Sharp Objects mental health check in: Fix

Episode 3, debut 7/22/18: Amy Adams, Henry Czerny.photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO. Acquired via HBO Media Relations.
Episode 3, debut 7/22/18: Amy Adams, Henry Czerny.photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO. Acquired via HBO Media Relations. /
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Past trauma starts to creep to the forefront of Camille’s consciousness in the latest episode of Sharp Objects. How is unresolved PTSD impacting Camille’s life? We discuss.

Hello there. Are you watching Sharp Objects on HBO? Are you curious to learn more about mental health and addiction? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Sharp Objects will delve into some serious territory when it comes to women and mental health issues. As a therapist focusing on substance abuse treatment for over a decade, my hope is to sherpa us all through this limited series by providing some real-life context for the disorders and behaviors seen on screen. Ready to dive in? Let’s go. This week, our focus is on PTSD — aka: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. 

To borrow a phrase from Shrek – Camille Preaker is like an onion. The girl has layers. And it seems that the purpose of this eight-episode limited series is to reveal each layer with as much atmospheric drama as possible.

This week, we learned about a serious and horrific loss that Camille (Amy Adams) suffered while ostensibly receiving treatment at a St Louis inpatient mental health facility in the months before heading down to Wind Gap. Using the context of Camille’s inpatient treatment, episode “Fix” finally provided some solid backstory, and definitively showed us that she is dealing with PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Since the very beginning, viewers had more than a hunch that Camille has been struggling to stay afloat as she’s weighted down by a bevy of heavy memories that could probably sink a tanker. Her reliance on substance abuse to stay functional has definitely been a giant warning sign. Her gauzy, fluttering flashbacks are another.

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Even though Camille is an unreliable narrator – she’s wildly biased and always intoxicated – we’ve been given telling peeks of her traumatic past through the wall of protection that she’s built for herself. Occasionally we’ll get to piece together an entire sequence of events from her mind’s eye, and sometimes her psyche only allows us a nanosecond of clarity. A blink of a potentially threatening encounter with some teenage boys in her youth here, a flash of a beloved sister there – these haunting memories constantly threaten to slip through her mental lock box. And while we as viewers yearn to learn more about Camille’s past, what we do learn is predicated on the fact that she’s fighting a losing battle to drown all of her demons with a steady stream of Absolut vodka and denial. Her rapidly fraying sanity is our plot line.

Until now – unless you’ve read the book that the series is based upon – it’s been impossible to get a handle on the exact trauma Camille is reeling from. Even for book readers, it’s curious that the very first story the series chooses to give us in full seems to mirror Camille’s own experiences with mental health as a teen, albeit with a tragically different conclusion.

Sydney Sweeney, fresh off her heartbreaking stint as Eden in Season 2 of The Handmaids Tale, steps into the role of Alice, Camille’s roommate in an inpatient facility that appears to focus on the treatment of self-harm. Camille checks in and spies the empathetic nurse (Stacie Greenwell) allowing Alice to surreptitiously listen to music on her iPhone. The two end up as roomies, and Camille feels drawn to this young girl, helping her fix her makeup before a family visit, and, when the family visit doesn’t go well, sneaking some therapeutic music to her new friend.

Sharp Objects mental health
Episode 3, debut 7/22/18: Sydney Sweeney, Amy Adams.photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO. Acquired via HBO Media Relations site. /

Satisfied with her good deed, Camille goes to take care of herself by calling… someone? We’re not too sure who she’s chatting with in that hallway, but when she returns she finds that Alice has committed suicide by ingesting an entire bottle of Drano. The scene she returns to is gruesome and horrifying, and it’s enough to send Camille scrambling to harm herself. In an instant, she yanks a loose screw out of the toilet tank and scrapes away at her flesh, desperately trying to ease her pain and erase her current reality.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to realize that this event certainly qualifies as a potential precursor to PTSD. In fact, the first criterion for PTSD as laid out in the DSM-5 partially reads: “Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”. How individuals react to said exposure – whether it be a direct experience, witnessing a traumatic event, or learning about the event if it occurred to a loved one – is the basis for the PTSD diagnosis.

The full list of diagnostic criteria is quite lengthy, and it can be accessed here. According to the APA, the projected lifetime risk for PTSD (age 75) is 8.7%. However, according to the DSM-5, there are gender issues, such as increased exposure to sexual abuse and violence, that indicate that the prevalence of PTSD is generally higher for women than it is for men. Again, if you’re a human with a pulse, this interpretation probably makes sense to you, especially given the outpouring of #MeToo and #TimesUp stories that have been flooding the news recently.

As a provider, the lifetime statistic of 8.7% doesn’t make sense to me. I think it’s much higher. Granted, I work in substance abuse, a field in which individuals are more likely to present with PTSD, but given the fact that our society doesn’t place a premium on coming forward and speaking about issues, whether they be traumas, behavioral issues, or anything else that may be causing distress in our daily lives, the self-report number for these types of mental health issues has almost certainly got to be low.

In my experience, people do all sorts of things – such as engaging in maladaptive behaviors like cutting, substance abuse, sex, etc – to mask or quiet symptoms related to mental health disorders.  Unfortunately, these people often don’t find help. So… here’s where I make my weekly plug for therapy. My personal belief is that everyone needs and deserves a good therapist, so you owe it to yourself to go and seek one out. You can use search tools online, call up your insurance company, or even just ask around on social media. The most important thing is to find a therapist you trust and that you feel you can work with in the long run.

At the conclusion of this week’s episode, Camille’s ghosts have come back to haunt her as she toys with the idea of leaving town. Her inability to cope or process with her traumas in a healthy or productive way is slowly whittling her sanity down into nothing. Given what we saw this week, she’s clearly not going back to treatment. So, as she unravels, what layer will be revealed next?

Related Story: Sharp Objects Mental Health Check In: Dirt

Please Note: If you feel as if you need to reach out after watching a triggering event on TV, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline at 1-877-SAMHSA7. If you or someone you know are in immediate crisis, do not hesitate to call 911.

‘Sharp Objects’ airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO.