Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Creativity

A fairly grim title.

I have chronic depression and complex-PTSD. The former I have had since about the age of 17, the latter I picked up whilst working in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq during the various wars that blighted those peoples. I’m now 54 and, over the last six years, have become a photographer. I’ve had about five years’ worth of talking therapies, and have now received EMDR treatment and am on a range of meds. About five years ago I was in a very bad place, barely functional, obsessed with finding some sort of redemption (I had behaved like an absolute arse during the worst moments of my – then undiagnosed – PTSD) and was suicidal. Nowadays, I’m much “better”; I manage the PTSD well, the chronic depression has for so long been a part of my life that it’s just that, a part of my life.

But there is a part of me, a rational part, that misses the mania. I also feel that whilst my creative work as a photographer has improved in that it is more measured, more consistent, and more comprehensible, it has also lost something. By learning to take care of myself, I’ve lost the screaming “fuck this” of my early photography.

The image above was taken on a winter’s day up on Dartmoor before I had had the EDMR treatment and before I was on the meds. The same with the image below:

They’re both “odd”. Neither image looks anything like the scene that was actually in front of me. To my eyes both are very jarring and violent. I love them still.

The next image, of the sentry post on Dartmoor, was taken and edited around the time that I was almost completely broken and actively considering ending my life. This image was actually taken on a sunny day, around midday. The violence of the previous images has gone to be replaced with a profound sense, to my eyes, of ending, of depression.

Now, let’s be realistic. Although I love these images and the power within their edits there is no way that I could have continued to produce work like this. I wouldn’t have been around to do so.

Obviously the EMDR and medication have been very positive for me. I also think it’s worth noting that I haven’t had any talking therapies since going on the meds. I do however have an informal network of creative friends, Nick – a photographer, Mel – a writer, and Saskia – a ceramist, who, although we hardly ever talk about creativity or mental health, are an inspiration in their creativity and their work process, but also act as touchstones and mentors and have no hesitation in telling me exactly where I’m going right or wrong.

I can now “projectise” my work. I no longer produce random imagery but work to produce bodies of work that, I hope, sit well together thematically and make sense to the viewer. I’m now capable of subtlety and nuance. Five years ago subtlety was a foreign country.

Obviously my work is still “dark”. As I said the chronic depression isn’t going anywhere but instead I incorporate it into my imagery, or hint at it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the work that I’m now producing. It’s immeasurably better than that I was producing five years ago. Whilst this is in part due to the fact that I’m now a better photographer it’s also due to the fact that I can now manage my PTSD.

Interestingly I do, very occasionally see flashes of the PTSD coming through into more recent images. I’ve done a series of images within caves. Although I still retain a fairly cavalier attitude towards physical safety and comfort, taking some of these images have been on the edge of being perilous and occasionally scared the living daylights out of me. These next three images are all taken within cave systems on Dartmoor; they’re very different to my (now) normal style of photography with much more colour and abstraction within their editing.

These images, I believe, owe a lot of their creativity to the fact that, whilst I now manage it, the PTSD is still there, bubbling away malignantly beneath the surface. And I’m glad of this, I’m neither ashamed nor apologetic for being mentally unwell and I would hope that my work and creativity can still reflect all elements of this.