(L-R) Dr. Jacob Ham, comedian Darrell Hammond, documentary director/producer Michelle Esrick , and Road to Resilience podcast host Jon Earle, talk about the "mental injury" caused by toxic childhood stress, and ways to help trauma survivors gain resilience.
“It's almost as if my brain is doing military preparedness drills,” said Darrell Hammond, the venerable Saturday Night Live cast member as he describes his complex post-traumatic stress disorder, in a recent Road to Resilience podcast.
Hammond’s life of living as a trauma survivor — the addiction, depression, cutting, and other self-destructive behaviors as well as the self-doubt, confusion, despair, and agony — is explored in a new documentary film, Cracked Up, directed and produced by his friend and fellow trauma survivor, filmmaker Michelle Esrick.
Hammond and Esrick joined Dr. Jacob Ham on the monthly podcast series from Mount Sinai Health System hosted and produced by Jon Earle to talk about their experiences with toxic childhood stress. Ham (pronounced Hom) is a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“There's not a real war going on, but my brain is going to stay ready just in case somebody comes into the room with a hammer,” said Hammond, explaining the hyper-alert state he has stayed in throughout his life as the result of devastating childhood trauma he experienced at the hands of his parents in Melbourne, FL.
Hammond, Esrick and Ham talked about the long-term health effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), how to deal with triggers in daily life, and the ways loved ones can support survivors in their recovery. They also talked about how sharing these painful truths, and helping others understand how damaging childhood trauma is, bring opportunities to heal.
“We all either have our own trauma, or we know somebody with trauma. We’re just all connected to it,” Esrick said. “If you want to help somebody, listen with love and curiosity, and be willing to believe what’s being said, even if it’s hard or painful.”
“[Psychologists] still focus on big ‘T’ traumas — like combat and sexual violence — but it’s the day-to-day neglect that is most impactful on the person’s ability to have loving relationships and connection with other human beings,” explained Ham.
Hammond, a regular cast member for 14 seasons on Saturday Night Live, entertained millions with his spot-on impersonations of Bill Clinton, Sean Connery, and others. While preparing for scenes, and at other times, Hammond cut himself with razor blades to create a “manageable crisis.” He also abused drugs and alcohol to help cope with the pain of the memories and sense of terror.
Hammond started drinking to escape his pain while still a teenager, a point he makes in the documentary, and in his autobiography, God, If You’re Not Up There I’m F*cked. He was a repeat visitor to New York emergency rooms to receive treatment for cutting and other self harm. Over the course of his lifetime struggle with depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of complex PTSD, he was seen by more than 40 doctors. He was misdiagnosed for decades, and given medications for multiple psychiatric disorders.
The truth about his “mental illness” came when Hammond was in his 50s. He was finally correctly diagnosed by Dr. Nabil Kotbi at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York as a survivor of intense childhood trauma who had experienced "mental injury" as the result of the toxic stress hormones flooding his body as an infant, toddler, and child.
Having been on a path of recovery for many years led Hammond to ask, “How many people in AA, drug addicts and alcoholics — what percentage of them are trauma survivors?”
Esrick’s documentary Cracked Up reveals the lifelong effects of Hammond’s childhood trauma and addiction, and shares his heroic efforts to recover from an almost ever-present sense of terror prior to his being diagnosed by Dr. Kotbi in 2011.
The documentary includes extensive and deeply personal interviews with Hammond, as well as the insights on trauma from leading experts such as Dr. Nabil Kotbi and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.