How one PTSD sufferer found solace in storytelling.
Tim C. takes the microphone. He starts the way he always starts: “Hi, I’m Tim, for those of you who don’t know me, and I spent 17 years investigating human and sexual trafficking before retiring with a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Tim doesn’t share his surname out of concern for his family’s safety.
Tim stands out in this crowd. It’s Fresh Ground Stories, a monthly storytelling open mic at Roy St. Coffee (aka, fake Starbucks next to the Kinko’s), boasting the well-dressed and well-educated crowd you’d expect on Capitol Hill on a Thursday. Artists, comedians and social workers; skinny people with fashionable eyeglasses; Ph.D candidates and software engineers. Tim’s not like the other storytellers. Tim is a giant.
Tim arrived on the storytelling scene in 2012 looking for a way out of depression, loneliness and PTSD. What he found was an artistic community ready to embrace him and a chance to be a new kind of hero.
“I was the muscle, and my partner was the brains,” Tim continues, and at six-foot-something and two-hundred-who-knows pounds, one believes him. “And we did a lot of operations where a guy who looks like me stands out.” Tim is a pale Caucasian, smoothly bald on top, craggy red beard below.
Skilled storytellers know to breeze through the exposition and premise at the beginning of a story. Tim clips through the required background, like a government debriefing or minutes 12–15 of a 007 movie, before launching into one of his notoriously gripping anecdotes.
“After I set the warehouse on fire, destroying approximately $4 million in contraband, I went to the hangar where the airplane was supposed to be. The intel was bad. The airplane wasn’t there.”
Tim retired from law enforcement in 2007. “I started to take the abuse of these young children more personally. I started to become a fairly significant liability to my team.” He took a private sector job doing insurance investigations and spent too many hours in hotel rooms drinking alone.
One day in 2011, Tim took a nasty fall down a flight of concrete stairs, opened up an old scar and went into the operating room for a major back surgery. For the first time in his life he was physically incapacitated and overcome with depression. He saw a therapist, initially for pain relief, and that’s when he was finally diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Tim embarked on time-tested regimen of talk therapy and medication, but felt frustrated by his treatment’s slow progress. When a friend told him about Fresh Ground Stories something just felt right. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to get some things off his chest.
“Tim was very quiet,” says organizer and host Paul Currington, of Tim’s first appearance on the storytelling scene. “He was a big man so you couldn’t miss him, but when he would get on stage he would tell these stories…none of us had ever heard such stories. It was clear that he was still, in some way, living in them.”
Of that first show, Tim says, “I wanted to purge something and see what kind of reaction I would get. I thought people assume I was a psychopathic lunatic. A waste of air. A threat to society.” But that didn’t happen. “After the show I was inundated with people saying ‘thank you’ for the work I did. Nobody said, ‘Boy, I bet you’re pretty fucked up.’ It was crazy.”
Tim’s therapist was initially opposed to public storytelling because of the emotional and psychological risk involved. A pity response could have stymied efforts to move past the trauma. A negative response like boredom could have been devastating. Tim, as one might guess, was never one to avoid risk.
The U.S. Department of Veterans affairs states that 61 percent of all men (not just veterans) experience trauma, and of that group, 8 percent develop PTSD. For women, 51 percent experience trauma, and of that group, 20 percent develop PTSD. PTSD doesn’t just affect men and women in combat or violent situations; rape, natural disaster, or serious auto accidents are other common causes. That means, using figures from the 2010 Census, that there are approximately 7,406,928 men and 16,010,349 women in the United States currently suffering from PTSD.
When a person tells a story about their trauma to an audience, their brain creates new connections between the events of the story and what happens in real life. In other words, when Tim thinks of his stories, he doesn’t recall the smell of gunpowder. He recalls the applause of his friends. He is literally re-drawing the map of his mind in a positive direction.
Dr. Matthew Jakupcak works in private practice with veterans and first responders. “There’s a whole history of using art to recover from PTSD,” he says. “The essence of PTSD treatment is to have people create a cohesive narrative.” His clients have created memoirs, stand-up comedy and even comic books to supplement the important work they do in structured counseling.
Tim attends every Fresh Ground, every month, with the tenacity and fervor of a self-described addict of the form. “The storytelling has absolutely positively fucking saved my life,” he says. “I’m addicted because my past doesn’t have to be how I’ve seen it. I can logically consider other objective ways of looking at my own history. I can be a new kind of hero.”
Currington concurs. “Tim started smiling more,” he says. “You could just tell he walked with this heavy burden the first few months, maybe even the first year. He is a completely different man than the one I met two years ago.”
Tim transformed from reluctant and self-conscious newcomer to a storytelling evangelist. Not satisfied with his current once-a-month schedule, Tim also participates in the storytelling event Verbalists and founded a new monthly meet-up in Burien called Something To Tell, hosted by the Burien branch of the King County Library.
“Initially it was a selfish thing,” Tim says, “but I think that if we could get everybody to tell a story to a group of people this would be a better planet.”
Verbalists poster art by Studio Forte.