A doorway to healing

Red House and the Film Center collaborate on documentary screening “The Wisdom of Trauma.”


“Trauma is not the bad things that happened to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.” —Dr. Gabor Maté

When you look up the documentary “The Wisdom of Trauma,” the first thing you should be gladly taken aback by is the subtitle: “Can our deepest pain be a doorway to healing?” If you’ve experienced any trauma in your life, that is a simultaneously terrifying and calming thought.

Dr. Gabor Maté is a Canadian physician who specializes in childhood development and trauma, and its unrealized lifelong impact on physical and mental health. His compassionate approach to how we deal with our trauma is the focus of this penetrating documentary from 2021. The reason for my sharing it with you now is because there will be a screening of “The Wisdom of Trauma” at the M.V. Film Center on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 4, at 4 pm. It is a collaborative fundraising event between the Film Center and the Red House, the Vineyard’s peer recovery support center.

When asked if this union with the Film Center is happening to fund any specific or future program, Robert Cropper, director of recovery management services at the Red House, said, “We did have some projects in mind, but we’re actually fundraising to maintain our current programming and to have the ability — or the option — to expand it.”

If you’re not familiar with the Red House’s mission, Cropper simply says, “It’s a safe place for those affected by — and seeking help with — their addiction, be it substance or behavioral. To be clear, the Red House is not a treatment facility, or some 12-step clubhouse. We’re here to encourage multiple paths of recovery.”

A quick once-over of its monthly calendar lets you know you that if you’re struggling with addiction and/or trauma, and you’re in need of peer support, or a workshop or training that may help you learn how to be more in self during those challenging times of sobriety, or you just want to come on in and socialize with a cup of coffee and some snacks, you have a welcoming place to go. Cropper says, “At the PRSC, we are a home for those trying to figure out a new way of life.”

Molly Purves, a clinician at the Island Counseling Center at M.V. Community Services, says of this upcoming screening of “The Wisdom of Trauma,” “This film talks about the importance of having trauma-informed care — whether it be trauma-informed education, trauma-informed therapy, trauma-informed recovery coaching. It’s really good to have some knowledge of how to handle someone if they become triggered in your presence.”

Which is why this documentary is a must-watch for everyone — not only for those who are in recovery, but for all of us. Because, let’s face it, most of us have some trauma we’re either dealing with, only now just recognizing, or have buried way down deep.

The biggest takeaway from this film is that there are the many “tentacles of trauma.” That’s not something you’ll hear in the film, but the six degrees of separation when it comes to how one thing can affect another, and another, and so on and so forth. It’s the interconnectedness of those seemingly inconsequential moments throughout your life — the ones that literally that nourished one’s trauma — that needs recognition.

Sometimes it’s not merely our personal experiences that may have caused us pain, but how certain societal standards have wreaked havoc on our nervous systems. Our brains develop in response to their environment. And if there has ever been a time that has perpetuated anxiety, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, depression, and suicidal ideation, it’s been this age of “being on” 24/7 (or 18/7, to be realistic). I mean, it’s difficult enough to negotiate living day to day within our own families and social circles. Then you throw in the social media component and the whole “FOMO” thing (fear of missing out), and you have a medium that breeds addictive behavior. Which is why so many of our young ’uns are suffering from the aforementioned psychological afflictions.

While social media’s contribution to our inner unrest isn’t specifically addressed in this documentary, it’s an elephant right there over on the couch that we just can’t ignore.

What Dr. Maté reaffirms throughout the film is that trauma is “not the bad things that happen to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what’s happened to you.” For example, If you’ve been abandoned, sometimes you actually abandon yourself — that’s the trauma. And there are other statements like that that really make you ponder. Like this: Addiction is response to trauma. It’s not a “bad thing.” It’s a solution to a problem.

If I may be so bold as to invoke Dr. Richard S. Schwartz’s IFS (Internal Family Systems) model of psychotherapy: What Dr. Maté was referring to with addiction not being a bad thing, but a solution —- that correlates to the temporary, “firefighter” solution to a problem: dousing the flames of what is causing you pain with your fire retardant of choice: alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling food, etc. … That is one of our “parts” that deals with trauma. But it’s not a part we need to be ashamed of, or push away. We just need to know it, deal with it gently and nonjudgmentally, and proceed with patience as we work through it.

One of the more fascinating moments in “The Wisdom of Trauma” was when Dr. Maté brought up stress, something we’re all susceptible to. Stress can manifest in any number of ways — headache, stomach issues, back problems, etc. … Let’s take asthma as an example. There is a huge contradiction in the way a condition like asthma has been traditionally treated. In many instances, asthma is ostensibly brought on by stress. So how do we normally treat asthma? With steroids, which is a copy of cortisol: a stress hormone. Is it any wonder why so many of the conditions we suffer from never seem to be treated adequately? “Stress may very well derange the immune system,” says Dr. Maté.

“The Wisdom of Trauma” is one of those documentaries that leaves you feeling not only informed, but hopeful. Dr. Gabor Maté himself suffers from trauma of “abandonment, rage, and despair,” due to his family’s experiences in Nazi Germany when he was a baby. In the film, he details his journey to acquainting himself with these parts, reconciling them, and taking each day as it comes. And while he doesn’t dismiss the utility of pharmaceuticals, he firmly believes there is no substitute for trauma-informed psychotherapy (and sometimes the necessity of exploring other vehicles of inward travel, like ayahuasca, a South American psychoactive brew) to get to that part of oneself that is hiding deep within. It’s a modality like this that can help jimmy the door open to those hidden parts.

Again, the screening of “The Wisdom of Trauma” is on Feb. 4, a Sunday afternoon, at 4 pm at the M.V. Film Center. All proceeds will go to benefit the Red House Peer Recovery Support Center on the Vineyard. After the screening there will be a panel discussion with Kathy Burns Power, lead clinician at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services; Molly Purves, a clinician at Island Counseling Center; and other figures who work for and within the recovery community.

For more information about the screening of “The Wisdom of Trauma,” contact the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center by calling 508-696-9369, or visit mvfilmsociety.com. If you’re struggling with addiction and want to seek out a community of like-minded, supportive people, contact the Red House by going to redhouserecovery.org, or call 508-693-2900.