Sixty to 80 percent of victims of severe trauma will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, better known as PTSD. According to the PTSD Foundation of America, PTSD affects eight percent of Americans, more than 24 million people annually, but numbers may be even higher as millions suffer without seeking help or are improperly treated. Despite its prevalence, the condition is largely misunderstood and as a result, often misdiagnosed. Author and filmmaker Charles Shaw, a PTSD sufferer himself, has released a 17-part film series in an EcoSalon exclusive running through March. “At Home in the Dark,” addresses both Shaw’s own battle with PTSD and the millions of others who suffer with it every day.
Shaw, a fourth-generation Chicagoan and a longtime political activist, detailed his year spent in the Illinois prison system for drug possession more than a decade ago in his 2012 book, “Exile Nation: Drugs, Prison, Politics, and Spirituality.” Now in his mid-forties, Shaw’s expressive eyes, a mix of puppy and parolee, hint to his past not just as a prisoner and drug addict, but a victim of a lifetime of abuse. Then, in 2013, his sister Suraya took her own life. But still, he’s hopeful; there’s gleam in those eyes, there’s perseverance and strength.
“Although my sister’s suicide was the catalyst to formally design and execute a film project,” says Shaw, “I had spent much of the previous decade slowly coming to awareness about my own PTSD complex.”
Shaw suffers from a form of PTSD known as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “It is the result of long-term exposure to trauma or abuse, and it manifests itself in the victim much differently than Acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is the result of a single, stand-alone trauma, like a rape or car accident or death of a loved one,” he explains.
CPTSD can express itself in a wide variety of disorders like addiction, anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder, depression, and various OCDs, notes Shaw. “We’ve been treating all of these like individual stand alone ‘illnesses’ when in fact it seems that they are more likely all symptoms of trauma and abuse,” he says. “We focus specifically on the symptom of addiction in ‘At Home in the Dark’ because it was the dominant symptom in my and my sister’s lives.”
Like many sufferers of PTSD or CPTSD, Shaw says he was unaware that was what was plaguing him for decades,” it was not until my early 40s that I learned of this distinction, and by then, by certain accounts, it was too late, the damage had been done,” he says. “Had I only known then that the anxiety and addiction and depression that ruled my life could have been treated differently on all levels, I might not have suffered as greatly.”
Dmitri Mugianis, a producer of the film and an initiate in the Bwiti iboga plant medicine, runs a holistic component in harm reduction and needle exchange in Harlem, New York. He’s leery of using the term “healer” to describe his work, and refers to it as “holding space” for people seeking alternative modalities for processing their trauma. In addition to Iboga, he works with sound meditation, dance, and music.
“The biggest challenge with PTSD,” says Mugianis, is that “trauma is a core human experience. We live, we suffer,” but some of us, he says, “suffer in horrible, horrible ways. That’s what PTSD is about.”
According to Dr. Andrew Segovia Kulik, Chairman of Psychiatry, Cook County Health and Hospital System, Adjunct Clinical Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Board Certified Forensic and General Psychiatrist, many who suffer from PTSD also “either suffer from substance use disorders, or seek substances out in an effort to numb themselves and self-medicate.”
Kulik notes that once someone has started using, “then participating in criminal activity in order to obtain said substances is not uncommon, leaving them to be exposed to a seedier aspect of society. This certainly correlates with increased criminal activity and violence.”
Mugianis says part of the problem is that conventional PTSD treatments so often fail victims because there is this erroneous idea “that anything material can solve human problems.” He says the medical industrial complex–where most people seek treatment–is problematic because the “so-called cure,” mainly pharmaceutical medications, can be more damaging than helpful.
“There is a multi-billion dollar industry built around treating the symptoms of trauma as individual, stand-alone illnesses,” says Shaw, “and it’s always hardest to move market forces when something is so profitable (i,.e. oil, guns, drugs).”
And the treatments for PTSD, mainly antidepressants, can be as painful a process as the trauma itself.
“[Antidepressants] have all kinds of side effects, and we have no idea, really, what they’re doing,” Dr. David Presti, a professor of neurobiology at UC Berkeley told Ayelet Waldman for her recent book “A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life.”
“They cost a lot of money,” says Presti, “and they’re marketed with all kinds of flimflam.”
While antidepressants are among the most prescribed drugs in the U.S., they’re not always effective. Certain medications may not work initially, and a patient may need to try a number of antidepressants before finally finding one that mitigates their symptoms. But these medications are inherently flawed; they don’t help sufferers process their trauma, they only mask it. And the side effects, like weight gain or decreased libido, common with many antidepressants, can bring a whole new set of anxieties or stresses and other medications to treat those conditions.
In her book, Waldman explores a month-long journey with microdosing LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), the psychedelic drug popular with 1960s and ‘70s counterculture. While it’s known for its intensely long visual hallucinations, Waldman used extremely low doses (about one-tenth the dose for a psychedelic “trip”) to treat her ongoing anxiety, mood swings, and bouts of depression. And her positive results with LSD also suggest that the pharmaceutical industry, while effective in treating many types of conditions, may be falling short when it comes to finding treatments for mental health issues.
Psychedelics–LSD, Iboga, psilocybin, MDMA, and ayahuasca–have become powerful tools in the war against PTSD. MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) received approval late last year for trials in PTSD treatment, and Waldman is hopeful LSD will be soon considered another viable option.
Shaw details the use of several psychedelics in the film series, including two segments on PTSD veterans who go to the Peruvian jungle for ayahuasca ceremonies; as well as MDMA’s potential as a viable treatment; and Iboga’s ability to help treat drug addiction, a particularly critical aspect of PTSD treatment as many PTSD sufferers often find themselves drug addicts, turning to opiods like heroin or oxycotin to mute the pain of unaddressed trauma.
“That’s because [street] drugs work,” Mugianis says, “they’re very effective at masking symptoms of trauma.” Mugianis battled his own addiction to heroin using Iboga and other alternative methods. Shaw found reprieve from a crack cocaine addiction through ayahuasca.
Cook County, Illinois, is home to the largest free-standing jail in the U.S., which sees about 10,000 inmates pass through each year, and where Shaw spent a year for possession of MDMA. According to Kulik, who works closely with the prison system, seeing inmates with drug problems and PTSD is all too common, not just in Cook County, but across the country.
With Kulik’s help, Cook County is now employing programs aimed at treating inmates for addiction and PTSD so that they leave the system having dealt with at least some of their issues. It’s a program garnering national attention.
“Within the past year, we have treated hundreds of more individuals throughout the city and county than the year prior for these disorders,” Kulik says. “We have also partnered with many other clinics in the city [that are not part of CCHHS] to train their staff to offer more services within the community for substances. In addition, we have aggressively trained over 25 additional doctors within CCHHS within the past three months who previously did not participate in this type of treatment. This team will start to treat those with substance use disorders within our own 16 CCHHS ambulatory clinics throughout Cook County.”
Kulik says treating prisoners before they leave can keep them from returning, “they’re less likely to turn toward drugs or crime if they’ve processed their trauma before leaving the system.” Keeping criminals from becoming repeat offenders is a huge saving for taxpayers, as well as a potential life saver for the prisoners if they’re able to stay out of the system after being released.
Despite efforts like those happening in Cook County, PTSD is still widely misunderstood, and, according to Shaw, too often presented by the media exclusively in the context of war veterans, “and then, generally, only when some egregious violent act has been committed by said PTSD sufferer, such as murdering his spouse, jumping the White House fence with a knife, or going on a shooting rampage,” he says.
“I don’t know why this is, but I am confident it is related to the reasons why Complex PTSD is not officially sanctioned,” says Shaw, “I mean, it was a 60-year battle to get the Military to acknowledge PTSD in the first place (aka ‘Shell Shock’ and ‘War Trauma’).” Prior to that, he says it was most often dismissed as cowardice or weakness. “Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know the type of person who isn’t completely devastated psychologically by the concept of mass slaughter.”
According to Dr. Dawn McGuire, a neurologist and award-winning poet who recently released a book of poetry, “American Dream with Exit Wound,” about her experience with war veterans suffering with PTSD, “they leave the war and are expected to re-integrate, without transition, without attention to the psychic splits and moral fractures that their service to our nation has required.”
McGuire says they “end up in a kind of solitary confinement,” because they’re not only dealing with their trauma in such a deeply personal way, but often socially isolated as well. “Their brains are in flames.”
“We as a society are not yet ready to confront and accept that our very culture is traumatizing in nature,” says Shaw. “We have such a deeply ingrained propaganda-belief system that we still think the U.S. is the ‘most free and prosperous’ society on Earth. Having to face that your job and your mortgage and your marriage and family are causing you great pain and distress is to shatter the myths of the American dream and the nuclear family.”
Mugianis says the biggest problem he sees with PTSD is the misconception that to be in crisis is somehow a moral failing, but the truth is that while “something is wrong,” it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the person for suffering.
The films also explore trauma in societal context–Detroit’s post-industrial trauma, poverty, and the ongoing war between Israelis and Palestinians in a powerful segment called “The Drama Triangle.” Shaw poignantly draws the parallel between the suffering endured by Jews during the Holocaust and the trauma they’re now allowing to continue against Palestinians.
“Following the Holocaust, the Jewish people who came together to form the State of Israel were committed to never again let the Jewish people be victimized in that way,” he says. “They were highly motivated to protect (italics his) themselves by any means necessary. To them, it meant eliminating an exterior threat they perceived in the Palestinians. Thus, they invaded and occupied, and became the abusers, completing the cycle.”
Because abusers were often abused, and trauma, like what’s happening in Israel, is a dynamic situation, “until you can stop justifying your abuse through your own victimhood, you will never become compassionate to the suffering of others,” Shaw says. “To break out of this is to recognize one’s role in the dramas one has caused or exacerbated, take responsibility for them, cease engaging in the same patterns of behavior, and examine the new stimulus and response cycles that emerge.”
PTSD in America
Many Americans, and the world at large, are experiencing at least a mild form of PTSD with the recent election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the U.S. It’s not a stress like living through rape, war, or the Holocaust, but Shaw notes that trauma is a reaction by our systems to “a certain kind of threat stimuli which causes a fight or flight response.”
A flawed election system that allows a candidate to win the popular vote (Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by more than three million popular votes) and still be declared the loser based on Electoral College votes can certainly elicit that “fight or flight” response; it’s infuriating to some, confusing to many, and those reactions can trigger a sort of PTSD.
“People are increasingly more erratic, volatile, and irrational during periods of trauma,” notes Shaw, “most frighteningly, they are also the most highly suggestible, making them easily pliable for programming with any number of vile ideas, and most vulnerable to the most dangerous form of mob mentality.”
He points to 9/11 and its aftermath, “It was fucking surreal,” he says. “For a week everyone was nice to each other like it was an episode of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”; underneath it was a seething homicidal rage towards Muslims which was expressed in many high profile public assaults of anyone who had any sort of fabric on their heads. It was surrounded by a universal and absolute fealty to the Bush Administration and the MSM. We should be very concerned about the current administration utilizing the ‘Shock Doctrine’ It’s already off to an unprecedented start.”
Mugianis says we’re at a crossroads, pointing to Trump as a “trickster metaphor” often employed in different cultures to signify a time of great change. “He’s either a medicine or poison,” says Mugianis, “the choice is ours in how we perceive that.”
He says the fear and trauma people are now experiencing as a result of the new president is a time for self-examination, “there’s an alchemy that can come from this, an opportunity to create space for each other, and for ourselves to heal and grow together.”
Shaw is hopeful that perceptions about trauma are shifting how we interact as a whole, “as more people come to recognize the patterns associated with PTSD, we can hopefully develop a more compassionate response as a society, he says.
“I think a huge part of the struggle is the fact that PTSD sufferers feel so alone, and so rejected, so feared. We need to demystify it, and remove the fear,” Shaw says. “We need to get rid of the word ‘normal.’”
We’ll be sharing videos from “At Home in the Dark” all through the month of March here on EcoSalon, so be sure to check back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the latest installment.
Today, we’re sharing the first three segments of the series:
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