About a month ago, I marked two years since leaving a verbally abusive spouse. About two weeks ago, I had a panic attack on a Friday night date because something startled me just the wrong way. Because of performing artists like Molly Scullion, whose solo show, I’m OK, Are You OK?, part of Philadelphia Improv Theater’s (PHIT) Comedy’s Sketch Riot series, I remembered that I’m not on my own with this.
One woman’s story
Yes, it’s a comedy show about overcoming abuse through therapy. As Scullion (a recent Temple grad and veteran PHIT performer, teacher, and writer) respectfully noted before the performance, she doesn’t expect her experiences or her method of dealing with them to represent anyone else. It’s an appropriate preface, because (especially for women) if you haven’t experienced significant trauma, someone you love has. As her show demonstrates, even with successful therapy there is no template for recovery.
Scullion’s raw narrative spans her childhood and college years up through the present, with many doggedly funny asides. Molested at daycare as a young child, Scullion describes how an experience she blocked for years suddenly bubbled up just after her high school graduation.
A therapy primer
The resurfaced trauma caused crippling anxiety and depression. In the show, Scullion refers to those newly intrusive memories as an “internal catcaller,” constantly interrupting her daily life and thoughts with malign imagery and comments. Increasingly debilitated, she seeks help through traditional talk therapy, and then an intensive practical and psychological regimen proven to help those with PTSD, from combat veterans to sexual-assault survivors.
Besides the personal story, her show might be worthwhile as a window on the therapeutic process for those who don’t need it or haven’t undertaken it. For the proactive patient, effective psychotherapy can be as grueling as a killer workout program or physical therapy following a major injury.
In addition to confronting her trauma repeatedly, Scullion learned to manage triggers connected to it, from the sound of a television soap opera to the sight of sunshine streaming through a window.
We hear a lot about “triggers” these days, and nobody’s going to tie up that debate anytime soon. Part of the reason for the topic’s complexity is that triggers can be just as startling and unpredictable to those experiencing them as they are to bystanders watching the fallout. We have no control over what stimuli or situations our brains incorporate into trauma, or when those circumstances might upend what seems like a perfectly normal moment.
Embarrassment on the el
Scullion tells the story of her own “first setback” following a successful course of therapy -- she re-encounters the locale where memories of her trauma resurfaced -- proving recovery isn’t a straight line. I remembered this myself a few weeks ago, when I crossed the street with someone I know and trust and he suddenly bellowed at a rude driver. My panicky symptoms lasted for a couple of hours, but a considerate partner helped soothe them and attended Scullion’s show with me a few weeks later. It provided an excellent foothold to talk about what had happened that night in the street.
Scullion’s script feels uneven at points, and the different people in her story could be better characterized onstage. I’d like to see what the performance could become if it kept its earthy incidental humor but wasn’t defined with a comedy billing (“Please laugh,” Scullion implored the audience in her curtain speech, in case they thought that laughs couldn’t accompany the aftermath of abuse).
But I’m OK, Are You OK? remains an exciting first shot at an important story shared in a brave and unusual way. I will watch with interest for some continued development of this show, which played to a mostly full house and has much to offer anyone who wants to understand how and why to thrive after trauma.