PTSD Spirituality: Creating Artwork, Poetry, and Music… Despite PTSD

Artwork and craft possess important healing aspects when it comes to PTSD.   From a theological perspective, anytime we create, we bring our souls into contact with the divine, the numinous, what I as a traditional Roman Catholic think of as the Holy Spirit, and what many of my non-Catholic friends think of as The Creative Force, or Ultimate Reality.  Regardless of how we choose to define this supernatural “Other,” it remains a force of Love – and love helps us to survive PTSD and at times even thrive within our PTSD.  But anyone who has ever tried to compose, draw, or play an instrument, knows that sometimes the creative flow that bathes us in life and love can seem rather distant and dry.  Is it possible to touch this Ultimate Love when we are in the midst of a PTSD episode or anxiety about PTSD in general?

Realizing That We Are Having PTSD Episode

One of the hardest things about PTSD is realizing that we have PTSD. We experience all of this mental turmoil, we endure physical symptoms of numbness, shaking, nausea, or even throwing up.  And, then there are the memory holes, or the difficulty of making simple decisions. On top of this we can have anxieties or paranoia and lock down our houses, keep the lights off, and do not answer the door or telephone. Such is the life of being at the mercy of PTSD (Granted, some days are better than others).

 Being creative and artistic in the midst of a PTSD episode is a difficult endeavor.

The First Order of Business in Surviving a PTSD Episode Is Realizing You Are Having a PTSD Episode.

This is easier said than done. But if you had progressed enough in the knowledge of your own particular PTSD, then you can be aware of what is happening to you even as you are ravaged by your own PTSD symptoms. In my case this took over 20 years. We did not have a good understanding of PTSD back then. If you acquired PTSD within, say, the last 10 years, then your outlook is much brighter than the previous generations who were traumatized and never realized that others suffered as they did.

First: Do No Harm

Even when we know we are having a PTSD episode, and we think that we have a good knowledge of how PTSD affects us, it is not unusual to be tempted by negative coping mechanisms. It is important that we avoid the behaviors which will only harm us and alienate others from us.

I recently had a birthday and I was struck by two thoughts: the first, I’m surprised to still be alive, to have survived this far; and second, that I have spent more of my life with PTSD than without PTSD. Yet, even though I think I know something about PTSD and spirituality, I also know that every time I have a new PTSD episode I am tempted to embrace negative coping behaviors.

Second: To Avoid Negative, Embrace Positive

It is not enough to simply avoid negative behaviors. There is still a vital need to do something about the symptoms that we are dealing with. We are still on fire.

While it is important to not throw gasoline on the PTSD fire, it is also important to douse the flames.

If the PTSD episode is bad enough then we might have to just settle for a firebreak to keep further damage from happening.

Artwork can serve as either a firebreak or the dousing of the PTSD fire.

It cannot be over emphasized that not only must we avoid the negative behaviors but that we must also embrace positive behaviors. Many forms of artwork constitute these positive behaviors.

And Now Comes the Hard Part

Even when we are feeling good, staying motivated to do artwork can be difficult. Even though I enjoy writing it can be very hard to get started. But I have found that I can write for 10 minutes then I can probably write for an hour or maybe even two. If I can bring myself to start a drawing and stay with it for 10 minutes then I can draw for quite some time. The very hardest part is just getting started.

Be Prepared to Need to Draw

In my own experience I have discovered something about myself. If I’m having a reasonable day, then I can afford a longer preparation period before I start working on an art piece or before I try to start writing. I can afford to think and plan and prepare. That process of preparation will not seem insurmountable and it (usually) won’t stop me before I get started actually trying to create something.

 But if I am dealing with the lack of energy, pain, headache, depression, despair, or the confusion that can come with a PTSD episode, then I do not have time to get ready to be creative. It is imperative that I just jump right in. If I spend time laying out my paints and getting everything ready then I will run out of energy  and desire before I can actually get started creating art.

What I need to have ready is an art project that I can immediately jump in to.

I must be sure to have no illusions that this piece of art will be framed and go to a gallery – or my inner censor will stop me before I start.  Gallery representation nor a sale nor public adulation is the goal of artwork engaged during a PTSD episode.  The goal is to promote life and not death.

  •  The purpose of this art is to help me cope with PTSD and perhaps be able to heal a bit more. 
  • The purpose of this art is to place me into a positive activity that taps into God and Life and simultaneously not embrace a negative behavior. 

 The artwork for me is like prayer.   PTSD leaves me two choices:  I can choose to engage a negative behavior that will drive me into deeper despair and anxiety, or I can fill that time and place with artwork.  In this way we get two benefits from art: we strive to be in touch with the Creative Divine and we don’t get drunk, do porn, engage in violence, etc.  It’s a double win.  Since it is a double win, the temptation to not do artwork will be strong.

I also carry around a notebook that I can write in. Much of my current thought on the subjects of divine grace, love, and radical forgiveness are currently taking shape in just such a notebook. Eventually some of that writing will show up on this website and/or in my book project on PTSD Spirituality.

Limitations of This Approach

There are some limits to what I suggest here. For example, I used to be able to oil paint. When I was healthier I very much enjoyed going to a park and painting nature. Oil paint, however, has a lengthy preparation and cleanup period compared to acrylics or colored pencils. While I love the look and feel of oil paint it is not realistic for me to think I will do that plein-aire (spelling?) oil painting in the midst of a PTSD episode.  Others may be able to do so. But for me, by the time I have all the paints out, colors mixed, the thinner prepared, my composition formed, etc., … Well, by that time I am physically exhausted and even more frustrated than I was before.

So it is probably not wise to try and do the preparation for an intensive art project as a means of dealing with an ongoing PTSD episode. Better to do something that is quick to begin and easy to put down with little or no clean up.

Remember, the reason we do artwork during a PTSD episode is

First, to get in touch with the creative divine, and

Second, to do something creative instead of something destructive to ourselves.

Too much preparation time of paints, media, backgrounds, and so forth, will probably lead to frustration and failure. PTSD thrives on these emotions and will then seek to drag us even further into the mire.

Happy Accidents & 100 Starts

It is quite possible (and reasonable) that something we do on the spur of the moment during a PTSD episode will develop into a finished piece of work later on. During a PTSD episode the primary aim is to not hurt ourselves. I may be able to bring myself to do some poetry, or maybe just some fragmentary writing, when I’m especially suffering from my PTSD. Later on I may go back to that piece of writing, or look at that drawing, and see a way to develop it further and perhaps even take it to completion.

During a PTSD episode the aim is not to have completed a piece of art.

The aim is to stay alive and not drown while we endure a PTSD Storm… art can serve as our life raft.

Any artist, writer, musician, and even some teachers, know they have to rehearse and practice 100 times or more for every piece that they actually finish or perform for an audience. This is true with or without PTSD.

Artwork allows us to touch the divine. Since God is Love, then to do meaningful artwork is to touch the Love that is God. Even an unfinished piece of art can be a conduit of love. And in the worst throes of my PTSD, I may not articulate a beautiful and poetic piece of prayer, but God hears and understands my anguish all the same.

Artwork and Crafts and Music Are Forms of Prayer

I believe in the value of dedicated prayer periods every day.  Yet, I also know that my actions are a form of prayer as well. If I am playing someone else’s music or trying to compose my own, ultimately it is a form of prayer.

Artwork, like prayer, can be the dialysis that removes the toxins from a wounded soul.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z

Comments

  1. Thanks Dr. Z. It usually feels so much better to work creatively. Didn’t realize you used to paint in oils. Left my paints up in the mountains but hoping to get them soon. The reminder you gave is well timed! Have a little humorous series on a Yoga Routine developed for protracted litigation. I’ll shoot it to you for a hoot. Hope all is well.
    Happy Birthday!

    • Hey Russell, Thank you for the birthday greetings and the inbound hoot-producing Yoga Routine. I really enjoyed oil painting, both landscapes and still life. Now, even at full energy, I am exhausted before I even have everything laid out. Still trying to do some reading and writing and the ocassional drawing or poem. Hope the challenges are breaking in the right direction for you. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. Thanks for the inspiration, John! Getting started is such an important piece. I have the same problem starting my home practice of yoga! I’ve created and recorded an opening prayer for myself with a little special music behind it. It’s relatively easy for me to turn that on. It forms a transition between regular and non-ordinary time. While it plays, I get my yoga props ready but also am personally internally shifting. Any favorite — short!– piece of music or reading might serve as well. And, John, Happy Birthday! Your admirers — like me — are glad you’re here!

    • Good to hear from you! I continue to hold together in Milwaukee and do what I canh. Yoga, indeed any regular exercise pracctice, is an excelolent way to get a day started. It sounds like you have made a morning ritual with movement of body, music, and prayer. Liturgy is always a great way to start a day – or to keep a day going. And, thank you, Amy, for your work with vets and other trauma survivors! Semper Pax, John

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