PTSD Spirituality: Defeat PTSD-Identity with Art and Creativity

Learning to Draw

Learning to Draw

Art and any form of creativity help us to heal from our PTSD.  Creativity beats back PTSD’s assault against our personal identity, against our sense of self. PTSD wants us to feel we are worthless, we have no value, and that we are so tainted by trauma that there is no hope for us. Exercising creativity can be painful, physically, psychologically, and spiritually, but the pain can help us heal and defeat the PTSD-Identity.

I had not intended to post an essay today. My efforts today were supposed to stay focused on the PTSD Spirituality books I am writing. But, my focused veered. I was writing about how the PTSD-Identity tries to alienate all of our most important relationships, including our relationship with our own self.  I ended up dealing with some personally painful memories.

The PTSD-Identity

PTSD seeks to overwrite Your-Identity with the PTSD-Identity. If it does so fully, then you are in trouble. You are then more likely to fall into despair, engage in some form of self-harm (usually more than one form), and be at a higher risk for suicide.

If PTSD can damage us so that our identity equates to the PTSD-Identity where one feels they have no self-worth, hope, or value, then they are at risk for self-harm at a minimum and suicide at the worst.

As I was working on the book and writing about how the PTSD-Identity affects us I used part of my own personal story. As I wrote it, I relived some of those bad times. It was unpleasant, it hurt psychologically. I can vividly remember my days as as “Half a Man” in America.

They are not pleasant memories, some of the influences of that time still task me with pain and bitterness (an example of how subsequent PTSD can be catalyzed based on how people treat our suffering). But these memories don’t make me feel like physically harming myself anymore. I have learned I have more value than that. And, perhaps, that is why this is all worth telling.

What follows is an excerpt from the ongoing book project. Yeah, it focuses on me, but if your still reading, then you knew it was coming.

Book Excerpt

Part of our personal identity and self-image comes from our relationships. When those relationships are damaged our own identity can become damaged. When our relationship with our own self is damaged, we are at greatest risk.

It is not uncommon for someone with PTSD to say, depending on the trauma and the age in which it was inflicted, “I don’t know who I am anymore,” or something like, “I never got to become who I was meant to be.” Whether as an adult or a child, PTSD has damaged their relationship with their own selves.

For example, I was once a physically strong young man, a soldier, a martial artist, and a middle distance runner. I was also able to earn a middle class income. Now I am disabled, walk short distances with difficulty, I can’t run, and I fall down sometimes without warning. And, I have no significant earnings, which causes its own set of problems.

This was a hard set of adjustments. I did not know it before, but much of my personal identity had been wrapped up in the combination of my physical abilities and my earning potential.

Did other people have it worse than me? Sure, you bet! But that does not make one’s personal journey any easier. Indeed, it’s a cop out to diminish one person’s real suffering or disability by comparing them to someone who has it so much worse. By that standard, we would never have any compassion for anyone because someone was always worse off.

The Cripple. The Half a Man.

My loss of physical ability and how it affected my identity was reinforced by some incidents where I got mocked and stigmatized as “the crippled guy.”

True, many people have shown me compassion and understanding (and I am grateful as it helped to prevent my suicide when I was at my most vulnerable).

Yet, many did not. Society taught me through hard experience that I was “half a man” due to my physical and economic diminishment. This damaged my sense of self, my identity. In terms of the right relationships which create peace, it damaged my relationship with my own self.

In those days I no longer really knew who I was anymore. I was no longer the person, no longer had the qualities, American society valued: strong and self-reliant; a money-maker.

I became something devalued, less than fully human and someone who had to be stepped around, accommodated, and not always helped up when I fell down.

One night, while I was feeling like crap and worthless, for reasons I still don’t understand, I made a drawing of a lynx. My wife, who has a background in art, told me that if I applied myself, I could probably get to be pretty good as an artist. I bought a “How To Draw” book and spent at least 30 minutes a day with it over three months.

Through art I discovered a deeper identity within myself. This form of non-verbal communication allowed me to deal with pain, anger, grief, and bitterness. The art drained those toxins and allowed me to then discover beauty, light, and life. Art allowed me expression and a reason to live.

I learned that art is a form of prayer, communion with the divine.

When my health stabilized enough, I returned to grad school. I discovered a knack for teaching and for whatever reason the students came to me with their problems, their survivals of sexual assault, incest, and molestation. We worked together on finding hope, meaning, and the will to live. They discovered they could have a future unchained by the worst of their PTSD. So did I.

I found an even deeper identity as I became a part-time professor, an artist, and eventually a spiritual director, helping other PTSD survivors find hope and reasons to not kill themselves.

This new identity, and the more authentic relationships which came with it, helped me to realize that even I, with my flaws, my deficiencies, and my PTSD have been created in the Image and Likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). These days I may still get stressed, triggered, and be in physical pain, but I know I have value and realize I have self-worth.

Nowadays, I am a sort of creative hope-monger. It’s an identity I can live with and which does not diminish me in my own eyes. I am still affected by my PTSD, but my personal identity is no longer overwritten by the PTSD-Identity. Is there still pain and hard memories, still PTSD symptoms? Yes, but they don’t compel me to suicide. Sure, I would love to be able to run and not be in pain, but I prefer this identity to the one I lost.

-End of Book Excerpt

The way that worked for me to rediscover my identity is not the one and only way. Not everyone will pick up a pencil and learn to draw (but if I could, just about anyone could!).

But there is something in the realm of art and creativity which can help each of us to heal. Whether it is writing, music, sculpture, drawing or painting, or anything we can think of as craft. Regardless of the particular mode of expression, creativity is life affirming.

Creativity affirms your life. And your life matters!

Take a look at the song and video of “Trying to Find My Way Home,” by Iraq War veteran Jason Moon. He was a soldier, now he is a singer-songwriter who helps people stay alive. This song has offered hope to many PTSD sufferers and I know it has saved lives.

The song and video transforms traumatic experiences into something which can give us hope and the desire to live. You can learn more about Jason Moon and his work at Warrior Songs.

Is There a Grand Thesis Here (or, is he finally finished?)?

Yes, there is. Art and creativity can save our lives.

They allow us to drain the fever swamps of the PTSD-Identity and to discover hope and a personal reason to be. Whether through artwork, writing, music, or any form of craft, we can re-discover, and in some cases initially discover, the beauty and light of life as we reclaim our own individual identity.

As always, You Have Value.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z


  1. A simple humble thanks for your words. Your experience helps people like me realise I’m not alone and I can relate to your journey, so chances are you could relate to mine. My isolation has been 20+ years. I’ve worked on myself lots so my level of isolation had reduced but this part of my identity is where my focus is right now. It creeps up on me again, plays out its cycle then goes back to the shadows. I’m calling ‘it’ out on canvas on my terms…writing down its name, behaviour, extra dialogue, then draw it, paint it, accept its there to process it, to work on letting it go. ‘She’ has a name but until I’m ready to pick up my paintbrush or pen to learn more about her, she remains ever so nicely quiet. Thanks again and I wish you joy, peace and happiness! 🙂

    • Hello Keiko,
      You’re exactly right, art allows us to call it out on our terms. That allows us the time to heal and also exercise the wounds so we can get as much use back as we can. Calling out its name and shining a light on it through your artwork helps defeat it and to empower you. Congratulations on taking back your life, identity, and dignity, a brushstroke at a time!
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. Very encouraging and beautifully written. Thank you! I look forward to reading your book when it comes out!

    • Hi Lee, Sorry for the tardiness of my response (do people still say “tardy”?), life’s been it usual adventure of late. Very glad you liked it! Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  3. Thank you for your entry, Dr. Z. Your writings always give us a lot to consider. I have found joy in making my own greeting cards. It is a creative outlet for me. Every year around Christmas time I bring card making supplies to a shelter for women living in situations involving domestic violence. I appreciate your post as it reinforces that my efforts are probably helpful to the women who create cards with the supplies I bring them. You have so much to offer the world, and have taught me a great deal. I hope that you are feeling better.

    • Hi, Queta,
      Making greeting cards and providing supplies to women struggling with domestic violence is a double-win, in fact it is a double-grace. Engaging in creativity is a healing process. The women involved experience caring compassion that is not condescending. It allows them to explore their own creativity and opens a new possibility for self-worth and hope. Part of the grace of what you are doing is that it puts love into action. Not just mere drive-by caring words, but actual actions that help reinforce self-worth and human dignity. It’s wonderful that you are doing this!
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  4. Dr. Z, it was so nice to see you in my “in box.” This evening has been one of the worst in a long time. My meager support has been taken away (my acupuncturist) and Kaiser’s psychiatric department just sent me a long letter after I complained about being seen in a room visible to the public, and ruled that I was physically intimidating, profane, etc. My self-worth is abysmal, and I am hopeless for the future. So your essay came at the perfect time. I’m thankful for you, Dr. Z.

    • Harry, what an awful set of experiences. It is not unusual for the so-called “professionals” to suddenly claim we are the ones with the problem when they are the ones who are not holding up their end. Would that it were different.
      I hope you were able to do something creative and life-affirming in the face of that darkness.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

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