The Long Arm of Childhood Trauma

Date Published: April 24, 2019

A regular cast member for 14 seasons on Saturday Night Live, Darrell Hammond entertained millions with his spot-on impersonations of Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Sean Connery, and others. But behind the scenes, he endured debilitating flashbacks, substance abuse, and self-harm. Misdiagnosed and medicated for decades, it wasn’t until Mr. Hammond was in his 50s that he finally received the correct diagnosis: childhood trauma.

Mr. Hammond and filmmaker Michelle Esrick sit down with Jacob Ham, PhD, a clinical psychologist and Director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, to discuss childhood trauma, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and healing. They talk about the long-term health effects of childhood trauma, how to deal with triggers in daily life, and the ways loved ones can support survivors.

Mr. Hammond’s experience with trauma, addiction, and recovery is explored in a new documentary film, Cracked Up, directed and produced by Ms. Esrick.

Podcast Transcript

Host: 00:00
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Comedian Darrell Hammond was a regular cast member on Saturday Night Live for 14 seasons. His spot-on impressions of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Sean Connery and many others made millions laugh, but behind the scenes Darrell was suffering. Drug and alcohol abuse, debilitating flashbacks and self-harm were just a few of his symptoms. Forty doctors over 40 years misdiagnosed him with a range of mental illnesses, but it was only after a suicide attempt in his early 50s that he was diagnosed with the true source of his symptoms: childhood trauma. Darrell's journey of survival and resilience is explored in a new documentary film about the long-term effects of childhood trauma called "Cracked Up." It's directed and produced by Michelle Esrick, who's also a trauma survivor. Here's a clip from the trailer.

Darrell Hammond: 00:56
[FILM CLIP] A psychiatrist, I think it was number 11, said that I was a manic depressive, schizophrenic and I might be a multiple personality. Nine psychiatric facilities including lockdown. Well I'll just give him these pills. He goes, "Well, let's face it you are a nut." He made me laugh. He's like, "I'm joking with you because you're not any of these things. You are this way because of something that happened to you."

Host: 01:24
Today on the podcast, an honest conversation about trauma, complex PTSD and healing featuring Darrell Hammond, director Michelle Esrick and psychologist Dr. Jacob Ham. Dr. Ham is Director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Now, to be clear, he's not Darrell's doctor. He's a specialist who agreed to help us facilitate this conversation. Darrell, Michelle and Dr. Ham talk about trauma on the granular level, what it feels like, how to conceptualize it, how to tackle it every day, and how to support the survivors in all of our lives. One more thing before we start. In the recording, Darrell references a Dr. Kotbi, that's Dr. Nabil Kotbi of Weill Cornell Medicine, the one who changed Darrell's life when he correctly diagnosed him with childhood trauma.

We begin our conversation by talking about the long term health effects of childhood trauma. Studies have linked adverse childhood experiences or ACEs with a wide range of adult ailments. Some you might expect, like substance abuse while others like cancer and even heart disease, you might not. Darrell, can you talk about the ways that childhood trauma affected you as an adult?

Darrell Hammond: 02:37
Cutting, was a lifetime cutter. I started actually cutting when I was 19 and I cut until about the age of 50, I'm gonna say 53 maybe?

Michelle Esrick: 02:58
And other symptoms, you had flashbacks and alcoholism.

Darrell Hammond: 03:00
Oh, we haven't even started with that.

Michelle Esrick: 03:03

Darrell Hammond: 03:04
I mean night terrors and screaming at night and cutting yourself is the tip of the iceberg.

Host: 03:09
There's a quote where you say, the last person that's going to be good at loving someone is going to be me.

Darrell Hammond: 03:18
Yeah, that'd be about right. It's going to be really hard for me. I mean, if the person that nature designed to love you has made concerted movements towards, if not killing you, certainly torturing you. I'm gonna come up a little wonky, a little wobbly in love relationships. Right?

Host: 03:41
Jacob, I was wondering whether you could offer—

Darrell Hammond: 03:43
The last thing and then I'll shut up. I want to hear about people in AA, and people, the drug addicts and alcoholics and the percentage of them that are trauma survivors. That's all. I'm done. Sir.

Host: 04:02
Yeah, some of your experience and the relationship between trauma and relationships that you've come across as a clinician?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 04:11
I wish I could give you the stats for how many people, I assume all of them. I assume that there's way more trauma than we are documenting. When I was listening to your answer about the symptoms, I don't think that captures the nature of what trauma does to a person as an adult. I feel like that the list of symptoms immediately makes us devoid of what it's like. Like it immediately makes us not get the experience of living with trauma. What I personally think the essence of what trauma does to a person is it just makes them feel like they don't deserve love. That's such a profound injury and we can't bypass how painful that is. Why would you not kill yourself if you don't feel like the person who's supposed to love you unconditionally doesn't? What's the point of being alive if you can't be loved by that one person that?

Darrell Hammond: 05:10
That nails it.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 05:11

Darrell Hammond: 05:12
That nails it.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 05:12
And I think that the field still focuses too much on big "T" traumas like physical abuse or sexual abuse, but it's the day to day neglect that I find to be the most insidious and the most profound, and the most impactful on a person's ability to have a loving relationship with another adult as human being. You don't need the other stuff that's just gravy compared to the neglect.

Darrell Hammond: 05:39
Yeah. That's already atomic.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 05:40
Yeah, exactly.

Darrell Hammond: 05:43
That's just going to change everything that ever happens to you for the rest of your life.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 05:47
Yeah. That's my point. That the trauma happens moment to moment.

Darrell Hammond: 05:51
Moment to moment.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 05:51
It's not just these big events.

Michelle Esrick: 05:54
A thousand moments. A million moments. Moment to moment. I think the moment to moment is really brilliant.

Darrell Hammond: 06:00

Michelle Esrick: 06:00
Yeah. Because everybody wants to focus on Darrell's mother, which is obvious, but nobody that we talked to ever wants to mention the effects from his father. And I remember we did a radio show, I won't mention which one and the person interviewing us said, well, he didn't hit him? So the father didn't, in his mind the father didn't do anything because he didn't hit him. Well, he was punching holes in Darrell's bedroom door when he was a little baby sleeping. What kind of effect would that have on your system? He was on the road. He wasn't attuned to what the mother was doing to Darrell. So that's the point that I'm so glad you started with ACEs, Jon, because, because if we look at the questionnaire, which is 10 questions, it is, did your parents have alcoholism? You know, his dad was an alcoholic. Did one of your parents have mental illness? Did one of your parents commit suicide? Is one of your parents in prison? And now they're adding other questions. Do you live in extreme poverty?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 07:10
Yeah, I was immediately starting to come up with a list of my own ACE questions. So it'd be like, when you were tiny, did anyone scare the s**t out of you? Or did anyone make you feel like you didn't have a right to have a need or that, that you weren't worth anything? Those are the kinds of questions that really get at the heart of what it feels like to grow up with trauma.

Michelle Esrick: 07:36
Yes. Yes. And I remember when I interviewed Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk who's in the film, and I asked him what's the definition of trauma? And I thought he was going to say, when you're hit this many times or when you're sexually abused this many times. And he said, when you are not seen or known, that is the trauma. That's it. When you're not seen or known.

Darrell Hammond: 08:04
Well, I had that, this is in the '50s, '60s, have a housekeeper who did love me and who touched me every single day. And that's why they say I didn't turn out to be a criminal.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 08:21
That's exactly right.

Host: 08:24
Can you tell the story of seeing Dr. Kotbi for the first time and coming to recognize that this lifetime of symptoms traced back to something that you didn't even consciously remember at that time?

Darrell Hammond: 08:37
Well, this same thing about when I was at Sierra Tucson last year, I learned so much about quote unquote "repressed memory," and I was told to think of it as like icons on a computer screen that we just quite haven't opened. Or in my case, my hands being slammed in doors, me being locked in the car in the Florida sunshine, me being hit with a hammer was my fault. Because my infant mind had to decide one of two things—either I'm loved or I'm not. So I cannot—I'll die if I even think for a moment that I'm not loved. I'll die. I'm gonna make up this story. It's preferable.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 09:27
The way I understand it is that your child self says, "Mommy, don't leave. I'm bad you're right, I deserve this, let me be on your team and I'm a bad boy, look, I'm going to start hitting myself to show you I'm on your side."

Darrell Hammond: 09:42
Damn, that's smart. Yeah, that's really smart.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 09:50
It's a protective thing you did to start to hate yourself is protective. That way the world doesn't hate you. Like you do it for them. It's safer.

Darrell Hammond: 09:58
Wow. You know, my first day of school as a five year old after Myrtis our housekeeper left, the first thing I did when I got to school was taking care of business. For other kids that may be getting a juice box and going to the playground. For me was I had, I walked up to someone and asked him if he'd like to hit me.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 10:20
Oh, my God.

Darrell Hammond: 10:21
So that's the first order of business. "Do you want to hit me?" Because in my world, the only time my mother was nice was after she hit me or electrocuted me or did something to me. That's the only time she was like loving to me. The rest of the time, she wasn't even there. And everyone says, maybe that's Munchausen by proxy or whatever. Whatever her thing was. That's how I thought you got love first they have to beat you, or stab you, or cut you and then they will rescue you.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 10:56
Wow. The clinical diagnosis for that is a mindf**k. Basically that's how I describe it to my patients. Like how do you live with that? How confusing is that that you have to be hurt to be loved?

Darrell Hammond: 11:15
Yeah. I feel like there must've been some part of me that said, "One of these days I'm going to be an adult and that's when I'm planning for. And then you're going to pay for this. You will pay for this." You know? And I remember, I had one therapist that said, you're thinking about doing harm to your parents. And I didn't actually understand that I really was! And then my daughter was born and I was like, "Oh, well I can't do it now." I mean, I can't be in jail and feed this baby, so my lifetime project. I just watched a show called "The Last Kingdom" and it's a lot about vikings, and the vikings talk about the pride and the glory and the sort of spirituality and spiritual value of killing your transgressor, getting that revenge, not really understanding that in our society, even the idea that revenge is a good solution is a trap. I believe.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 12:28
It's not the end goal. I find that I have to, it depends on the type of person that's with me. But I do find that I have to help people claim the power of anger even if they don't act on it. To have a stance of saying, "I don't deserve this ever again." It's such an important stance to be able to take and that way you don't let anyone else in your life mistreat you. And then once you're at that anger stage, then you have to melt that and go into the grief stage of what you've lost through the injury and the hurt that you've experienced.

Darrell Hammond: 13:03
It's interesting that when they died that was first a grief and then an anger like, "Hey! Have I been holding onto the fantasy all these years that I was going to get a do over with my childhood? I thought you guys were finally going to come around—you with a hammer in your hand and you with a German Luger in your hand." You know?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 13:27
Wait you felt you moved from grief to anger?

Darrell Hammond: 13:31
I got angry because I thought, "Hey! I didn't get a childhood."

Dr. Jacob Ham: 13:36

Darrell Hammond: 13:38
I guess I was sort of clinging to this ridiculous notion, but you know, one of the smartest things that anyone has ever said to me like the, the casualty of war here, the symptom of the complex PTSD that I have had is the killing of the truth. Dr. Kotbi said to me, you know, "You're really here because you don't know how to tell yourself the truth. Because something happened to you when you were small that if you knew how to tell yourself the truth, you would a died." Growing up in my house, the thing that would kill you first before the knife was the truth. There was none of that. That was the end of the world. Apocalyptic doom. Never tell the truth here and let awful things happen that we don't remark on. We all know you're doing something to Darrell and we all know you're doing something to his sister, but we're not going to talk about that. What a remarkable place.

You know, I mean, my father with a German Luger in his hand talking about how he got that Luger in the first place. Just that night alone should have sent me to the nuthouse, you know? Being a little boy going, "Wait, you said what to him before you killed him? Dad?" Right? And you know, when my father said on his deathbed, his last words: "I let my anger be more important to me than my children. There was nothing as important to me. It was the only thing that was important to me."

Dr. Jacob Ham: 15:28
That's amazing that he said that.

Darrell Hammond: 15:29

Dr. Jacob Ham: 15:32
You know, as I was listening to you as deeply as I could just now, I was listening to the way you moved, like when you first had anger from grief to anger, the word that I thought of that gives more nuance to your anger was more "outrage." Like, I didn't get my childhood. And if you are in therapy with me, I would be like, "Stop, stop, stop! No, no further than this." And it's like I discovered ember in like a smoldering pit, and this is the thing that I want to cultivate. You still want whatever childhood represents—joy, simplicity, unadulterated, like engagement with life and being surrounded by love. And I would want to nurse that ember and cultivate that into like a goal for you. And then what happened was that you said that very fleetingly, and then it turned into the indignation and the, like, "This is how, this is—I'm still mad, and this is all the bad things that happened."

This is the tricky thing about trauma. People get stuck on the anger plane and only see the bad things in the world and they want to just fight all the bad things, but then they never learn to cultivate the aspirational things. Like, how do I reclaim a childhood? Even though they're gone, you're still here and you can have childhood in so many different ways. And with your own child or with other people who are childlike.

Darrell Hammond: 16:57
Yeah, it seemed like the central thing—Michelle knows me better than I know myself, I think and—the central thing for me was, and now we've identified that mental illness is not an airborne virus that it comes from somewhere very specific. And in your case it came from this. Here's what happened. I mean, all the gyrations and the masterful work this man had to produce just to get to the truth. Now we've got it. You're this way because of something that happened to you. Well, what do we do with that titanic rage?

We had to move on to—What is forgiveness and can you get, can you get some, you know, forgiveness not being for them but for me. Forgiveness not meaning "I approve of you and I love you." Forgiveness really for me was letting go, setting sail, cutting that ship rope, so to speak. And in order to do that, we had to consider the preposterous notion that monsters are not born, they're made. That most of the monsters you hear about were victims! And then get into the case of my mom. What must have happened? I think he said something like, you know, there's nothing more, something about healing for that sort of murderous rage than a little sympathy for the devil. If you can just feel it for a heartbeat. But God knows this is all heady stuff.

Michelle Esrick: 18:33
But also it makes sense when instead of it just being about me and believing I'm bad and that's why my parents did this to me, to have a moment where I see what happened to them and there is an actual reason why they are acting this way, which had nothing to do with me, just for that split second. That little space there.

Darrell Hammond: 18:54
Just for a split second and suddenly—I've been living in terror my whole life and just that in my case I had a dream and then during the dream, but I woke up thinking the dream was real. And for a second, for a moment I felt a compassion for my mother as a little girl. And that's the magic trick these great doctors are able to spin, man.

Michelle Esrick: 19:21
And that's why it was important for me to convey that this is a cycle and that the only way to break the cycle is to understand. It doesn't mean we exonerate the perpetrator. But if we vilify, we are never going to break the cycle. And you know the, the Michael Jackson documentary, it's great. It focuses on grooming, grooming kids, but there's not one mention that he was abused. And so now the discussion is, and everyone's talking about: Do I listen to Michael Jackson's music? If that's what's come out of it, it's a failure. We can't just vilify. And as I said, it doesn't mean exonerate, and I believe that we are so afraid to feel any kind of compassion for a perpetrator because we think it means excuse and exonerate and it doesn't mean that. But how are we going to break the cycle after cycle, after cycle, after cycle?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 20:31
There's two things that I was thinking about. The first one is that there's a trope in the trauma world which captures the intergenerational transmission of trauma very nicely. It's just that hurt people hurt people.

Michelle Esrick: 20:43

Dr. Jacob Ham: 20:43
The deeper thing that I want to say is trauma and like survival instincts, survival brain makes us want to bifurcate the world into you are good, you are bad.

Michelle Esrick: 20:59

Dr. Jacob Ham: 20:59
And the more stressed you are, the more you need to divide the world into simple terms. And what we're talking about is how do you hold onto the complexity of us as human beings who are both evil and good, right? And the way to transcend the impact of stress and trauma is to be able to tolerate complexity as big as possible. And in— the way that I do that and honor my anger about people getting hurt is that I'm not angry at individuals, but I'm angry at trauma itself. And the way that trauma gets passed down. Like sometimes I will reify trauma and anxiety as a separate thing. And I just get so angry whenever I see it in the room. And I get angry at my patients all the time. And I just, whenever I do, though, it's because I can tell that their traumas are starting to hijack their brains. It's making them want to hurt themselves or hurt someone else. I'm just like, "Stop doing that! Stop being a prisoner to your trauma! And I'm gonna fight for you, and I'm going to come rescue you. And if it means I'm going to get angry, you're gonna have to put up with it because I care about you enough that I'm not gonna let this happen anymore. I cannot abide by this anymore." So that's where you put the anger. You use the anger for what it's designed to do, which is to help protect people.

Michelle Esrick: 22:17
Yes. And I actually, I'm so grateful for you Jacob, Dr. Ham, because I've never seen anybody work the way you do. Because I think that there's so many psychologists, doctors who have been trained to not show emotion. You're not supposed to get personally involved with your patient. And you—and the way that I watch you work in the videos that you post on your website, I see, oh, you can't help your patient unless you are intuitively working with them and feeling what they're feeling and feeling your own feelings as a doctor. Otherwise you're just going to be sitting there nodding and saying something—intellectualizing it.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 23:03
Yeah, I find that that's a defense against feeling anything in the room whenever people get too intellectualized. And so the way that I feel like I can do the work that I do is that I have to allow hurt and pain to wash over me and I have to learn to have metabolized my own history of abuse and hurt and pain so that I can like sit in that without being overwhelmed, without getting triggered myself. And then to somehow like to help carry the load of hurt so that we're all just spreading it and holding it for each other and with each other.

Darrell Hammond: 23:35
I'd love to really come to a clear idea in my mind one day of what being triggered means.

Michelle Esrick: 23:43
Maybe you could talk about the Hulk?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 23:47
Well, yeah, I thought you were an expert at it. The way that you talked about it in the movie. It was brilliant.

Darrell Hammond: 23:55
Well, which thing did I say that I learned from what doctor?

Michelle Esrick: 24:00
Well, there's a scene in the film where, do you mean in the press conference when he gets triggered, when he's asked to—

Dr. Jacob Ham: 24:08
Oh, that's an interesting one.

Michelle Esrick: 24:09
When you're at the press conference, you're about to give a talk and then the woman says it's time to go to the VIP reception and you get triggered.

Darrell Hammond: 24:20
Yeah, because I was talking about my father.

Michelle Esrick: 24:21
Yeah, and you get upset and then you get triggered.

Darrell Hammond: 24:24
Well to me, you know, and I'll say something that's probably wrong because I'm just now starting to surmise all this stuff I've learned in the past, just the past year about PTSD and complex PTSD, and at least with the complex PTSD, I don't need for anything to happen for me to feel awful.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 24:47

Darrell Hammond: 24:47
It's temporary, but it's real. And my friends, you know, me and my friend Elizabeth and Chelsea, you met, we text each other each day because we all suffer from it, like we call it, you know, there's the show "Stranger Things," and they have the upside down where they go for no apparent reason.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 25:13

Darrell Hammond: 25:13
The same world they were loving is now awful for no reason. So it's like, I'll tell them or they'll tell me, "I'm in the upside down."

Dr. Jacob Ham: 25:23
Yeah. It's so subtle. And I just recently heard a label "emotional flashback" that really captures it. Because I think that, again, we focus so much on physical flashbacks. Like if a veteran sees a pile of trash on the street and they think it's an IED or like the fireworks, like those are all more obvious. But for complex trauma it's like, as soon as you feel any shame, I bet you that's a big trigger or threat.

Darrell Hammond: 25:51
Well, see what you think of this. This is what I've learned this year and see if this makes any sense to you. That my system has a sort of day or moment per week when it prepares me to be raped again, to be tortured again, to be beaten with a hammer again, to be left alone in a park at the age of three again. And so I either feel so much fear I can't talk, or I feel so much rage I want to take it out on somebody. And I start having fantasies of, you know, if my mom were alive, boy, what would I do, right? That kind of anger. And then there's the third thing, which is the gazelle thing, the way a gazelle gets before it's killed, it's just not there. So it's almost as if my brain is doing military preparedness drills.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 26:47

Darrell Hammond: 26:47
The same way—there's not a real war going on, but we're going to stay ready in case there is.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 26:51
Now I get your question.

Darrell Hammond: 26:53
So just in case, because we don't know why that person walked in the room with the hammer to begin with and now since we can't explain the damn—this is my brain talking to me, going, "We can't explain it. I want to prepare you for it to happen again."

Dr. Jacob Ham: 27:09
The reason why you don't get triggers is that you don't need a trigger. You're constantly living in threat.

Darrell Hammond: 27:14

Dr. Jacob Ham: 27:14
That makes perfect sense.

Darrell Hammond: 27:16
Michelle, you know me like the back of your hand. It's not all the time.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 27:20

Darrell Hammond: 27:21
But it is a day or two a week. And it's not the whole day, thank God.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 27:24
Yeah. Are you aware of when you go into that mode?

Darrell Hammond: 27:27
When I feel like I'm an awful person, it will never—I mean my brain really will easily start using the words "always" and "never." It will attach permanency to it. What is the doctor—Dr. Martin Seligman has the three P's, it becomes "personal," "pervasive" and "permanent." It's a magic trick. My brain is doing a magic trick. How could I feel that in the same—on the same day in which me and Michelle were just in the park having a blast?! It's my brain's going, "OK, well, just in case another one of those people who comes in the room with a hammer—

Dr. Jacob Ham: 28:06

Darrell Hammond: 28:07
—you'll be ready. And if you have to check out and die, you'll be ready for that too."

Michelle Esrick: 28:13
Right. And that's why in the film you explain when you come out of it, because you say, "When I think I'm being disrespected, when I think I'm being—." Just even thinking that you're being disrespected can be such a trigger. And then you say, "And then I realize, you mean I'm not being killed?" Like, OK, well let's talk about it.

Darrell Hammond: 28:34
It was a marvelous thing once I reached that level of, oh my mom must have been horribly mistreated. I don't care about her anymore. I get it. I understand it. I don't love her, but it's over and I'm going to move on with my life. So the first day where I remember thinking to myself, looking at all the—like, when they let me out of the hospital— looking at all the people going, "What do you do all day if you don't think you're going to get killed? Like, how do you spend your time?" Like, I'm serious, like really, you know, what do you do? What kind of stuff do you get into?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 29:07
You play.

Darrell Hammond: 29:12
Yeah, I guess. So Dr. Kotbi was saying to just delight yourself. Delightful stuff. I mean there's gotta be stuff like maybe Bach or the Rolling Stones. Anything, music, arts, sports—

Michelle Esrick: 29:31
And being together. Like we'll get together at the coffee shop. We have a favorite coffee shop and we'll get together with friends. And then Darrell always says, "I'm going to be good for like the next two hours."

Darrell Hammond: 29:42
Yeah, I have to do my other therapy, of course, you know, I still do cognitive therapy exercises, but I can go home symptom-free as if I'd never had it at all. Just for a couple of hours. You know?

Michelle Esrick: 29:59
Because our brains are wired to be in sync, so when we're in sync, we're together, we're seeing each other we're hearing each other.

Darrell Hammond: 30:05
The law of mutuality. The law of shared experience.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 30:07
My three P's that are the opposite of the alarm P's, are "presence," "poignancy," and "purpose." And if you could cultivate those instead of the other three P's.

Darrell Hammond: 30:19
Man, that's the final third of my life!

Michelle Esrick: 30:25
That's the next frontier!

Darrell Hammond: 30:25
That's a brand new space uniform I'm gonna have to get.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 30:28
You deserve it though, Darrell.

Michelle Esrick: 30:29
Yeah, but I just think—I love the Hulk because I think—

Darrell Hammond: 30:32
I want to hear about the Hulk.

Michelle Esrick: 30:32
I think for the listeners. I think everybody can relate, and I think it's a good—it's such a great tool for people to stop beating themselves up when they do puff up.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 30:43
You know that the Hulk was an abused kid too?

Darrell Hammond: 30:47
I didn't know he was abused. Dr. Bruce Banner, you say?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 30:50
Yeah! His father was abusive to him. His mother tried to stop the father from abusing him. The father was also an alcoholic, and one day I think that the father killed the mother in front of the son. So he has domestic violence, he has child physical abuse. I'm assuming that he was bullied as a kid too because he's like a smart kid. And then he basically just started to develop rage like we all do whenever we're traumatized.

Darrell Hammond: 31:20
One time in one of the fits of rage he gets hit with gamma rays, which all the Marvel comic characters do.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 31:29
I know, right? It's the magic.

Darrell Hammond: 31:32
That's how you become superhuman.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 31:32
And then suddenly his self-protective rage suddenly turns into this superhero. And the reason why I love the Hulk is because as his rage increases, his IQ drops.

Darrell Hammond: 31:50

Dr. Jacob Ham: 31:50
He can't—he has two word sentences. All he cares about is who's in front of me that's trying to hurt me and how do I protect myself. And he can't speak. He can't think. And he loses self-awareness. So he doesn't even know— and he can't control it from happening. And the other thing I love is that he can't just turn it off on a dime. Once you're triggered, you need to expend all of that energy, you need to make sure that you're safe. And then you go jump off to South America and go cuddle with Jennifer Connolly or whoever it is, Scarlett Johannson or whatever it is under a—

Darrell Hammond: 32:25
That they showed in what magazine that year.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 32:28

Darrell Hammond: 32:28
On the cover of what magazine.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 32:30
And then you have to like sleep it off. Because people with trauma have hyper fast triggers, like they have that hair-trigger gun and then once they're activated, it takes them way longer to calm back down. And you just can't stop that. And then the other thing I love about the Hulk is that he's not a villain, he's actually one of the most bada** superheroes in the whole universe. Right?

Michelle Esrick: 32:55

Dr. Jacob Ham: 32:56
And so many of us hate ourselves for having these rage episodes. And like you even said it just now. You said, "I'm going to be good for the next two hours." So you're already assigning whenever I'm raging, that's a bad thing. And when you were talking about that part, I was visualizing a little devil on your shoulder saying, "Don't put your guard down. People are coming to hurt you."

Darrell Hammond: 33:15
Oh, but he doesn't show up for two hours.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 33:18
I know he shows up for two days. Right?

Darrell Hammond: 33:20
Yeah. But the point being that there is a process involving mutual and shared experience and all of my therapy in which I actually feel great comfort for an hour or two.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 33:32
Wait, from what?

Darrell Hammond: 33:34
From fellowshipping.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 33:35
Oh yes, of course. Yes. But when he's starting to come up, you're probably like, oh, "I wish you weren't here. I'm starting to get rageful." But instead what I'm trying to do is to say like, "Hulk, you're back? You think that I'm in trouble? Oh, thank you so much for loving me so much that you're trying to protect me. But you know what—I'm good! I'm good. She's not here. I got friends to meet. I need to go meet with the—I need to be able to speak."

Darrell Hammond: 34:01
Wow, that's deep.

Michelle Esrick: 34:01
I get the chills

Darrell Hammond: 34:01
Yeah, that's chilling.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 34:01
So thank you, yeah, thank you for trying to protect me, but I got s**t to do, let me go play.

Michelle Esrick: 34:08
So make friends with the Hulk?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 34:08
Make friends with the Hulk.

Darrell Hammond: 34:09
Wow, that's deep! There's the title of your next book. [all laugh] Make friends with the Hulk.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 34:17

Darrell Hammond: 34:18
After all he is a nice guy.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 34:20
He saved your life.

Michelle Esrick: 34:22
But what about when the Hulk comes up in a split second?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 34:25
Yeah, you gotta—You just try to stretch that second out. And I still get triggered. I remember—I still do petty like retaliatory things, but I'm at least aware as I'm doing them.

Host: 34:38
I made a point at the end of my notes to, to ask for thoughts or advice. Basically what, what is a good ally need to know and how can they help?

Dr. Jacob Ham: 34:52
What I need for myself is to, for the people who love me to know that I, I have a "Hulk" and that sometimes he comes roaring out and then as soon as the Hulk has gone, then I'm going to be back. But please don't mistake me for my Hulk, I think that's really important—

Darrell Hammond: 35:11
Oh, man. I'm going to start going back to—I'm going to go get the original Hulk. Where you can—you gotta be able to buy that in New York. I'm going to get the first ten—um, comics. What is it?

Michelle Esrick: 35:24
Yeah. I think, uh, we all either have our own trauma. We know somebody with trauma. We love somebody with trauma. We love somebody who doesn't know they have trauma yet who doesn't remember their trauma. I mean, we're just all connected to it. I think love is the answer and it shouldn't be thrown away like, "Oh, love." But let's not underestimate looking in somebody's eyes and listening. And I think we always need to believe what is being said. And I think a sense of curiosity, which I've actually—

Darrell Hammond: 36:11
Be willing to believe.

Michelle Esrick: 36:11
Yes, be willing to believe, even though it's hard and it's painful. So if you want to help somebody, just listen with curiosity.

Darrell Hammond: 36:21
With an open mind.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 36:27

Michelle Esrick: 36:28
What would you say to your loved ones?

Darrell Hammond: 36:39
Retreat! Turn back! [all laugh] Go the other way. I don't know, man, I don't even know how—there are certain people that have stayed in my life, and I think Michelle is one of them, who saw the difference between the Hulk, although I never heard it so aptly named, and me. And that somehow, I don't know how, go, "That's not even him. That's not even him. That's the Hulk. That's that side of him." You know what I mean? And somehow those are the only people that I've been able to keep around.

Michelle Esrick: 37:16
I think the thing about trauma that is somehow, and I don't know if we should even be calling it "trauma" anymore, what, what maybe there should be new verbiage—

Dr. Jacob Ham: 37:25
Just "hurt."

Michelle Esrick: 37:25
"Hurt." Our society wants it to go away. They wanna say, "You told your story, and let's be done." And that is something—it is a daily reprieve. So let's not judge ourselves and judge each other because if the hurt and the pain, the trauma is living inside the body, I mean, I've been in recovery for mine for 34 years and two months ago I remembered a whole new trauma and it was severe and I was shocked. I thought I've remembered, I know everything, I've remembered everything. So this was living in my system, you know, for all of this time. And it really, I'm glad it came out because it just reinforced all this research that I've been doing and doing for the film and now speaking about it. So, and, and I love how Jacob talks about how long it takes and how we have to be patient with ourselves and how doctors have to be patient with themselves and with each other and that there's no quick fix. And I think that, that the reason that I love Darrell, I love Darrell's story. I think Darrell is the perfect messenger for the story is because he's telling the truth. And I've never seen anyone be so vulnerable is Darrell. And he's not pretending that, "this happened to me and now I'm great." And it's not that he isn't great, but he's willing—

Darrell Hammond: 39:05
Sometimes I am.

Michelle Esrick: 39:05
It's just we're always great. We're great even if we have a limp and, and I think that we have to help each other and, and help our society embrace our vulnerability.

Dr. Jacob Ham: 39:21
And then one final image that I keep having it as I was listening to Darrell, um, saying like, "Get away from me. Get away, like, run." The thing I would do with you is that I would like grab you by the face and—when you're in front of someone that loves you, I would say, "You are not going to 'Hulk out' right now. You're gonna savor this. You're going to see how much this person loves you, and you're gonna, like, experience gratitude." And you know, I—the word "grace" comes up for me. Like "I don't deserve this love, but it's still coming to me and I'm just—you have to just be so thankful for that." And that's it—like your brain is so trained to think of fear and perpetrators and you have to now intentionally train your brain to start savoring love. To let it come into you. And then for the people who love us and want to be there for us, don't give up and keep fighting. Like, cultivate the frustration and anger to say, like, no, Darrell, you're not running from me.

Darrell Hammond: 40:23
Hmm. Go back, doctor! Doctor, turned around! Around! [all laugh]

Dr. Jacob Ham: 40:33
Love it.

Host: 40:33
Great. Well thank you. Thank you all so, so much. This has been a real gift. Thank you so much, Michelle, Darrell, and Dr. Ham for this conversation. After we did this recording, I started seeing childhood trauma everywhere. Like Michelle said, it really does touch us all. But I also started seeing opportunities for resilience and healing. Seeking out trauma-informed doctors like the one that saved Darrell's life is a big one. And then there are the ideas that came up in our conversation, like "Make friends with the Hulk," or how about the part where Darrell talked about forgiveness, "setting sail," as he called it. Michelle's advice also struck a chord. Look into a person's eyes, listen, and be willing to believe, even though it's painful.

To learn more about Michelle's film and how you can host a screening for your school, organization or community, please visit We'll include a link in the show notes along with some resources where you can learn more about childhood trauma in general. Road to Resilience is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. It's made by me, Katie Ullman and Nicci Hudson. Our executive producers are Dorie Klissas and Lucia Lee. If you liked what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on iTunes and recommend us to a friend. We really appreciate it. I'm Jon Earle. We'll see you next month with more stories from the Road to Resilience.