PTSD from child abuse as explored in Cracked Up: The Darrell Hammond Story
As an adult who suffers with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the road has not been easy. One thing that has helped tremendously in my therapy has been to look to those in the spotlight who handle their PTSD well.
One such outspoken advocate happens to be Darrell Hammond. (Yes, that Darrell Hammond.)
The Hard Road to Recovery
As an actor, comedian, and Saturday Night Live mainstay, Darrell seems to have a life that many people simply dream of. He has performed for and been applauded by millions of faithful fans, including several sitting US Presidents. But in his Netflix documentary, Cracked Up: The Darrell Hammond Story, Darrell revisits the hard road behind the scenes of his success and concurrent PTSD recovery, showing that life is not always what it seems, especially on screen.
Darrell grew up in a suburban Florida city. His mother took the family to church every Sunday, and his father was a decorated war veteran turned local sports coach. To most, his upbringing was seemingly normal, but Darrell recounts the effects of his hidden childhood trauma that eventually lead to an adulthood of struggles related to untreated PTSD.
“I used to think if I could teach myself how to cry, then people that wanted to hurt me wouldn’t hurt me because it would take the fun out of it for them,” Darrell recalls from his early childhood memories. He also recalls having a drinking problem at age 17.
Upon entering college, Darrell’s anxiety was interfering with his daily life. He visited the university clinic and was told that he could not be helped there.
“It was the first time a healthcare professional would stare at me with that strange mixture of fear and pity,” Darrel recounts. “She had never seen a creature like me.” Like many others struggling with their mental health, he turned to self-harm and self-medicating as a means to survive the cruel and inescapable anxiety that affected his daily life.
Darrell continues: “I began having flashbacks when I was 19. This odd image produced a terror in me and the terror would only stop if I cut my wrist. It basically creates a more manageable crisis. I’ve got to attend this blood and the other image will go away.”
Diagnosed as Manic Depressive and Schizophrenic
Darrell continued to struggle with his mental health into his adulthood. At 27, his then psychiatrist diagnosed his as manic depressive and schizophrenic, recommending medication and a psychiatric hospital stay. While Darrell was in and out of treatment programs, he practiced his impressions and comedy. Even in the throes of his internal war, Darrell worked his way through comedy clubs to a regular spot on the most prestigious sketch comedy show of all time: Saturday Night Live.
However, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder still gravely affected Darrell’s life. He continued to struggle with anxiety and alcoholism. One night, during a sketch on SNL that required him to impersonate his own mother, Darrell was triggered by seeing himself in her likeness in mirror.
“I just threw up and started to have a heart attack,” he recalls, being rushed to the infirmary with a heart rate of around 200. “I think my brain was saying rather than become her, I think we’ll just pull the plug on the whole thing.” What happened to Darrell could be described as a panic attack caused by a trigger; but Darrell was not diagnosed with PTSD this time either. A new doctor labeled him as having multiple personalities and Darrell tried over a dozen psychiatric drugs over the next several years to treat his latest diagnosis.
Struggles To Work
Despite medical intervention, Darrell was still struggling to work. He describes being triggered by something as simple as the way someone knocked on his door at work, using their palm instead of their knuckles, creating a thumping sound rather than a sharp knock. Darrell describes his triggers as a thumping red flash of light in his mind, later revealed to be a memory of a hibiscus bush thumping against the window of his childhood home where he was repeatedly and brutally abused. He details “over the years, as the flash got more intense, because I was getting closer to the truth, cuts got larger and deeper” as he continued to turn to self harm to cope with his triggers.
Darrell later had what was described in an interview with Howard Stern as “a complete mental collapse.” During a rehearsal at SNL, he became “disoriented and didn’t recognize the people in the room,” prompting him to have to leave the workplace in a straitjacket.
Problems at Saturday Night Live
Creator of SNL Lorne Michaels and Darrell’s boss at the time describes his perspective of Darrell’s mental health struggles. “The parts in Darrell that are fragile, it is my job to protect… when he was cutting himself I was very concerned because I didn’t understand it, but when you get into it, you realize people hurt themselves in different ways.”
Darrell’s self-inflicted wounds were visible to millions of viewers on live television every week through his work on SNL. The irony of his success at making others laugh while he struggled so greatly with his own happiness is not lost on Darrell.
“Here’s this crazy guy that has been in all these nuthouses,” he jokes. “He’s opened your show [SNL] more times than anyone. The most important turf in comedy, you’re entrusting to this crazy person?”
Lorne said he thought the pressure and excitement of live television calmed Darrel down somehow.
In Lorne’s view: “I think there’s a certain group of us that only feel alive when standing on knifepoint. The level of focus that’s required from that can bring some people up and tears other people apart. In sports, they’d call him a big game player.”
Lorne responds to questions of Darrell’s ability to perform with respect and admiration for his employee and friend.
“I won awards that Walter Cronkite won,” Darrell says. “I won those awards with cuts on my arms, some of them fresh, because I would start to have these flashbacks.”
A Daughter’s Love
Another influential person in Darrell’s recovery was his daughter. “The love of my daughter and the time I spent with her was making me feel things that other people felt,” he says. “I could leave her and be in a good mood. I had never felt anything akin to pure love. In some ways, it was almost scary.”
Unfortunately, the support of loved ones is not always enough to cure people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Darrell continued to struggle with alcohol early in his daughter’s life.
“The worst thing that ever happened to me was seeing fear in my daughter’s eyes,” he recalls. “I hugged her and I was drinking and she saw it for the first time and didn’t recognize the speech pattern, didn’t understand the smell. I saw fear in her eyes where I had only seen trust and happiness and that dropped me.”
Darrell saw that he was risking traumatizing his daughter with his own untreated trauma, similarly to what had happened to him with his parents. He became determined to protect his daughter from his own trauma by any means necessary.
In 2009, Darrell left SNL and, while drinking, cut himself in order to commit suicide, for the first and only time in his life.
“For a while now, I had been feeling sort of like a cow might feel standing in line at a slaughterhouse,” he says. “Like I knew that my death was coming. I knew what was coming. I was just too tired to care.”
Darrell survived the suicide attempt and sought treatment at a new facility with a top mental health care provider, Dr. Nabil Kotbi. “My brain is broken,” Darrell told him.
“You have a story that’s not diagnosed,” Dr. Kotbi replied.
Finding the Right Mental Health Care Provider
Dr. Kotbi describes his attachment, care, and respect for Darrel as being critical to Darrell’s care and recovery. He decided to treat Darrell “from scratch,” remaining skeptical about the previous treatment plans that still managed to lead to Darrell’s suicide attempt. Dr. Kotbi later laughed at the historical diagnoses of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality, and multiple personalities. “Let’s face it. You are a nut,” he joked to Darrell because Darrell had none of these illnesses.
After nine psychiatric hospital stays, five detoxes, 90 days of intensive care with Dr. Kotbi, and decades of struggle, Darrell finally had his fitting diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his childhood trauma.
“Childhood trauma changes the wiring of the brain,” Dr. Kotbi says. “Think of someone who has been abused by someone who was supposed to protect them. The logic is gone. Your brain tries to create a new identity to sort of be able to tolerate that insult to the brain and what it manifests is depression, insomnia, irritability, the inability to forge sustainable relationships…” These symptoms can be all too familiar to those struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Dr. Kotbi goes on to describe how childhood trauma further impacts your quality of life. “You start to self medicate. Alcohol is one. It’s legal but then… you go to uppers because you have to go to work and then you go to downers and then you go to opiates.”
This cycle of self-medication is indicative of substance abuse and addiction disorders, but it is often just a manifestation of a deeper issue in trauma survivors.
Trauma Victims Blame Themselves
“One of the worst things that I’ve seen in trauma victims is that they blame themselves,” Dr. Kotbi describes. “They learn to know that they are bad because why else would they be abused by their protectors? They must’ve done something wrong.” This internalized guilt and shame is often the pain that those who self-medicate are trying to heal.
Darrell recalls the traumatic events of his childhood, including his dad punching holes in doors, brandishing guns around the house, and waking up screaming from nightmares caused by his time in the military. Darrell was also physically abused by his mother. She would shock, stab, and hit young Darrell, going so far as to cause internal bleeding when he was as young as seven.
“I was really just a trauma survivor but I didn’t know that,” Darrell says about receiving his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis. “Play any operatic music you want for that moment in your life. You waited your whole life to hear that.”
Darrell unconsciously fought, like many trauma survivors do, to repress the memories of his abuse, until one day he was triggered by his mother’s offer to babysit his young daughter. Darrell had a panic attack at the thought, rocked by flashbacks of his mom hitting him with a hammer, slamming his hands in doorways, and once shoving his hand in an exposed electrical socket.
“My soul knew all along what my mind would not let itself know or let me know,” Darrell says. “The mind is a miraculous creation… I didn’t know until my child’s life was on the line. Not till then did the part of me where God lives rear up… It’s the brain’s brilliant response to things it can’t handle.”
Uncovering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Through Therapy
Darrell describes another instance of abuse that caused him to have flashbacks.
“I am four or five years old and my mother is holding me close. In her free hand, she holds a serrated steak knife. We both acted like something else was occurring.” She spoke in a “sweet, motherly, musical tone.” She asked him to stick out his tongue and be quiet, then she stabbed his tongue with the knife. He still has a scar on his tongue from the incident, which left him unable to chew food for several days. He also recalls vomiting later from the amount of blood he swallowed from the wound.
Darrell recovered from the incident under the care of his grandparents and his mother was out of the home for a while after the stabbing. When she returned, Darrel described her as “only contained.”
“She had to reroute all of her dark energies,” he says. “She just went about being destructive in a different way.”
The abuse was ongoing partly because it was hidden, even inside the family unit. “No one in my family ever talked about what happened,” Darrell says. “The whole idea that someone does these terrible things to you and expects you not to tell, they just expect it, is astonishing. I’ve said and will always say the worst crime is being expected not to tell. When someone is abusing someone, torturing them, or raping them, they want the person they’re doing it to act like something else is occurring.”
Disbelief of the Trauma
One of Darrell’s childhood friends states “I thought he was making it up,” in regards to how carefully the abuse was hidden. Darrell expressed his own disbelief of the trauma, at times to his medical team, to which his own doctors replied that healthy children from healthy homes don’t make up those sorts of stories about their parents. But even his closest friend never saw it and never even suspected it. Why not?
“Why would you see it?” Darrel posits. “It’s not something that’s going to happen in front of you or anybody else. People that do stuff like that coach Little League, teach school, volunteer as Gray Ladies, know the Bible. They do all these things, you know? They even cry. And then they have this thing that they have to do to balance themselves out. And that was her,” tying the example back to own his abusive mother.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, psychiatrist and author of “The Body Keeps The Score” describes how this specific secretive aspect of child abuse manifests in those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“If you cannot tell the truth, you need to lock that reality away and that reality starts festering inside of you.” Van Der Kolk explains. “It becomes what Freud described as a splinter in your mind, a splinter in your brain, a splinter in your soul, that starts festering. So anything that cannot be spoken becomes an internal danger to yourself. Your reality is not allowed to be seen or to be known. That is trauma.”
This trauma is what leads to flashbacks, which Dr. Van Der Kolk describes as “when people have a memory of trauma, they see the face of a person, they smell the smell of the rapist, they feel the horrifying feelings in their body. It’s an undigested memory.” Flashbacks in those with PTSD can lead to panic attacks, insomnia, nightmares, self-harming episodes, and more.
Van Der Kolk also describes how this cycle of being triggered, self-medicating, and then trying to avoid being triggered again wears on the physical body.
“The natural part of the body that deals with the immune system start to break down… Your body is in a constant state of agitation… You hate your body and you hate what happens to your body… You don’t care about yourself because nobody cares about you so you don’t take care of yourself… This is largely reducible to child abuse.”
As a part of his treatment, Darrell once received a scan of his brain activity, which showed his right hemisphere as highly active and his left as lacking. His doctor told him that the area of the brain with low activity “is the side of your brain that is for logic, perspective, and organization”. Showing how the child abuse had physically affected Darrell’s brain development and its function now even in his adulthood.
Reconnecting With Physical Health
Darrell describes himself as having alcoholic, psychical, and emotional trauma that has worn on his body. Reconnecting with and better caring for his physical health has helped his mental health.
“Apparently, the issues are in the tissues,” Darrell says. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry that ever did you wrong is still in your system.” Darrel turns to yoga to work out some of these issues, such as trouble sleeping. Regular yoga practice has allowed Darrell to get restful sleep 5 out of 7 nights a week, which he describes as “a miracle” after suffering from anxiety-induced insomnia.
Dr. Van Der Kolk’s theories coincide with this approach:
“We know how to treat trauma,” he says. “It’s not like we have no alternatives [to] drugs. By doing things like yoga and mindfulness meditation, we can actually rewire the brain. Engaging your own body is an absolutely necessary part of healing. You cannot be passive and sit in a chair and not take care of your body and truly heal from trauma.”
For those of us with physical disabilities, the rule to care for your physical body as best you can still apply. Van Der Kolk says “There is no one answer. Everybody needs to discover what the answer is for them and what the right method is for them.”
Darrell still struggles with difficult emotions from his abuse-induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For example, he becomes angry when he is interrupted while sharing his abuse experiences, claiming “all I have is my story” and “these are hard stories to tell.”
He feels like his story is not important at times. “No story, take your top off,” he jokes, noting that some people do not want to hear about his experience, they just want his performance.
Darrell describes the triggers of his anger and how it feels to come down from them now.
“To have something happen where I think you’ve disrespected me devastates [me],” he says. “Then I realize… the world isn’t ending? You mean I’m not dying? I’m not getting killed? Oh, all right, let’s talk. Let’s talk about it.”
An important message from one of Darrell’s doctors helps him keep his recovery in perspective. “Mental illness is not an airborne virus,” his doctor would say. “I don’t really even want you to say mental illness. I want you to say mental injury. Let’s tell the whole story. You’re not this way by accident.”
Darrell Offers Advice
Darrell reflects on how the trauma affected his daily life and his life as a whole, what he lost due to his trauma, and how remaining dedicated to his recovery has changed things for him:
“I never got to love a woman in a normal way. Sleep was impossible for me because I woke up screaming and there were nightmares. I was a food addict so I couldn’t eat food. So I couldn’t eat food, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t love… On a really deep level, I’m not that happy with the way things have turned out sometimes, the tragedy of my life… but I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I lost relationships with people because I didn’t know how to do them. Of all the things on this earth that I’m not gonna be good at it, it’s going to be trying to love someone or live with someone.”
Darrell also offers his own advice on PTSD recovery:
“I think it’s important to see a qualified trauma therapist, treating trauma as opposed to other, maybe less serious, conditions. It doesn’t hurt that I am on a patch of road where I haven’t been doing these alcoholic reenactments three-day binges in which I clear everybody out of my life and leave theirs. What I work for is symptom-free, where you don’t feel paranoid or frightened or ill or unsafe or greedy or any need to be dishonest or cheat or do anything aberrant. You’re just being maybe having a hamburger or something, you know, symptom-free.”
PTSD can be overcome but usually requires lifelong treatment or lifestyle changes that suit the specific survivor’s needs.
“Trauma is a condition that isn’t as bad as it used to be because it’s been treated effectively but it has to keep being treated,” Darrel shares. “It’s that kind of condition. You know when you say something is symptomatic, progressive, or fatal, you’re talking about a number of illnesses that kill, effectively… and trauma is one [of them].” Untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is never the answer.
Darrell describes his hard-won life now as standing on his own but “hobbled significantly.” He says “I have these frailties because of it but I won.” Revisiting his childhood home where the abuse took place and recounting the event of his mother stabbing him, Darrell says he felt empowered, rather than triggered, to stand strong in the place of his childhood trauma. “It’s just a house,” he says. “Now, it’s just a house.”
Darrell’s dad apologized on his death bed for the abuse Darrell suffered as a child. His mother did not apologize for the abuse, instead of replying “he’s dead to me” when questioned about her son’s allegations.
Standing on His Own
Darrell describes a dream he once had of his mother when she was a child, a message from his subconscious which helped him realize the humanity in his abuser.
“She was that little girl… helpless, being tortured and beaten, being turned into an animal. A pure human being before someone ever did to her what she did to me.”
Often, those who abuse children were abused as children themselves, and this violence is another product of the cycle of trauma that survivors must strive to break. As we imagine our abusers as the child victims they likely once were, we can begin to explore the concept of forgiveness.
Dr. Van Der Kolk describes the role forgiveness can play in trauma recovery and advises that survivors turn their forgiveness inward first and foremost: “Trauma is usually about a victim trying to make amends for a perpetrator. The most important thing is forgiveness of yourself for having been as vulnerable, as scared, as angry, as frozen as you were, and forgiving yourself for all the ways you’ve tried to survive. Just take care of that. Just learn to forgive yourself for all the things you have done in order to survive. That’s a big job.”
Forgiving yourself for your response to trauma can help eliminate the shame that leads to self harm and self medication.
“You get hit by a car, you’re not ashamed,” Darrell says. “You’re struggling mentally and you get ashamed. It’s silly, you know? Something happened to me. I’m not ashamed of it.”
Darrell acknowledges the love and support of his friends, family, and colleagues. The age-old message broadcast to survivors of trauma and mental injury of “You are not alone” is true.
“You overcame stuff too, you know?” Darrell acknowledges his friend Whoopi Goldberg’s own struggles while on break from filming the documentary.
“What choice do we have?” Whoopi laughs as she hugs Darrell in solidarity. “It’s either you’re dead or you’re not. If you don’t feel like being dead, you have to get your shit together.”
Darrell’s Life Today
Today, Darrell finds his greatest fulfillment not in sitting with Presidents or winning television awards, but by advocating for abused children and educating adults on how to spot and save children that may be in dangerous situations. He is a motivational speaker by sharing his story, he continuously helps those suffering from PTSD related to childhood trauma.
You can watch Darrell Hammond’s documentary on Netflix or read his story in more detail in his book “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem.”
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