Sword Art Online II, Ep. 3: Panic Room

I have a problem. If I’m going to blog about SAO, I should blog about my thoughts about it, not fall into the trap of just responding to other people’s criticisms of it. However, I hear that the big criticism of this episode is that it’s psychologically unrealistic, and as someone who has written about her own struggles with OCD and panic disorder before, that’s just….ugh.

I haven’t actually read most of the blogs that are tearing this episode apart though, because if I do I will probably get pissed and have to cut a bitch. Then after cutting a bitch, the sight of a knife may send me into a panic attack, then I’ll never be able to cut up peppers again, and it’ll all just be very tedious and annoying. So I am not aware of the specific arguments that people are making about this episode; just that Sinon’s PTSD/panic attacks are apparently “silly” and “unrealistic” or whatever. I SHOULD read these blog posts so I can better assess their merit; I’m not going to. Sometimes, I have to protect myself, you know? Those peppers aren’t going to cut themselves.

Some context. My husband has read the source material, so he knew about Sinon’s situation going into this season of SAO. He warned me about it beforehand, basically giving me a personal trigger warning. I have mixed feelings about the usefulness of trigger warnings in the way they’re typically used (which is a subject for another day), but in this case, he knows that seeing someone have a panic attack on-screen can be very uncomfortable for me. Since I knew that it was coming, I didn’t find watching the episode that difficult and I did not have a panic attack; but it’s worth mentioning that I could have. One of the things you learn in treatment for panic attacks is that you could have a panic attack at any time, and you just have to learn to live with that uncertainty. Even something as silly as an anime episode isn’t safe.

Like Sinon though, I have more specific triggers, which I’m not going to write about again, because I really don’t feel like upping my risk for an attack right now. Really, I should be constantly exposing myself to the things that set off my attacks in order to get stronger, and sometimes I do, but that takes a lot of courage; I can’t do it every single day. I’ve fought hard so that some of the things that used to scare me no longer do (for instance, stepping on cracks in the sidewallk; I used to have to avoid them, OR ELSE), but I haven’t forced myself to face everything; I probably never will.

That’s why I was so impressed by Sinon continuing to pick up the gun, alone no less, knowing what was going to happen. I would never have the courage to face my biggest fear alone; the successes I have made, I take credit for because I worked hard, but I also had the support of my family. The idea of repeatedly facing my biggest fear alone, with no one to back me up or even call the hospital if things got really bad, is terrifying to me. I was blown away by how strong Sinon was that she could do this. It was far, far more impressive to me than her in-game acts of badassery from episode 2.

It did occur to me that if Sinon is strong enough to repeatedly face her biggest fear, you could make the argument that she “should” be over it already. If she truly has been picking up that gun over and over again, alone, she’s really doing the best thing she can do to extinguish that fear. But the thing is, I haven’t conquered some of my fears yet, even though I’ve been trying for years (albeit not as bravely), and I haven’t even killed anyone. So calling Sinon out on not having dealt with this yet would be a pretty egregious pot-kettle situation.

In terms of legit criticism of the episode, I guess the incident that led to Sinon’s condition could be seen as unrealistic and/or overwrought. However, for me personally, if I can believe in elaborate VR games where you can actually eat food and smell the air, I can believe that an armed robbery happened even in Japan. Just because gun violence is extremely rare in Japan, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist– or more important, that it couldn’t exist in a speculative future, which is what SAO is.

You may notice that I’m referring to what Sinon has as panic disorder as opposed to PTSD; I’m doing that because she very clearly has panic attacks, so it seems accurate. I’m not a psychiatrist, but as far as I can tell, the definitions for these things all bleed into each other and share a lot of common traits. But if you want to insist that what Sinon has is really PTSD, and thus my experiences with panic attacks are TOTALLY DIFFERENT, go ahead: explain to me how that works in the comments. I’m all ears.

In any case, I’m glad that SAO is dealing with this issue. I’m glad that they’re showing a character who has psychological problems but is clearly not “weak” by any stretch of the imagination; that’s very rare in entertainment, and I certainly did not expect it from this franchise. I’m also glad that Sinon is clearly the main character of this arc; Kirito has basically been on screen for two seconds in the last two episodes. I don’t hate Kirito the way some viewers do, but I think it says a lot that even in what is clearly Kirito’s world, this is Sinon’s story.

There are other things of interest about this episode, like the fact that what Sinon’s doing depicts the opposite side of the “video games encourage real violence OH NOES!” worry. Instead of being made more violent by the game, Sinon is using the game as a form of therapy to gain a measure of control over the real-life violence she has experienced. Instead of being passively manipulated by the game, she is putting the game into a context that is useful to her, and that’s an angle of the video game violence debate that I never hear about; that the player isn’t necessarily a sponge who just soaks up whatever the game dishes out, but can take charge of how they process the game information, and taking charge in that way can allow for psychologically healthy experiences that are very difficult to replicate “in real life.” But that’s an issue for another day; today, I’m just pleased that an anime is tackling these topics at all.

7 thoughts on “Sword Art Online II, Ep. 3: Panic Room”

  1. I’ve experienced panic attacks before and I didn’t really have a problem with the portrayal of the actual attacks, except maybe the silly pop up zombie bit. What do you think of the implication that she will be “cured” if she wins the big tournament thing? That’s the part that seemed really dumb to me.

  2. I see it as something concrete for her to reach for, as opposed to “I’ll just keep playing this gun game until hopefully I’m less terrified.”

    Having specific goals makes it easier for her to persevere.

  3. Is it possible to have a panic attack and be calm about it because it’s normal? Calm might not be the right word, but like having your entire body panicking while your mind is calm, maybe it would be more accurate to say my mind was resolved to just let it happen and get it over with. I don’t really know how to describe it, but that kind of suffering was normal for me from the time I was born until I was essentially an adult. I would probably still have that problem if I hadn’t fixed the core issue.

    If that sounds like a panic attack then I’m intimately familiar with what panic attacks are. I don’t really have them anymore, but the core problem for me was a physical one and it’s been healed. I actually don’t have any problem talking about that core problem because it’s gone, but just thinking back on pain triggers is well… painful. I still HATE those things to a somewhat irrational degree. The more I think about it the more I realize some of those things do still trigger awful feelings. After watching the first episode of both Mysterious Girlfriend X and Panty and Stocking I started sweating like my entire body mass was trying to escape out through my skin and it was everything I could do just to keep from throwing up. I actually had to take a shower to make it stop in both cases. Is that a panic attack? I’m not sure, my heath was so poor when I was younger that suddenly feeling awful and getting sick was just normal. If it happens now I barely even think about it. I’ve no doubt that someday I will reenact Monty Python’s Black Knight without even realizing it just because pain is so easy for me to ignore.

    I can also say that the way I challenged those things is very similar to what I see Sinon doing.

    1. That’s an interesting question. I don’t think what you experienced is technically a panic attack, since your attacks had a physical cause. A panic attack is when the brain convinces the body that something is horribly wrong and you may very well die even when nothing is actually wrong; of course, physical responses (like pain) can trigger panic attacks which muddies the waters a little, but generally speaking, panic attacks are about the brain, not the body. If you were able to rationally, calmly think “This is what my body is doing because this is something I’m prone to,” it’s not a panic attack. Of course, I’m not a trained psychiatrist, so this is just based on what I’ve learned through my own treatment; I could be wrong.

      Also, it sounds like your experience has a lot in common with panic attacks, so saying that you haven’t “technically” had panic attacks may be splitting hairs a bit. Sounds like you’re “in the club,” even though that’s a horrible thing to say ^^;;. I’m glad to hear that you no longer suffer from these attacks.

      1. Well the physical cause was that the top bone of my spine, my Atlus, was twisted by 35 degrees. So it was cutting off a portion of the blood flow from my brain as well as making it so that my neck could barely move. I didn’t actually know that it was twisted until I was 17. Before that I just had a mysterious case of insomnia that doctors couldn’t fix.(doctors really don’t check for that) The attacks would generally happen because of extreme stress and result in me passing out to a near comma like state. I’m not sure if it would be accurate to call myself rational, but I was so tired that I wasn’t really panicked. It was a situation where I felt awful, but I knew that because I had reached that point of awful it was going to get better soon. On the occasions where I had been awake for 4 or 5 days I not only knew that It was coming, but welcomed it to a degree. I knew I wasn’t going to remember most of it anyway and the end result of having some rest was something I wanted pretty badly.

        Looking back there were a few times where I did completely panic. Actually a lot of those were in the first few years after my spine was healed. So I wonder if maybe they were panic attacks the entire time, but my brain was blood starved so they weren’t as bad? Or maybe they were just so much worse I wasn’t even able to tell how panicked I was. I do remember a few occasions where I had gone more than 4 or 5 days without sleep. The thing I was doing when I finally collapsed would become something I had a very hard time doing afterwards. At least if I could remember it. Part of why it’s hard for me to question if they were panic attacks or not is because extreme sleep deprivation also means memory loss. If I go by what you said then I think the few times where I didn’t fall asleep immediately after an attack were probably panic attacks. My rationality didn’t hold up on those occasions at all. I have some really weird memories from those. I’m not sure if the rest were panic attacks or not.

        On another note it’s kind of weird to be able to write about all that openly. When I was younger people didn’t really believe me when I told them I couldn’t sleep. Even the doctors who all agreed something was wrong acted like it might all really be my fault, or that maybe I had some strange version of autism. So I pretty much just never talk about it. Doctors really don’t like the part of my story where I mention that something 17 years of doctor visits couldn’t solve was fixed overnight by a chiropractor so I’m disinclined to talk to them about it. So yay, free therapy.

        1. Your explanation makes me wonder again at the complexity of mental health versus physical health. I used to be really ashamed of having panic attacks and would say things like ‘But it’s just in my mind, it’s not a real problem!” I don’t remember who it was, but someone said to me. “Yes, but your brain is an organ in your body. It has control of your other organs. It is a ‘real’ problem.”

          It was a revelation at the time. Mind=Brain, Brain=Organ, Organ=Physical…wow, I officially had a “real” problem, lol.

          In my case, mental health problems became physical problems like being unable to breath properly, stomach and chest pains, numbness in my limbs, etc. In your case, it sounds like you had the reverse; a distinct physical problem, but because it was affecting your consciousness, it obviously became a mental health problem as well. I wouldn’t go far as to say that drawing a line between mental health and physical health isn’t useful, but I think it’s not widely understood just how much overlap there is between the two.

          Also had a similar instance of doctors repeatedly failing to diagnose a problem, although in my case it was far less severe. I went through a period where my right hand ached a lot and I couldn’t draw, and several doctors told me it was nothing and would “heal up on its own,” or something. Eventually I somehow ended up in a physical therapist’s office, and he figured out it was tendonitis in a matter of seconds. I’m still confused why several doctors didn’t recognize what was apparently a textbook-classic case of tendonitis.

          1. I can definitely relate to that revelation. I thought it was a mental problem for the first 17 years of my life after all. The symptoms you are describing sounds very familiar, especially limb numbness. In a weird way it’s comforting to finally realize that my problem wasn’t all that special. My doctors treated it like it was the weirdest thing in the world and every symptom was a result of insomnia so not like any other problem seen before. At a certain point as a teen I just started acting like I was a bad ass who didn’t need sleep. I was very chuunibyou about it actually… I guess it’s a natural thing that I got into MMOs and made friends with other people who act like sleep is unnecessary.

            For a long time after my neck was healed I was really bitter about doctors, but now one of my sisters is a paramedic and she is always ranting about how incompetent those same doctors are whenever she has to deal with them. So now I realize it was probably just MY doctors and not all doctors. Have you seen Toradora? This same sister has a personality that is basically like Taiga… Any negative thoughts that enter her head either come out of her mouth or show on her face plain as day. She has no idea how much she has helped me cope with doctors just by listening to her rant about their incompetence. lol (also yes, my sister is living proof that people with personalities like Taiga actually exist in the real world.)

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