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The Art and Music of PTSD Recovery

Posted Jul 11 2012 9:14am

Guest post by  Ken Jones, PhD

A torn mind, a shattered soul, a broken heart are the remnants of a warrior with combat post traumatic stress.  Combat survivors have no words to express the anguish that is the result of what they saw, and heard, and smelled, and tasted; what they did or did not do.

When there are no words survivors reside in a world of silence,addicted to their memories.  The traumatic experiences and the behaviors that go with them are set on continuous replay. Some warriors will remain in this space for decades; some for a lifetime.

Many of our combat survivors will recover from their experiences with time and love.  These warriors will learn that the initial inability to find words for their traumatic experiences is the first stage in the journey of recovery.

There are several forms of traditional therapy that can be used to engage combat survivors.  These are proven methods to provide symptom relief that are very helpful in many cases.  No single form of therapy is the best in every situation.

Less well known is the use of “the arts” during the recovery of combat survivors.  The use of various forms of art may offer a helpful alternative for expressing traumatic events.  It often takes time for warriors to find the words to describe both their experiences and their numbed out emotions resulting from combat.

The visual arts , dance , creative writing , poetry , and music are each approaches that are being used with combat survivors experiencing post traumatic stress.

Music,poetry,and writing are the forms with which I am most familiar.  Music is frequently related to the time or even specific traumatic events for combat survivors.        I returned fromViet Namin 1968. For years after I stopped to listen to each word when certain songs were played.  These songs gave voice to my experience as a warrior.

My sense of being utterly alone in the world; inside my tight perimeter of one found expression in Sunday Morning Comin’ Down .

Not Scared of Dyin’ was for me both a statement of defiance and my certainty of experience with chaotic death and very painful ways of dying.

Returning to my culture of origin,back to the world,back to the states I found that I no longer belonged here.  TheAmericaof the late 60s and early 70s was a world turned upside down by riots,demonstrations,the face off of two factions of Americans fighting each other for ideals or order,change or stability.

Finally there was the scandal and resignation of a President of theUnited States.  I felt the loss of anything I had left that tied me to theAmericaI had served.

The sense of loss,betrayal,and abandonment I experienced were captured in this song from that era .  These events marked the end of hope for me.

The music I held closest when there was nothing left to hold me to this life was a song made famous by the Beatles   

These were my songs,the music of my experience as I lived in the wordless silence of post traumatic stress.  When I had no words; only the rage and guilt and profound numbness,I held onto my music.

By the end of 1980 I had two remaining choices; insanity or suicide.  It was then,nearly thirteen years after returning from combat,that I found someone who “spoke my language.”  He had been a combat Marine,and was now the team leader at theAnchorageVetCenter.  His name was Farell Udell,and he understood my feelings long before I had the words to describe them.

As I have traveled along a path of recovery from my combat experiences other songs have become part of my experience.  The first of these came when I found that there was hope for recovery.   Music was there again as I slogged through my survivor guilt on the way to reconciliation with what I cannot change.

Among our current generation of warriors the trauma of combat is very real.  There is help for each of you living with the effects of combat induced post traumatic stress.

When you have no words for your experience there is still hope.  Find a counselor,someone you trust.  Take your music when you meet with her.  Listen to your songs together.  When you ready your words will come.

Will you share the music that captures your experience of post traumatic stress?


Disclosure: I am not a clinician.  The information and observations I share are the result of 40+ years of living with my own combat induced post traumatic stress.


The opinions in this post are solely those of the author. 

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