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Woodstock: Flashback to an Early Experience with Population-Wide Trauma Healing

A psychiatrist's perspective on community healing.

Dr. James Gordon at Woodstock
Dr. James Gordon at Woodstock

It’s 50 years since Woodstock. Hard to imagine!!

I didn’t take any pictures, but recently, mysteriously, a snapshot showed up. It’s me in braids and a beard. It looks like I’m next to the helicopter on which my then-girlfriend, and now ex-wife and dear friend, Sharon Curtin and I flew in with Joan Baez. And here also is a picture of Joan.

Just a few hours before, Sharon and I – a crisis intervention nurse and a psychiatric resident – had answered a desperate call for “medical help.” We waded through the mud and set up a clinic, a first aid tent, at the top of the natural amphitheater in which the main acts were playing.

Within minutes hundreds of people – many of them city kids, apparently in the country for the first time and terrified by it – lined up. They had cut feet and infected insect bites, and bronchitis. And many, many, having ingested they knew not what, were twitching in place and falling down in the mud, or recoiling from aliens who they believed were performing surgery on their brains, or other horrors that were invisible to us.

Sharon and I worked around the clock, with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Richie Havens, Joan, and all the rest inspiring and accompanying us. After a while, it became clear that our first aid tent couldn’t possibly accommodate all the kids who had taken too many drugs. I asked and somehow, the Hog Farm, Hugh Romney’s tribe of skillful, canny caregivers got the message. They brought us another, much larger tent.

While Sharon tended to the kids’ physical problems, and the anxiety that went with them, I invited the drug-troubled into the big tent.

It became pretty clear, pretty fast, that by myself I couldn’t tend to all of them – at first fifty or sixty, with more arriving. And then, in a moment of the kind of intuition that’s so important to any clinician, I decided that I’d mobilize the kids themselves – to give, as well as receive, what they needed.

I asked all the kids whose eyes were popping with amphetamine overdoses to walk around the ones who had taken too many barbiturates and other downers. And, like a kind uncle, I introduced the girls and boys who were on bad trips  to one another, encouraged them to sit close around a candle, and when terrors took over, to hold one another.

All through the night, when I wasn’t helping Sharon in the first aid tent, I circulated among them, a host at what began to feel like a healing party, urging the kids on uppers to keep mobilizing the kids on downers, quieting the fears of the bum-trippers, encouraging connection.

By mid-morning, not so long after Jimi Hendrix’s amazing anthem, the children began to rise – not too much the worse for wear – to return to the music they’d come to hear.

Crisis intervention, yes. And also an example that has stayed with me: how all of us, even when we’re a bit wrecked, can be there for one another.

James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist, is the author of the forthcoming The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, and Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. 

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