I know I am in the middle of a series on street photography composition right now, but June is PTSD awareness month and I’d like to talk about that for a bit. This post is probably going to be a little bit long, but stay with me because I think it might be helpful to you or someone you know.
By any measure my life is a success. I am happily married to a wonderful woman and we have an 11 year old daughter who inspires me every day. I am a brand ambassador for what I believe to be the best camera company in the world, I run a successful business and I work with amazing students and clients. I am able to experience joy through art, both as a photographer and a musician. Honestly, the list just goes on and on. It is easy to look at my life, especially on the surface, and see nothing but kittens and rainbows.
Life is funny though, because there is always so much happening that people cannot see. An analogy that is used often to describe this phenomena is that of a duck swimming: on the surface everything is calm and serene, but underneath the water that duck is kicking its legs like crazy just to stay afloat. This metaphor definitely describes my life at times, especially in this busy day and age, and I would imagine it is probably applicable to a lot of us.
Photography has been a large part of my life since 2004, but it wasn’t always my full time vocation. For decades I worked as a paramedic. Over a span of 20 years, through the chaos of day and the darkness of night, I responded to 15,000 calls for assistance. I cared for the sick and dying. I delivered babies. I received praise for the lives I saved and the care I provided, but was also occasionally the target of violence and ridicule from people who were not happy to see us arrive on a scene or from people who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Such is the life of a paramedic. It is honourable, noble work, performed by a brotherhood of men and women that I am fiercely proud to have been a part of for much of my working life.
Few things come without a cost though…
Many years ago something started building inside of me. It started with anger that would come without warning, directed without prejudice toward anybody in my way. For people who know me, and know how much I love helping others, this is often hard to believe. The truth is that I wasn’t even aware that these changes were happening to me. During this time my young daughter, unbeknownst to me, became unsettled and uncomfortable around me. Not for reasons of violence or fear of injury of course, but because I was rarely happy, because I was becoming increasingly impatient, and because I was quick to snap. When I was not around she referred to me as angry daddy. How crazy is that?
I didn’t know it yet, but I had PTSD.
The tipping point for me came years later when I started having panic attacks during the days leading up to work, on my way in to work, and yes, even when I was at work. It is ironic that I am a skilled emergency health care provider, one who has provided care to people during the worst moments of their lives, yet I couldn’t see what was happening to me.
Such is the nature of PTSD. It can be subtle at first… silent… It can manifest in ways that you don’t even notice.
This went on for months before my world caved in. When it finally did though it was a crushing, suffocating thing. Nightmares. Fear. Panic attacks. Tears. Loss of hope. Depression.
It took some time for me to find the right trauma counsellor, one who had a long history of working with soldiers, police officers, paramedics, etc. I spent a year working with this remarkable woman, who picked up the pieces of my life and helped me rebuild them one by one. It was a long, slow process, but I came out the other side. I’m sure that I still have a few demons of course, you can’t see what I’ve seen and not have a closet full of them, but they are no longer a factor like they once were. My life is amazing again, though there are probably still times when I struggle a bit.
Now, this is supposed to be a blog post about how photography saved me and we haven’t talked about that yet. It wasn’t just photography of course, because that doesn’t take into consideration my family, my medical providers, or my friends who had been there and understood what I was going through (one in particular, who has also battled his own demons). There is, however, no denying the fact that as important as of all of those people were, it was photography that became my salvation through those hard times.
In the darkest of days my camera was where I found solace. Something happens when I pick up a camera and go out to shoot: I become mindful and focused, the process of photography bringing me an inner peace. My mind doesn’t wander, and, during that dark period of my life, I didn’t think of my demons when I had a camera in my hand. Photography became the thing that got me out of the house when I didn’t want to leave. It became the thing that brought calm to my life. It was one of the few things that I still found joy in while I was learning how to live again. Photography became the light at the end of my tunnel.
The camera brought joy back into my life again.
When I came to the realization that I couldn’t be a paramedic anymore it was obvious what the focus of my artistic and professional life needed to be. By that time, so much had already happened: this site was experiencing high volumes of traffic, I was guesting on podcasts, I already had a small group of clients, I had a wonderful circle of friends from around the world (you) that I had made through the photographic community… all of the pieces were in place to make a transition to being a full time creative. It is fair to say that photography didn’t just sustain me through the process of healing, it also gave me an entirely new life that allows me to be an artist, work with my amazing students and clients, represent a camera brand that I love, travel the world and have more time with my family. It is an incredible thing.
In some ways it is hard to write an article like this, to put yourself out there naked and vulnerable. In other ways, however, it is the easiest thing that I have ever done because I know that there are people still suffering, people who are in the same dark place I was in, and I want them to know that it gets better. It takes time. It takes work. It isn’t easy, but it gets better. You might not have PTSD, maybe you have depression or anxiety or something else, but please know that you are not alone and that things can and do get better.
My life now is truly wonderful and has been for quite some time. I get to be a husband, a father and an artist. I spend my time shooting, teaching, writing, traveling and of course just living. And yes, I am sure that I still have off days occasionally too.
I have had a photography project related to PTSD bouncing around my head for almost a year now and I think I finally have it worked out. I probably won’t get to shoot it until the winter, but I am excited to share it with you. And, if any of you are feeling stuck, I hope this article helps just a little bit. Please know that many of us have been there and can help.
My thanks to all of you for everything that you do and for everything that you have given me. I love this community of people and look forward to sharing photography with you for many more years.