Gallery of portraits features Calgary first responders with PTSD

WATCH: A dozen paramedics searching for help from PTSD discovered something very powerful in a creative colleague. And as Jill Croteau reports, their shared experience is now on display for all to see.

CALGARY – A unique art project is now on display in Calgary, created by first responders trying to deal with the emotional burden they carry after leaving the front lines. It’s a burden that can lead some to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I started with, ‘I’m going to paint 12 portraits of paramedics suffering symptoms similar to what I suffered, and they are going to tell me their stories, and now…” said Calgary artist and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Teresa Coulter.

READ MORE: Art project for first responders with PTSD offers way to release pain

“I’m so connected and so inspired. Just through this process of painting and moving experiences, I myself have become more aware and resilient and I have a community of people I’m not scared to reach out to anymore and talk…It has become okay to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

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Jim Matheson is one paramedic who had his portrait painted. His career with EMS dates back to 1978—a first call that he still remembers well.

“A sound, a smell, will trigger a memory,” said Matheson. “When someone takes their last breath…good and bad; lots of memories.”

Jim Matheson is one paramedic who had his portrait painted for the Sock Drawer Stories exhibit at the University of Calgary. June 2015. Jill Croteau / Global News

Matheson says reflecting on his experience has been powerful, and it’s allowed him to open up and “give people a chance to see what we went through.”

“We look at these people and see the look of anguish, despair, sadness,” he said. “When I look at my portrait, I think it looks like a tormented soul, but there’s a glimmer of hope saying: I was there, I contributed. I made a difference.”

The show is called Sock Drawer Stories and opens Monday night at the gallery at the art department on the University of Calgary campus. For more information on PTSD treatment, visit Edmonton’s Spiral Phoenix Trauma Institute here.

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Coulter says she’s learned surviving PTSD is only part of the journey.

“Sometimes when you sit with this injury, you have to surrender. Surrender to the not knowing, and not understanding, but being okay with it.”

If you, a family member or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, or you believe they may be suffering from severe depression and/or anxiety, there are many organizations available to help including the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.  A lengthy list can be found here.

With files from Erika Tucker

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