loathing, crippled by low self-esteem, and hiding behind charm and humour. He desperately seeks connections and love, either by clinging to his brother, idolizing his father (abuser) or via casual sexual encounters. He has issues with trust and doesn’t seem capable of forming meaningful emotional attachments outside of his family (all of which are very common traits in adult survivors of childhood trauma). In short, Dean is the poster-child for a childhood trauma survivor. He is not, in season 1, exhibiting classic symptoms of PTSD, but it is undeniable his personality has been shaped by it.
All of this changes in season 2. Dean’s father dies and Dean begins exhibiting classic secondary symptoms of PTSD.
See, the thing about having untreated childhood PTSD is that new trauma, the trauma we experience as adults, will often re-trigger the untreated symptoms from our childhood. This is what happened to me. And it’s what happened to Dean.
If you asked me 10 years ago I wouldn’t have even known what PTSD was. Certainly I didn’t know I was carrying around lingering scars from it. I thought I had a quirky personality and a tendency towards destructive behavior (substance abuse, escapism, promiscuity, etc.). It wasn’t until my pregnancy/childbirth experience (both extremely traumatizing, near-death experiences with prolonged hospitalizations and lingering health effects) that I began to exhibit symptoms of PTSD not directly related to my birth trauma (a term for pregnancy/childbirth related PTSD). It was through therapy for my birth trauma that I finally began to address the lingering side-effects of my undiagnosed, untreated (and mostly repressed) childhood PTSD (stemming from emotional abuse, sexual abuse and childhood poverty).
I think the same thing happened with Dean. I think losing John at the beginning of S2 not only triggered grief, but re-triggered his childhood PTSD, bringing a number of those symptoms to the forefront. This, of course, put Dean in a terrible position for the remainder of the series, as trauma gets added to trauma without Dean ever addressing the origins of his damaged psyche. The only reason Dean hasn’t broken completely is because this is still fiction. I’m not sure there is a human alive capable of enduring the things he has endured. Not by the time we reach S8.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking S2 Dean doesn’t have flashbacks or nightmares. He’s not disassociating. He’s not hearing loud noises and going into a panic. And you’re right, because PTSD doesn’t always work like that, especially after the passage of time. Dean’s long since gotten past the flashbacks and the nightmares. He’s integrated the trauma into his personality, so that in order to see it you need to start looking at personality traits/mental health issues common to adult survivors of untreated childhood PTSD.
They are numerous
Dean’s depression kind of comes and goes throughout the series, which is a pretty clear representation of how depression actually works. Depression never really goes away, but it waxes and wanes and you get better and you get worse and it just becomes this part of your life. We do, however, see quite a few of Dean’s lows. Certainly after his father’s death he becomes distant and seems burdened by apathy. His libido takes a noticeable nose dive. And of course his drinking becomes more obvious (S1 it was relatively fun and casual, whereas in S2 it seems more driven as a numbing agent). We’ll see Dean cycle in and out of depression throughout the series (notably in S3 before he gets sent to Hell, in S5 after he finds out he’s a pawn, and in S6 after he loses Sam, and again in S7 after he loses first Cas and then Bobby). It should be noted that adults with a history of childhood trauma (specifically abuse) are more likely to suffer from depression as adults.
Dean’s anxiety isn’t always as obvious, but it really comes out whenever Sam is threatened. We saw a bit of it in S1, especially when John was in danger, but mostly it’s confined to Sam and Sam’s safely. We saw it as well during his time with Lisa (the anxious pacing around the house, checking devil’s traps, etc.). Dean is nowhere near as laid back as he wants people to believe and high stress periods in his life really highlight this. Anxiety is a common side effect of childhood PTSD. The most recent example of this we see in Purgatory, Dean’s frantic search for Castiel a direct manifestation of his anxiety (specifically anxiety tied to losing a loved one, which undoubtedly stems from his mother’s death).
I’m actually pretty sure you could just look up this word in the dictionary and find Dean’s picture next to it. It’s kind of one of his biggest defining characteristics (sadly it’s one of mine, too).
I’m not sure I need to elaborate here. Granted, Dean’s drug use seemed largely recreational (comments on joints and bongs and the occasional pain killer) but certainly his drinking was so far out of control I’m surprised he still has a liver. And make no mistake, Dean has been drinking steadily since S1, with the problem waxing and waning depending on his mental state (aka it got worse in S3 pre-hell, worse still in S4 post-hell, really bad in S5 post-Michael and almost ludicrous in S7 post Castiel). I’m thrilled to see it waning again in S8 (which makes sense given his comments on Purgatory being pure, perhaps having cleansed him) but make no mistake: Dean Winchester is an alcoholic.
I’m not sure if Dean’s sleep issues started pre or post Hell, but either way the 4 hours every few days is a direct consequence of untreated PTSD.
I think including this might surprise a good number of people (though someone recently wrote some excellent meta on the subject), but I think you can easily argue for Dean having an eating disorder. The problem, of course, is that most people assume you have to be anorexic or bulimic to have an eating disorder, and Dean is neither of those things. I think the above meta hit the nail on the head when they labelled Dean’s disorder as Food Maintenance Syndrome.
I won’t go into too many details here, but I do want to mention that I understand this because it’s something I struggle with. Now that I’ve been through some therapy and have learned to control it (to a degree) I understand that my desire to eat everything in the house had nothing to do with emotions and everything to do with having spent a childhood not knowing where my next meal was coming from. Food became something you had to consume when it was available. You get locked in a feast-famine cycle, brought on by your poverty/neglect. The problem is that when you get out of poverty/neglect, you’re still locked in that cycle, except, now you’re feasting all the time.
It’s one of those disorders that gets overlooked, especially if you’re someone like Dean (or myself) who are a normal, healthy weight. But, Dean (and myself) are also extremely active, so he simply burns off the additional calories. You’ll note when he quit hunting that he still had a relatively physical job. I guarantee Dean gains weight when he’s injured (broken foot, or, for example, when he’s Dean Smith needing to do a cleanse because he doesn’t get to the gym too often).
Adult survivors of PTSD have trouble staying in long-term relationships. They also exhibit signs of co-dependency in existing relationships. They have trouble trusting and recognizing the flaws in others (aka putting people on pedestals). They have trouble connecting with people in meaningful, long-term ways. This is something people learn about me relatively quickly. I am absolutely comfortable standing on a soap box speaking to an audience, but I am very stand-offish in one on one situations. I have a very hard time trusting people, and I cannot for the life of me tell when someone is being genuine or passive aggressive. Because of my trust issues, I tend towards paranoia and always expect the worst in people. This pretty much guarantees a lifetime of misunderstandings. It all stems from my childhood PTSD, and while I work on it, it was left so long that the odds of me moving past it are stacked against me. I suspect even with years of therapy a lot of Dean’s relationship problems are unfortunately here to stay.
I think the most stunningly obvious example of Dean’s suicidal behaviour is probably S5, his desire to give in to Michael the equivalent of him committing suicide. But, I’d also argue that we’ve seen Dean suicidal long before Hell. Selling his soul to save Sam, for example, is clearly a suicidal act (I value Sam’s life above my own). Certainly he spends most of S3 not particularly caring what happens to him, only finding renewed strength and purpose when it’s far too late. And, of course, we’ve seen Dean suicidal in S7 (drive us off a pier), and in S8 (if it kills all 3 of us). Dean might not be the kind to put a bullet in his brain, but that doesn’t mean he won’t rush head first into an impossible situation knowing (hoping) he won’t make it out alive.
Aggression and violent behaviour
We have seen this numerous times with Dean. We have seen him lashing out with fists or open hands (including twice striking a child). We have seen him punching walls. In fact, violence and aggression are pretty much two of Dean’s defining character traits. I don’t think anyone would dispute this, but it is a very common trait in adult survivors of childhood PTSD and tends to come out in high-stress situations.
High risk sexual behaviour
While I’m not sure we can classify all of Dean’s sexual behaviour as high risk, he did impregnate someone (possibly two people—the Amazon and Lisa) meaning that he wasn’t always careful. Even without the high risk aspect, though, I think a lot of Dean’s sexual exploits can be seen as him attempting to forge physical connections because he is incapable of forming emotional ones. This was highlighted during his relationship with Lisa (his only relationship to last longer than a few weeks). That particular arc went out of its way to show Dean’s connection to Ben (his maybe-son) while his time with Lisa always seemed stilted and uncomfortable, implying his connection to her was not particularly emotional (you’ll recall he addressed a letter to Ben and not Lisa before going under to find Death). There has even been some suggestion that their physical relationship had waned over time as well. Certainly we were not show present-time physical intimacy with Lisa (only through a flashback).
Speaking of, yes, it is possible to have flashbacks and nightmares years after the related trauma. This is particularly true when you begin to uncover repressed memories. The evolution from S1 Dean to S3 Dean (idolizing his father to despising him) can be seen as Dean’s journey to uncovering repressed memories, finally coming to terms with the father John was. It’s during these years we get most of our flashbacks to Dean and Sam’s childhood, and you’ll notice that these are almost always from Dean’s pov. You’ll notice, too, that Dean witnessing children from similar backgrounds will either cause Dean to flashback to a memory of his childhood or comment directly on a memory from his childhood (implying a triggered memory). This is happening as early as S1. It is fairly suggestive that Dean finally vocalizes his anger at John in a dream/nightmare (S3).
It’s also important to note that new trauma can also cause regression in adult survivors of childhood PTSD. Some of the critique I saw for 8x12 centered around Dean defending his father, a regression in his characterization, and while I’m not sure it was intentional, it makes logical sense for Dean (re-traumatized by his stay in Purgatory) to experience some regression. His defence of John is not only probable but likely.
This is not an inclusive list. Trauma is like a gunshot through a windshield. The glass surrounding the entry point shatters, spider webs running out from the point of origin until the entire windshield is compromised. Post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t just encompass the entry point. It includes those cracks, and those cracks continue spreading, moving through time, becoming thinner and thinner as they go. When that same windshield is met by new trauma, those lines intersect, the damage expanding and feeding off the existing damage, because no one bothered to patch that first hole. That’s what PTSD is. It’s first and foremost the bullet hole, but it also encompasses those cracks. There comes a point where nothing will fix the damage, where the only option is to replace the windshield. Unfortunately, we cannot so easily replace the human psyche.
I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. The above is based largely on my own experiences and my own understanding, as well as the knowledge I’ve gained from my time in therapy. I did, however, use several web-based references to fill in the blanks of my knowledge.