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Lessons About Trauma from the Lincoln Lawyer

Written by Steve Carleton | Updated on Mar 2, 2023

In the new Netflix series, Lincoln Lawyer, we meet defense attorney, Mickey Haller. The season begins and ends with him alone on a beach, the apparent site of a traumatic event he experienced. The audience learns that he became addicted to painkillers as a result. He’s seen contemplating venturing back out into the ocean to confront his fear when he gets the call that he’s just inherited a murdered colleague’s practice. From that point on, we watch as he dives headfirst into danger, always going the “extra mile” in defense of his clients. What you might have been left wondering is, will he go the extra mile for himself?

His driver on the show, Izzie, a client he meets that is in recovery, offers some wisdom during an intense moment, “You can’t recover until you know what you are recovering from.” Mickey was on the edge of relapse, he had been triggered back to guilty feelings related to a memory of failing a former client. He had been using opiates during the defense and lost the case. In an instant, he was on the brink of drinking to numb the discomfort and shame he was feeling. The audience was left in suspense, and we are relieved when Izzie intervenes on Mickey’s instinct to numb the emotions.

Avoiding emotions and pain is one of the most common human experiences. Most of us at some point have drank to relax or find some relief. Afterall, we are genetically programmed to avoid pain because it represents danger. In our caveman days, those that survived evaded and learned more quickly what could kill them. Avoidance is how we evolved; it is in our DNA to escape when our senses alert us to a threat. Some, like Mickey, find functional and productive ways to avoid, some overwork, use drugs and alcohol, and others try to do both.

Lincoln Lawyer does a great job of keeping the audience in suspense and slowly building the plot. The fact is that by the end of the show we still have very little information about what happened to Mickey that led him to addiction and an 18-month sabbatical, nearly derailing his career. But willingly, the audience joins Mickey in his quest to avoid through at-times heroic and tireless legal defense. Typically, we need our leading man to be impenetrable, not vulnerable. He finds solace in driving his Lincoln around, literally, and figuratively staying on the move. This behavior is common among those that have experienced trauma. Many stay busy so the mind doesn’t have time to drift back to a traumatic memory.

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Few people are willing to talk about trauma they have experienced. Mickey’s ex-wives and daughter are worried about him at moments but cautious about talking to him about their concerns. This is common amongst family and their support team. In my work with families, I have seen them firsthand get nervous about bringing up hot topics. They experience the deep fear “If I bring that up, it might hurt them or cause them to relapse.” We don’t talk about trauma because it’s uncomfortable. I’ve never been to a dinner party where people discuss the worst things that have ever happened to them and how it’s affected their lives. We celebrate resilience but cringe at the healing process.

In the treatment of PTSD, it is critical to understand the two things that maintain symptoms: avoidance and stuck thinking. It is a quiet problem in that regard: people instinctually try to bury what happened. The last thing you want to do after a terrifying, life-threatening, or awful event is think or talk about it. Numbing and avoiding, especially with substances, becomes the solution. The problem is that over time these tactics stop working as well.

If this weren’t already enough, people’s minds begin to oversimplify what’s happened. To make an awful situation make sense, blaming oneself for either what happened or the “inadequate” response to it creates a mental stickiness. Trauma is almost always a very complex experience. Our brains want things to be simple. In the beginning, it is easier to digest “it was all my fault.” This line of thinking comes with the myth that “I can keep bad things from happening again.” These unrealistic and unhelpful beliefs fester over time, causing depression, anxiety, isolation, and hyperarousal that tends to cause anger and worsened quality of sleep. We never see the Lincoln Lawyer sleep but we do experience his dreamlike state driving through a desert far away from the city he lives.

It’s unclear after watching the show if Mickey has PTSD and whether he needs treatment to have a happy life. What I do know is that his response to trauma is common and what all humans are likely to experience for at least 3 months after something bad occurs. A simple common example of this response is getting rear-ended in a car. How long after that experience did you look at your rear-view mirror more closely at stops? That vigilance leads people to substance-use – and numbing the senses unfortunately does work in the short term. It is only after sustained periods of use that it becomes problematic and, over time, replaces other healthier coping skills.

In the season finale we see Mickey back on the beach. He appears to have his confidence back, his relationships and connections improved, and he is ready to venture back out into the surf. The show comes full circle and he walks back out into the water to at last confront this trigger. The ocean and his fear waited for his return. We bid farewell to the season by watching him rise to the challenge of walking back out into the ocean.

Healing from trauma is very difficult, but not complicated. We must confront the fear head on and push back on the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves about what happened. Like Mickey, many wait until they are ready to heal from these invisible wounds. The process is hard but most find the relief more than worth it in the end.

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Steve Carleton

Steve worked in the Department of Veterans Affairs for 10 years. He is a PTSD and substance use disorder expert with over 14 years of experience in and around addiction. Steve is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social work. He teaches cognitive behavioral therapies, Motivational Interviewing, assessment skills using DSM-5, amongst others.

Last medically reviewed on July 29, 2022

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