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We need to talk about PTSD

Using the hashtag #PTSDChat to spread the word, I paint the trauma of war veterans, rape survivors and first responders.

Protect the protectors. Credit: Kate Gillie. Protect the protectors. Credit: Kate Gillie.

Bruce Kruger isn’t dead, but he is stuck. A police officer with the Ontario Provincial Police service, in 1977 Kruger shot and killed an escapee from Joyceville Penitentiary; in 1980 he pulled two bodies from a lake; in 1981 he found a colleague’s frozen body with two bullet holes between his eyes.

The talk show running through his head is that of a wounded thing, angry and scared: wary and constantly vigilant. The funnel through which all life must slide is plugged solid. 

One in eight adults globally will be at some point traumatized so that it injures their brains. An injury can occur in the brain when we are unable to do something to protect either ourselves or another during a traumatic event: 'helpless' and 'hopeless' are the two components of both PTSD and suicide. We now know that we have 72 hours to emote, understand, empathize and process that trauma before the brain stores this event as PTSD, an injury in the mechanics of our sequencing and cognitive processes. 

Mainstream psychology uses a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy model (which from the outset assumes a cognitive brain - which, when triggered, a PTSD brain is not) to pull out various traumas, dust them down and talk about them, believing that in so doing Bruce and those like him will be able to unplug the clog and move forward with their lives. To be triggered means that there is something (a smell, sound, situation, person, feeling or touch: the ‘things’ that can trigger are infinite) that reminds the brain of that time when the individual was both helpless and hopeless, in mortal danger and therefore, is going there again. 

Kintsukoroi: being made more beautiful by the breaking. Credit: Kate Gillie.

In some cases, rather than healing, CBT scratches the scab off the wound and leaves it to bleed, to become infected. This raises the likelihood of death by suicide, or of the individual developing any number of auto-immune diseases as a result of their body running on adrenaline and cortisol.  

I started #PTSDChat on Twitter in April 2015. It provides an anonymous safe place for people to share their stories, learn about new methods of treatment, connect to others, and find support. It is fast-paced, reactive and instant in nature, resembling a boisterous meeting of old friends where experiences are reflected and mirrored. In #PTSDChat, those who feel isolated can have their pain normalized by those who have lived through the same experiences. It is ‘our normal’. The first responders, war veterans, rape victims, child abuse survivors, domestic violence survivors and those who have had to stand helplessly by while others were hurt, can have a brain injury that affects dramatically their ability to live.

Part of the PTSD experience is a lack of self-worth that says we deserve what happened to us, that we are weak, that we are in fact all that those who hold onto stigmatizing stereotypes would have us believe we are, i.e. that rape victims earned their abuse, that those of us with PTSD should just let go of the past and my favourite, ‘just get over it’. I’ve found that normalization of experience and behaviours is key to being able to unclog that funnel in our brains. 

Each art piece illustrated here is one that I have painted for a PTSD survivor. Piece by piece, I paint the detritus clogging those individual funnels. I take that journey, the conversation in their heads and I put it on a canvas. In so doing they no longer need to carry it with them: the canvas holds the story so they can take control of their lives without the echoes of pain haunting them. The painting reminds them that their story is understood by another, it is no longer part of their body, nor do they have to wear it, it allows them to breathe and hear a different talk show host, one that kindly says: “move forward”.

This piece is for Katia: a rape survivor. Credit: Kate Gillie.

I posted a general question on Facebook, Twitter and my website: “If you were a colour and shape, what would they be?” A shocking answer came back to me: “A black circle surrounded by red.” Innocuous to some, but not to me. It terrified me and I went straight to the Twitter feed that submitted it, an Australian veteran who was raped by her own comrades aboard an Australian naval mission. There was one last post: “I can’t do this anymore.” 

Unable to connect and not knowing where in the world she might be, I began to paint her story. Posting it. Explaining the journey.  What I saw and why. Finally, it was complete and I posted it, stood back and prayed she was still alive to see it. I felt sheer joy and relief when she contacted me to say that she had watched it progressing, that it had spoken of her journey to where she is now, that she felt the weight of her rapes released to the canvas, that the love and understanding of another human being of her trauma expressed on this canvas had pulled her back to the living.

She now helps others on #PTSDChat - those who are regulars on #PTSDChat know her story when she offers it to support other war veterans and rape survivors, but we remain respectful always of our need for privacy, even when it has been stripped from us through the trauma we have survived. 

This piece is for Joseph Murphy, a Canadian war veteran. Credit: Kate Gillie.

'Joseph' depicts a badly injured, traumatized Canadian war veteran: it shows his recovery story as he works to find his place in this world again. His injuries are those of an IED, an ambush while in the military overseas. The transition from war to home is one that regularly kills returning veterans: none of our governments is honouring our duty to support members of the armed services. They come home injured in mind and body, we have no funding for their transitioning back to civilian life, no long term plans for their needs.

On #PTSDChat we have discussed amongst many of the issues faced by returning war veterans, including that of homelessness, and why veterans choose to be homeless - a fact that comes as a shock to too many in seats of power. Without funding for retraining programs there is no hope for them to transition successfully to civilian life. The painting suggests the ways in which horses and dogs help veterans and first responders reconnect with the world, and stay plugged in, fighting against potentially deadly forms of isolation.

This piece is for Jay Davies, an Alberta fire fighter. Credit: Kate Gillie.

'Jay' shows a Canadian fire fighter’s many traumas. These include holding a young girl in her last moments, having had to break her leg while trying to release her from underneath the subway train her boyfriend had shoved her under. He had already had to manhandle the boyfriend’s body over his own to get to the girl. Another young girl died in his arms as he tried to save her; she had been run over by a bus in downtown Edmonton and remained pinned under it whilst he soothed her passing.

This canvas aims to allow him to let go of these and the others he could not save, to feel worthy of love and care, to understand how he came to be injured and how he needs to move forward. He uses the symbology within the canvas to describe the pillars of fire fighting, the cues hidden within it that hold the memories of the traumas and a place for the ghosts to rest.

In our #PTSDChat we often refer to the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi, “to repair with gold”, which is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer, understanding as the artist does so that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Art heals in magical ways, it is a massage for the brain and an easily accessible tool for those with brain injuries who wish to let go of the ‘why’ I came to be here, focus instead on the ‘how’ I move on, unplug my funnel and find a new place in the world. 

Those who have been traumatized will never be what they were, they are remade into something that is beyond measure stronger, more beautiful, kinder and empathatic.


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