Author Jim Stevens: How I was Able To Succeed Despite Having PTSD
An Interview With Eric Pines – Authority Magazine
No one may truly understand what you’re going through but that doesn’t mean they can’t care or help.
About 5 out of every 100 adults (or 5%) in the U.S. has PTSD in any given year. Many from post-combat. While many people suffer, many people have been able to succeed despite those challenges. What are some things that can be learned from people who have succeeded despite having PTSD? To address these questions, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Stevens.
Jim Stevens has spent a lifetime changing direction yet succeeding at every turn. A high school dropout, he quickly rose through the military ranks despite being severely wounded in action. After the Army, he took successful turns as a master underwater diver, refinery chemist, college professor, and even non-profit executive director, all despite the stress of physical disability and PTSD. Today, he succeeds as a multi-award-winning internationally collected artist and author. https://www.scrimshawstudio.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
When I was a boy, I told my father I wanted to be a writer and an artist when I grew up. He immediately beat me, swearing no son of his was going to grow up like a starving artist in an attic somewhere. So, when I was 17, I joined the Army. By 19, I had been shot in the head, blown up, survived malaria, and suffered regularly from severe migraines. After 11 years I finally left the Army, divorced and the single parent of two young daughters. I also had a discharge diagnosis of PTSD. After a few interim jobs, I finally went to college, graduating with multiple degrees, and became a college professor. A career I loved almost as much as art and writing. I even married again and was blessed with two more daughters, but in 1993, twenty-three years after being shot in the head and during a debilitating migraine, a bullet fragment in my head moved causing a stroke in my visual cortex leaving me suddenly and legally blind. In just 30 minutes, I was left with only a pin-dot of vision remaining in both eyes. I lost my job teaching at the University of Colorado, my wife left, and I was suddenly the single parent of two young daughters again, only this time, I was also blind. And PTSD kicked in a second time, big time.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the circumstances surrounding how you developed PTSD?
My first experience with PTSD was after returning from Vietnam, I had recurring combat nightmares, began hiding my feelings, stayed hypervigilant, jumped for cover at every loud noise, took up boxing to control my anger, and while I got custody of my children, I couldn’t save the relationship with their mother. I actually had a hard time maintaining any relationship but before the stroke hit, things had gotten better and I had remarried. But when I lost my eyesight, the trauma and PTSD came crashing back and before I could get a handle on things, another marriage fell apart. And again, while I got custody of the kids, I lost the family.
What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?
After Vietnam, trauma and PTSD caused my world to fall apart. But then it dawned on me that I was spending my time reacting to my problems instead of doing something about them.
The mental shift that worked for me, that allowed me to move on and succeed, was to remind myself to get busy and stay busy. Being busy meant there would be little to no time for PTSD to rule my life. And, sure enough, when I was busy, I became so busy I forgot to be depressed, I forgot to be angry and I was suddenly working with people instead of hiding from them. I could still suffer the occasional moments of hypervigilance and emotional stress, but nothing close to the extremes I had been dealing with.
What strategies, techniques, or resources have you found most effective in managing your PTSD symptoms on a day-to-day basis?
I focus on a task or something I want to learn or create and all the while I’m working that task, I’m thinking of the next two things I want or need to do. I even go to sleep thinking about projects, not fear of nightmares.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite having PTSD?
By adding meaningful tasks to what I already needed to get done, I was able to succeed in my military career, becoming the youngest E-7 in the US Army when I made the rank. As a commercial underwater diver, I earned a masters rating in half the typical time. I learned to be a precious metals refinery chemist over the course of a weekend and landed a refinery job, and when I went to college I earned two degrees in four years graduating Magna Cum Laude in both, earning a college teaching position even without a master’s degree, and when that went away, when I lost my sight, it took two years of struggle and work to learn to do art without the sight an artist truly needs, but now my art is collected by people all over the nation and parts of the wider world and I have a publisher who has published three books I’ve written on art. I also focused on the study of martial arts and became the only blind man to ever win the men’s fighting competition at the martial arts “Tournament of Champions”. And I’ve been able to do all this while building and maintaining my relationships with my children.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about having PTSD? Can you explain what you mean?
If you have PTSD you can’t function at a high level. People seem to think PTSD means “poor pity me” and if you have it, you can’t be relied on to perform independently or at any real level of excellence.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Watching my children made me realize that getting busy and focusing on something had the power to change their attitudes and improve their moods and outlooks. The simple act of getting involved and sharpening their focus had the power to change their attitudes and I wondered if such a simple, childlike approach could affect my attitude, my goals and the PTSD that was trying to destroy them both.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Since 2015, I have been the Executive Director of the Veterans Arts Council, a non-profit organization working with veterans and civilians to create community art opportunities. Managing my problems has allowed me to help others and my community.
April 16, 2023