Comedian Darrell Hammond is a long way from 30 Rockefeller Plaza—a long way from the bright lights of the New York City skyline, from yellow taxicabs jockeying for position outside the marquee, and from the flamboyant Donald Trump hairpiece he hung up almost two years ago after he stopped playing that role on Saturday Night Live.
So where is Hammond? He’s almost 1,200 miles south in Melbourne, Florida, clad in his trademark black trench coat and Yankees cap, looking for snakes in the overgrowth of a wooded, suburban backyard that sits adjacent to his childhood home. “Gimme that stick,” he deadpans to a cameraman. “Not like I don’t have any training at this. You can’t kill ’em with it. Just flip ’em and run.”
It’s one of the opening scenes from Cracked Up, a new documentary chronicling Hammond’s long struggle with the trauma he experienced at the hands of his severely abusive parents. An official selection at the 2018 DOC NYC film festival, it’s already gaining attention for the powerful way it spotlights the impact of early childhood trauma, even influencing legislation around the issue.
The clinical community, too, is singing its praises. “The world desperately needs to see this movie,” said trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk. “It tells it like it is, unflagging.” Renowned Buddhist teacher and psychologist Jack Kornfield has called it “brilliant.” A special screening and postfilm discussion with its director will be held at the Networker Symposium in March.
It’s surprising how well Hammond appears to be doing back in Melbourne, especially since it’s the first time he’s visited the rotting, cream-colored bungalow in nearly four decades. It’s a moment that’s as uplifting as it is haunting. After all, we’re witnessing Hammond make peace with a past that he’s been battling internally since he was a toddler.
He goes on to tell the story of waking up in the middle of the night as a child to see his father, a Korean War veteran, screaming and punching holes through the bedroom door. Sometimes, he’d storm through the halls with a baseball bat; sometimes, with a Luger pistol. Hammond recalls a perplexed emergency room doctor telling his mother when he was only six, “This child looks like he was hit by a battering ram! Why is your son bleeding on the inside of his stomach?” His mother shrugged. “I have no idea,” she replied. “I think he fell off his bike.”
“When the sun started to go down in the late afternoon, I was filled with foreboding,” Hammond recalls. “Everything was scary—the walls, the furniture, the rug, the very air was scary. Outside, the trees, the grass, the asphalt in the driveway, seemed alive and threatening.”
By age 17, Hammond was drinking heavily—too heavily to stand upright on the baseball field as he tried to play his favorite pastime. By 19, he’d begun cutting himself to fend off flashbacks and “create a manageable crisis,” as he calls it. What followed were years-long cycles of bungled attempts by psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and physicians to help him. Health clinic staff at the University of Florida, where he later enrolled, were baffled. “They looked at me like I was a unicorn, with a strange mixture of fear and pity,” he says. The attending clinician “had never seen a creature like me.”
Hammond’s symptoms, including heavy drug and alcohol abuse, continued to hound him well into his SNL career. In 2009, he attempted suicide for the first time by drinking “a Rubbermaid garbage can’s worth of absinthe” and sawing at his arm with a kitchen knife. Luckily, someone stopped him, and he was admitted to an inpatient treatment center. “I’d been feeling sort of like how a cow might feel standing in line for the slaughterhouse,” he says. “I knew that my death was coming, but I was just too tired to care.”
It’d be easy enough, half an hour into the film, to write off Cracked Up as simply a moving story about one man’s difficult journey through the mental health system. After all, Hammond says he saw nearly 40 mental health professionals over the course of his treatment, and was improperly diagnosed with everything from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. But as it unfolds, the depiction of his journey comes to reflect something larger. In the last few decades, an institutional shift has occurred in the psychotherapy field’s understanding of childhood trauma, and in its approach to treating it.
Shortly after his suicide attempt, Hammond checked into a treatment center in upstate New York, where he was assigned to psychiatrist Nabil Kotbi, a trauma expert. But rather than simply prescribe Hammond medication and send him on his way, Kotbi read his laundry list of diagnoses and said something to him that no other had said before: “You’re none of these things. You’re this way because something happened to you. You have a story that’s not diagnosed.”
For Hammond, hearing this was a turning point. Kotbi explained to him that what he had was a "mental injury, not a mental illness." In the field, this shift is based on the recognition that labels and diagnoses can be stigmatizing and traumatizing themselves. And it’s supported by extensive research, brought to public attention 24 years ago by the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which established that early childhood trauma is linked to a host of seemingly unrelated mental and physical health issues later in life, including obesity, insomnia, drug abuse, and trouble with impulse control, to name a few.
Many of today’s therapists will recognize the importance of reframing mental illness as mental injury, but what about nonclinicians? It certainly struck a chord with Michelle Esrick, Cracked Up’s director, who has grappled with trauma herself. Twenty years ago, she met Hammond on the recovery path, where they instantly hit it off and became close friends. Then, over lunch in upper Manhattan seven years ago, Hammond and Esrick were working together on a one-man play he’d been writing about his struggles, and how things shifted when he began to see them from this new perspective.
“It hit me hard,” Esrick recalls. “I’d seen therapists since I was 15, and I’d heard thousands of people’s stories throughout my own recovery. But hearing Darrell describe Kotbi's distinction between mental illness and mental injury, a wave of compassion came over me. I knew I had to let everyone know that trauma is a biological issue, not just an emotional one.”
Soon afterward, Esrick dove headfirst into as much literature on trauma as she could find, including the ACE Study and books by experts like Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk. As Vincent Felitti, the principal architect of the ACE Study told her, “We’ve been treating the smoke, not the fire, but it’s great how many therapists are becoming trauma informed.” She remembers thinking, “Everybody needs to know this!” A few months later, she returned to Hammond with an idea to turn his story into a documentary.
Bessel van der Kolk, who makes an appearance in the film, applauds its visceral portrayal of the havoc early childhood trauma can wreak later in life. “If you cannot tell the truth,” van der Kolk says, referring to early experiences of abuse, “you need to lock that reality away. It becomes a splinter in your mind, a splinter in your brain, a splinter in your soul that starts festering. When your reality is not allowed to be seen and to be known, that is the trauma.”
Van der Kolk is a passionate critic of mainstream psychiatry, which he believes has been both slow and often unwilling to grasp the role that family and other social forces play in fostering trauma. “Psychiatry doesn’t do public health interventions,” he explains. “When you go to a psychiatrist and they label you with a disorder, hand you a prescription, and ignore the fact that you’re dealing with the legacy of brutalization, you’re not going to get better.”
Convinced that her documentary was confronting a large-scale problem, Esrick has made it her mission to give it the widest possible exposure. Late last September, she and Hammond traveled to Washington, DC, where they met with members of Congress who were deliberating a bill known as the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act—or the SUPPORT Act, for short. They shared their stories with senators, told them about the link between ACEs and substance abuse, and lobbied hard to get the bill political support.
Nearly a month later, the bill was signed into law, with nine provisions added to support trauma-informed care, especially for substance abuse treatment. One mandates that the Department of Health and Human Services provide better resources to professionals working with young children in households where a family member abuses drugs or alcohol—one of the key predictors of later-life mental health issues, according to the ACE Study.
For Esrick, the bill’s passage had deep personal significance. “As a recovering addict of 34 years,” she says, “I’m grateful that people will receive trauma-informed care while in treatment, as we now know trauma is at the root of all addictions.”
As for Hammond, as he retells his story and retraces his steps in the documentary, some viewers may get the sense that he’s a reluctantly obliging subject. His voice is often monotone, his brow furrowed, his lips pursed into a slight frown. He looks perpetually focused, as if he’s carefully dissecting some important piece of information. Or maybe, he’s just weary. After all, van der Kolk says, “Forgiving yourself for all the ways you’ve tried to survive . . . that’s a big job.”
In one of the film’s later scenes, Hammond lies flat on his back in a yoga studio, surrounded by candles, a black hoodie pulled over his head. He’s been coming here to do yoga—to ward off the continual echoes of trauma, to help him sleep. An instructor gently presses on his back. “I love how you’re directing that breath,” she says comfortingly. Hammond sits upright and brings his palms together, as if in prayer. “Namaste,” the yoga instructor says. Hammond looks into the camera. “What does that mean?” he asks. “The divine in me salutes the divine in you.” He flashes a sly smile. “Do you think there is such a place?”
Part of Hammond’s healing journey means taking a step back in time to share his story. We watch as he strolls, postrecovery, through the halls of SNL headquarters and trades jokes with the makeup artists. He meets again with Kotbi, the man who helped him reframe his trauma and get back on his feet. He visits his hometown baseball field and effortlessly lobs a ball back and forth with an old childhood friend. When they take a seat on the bleachers and the friend reveals that he confronted Hammond’s parents in 2011, when news broke about the abuse they'd inflicted on him, Hammond takes a drag from his cigarette, seemingly unaffected. For him, this apparent calmness—“just being,” as he calls it—is progress enough.
In one of the film’s final scenes, Hammond walks through the hallways of his childhood home, into the kitchen. He points to the drawer where his mother kept the knives, and to the light socket where she used to insert his fingers. Then, he pauses for a moment. “You know, I prepared for 40 years to stand in this room again,” he remarks. “Walking back into it under these conditions is about the most empowering thing you can think of. . . . I’m hobbled significantly. I’ve got a limp. I have these frailties. But I won.”
Outside, in the balmy Florida weather, Hammond begins to walk down the cracked asphalt road. He chuckles, then turns around to give his old home one last wave goodbye. “Just a house,” he says. “Now, it’s just a house.”
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PHOTO © CRACKED UP/HEALING FROM TRAUMA FILM
CategoriesTherapy in the Media The Larger Conversation Addiction Anxiety & Depression Kids & Teens Society & Culture Trauma
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