This is a conversation with Director, Author and Activist Charles Shaw about his current project, AT HOME IN THE DARK: a film about trauma and PTSD which relates personal journeys towards healing as shared by individuals from New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, London, Madrid, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Ibiza.
AT HOME IN THE DARK shares information and insights on trauma and PTSD from experts like Drs. Gabor Mate, Julie Holland, Benjamin Fry, Andrew Tatarsky, and Kathleen Chard of the Veterans Administration and looks at the powerful ways that trauma influences our politics and culture.
Charles and his team are currently seeking donations to support production of this documentary film. With less than a week to reach their funding goal, I wanted to offer readers some conversation with Director Charles Shaw, to share more on his interest and perspective regarding trauma and PTSD.
Being independently produced, Charles and his team rely on contributions from individual supporters (you) to make the film happen. Please contribute any amount.
Terra Celeste: Hi Charles, thanks for offering time to this conversation. What is PTSD? Who does it affect?
Charles Shaw: The British Journal of Psychiatry describes PTSD as both “a timeless condition, which existed before it was codified in modern diagnostic classifications but was described by different names such as ‘ railway spine’ and ‘shellshock’” and also as “a novel presentation that has resulted from a modern interaction between trauma and culture.”
There are also two forms of PTSD. There is the Acute form, most commonly associated with either war trauma, or violent trauma such as rape, murder, accident or assault, where the person suffers flashbacks, hyper-alertness, cognitive and emotional disruption, and avoidance behavior. It may surprise you to learn this is the lesser form of PTSD, and the one that has the highest rate of recovery.
The other form is the most pernicious, and the most controversial. It is also the most obscure. Known as Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), it is the result of prolonged exposure to violence, abuse, and trauma in childhood, and also occurs in those subjected to extended period of severe psychological trauma, such as prison, homelessness, and even kidnapping and torture.
CPTSD is controversial because it has not been officially sanctioned by the medical community, nor will you find it in the DSM-IV. What you will find, the leading proponents of CPTSD will tell you, is a slew of other “diseases” that they claim are actually the various symptoms of long term trauma. These include: addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, and a number of dissociative disorders including “Borderline Personality Disorder” and “Oppositional-Defiant Disorder.”
Why do traumatic events happen? What is trauma in the human experience? Is anyone free of trauma?
They happen because of biology. Events themselves aren’t “traumatic,” they are simply actions. Its our elevated biological response to them that that is what we know as “trauma.” It’s basically when the nervous system gets overloaded. This happens any time there is shock, intense fear, or direct threat to life. These happen to be the most physically manifesting forms of trauma — getting the “shakes,” flashbacks, and hyper-paranoia.
But emotional trauma — abuse, death of a loved one, public ruin — can be even more devastating. Certainly in the long term.
I think you can draw a spectrum of severity that begins with simple things like the Mother passing from our field of view, which is deeply traumatic to an infant, all the way up to serial rape, torture or murder. Anything in between can cause a traumatic event, and if left untreated, nearly any can cause some form of Post-Traumatic Stress complex.
Why make this film?
The decision to make this film came in the days after my sister, Suraya, died in Florida of a drug overdose and complications from severe alcoholism. I was unable to attend her memorial because I was booked to speak at a large room of doctors and researchers at a psychedelic medicine conference in London. Certain kinds of psychedelic compounds — specifically, MDMA, LSD and Ayahuasca — are pioneering new treatments for PTSD.
I was staying with my benefactors from the Sainsbury Foundation, my very dear friends James & Margaret Sainsbury, and we got to talking about Suraya, and in a rather grief-addled consciousness I said something like, “the only way I ever truly understand these things is by diving into them deeper than ever before.” James asked me if I had ever considered doing a project on PTSD since it was such a central theme to my life, and is discussed at length in Exile Nation.
Up until that point I had thought I was “over” PTSD. PTSD had been a 30-year journey of mine through the darkest realms of the human experience, in two distinct phases: the first and most destructive was from age 14 to 36, the consequence of severe drug addiction, rape and sexual abuse, at least two brought-back-to-life overdoses, and a year in prison.
In these years I traveled through the transom of isolation and self-destruction, the steep rapids of fear and rage, and the life-and body-altering emotional and somatic changes, I have brought myself back from the brink of destruction to live what cannot be called, by any standard definition, a “normal” life, but a life that is finally manageable, and dare I say, somewhat predictable.
But then, during a 3 year period between the ages of 42 and 45, everything I had learned was put to the test, and all the progress of the previous 11 or so years seemed in peril, when in rather rapid succession, I went through a devastating breakup with a woman I had planned to marry, lost my sister, Suraya, and a close friend, Jacob Coe (Former editor of the OpenDemocracy Drug Policy Forum) to drug overdoses, another friend, journalist Mike Ruppert would commit suicide, and to add a rather cruel insult to injury, my beloved canine companion was run over by a car right in front of me.
To say the least, these events challenged everything I knew about trauma and our ability to “get over it.”
It was ultimately Suraya’s death, the final chapter of a long and heartbreaking struggle with her Native American identity, the all-too-common scourge of alcoholism, and the cruel and racist world she had to navigate as a person of color, that motivated me to do something about it.
Does talking about it help? Who is your audience or who do you hope this film reaches?
It helps to talk about it with people who have experienced the same and are far enough along in the process not to be retriggered back into destructive behavior. These folks are few and far between, but collectively, we hold all the answers and observations for a life of trauma and learning to cope and persevere. To attempt to discuss it with a newly traumatized person can have devastating results on them, and to try to discuss it with someone who has not experienced it, is to learn what it means to be shunned and isolated. Humans naturally run from trauma, but they also run from traumatized people, as if we believe somehow unconsciously that, like poverty, its contagious. We have no existing social norms for dealing with either trauma or traumatized people, which is ironic given the role trauma plays in our culture.
In the film’s description, you mention that trauma affects politics and culture, what impact do you hope AT HOME IN THE DARK will have in this area?
Trauma, and Fear, are two of the largest instruments of social and political control being exercised over us today. The maxim of the Mainstream Media is, “If it Bleeds, it Leads.” Watch any political debate, or commercial, and you will be inundated with terror tactics to scare you into voting one way, or scare you into silence over another issue. Big corporations use the same fear to get you to stick dangerous and unnecessary pills and flu vaccines into your body. Our media is saturated with post-Apocalyptic themed films and television series, where we must battle zombies, Fascists, and each other. Our most popular dramatic characters – such as the cosmology of any Superhero series, Batman especially, is a cavalcade of PTSD sufferers (you dont become Batman or The Joker on a lark, you know). And as if all that weren’t enough, this doesn’t even begin to include the effect that climate change, globalization, drought, war, police brutality, racism, or terrorism — both organic and State-sponsored — has on any society. It’s not a stretch to label these times The Era of Trauma.
Your film also interviews experts who work with healing trauma and PTSD, is there a particular theory of practice of method of healing which your film follows?
I want to make sure one thing is understood here. There is no “healing” trauma. There is no cure for it. As Daniel Morris wrote last week in Salon, “once it enters the body, it stays there forever.”
The most dangerous people a traumatized person can come across in their journey is a self-styled “Healer” or anyone who claims that can “rid” someone of trauma. They are lying. And more likely than not, they are probably dangerous psychopaths who have deeply unresolved trauma themselves, which they cannot face themselves, so they adopt what’s known as the “Rescuer/Protector” role, constantly seeking out the vulnerable and exploiting their traumas as a means of avoiding their own. They are also known as the “Walking Wounded” or the “Wounded Healer.” Stay FAR away from these people.
That being said, there are two main forms of psychotherapy that have been proven effective in de-escalating and normalizing trauma, what they call “returning to homeostasis,” and those are Cognitive Processing Therapy and Prolonged-Exposure Therapy. These are the two the VA uses.
Psychedelic therapies are showing extreme promise for the severely traumatized, but they have their own set of risks, including death (from heart complications using Iboga), but more commonly, they become abused (most traumatized people have a history of substance abuse), and they lead to a further sense of isolation rather than integration. Without supervision and a community of friends or family in which to integrate their experiences, the traumatized person abusing psychedelics becomes essentially a helpless being incapable of operating in a functional manner in anything resembling “normal” society. If you’ve ever been to a psychedelic conference or a music festival, you have met these people. If you sneeze at them the wrong way, they are sent into a self-destructive spiral.
Where can people go to learn more about supporting AT HOME IN THE DARK ? (website, fundraising campaign, etc)
We have less than a week left in the campaign. It’s crunch time! Here is the link
Anything else you’d like to add?
Trauma may be the biggest problem our world faces, but it won’t change until we all learn to recognize our inheritance of trauma, and the role it plays in our lives. But it is treatable, and you can move past the acute symptomatology and live a fairly productive, and dare I say, exciting life. My life is no fucking picnic, the things I must deal with on a psycho-emotional level every day would probably exhaust the uninitiated within a week, but that’s the beauty of adaptation. I used to think I was defective, damaged goods, not worthy of love or friendship because of my condition. I no longer believe such nonsense. I may not be Father-of-the-Year material, but “damage” can be repaired. These days, I liken myself more to something Hunter Thompson once said: I’m one of God’s own prototypes, a high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass-production. too weird to live, too rare to die. Well, we’re no longer that rare. In fact, I’d argue the world is mass-producing these mutants as a simple consequence of the way it is these days. So, maybe what I should be saying is, “X-MEN UNITE!”
But that would be silly.
Thanks Terra. <3
Keep current with news and updates about Charles Shaw’s current project AT HOME IN THE DARK: A FILM ABOUT TRAUMA AND PTSD
Funding to actualize final production of this film is in a critical phase, with less than one week to reach their goal, Charles and the AT HOME IN THE DARK team need your contributions and support today.