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Sam on PTSD

As part of Inked in Gray’s continued effort to raise awareness of mental health, I had the chance to speak with Osama (Sam) about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). We discussed his personal experience as well as thoughts & perceptions people have toward PTSD. 


Sam [from Inked]: As someone with considerable exposure to mental health & wellness, I find that even I have a pretty limited understanding of what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is. Like most people, I had assumed PTSD was when individuals coming back from a war zone hit the deck when a muffler pops off in the parking lot.  Help me better understand what PTSD is, and how it can manifest within an individual. 

Osama [Sam]: A lot of people seem to think that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is only a result of physical trauma that injured soldiers returning from war zones experience, those are the most heard of cases, but PTSD is actually very diverse. 

PTSD [can be] caused by physical, sexual, or emotional neglect or abuse, and when triggered, it causes symptoms like panic, anxiety attacks, flashbacks of the trauma, depression, elevated heart rate, breathlessness, high blood pressure, headache, etc. It can [also] be a collection of unprocessed traumatic memories buried in a person’s mind. 

Our brain subconsciously associates these traumatic memories with specific physical, visual, auditory or emotional stimuli which can trigger PTSD. One common example is that, for a survivor of a car crash, if they go on to develop PTSD, it may be triggered when they hear tires screeching. 

Sam [from Inked]: Factoring in that correlation does not always equate to causation, it seems that, historically speaking, there seems to be some connective tissue between some creatives and trauma. As a whole, how do you think stress and trauma affect creativity? Have you experienced traumatic events that have affected your own artistic endeavors?

Well, statistically speaking, in any given population, at least 50% of the people will experience some sort of trauma at some point in their lives. And after a person goes through trauma, they have a better understanding of what it’s like to be in that position, they know what it feels like. 

As a writer myself, I can say that going through trauma caused me to come toward art with a different perspective, with a very humane approach.

Also I think, as human beings, it’s the desire to communicate ideas and emotions that inspires artists/creatives to use this understanding to add an emotional layer to their creativity. And likewise, as human beings, we admire art that moves us emotionally. 

As for myself, I have had my fair share of traumatic experiences (none of which were physical). And I did observe some tonal shift in my writing afterwards, and that is some of my work that I hold most dear because it’s very personal and hits home. 

Sam [from Inked]: I’ve spent a great deal of time working amongst individuals with emotionally difficult histories, and have seen more modalities for addressing trauma than I can count. Amongst them, however, interventions such as art and music therapy seem to have been relatively successful at tapping into and addressing emotional trauma. Having said that, have you benefited from interventions such as art or music therapy, and did you find them to be effective in the short and long term?

A lot of the time, what can’t be said in words, can be expressed through art; that’s where art therapy and music therapy come in. And for the artists that go through trauma, art can be the most immediate outlet to process and heal to some degree. Not only does turning to art help digest traumatic memories, but it also makes the art more personal to the artist, which I think makes it all the more beautiful. 

And yes, I have benefited from using art to process traumatic memories. I’m a story-teller, a writer, and I find it very fulfilling to tell stories that are driven from pure human emotions. And it may be difficult sometimes to process trauma through art, but in the long term it can be good for a person’s mental health.  

Sam [from Inked]: Building on my previous question, what are some examples of arts fueled by trauma in media you’ve found to be particularly poignant or influential in your own work?

Whenever I think of trauma in art, “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh comes to mind. It’s one of the most recognized paintings but not a lot of people know the context and backstory to it. Vincent Gogh lived a difficult life both financially and emotionally, turning to self harm in the last two years of his life. He admitted himself to an asylum after he cut off his left ear. That is where he lived and painted some of his best paintings. The view in “Starry Night” is actually the view from the east-facing window of his room in the asylum. Drawn thirteen months before his death. It’s a mixture of imagination, memory, and emotions. 

Another example is Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. You can just hear and feel his pain and agony. Almost a lifetime of emotional neglect, poured into a single musical piece. A true masterpiece. 

Sam [from Inked]: As of this interview, the world is attempting to contain covid-19, and the United States is experiencing record levels of police brutalization which have elicited riots across numerous countries. What are some of the things creatives can do to address the instability we’re experiencing locally and abroad? Are the issues above (or any others) things you find yourself contemplating in your art?

Indeed, these are difficult times. This pandemic will come to an end soon. There are countries that have already defeated it and some are close to. But police brutality, systematic racism, famines caused by wars, etc, will not end in a month, or even a year. It might take a whole generation to fix the damage caused to societies and nations. So I don’t think that creatives necessarily have to protect themselves from these events, but rather experience all this in solidarity with those that are suffering. Tell these stories, capture in our arts, these moments of distress in order to raise awareness and let our art be a beacon of hope. 

About contemplating issues in my own art, by some coincidence, a couple of months ago I got to see something happen in real life, on a big scale, something that was a part of my Sci-fi/Thriller WIP [work in progress], and it gave me a new perspective on the matter and understanding of how I could really do justice to my story. 

Sam [from Inked]: We’ve spent the better part of our discussion on cause & effect, global crises, and a myriad of seemingly existential conundrums. I’d like to tie things up with a bright bow -Something people can admire despite what’s wrapped within. In light of all we’ve discussed, are things getting better for those challenged with mental health/illness? What’s getting better and what do we as a traumatized society have to look forward to that eschews legacy media’s insistence that those with mental health concerns are simply broken people who deserve society’s pity but little else?

Wow, that’s a BIG question! Compared to the last couple of decades, things are already better. It used to be that one couldn’t even talk about their mental health openly, but times have changed and now mental health and psychotherapy are taken very seriously. 

And like you said, the media and society in general used to see artists with PTSD as just freaks who immerse themselves in worlds of their own creation and lose touch with reality only to create some art, but that view has also started to change recently. 

The way I see it, the struggle of learning to live with PTSD, for an artist, is their own personal journey through a dark tunnel, but as the conversation is becoming more transparent, and people are becoming more aware of mental health struggles, not only is there light at the end of the tunnel but the tunnel itself is getting brighter and more colorful.

Sam can be found on Twitter here.

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