If you’re someone who has the slightest interest in current affairs, then the last thing you probably need to read is yet another semi-informed examination of who’s to blame in the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard three-ring libel circus currently playing out in a Virginian courtroom.
I’m not going to add to the noise of speculation. In the end, each of them claims to have been abused by the other, and there’s been plenty of evidence presented to the court to suggest that perhaps that’s the closest we’ll ever get to the truth of the abuse question.
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from the court case that’s being played out minute by minute on US daytime TV is a better understanding of why people end up in toxic relationships, and how that then informs their emotional and physical behaviour – so looking at the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’.
When you strip it all down to its component parts, you realise that at the centre of the Amber and Johnny story is actually a very familiar and tragic tale of lives lived from an early age in trauma.
Take away the fact their jobs make them familiar to us and Johnny and Amber are about as identical to any other trauma victim as it’s possible to be, because trauma usually starts in childhood and the behaviour patterns and responses it triggers play out in broadly similar ways.
That’s not to say that everyone’s trauma experience is the same. It isn’t. In fact, whilst the themes of trauma may generally be common, the personal experience is always unique to the individual.
Neither is a traumatised individual always destined to go on to act out abuse or be drawn to abusive situations. Some do, but others may well live a half-lived life of quiet desperation. The lucky ones will find the right support to help them heal and build a life worth living.
The difference for Depp and Heard is that the toxicity of their respective individual lived experiences is amped up by the presence of both fame and money.
Make no mistake – we may never know the truth behind their mutual accusations of abuse, but the one thing that is near inarguable is that they are both innocent victims of early years trauma.
I’ve discussed previously the negative role that fame can play in mental health and relationships, but for those who have experienced trauma with a capital T, as Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have both done, love is often not love at all, but rather the emotional damage of one locking into that of the other.
One attribute of lived trauma is an undeniable attraction to those who display the same behaviour traits as the people that were responsible for hurting the trauma victim in the past.
Simplistically translated, this is the subconscious attempting to recreate the familiar past in the hope of achieving a better outcome, through which it can heal the trauma completely.
This process is called repetition compulsion and trying to break the pattern is akin to reversing an oil tanker, because the subconscious will always overpower the conscious – if trauma is unresolved, the pull to a potential equally traumatised partner will override any sensible objections to do otherwise.
The end result is almost always as inevitable as the initial attraction. Disastrous and damaging relationships in which the trauma, far from being eroded, is afforded legendary reinforcement.
This can be in the form of abuse, emotional toxicity, co-dependency, abandonment, or something else – and it’s known as a trauma bond, which trades on the powerful brain chemistry that’s fuelled by intense emotional experiences.
People often don’t understand why people like Johnny and Amber don’t simply cut their losses and walk away, and it’s easy to see why that’s the case. After all, why would you stay in a relationship that is so emotionally and physically damaging?
The answer to that question is that the connection made through a trauma bond is extraordinarily powerful, so much so that the potential pain of losing the relationship is perceived to be far greater than the misery of sticking with it.
I’d argue, in fact, that the neurochemical cocktail of a trauma bond is stronger than love.
Unfortunately fear can deepen bonding and traumatic violence in relationships greatly increases the intensity of the attachment bond, especially if this is moderated by frequent or occasional periods of positive behaviour, which are often a characteristic of abusive relationships.
Some survivors of abuse are continually and strongly attracted to people who represent excitement and who are able to re-create the same harmful situations over and over again.
For those that have experienced early trauma it can be that healthy people who display none of these damaging traits feel boring and devoid of the adrenaline rush that is associated with ‘love’.
It’s hard enough to heal trauma when you’re Joe or Jenny Nobody and no one is really watching. For Johnny Depp and Amber Heard it’s harder still. They’re locked in a court case that’s costing millions of dollars, is reputationally and professionally suicidal, and in the glare not only of their Hollywood peers, but also millions of American daytime TV viewers.
According to his lawyer, the Depp has lost around $40m in earnings since the actor’s ex-wife went public with her ‘catastrophic’ op-ed on the abuse she experienced at the hands of the unnamed – but clearly identifiable – Hollywood star. Doubtless, Heard has also suffered eyewatering financial losses amid the very public wreckage of their life story together.
Yet that is – or should be – the very least of their individual concerns. What we are all watching are the magnified deaths of the Hollywood dream and the further mental collapse of the two leads in a drama that could – and surely will, one day – form the basis of a Hollywood script.
To look at Depp’s and Heard’s body language and expressions is to see a knife thrust ever deeper into their psyche.
It’s not surprising. The detail of the testimony has been relentlessly unforgiving and of the kind you would probably rather deep six permanently. Certainly, it’s not the stuff you’d ordinarily want to be common knowledge among your family or friends, never mind a fame-obsessed global public.
There have been tales of uncontrolled rage, of physical beatings, of a finger being severed with a broken vodka bottle and of Heard defecating in the marital bed following an argument during which Depp announced he was planning to leave her.
Amid the obvious shared and individual trauma (both past and now, in the glare of a $100m libel case, ongoing) the spectre of narcissistic wounding is present.
This is another emotional issue that is usually seeded in the period between early childhood and the mid-teen years, and is the response to a childhood where persistent, chronic or ritualistic shaming and humiliation was experienced.
In narcissistic wounding the shame is so unbearable it can be that the individual works really hard at ‘external grabbing’, striving to become as big, successful, and powerful as possible in an attempt to escape it.
This can drive ambition, drive alcohol and substance abuse, and it can also drive us into trauma bonds that initially create an intensity of feeling powerful enough to numb the shame.
But it is also evident in extreme emotional behaviour that isn’t immediately recognisable, and which may only become evident in the event of a specific trigger.
This answers the ‘how could she/he have not known they were unstable before they married?’ question and may explain why both Heard and Depp have both spoken in testimony of how the other one could be the most wonderful human being in the world one moment, and a monster the next.
Where better than Hollywood to hide in plain sight if you suffer with narcissistic wounding, which creates an overwhelmingly powerful need to be loved and validated?
The problems start when you realise you’ve been hopelessly drawn to another shining star who’s also working their ass off to blaze brightly and mask the wounding that lies below.
As the famed Swiss psychoanalyst once said: until we make the unconscious conscious it will direct our lives and we will call it fate.
To repeat, it serves no useful purpose to speculate on who is wrong and who is right in this case. Truth is always the first casualty of war, and it may be lost forever to the conflict between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.
As a species capable of empathy, it is better, more constructive, and far more educationally rewarding to acknowledge that whatever else one or both has done, they are also victims here of devastating childhoods.
Abuse is never ever okay. Never. It should always be called out and it should always be addressed and never minimised.
But I started this article by explaining that its purpose was not to identify or minimise the events that have happened, but to explore the reasons behind why people like Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are drawn to intense relationships that ultimately only succeed in retraumatising those involved.
Unresolved trauma is at the heart of so much that is wrong in the world. It is a plague that spreads a dark cancer of pain and misery on a truly biblical scale. Those infected by it are often unable to address it, and so it slithers unseen to their partners and children, and to anyone else too close to escape it.
For all but the lucky ones who are able to put the hard yards into healing and building a new life, trauma drives addiction and starts wars, and it lays waste to everyone and everything in its path.
Trauma is never your fault, but healing from it and not acting it out on others is your responsibility. And it is work that can only be successfully achieved off-script and off-camera.