Grounded, Fiery, Drought and Ice – A Prairie Survival Guide to Beauty

Prairie Sky

Prairie Sky © 2014 Bo Mackison

Survival

Prairie survives the extremes.
Frigid winter, forty below, snow cover measured in feet
and blazing midsummer heat, a hundred degrees and more.
Tolerance to the extremes; hallmark of survival.

And always, always, the winds blow, fierce,
plants loose, nimble, they tolerate the constant forces.
Grasses, shrubs and forbs, some eight or ten feet high,
bend to the earth and still they survive,
not only survive, they thrive in these extremes.

Raging fires only strengthen the prairie. Re-birthing,
it knows survival when left to its natural course.
Let it burn, let it burn, fiercely burn; it seeds the earth.
The fire sustains.

Extra-ordinary, these plants. With sparse rain,
summer drought, the prairie conserves,
exposing only the most essential.
Two thirds hidden, it protects – deep-rooted,
stretching far into the darkest of depths.

Grounded and firm in their intention to hold on,
sucking moisture from the ages. Satiated.

Evolution’s choice, managing on just enough.
Just enough.

Survival.

Exploring the Prairie – Reconnecting with a Nearly Lost Habitat

Prairie Pause

Prairie Pause © 2014 Bo Mackison

There was a day when the wind blew free and strong off the Gulf of Mexico and onto the prairies.

These vast grasslands offered no trees or mountains to stop the breeze and it blew from what is now Texas northward for 2,000 miles to the Arctic forests of Alberta.

The wind whipped the mighty land of grass into undulating oceans of green.
It blew dust into the eyes of a million buffalo and grizzled hair of the antelope. It whistled and whirled through a thousand prairie dog towns and rocked meadowlarks on their slender perches.

From the lands of the Blackfoot, Hidatsa and Pawnee to the domain of the Cheyenne, Kiowa and Comanche, the wind blew and the sun shone above. This was the prairie.

Then the ocean breezes carried Europeans to this new land. A million square miles of grassland became a million square miles of checkerboard grain fields and grazing lands.

The wind erased the last trace of the wandering buffalo and the native Indian who followed it relentlessly.

Today, the fences of zoos confine the former denizens of the grassland, and paved highways pass through the sterile lands of Indian reservations.

Prairie Restoration - Pope Farms Conservatory

Prairie – Pope Farms Conservatory © 2014 Bo Mackison

The plants of the prairie today can be seen only in forgotten corners of grain fields, along unused roadsides, or in a tiny tract of a university arboretum.

What the prairie farmer could not plow he used for his cattle, which ate the tender stalks of the tall grass and allowed it to be replaced by weeds and dust.

The wind still blows free, but it finds a different land today. The prairies are gone.

~ Richard Nelson,  from The Prairie Primer by Stan Nichols, Lynn Entine and Evelyn Hines

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And so begins my prairie explorations. Photos are from Pope Farms Conservancy, one of the prairie restorations re-establishing a few parcels of prairie land. I am grateful for the mighty efforts of the dedicated Friends of Pope Farm Conservancy – through their efforts my imagination grasps a hint of the former grandeur of the prairie oceans, I am provided with a tantalizing taste of uninterrupted prairie — one for which I will forever yearn.

Walking Through the Tunnel – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Southwest at the End of the Medical Records Tunnel

Through the Tunnel © 2012 Bo Mackison

“The portal of healing and creativity always takes us into the realm of the spirit.” ~ Angeles Arrien

During a recent visit to an office complex, I entered an underground tunnel connecting two buildings. Immediately, I was drawn to an expanse of back-lit art on the tunnel wall. It was a digitally designed collage of medical records, x-rays, charts and lab reports – all created as specifically as art.

As I walked through the tunnel, I took photos of the walls and photos of the tunnel ahead, its mouth leading into a room of blues and greens. Then as I routinely do — a photographer’s habit — I turned around to see what was behind me.

I gasped in delight and raised my camera to capture the image. The scene was not lost on me. In fact, it evoked such a deep joy, I knew this photograph would be an important photo point in my life, not just another photograph.

The photo encapsulated – in a single digital frame – my journey that had spanned over two decades, a summary of the last 20+ years of my life!

Before entering the tunnel, my husband and I had walked past a mural of the Southwest — red rocks and cacti and sunshine painted  on a thirty foot long wall, brightly illuminated. When I turned around, three-quarters of the way through the tunnel, I gasped at the metaphor surrounding me:

The yellow-orange images of the Southwest spilled into the dark-hued tunnel of medical records. I saw the last twenty years meet my present. All I could see was the light at the end of the tunnel. Cliche? Yes, but so true!

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

My journey to the sunshine and living in the desert Southwest half of each year didn’t happen serendipitously.

After decades of being cared for, watched over, protected from harm, I’d developed strong dependency issues. An introvert at the best of times, I functioned best in a quiet environment, a place where I did that which I felt comfortable doing, while passing unwanted responsibilities to others.

Through all the therapy and group programs, I made friendships and relationships with others enmeshed in the same mental health system. It was a safe enough place, but also restrictive and not always the healthiest of environments.

Eventually I realized I needed to move forward. I needed more than a life in the shadow of over-protection. I needed to stop defining myself as mentally ill and instead accept the residual effects of PTSD and the self-care it required.

It was a huge awakening AND it terrified me.

Reviewing my habits, I knew I would not easily change if I stayed in the protective, though loving, environment I’d existed in for years.

My husband and I had vacationed in Arizona several times and with each visit I felt more deeply connected with the Southwest and the desert. Eventually, I devised a plan to return to the Southwest -  alone.

Not only would this plan provide me with the necessary container to practice the skills of independent living, it would also alleviate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder which disrupted my moods every winter in the cloudy Midwest. After working out a careful plan and contingency arrangements for safety, my medical team, family and I all agreed to the experiment.

That was five years ago.

I’ve lived in the Southwest for a part of each year since then. The first winter, I stayed eight weeks. I struggled managing the basics, and I mean the basic basics. Buying groceries, preparing meals, driving in an unfamiliar city, shopping, putting gas in the car, taking care of myself. As simple as these tasks might appear, there were many days I struggled from the time I awoke until I went to bed.

I did several art shows and my husband planned his visits to coincide with those long weekend shows. I had several weekend visits from family. And when I was on my own, I spent my days reading and writing, visiting new places, and taking photographs.

I discovered living in ways I hadn’t experienced in decades. A doable version of solo living. I created. I practiced extreme self care. I managed.

The second year, I stayed in Arizona nearly three months. Fewer visitors. More art shows. However it was never easy, even living in the land of sunshine. I was incredibly lonely, and sought support through long distance therapy and lots of phone calls to family.

But – once again I was on my own. My camera was my constant companion. I explored even more of Arizona and its many habitats. Once again, I managed.

And I turned to the solitude of the desert for support and inspiration.

For the last three years, I’ve lived in Arizona from November to early May. We invested in a tiny casita for home and studio – perfect at 500 square feet. Though there are plenty of rough edges, my days are filled with many positives.

I forged friendships, joined a vibrant and active art group, took field trips with a camera club.

I do freelance photography shoots, although I no longer do shows on the art fair circuit. I volunteer with a social justice group. I share my art in shows and galleries. And most days, I pick up my camera and go explore.

I have a deep sense of gratitude for what the practice of creativity and my art has given me – a way of making meaning in my world.

“Healing art . . . the concept is catching fire, is awakening in people’s spirits. Artists, musicians and dancers are realizing their imagery has meaning. . .that their imagery heals them, others, their neighborhood, or the earth.”
~ Michael Samuels

For more years than I care to admit, I was angry and bitter at the turn of events in my life,. The fierce awakening of my past robbed my family and me of so many precious years. And although our family’s well being was our highest priority and our goal was to provide our children with as much normalcy as possible, reality trumped all.

As we traversed life on a day-to-day basis, we all lived with an intimate knowledge of mental illness – its sorrows, its high and low points, and its successes, too.

In the process, my children learned valuable life skills — skills of independence, tolerance for the differences in others, kindness, cooperation, delayed gratification, and an abiding sense of knowing they were loved and accepted for who they were, not what they did.

No matter how difficult the day, or the week, or the month, my husband and children offered their support. We weren’t perfect – far from it. At times each of us felt cheated as we felt the alienation of life on the edge. But ultimately, we would reconnect and move on, move forward.

“So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”  ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet

Living through difficulties and trials, we all discovered how to survive and thrive.

I also realized that there was no reason to live my yearned-for life — someday. Waiting for someday is a long wait.

It was time to experience the gifts AND challenges of each day, every single day.

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This updated post is the last in the original series of my story, an intimate exploration of PTSD, art and healing, first published in January 2013.

My deepest thanks to all who accompanied me on this journey – as participant, observer, reader. 

Gazing Upwards – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Looking Upwards

Gazing Upwards © 2011 Bo Mackison

“Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.” ~ Pamela Vaull Starr

I love the barrier in the photograph. At first glance it’s all about bricks and hidden doors and windows.

There’s a street address scrawled on a mural. Hinges and the door’s outline give little hint at what might be beyond the threshold. And yet, a photographic print of a woman’s face covers the windows and door. Her eyes are lifted upwards and outwards.

A solid barrier. Yet, the distance from behind the barrier and into the beyond is never further than a gaze upwards and outwards.

The barrier might be limiting thoughts. If I gaze beyond those thoughts, I can see dreams unfold into plans that achieve goals. Step by step, baby steps. Many tiny steps forward and suddenly I’ve walked a mile.

I’ve reached what once I believed was an impossible goal.

“Ideals are like stars: you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you reach your destiny.” ~ Carl Schurz

The sky is always visible. The Universe, expanding beyond us in distances of time and space our human minds can barely grasp, is beyond our naked-eye capabilities, but it is there. We know it  exists.

When I get bogged down in present day happenings and turn my focus squarely, perhaps even unkindly, on myself, this photograph reminds me to move beyond — beyond what my mind can easily grasp, beyond what I can see clearly.

Listen to the messages from my heart and spirit. Be kind. Choose my guides. Move beyond my comfort zone.

“The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot.’ You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.” ~ John Burroughs

Once I gaze at the stars and moon, or the sunlit sky, even the cloudy gray skies, once I have connected with the divine, then I return to my space and my time.

I ground myself in this moment, the place where I stand, the place that grounds me in the here and now.

I find the strength and the courage to set my goals for the day or the month or for a life time. I move forward.

Possibility exists. I hold on to hope.

The sky is visible to all. And as the Burroughs’ quote reminds us, we each have a place under the stars. We each have a place in the world.

Opportunity is under our feet, even as we look to the sky and grasp for the stars.

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This post is the tenth in a series of eleven posts I first published in January 2103 — the intimate exploration of PTSD, art and healing.

Beyond the Wall, The World – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Defaced Wall II

Beyond, The World © 2012 Bo Mackison

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
~ Hermann Hesse

When I started my photography business, my life became more meaningful.

Initially, photography gave me a reason to get up in the morning, leave my house, look at my world, and finally create something that I loved and was proud of. It was a deep healing process, my love of creative photography.

Several years later I learned how to work with my photographs on a deeper level.

When I photographed this wall, I was documenting an old mission and grounds. When I discovered this wall, I was taken aback by its defaced surface. I framed a shot so I could focus on the wall and the grove of trees in the distance. Months later, as I was going through photo catalogs on my computer, I noticed this particular photo again and it took on a new meaning.

For me, certain photographs are like other people’s dreams.

They provide symbols, metaphors, and hints of meaning. They are open for interpretation, not on a literal base, but intuitively.

In this photo, I visualized the wall as a barrier in my life.

The wall prevented me from entering the green grove of trees, a place I longed to enter for sustenance and revival. Beyond the wall, the world was a sacred space of color and life, a place where nature could heal and provide strength for body, mind and spirit. I wanted to be in that grove of trees.

I visualized different scenarios in response to my quest. How could I reach that sacred space? How could I get over the wall?

  • I could scrounge for scrub wood and strong grasses, build a make-shift ladder, and climb up and over the wall.
  • I could walk along the wall until I came upon a gate or doorway, a portal into the world of greens and blues.
  • Or…I could I look at the height and thickness of the wall, and walk away, accepting defeat before I even began.

The process of visualizing my options provided much food for thought.

I then created a set of cards, each with a photograph and a word. Now I use the cards during my morning practice, focusing on the photograph and using it as inspiration for meditation and reflection. I also use the photo and the cards as prompts for journal writing, or a springboard for art projects.

I discovered in the process a vehicle that provided not only a way for me to use my art for healing, but a system that also promoted problem solving and goal setting. These cards still provide me with a framework in which to consider choices, make plans, and instigate changes in my life — the self discovery and healing process of in-depth creative photography.

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This is a re-post from the 11-part series I ran in January 2013 on PTSD, art and healing.

Putting Out Fires – “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Fire Escapes

Fire Escapes © 2012 Bo Mackison

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.” ~ Confucius

(This post is the eighth in a series of my story, an exploration PTSD, art and healing.)

So the greatest glory is not in never failing; it is in rising again.

This was a hard lesson to learn, when time after time, I made the same mistakes.

A little voice in my head often tempted me:

Oh, go ahead. You’re doing great. You don’t need to watch what you eat – it’s a holiday. Enjoy. You don’t need that tiny pill any more – nah, don’t check with your doc. And just maybe you don’t need to see that therapist any longer. Nah, you’re doing fine.Just fine.”

Now that I’m in a better space, I nix those crazy ideas immediately. Those ideas are the crazy ideas. They send out red alerts for me. Only a few years ago, I’d get caught in the trap again. I’d believe them. I’d eat poorly balanced meals, or stop eating altogether. I wouldn’t listen to my body signals, all those SOS alerts. Eventually I’d crash and then wonder why.

“Every day, think as you wake up today I am fortunate to be alive.
I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” ~ Dalai Lama

One of the ways I learned to not waste even one precious day is to follow a regimen of extreme self-care.

Taking care of my body, my mind and my spirit is my first priority. Like the attendant who reminds all flight passengers to put their oxygen mask on first, I take care of myself so I am in a position to do my work, create art, help others.

Some days are easier than others, but each day is a gift.

Each morning is an opportunity to watch the sun rise and give thanks for another day.

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This is a re-post the 11-part series I ran in January 2013 on PTSD, art and healing. I believe the story too important to not be retold, in the hope that my experiences will inspire others on their journeys.

A Riot of Art – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Riot Art © 2011 Bo Mackison

Riot of Art © 2011 Bo Mackison

“What art offers is a space — a certain breathing room for the spirit. ~ John Updike

(This post is the seventh in a series of my story, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

Once I earned off unit privileges, I worked in the art room every day, often twice a day.

The art I created was not beautiful, not appropriate to hang over a living room couch. It was dark, often difficult to create, but always meaningful. My art helped me communicate with the emotions bubbling to the surface so that I did not have to use words to explain  what I did not yet understand.

Working through emotions too raw to verbalize, my art did the speaking – through my paintings, sculpture, and mixed media work.

“Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable,
there we also stand already quite near its transformation.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Surprising to me, I was drawn to the woodworking room. It was a small room, once a storage room, and now divided from the open studio area always crowded with other patients and therapists.

There was a center work table, tools hung from pegs and hooks on the wall, and bins of building materials. I had no goal in mind when I began, but I felt driven to create. Linda, in her wisdom, always stayed near while I did the work that needed to be done. She’d perch on a stool in the corner of the room, balancing a pile of paperwork on a lap board. She managed to simultaneously ignore me and still keep watch. She answered questions and found supplies for me, but otherwise she let me create.

Many of the clients chose to work on projects they could give to friends and relatives, diversional projects which certainly fulfilled a need to create. However I was driven to create in a totally different way, letting my spirit speak through my hands.

My first project was a sculpture of many layers; its creation was a turning point in my recovery.

I began with several pieces of wood, a saw and hammer, and a box of nails. With intense determination, I cut the wood into varying lengths. The sawing stage was short-lived. I was anxious to begin using the hammer and nails. Once I began pounding nails into the pieces of wood, the form took on a life of its own.

I made a base, then angled pieces of wood to construct a teepee-shaped form. I hammered hundreds of nails into five or six pieces of wood, pounding some of the nails so hard, only the nail head was visible surrounded by hundreds of hammer-head imprints. Nails protruded from the edges. Nails bent; I pounded them into the wood until no sharp edges were exposed.

Nothing I created felt wrong; it felt right and empowering. There were no rules, except those for safety’s sake.

Never one to follow rules, I understood the sanctity of the safety rules. I wore safety goggles and a canvas apron. I knew that any misuse of tools or equipment would be grounds for not using the workroom. It was good practice for learning how to express emotions safely. I honored the space, the rules, the tools. And myself.

I managed my emotions within a set of boundaries. And I kept creating.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.
Just keep going, no feeling is final.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

After the hammer and nails stage, I moved into the plaster of Paris stage.

The plaster was my sculpting material. I mixed bowls full of the thick, pasty stuff. Then I applied it to my wood structure. Layers and layers of white, amassed in globs and streaks. There was nothing considered in its application – just the urge to hide the wood and the nails under a volcanic-shaped mass of white.

I added small human figures which I fashioned from bits of clay.

I pushed the figures deep into the sculpture. I rolled clay into snakes with open mouths. I pushed them deep into the sculpture. Linda  continued to quietly observe from the sidelines. Occasionally another patient would wander into the woodworking room to use tools for a leather project, but for the most part I worked alone in silence.

The sculpture of wood and nails and plaster became a container for my anger, my pain, my wounded self.

I asked Linda for paint. I wanted “buckets of black and red paint.” She left the room, returned with two large bottles of tempera paints – one primary red, one black.

Using a brush more suitable for house painting, I slashed streaks of red and black over the white. Again, I worked in layers. Paint over paint over paint. I worked quietly, yet in a self-directed, controlled frenzy.

A controlled frenzy? That is what it was. I could not stop. I did not act out in rage or anger or despair, although those emotions were simmering on the surface. But I could not stop creating. I had to make this wood-nail-plaster-clay figure-paint structure.

Once I completed the painting part, I went in the woodworking room and sat with my sculpture.

Studied it. Examined it. Stared at it.

Eventually Linda handed me a notebook and markers – red and black – and asked me if I wanted to write about the experience. Thirty pages later, I stopped.

We are product of our past but we don’t have to be prisoners of it. ~ Rick Warren

“I’d like to destroy it, the whole thing,” I said to Linda.

“And how would you do that?” she asked.

I knew that to destroy my art would require a safety plan. There were limits, there were rules, and there was the safety of Linda, the other patients, and me to consider.

“What if I did it when there aren’t people around? It will be loud, the noise and all. I could put a big piece of plastic on the table so there isn’t a mess. And wear the safety goggles and my apron.” I answered. “I really want to smash it.”

Linda nodded her permission. “How about Saturday afternoon, after we close the room for the weekend?”

And that is what I did.

I spent several hours on a cold January afternoon destroying my sculpture which, to me, symbolized man’s inhumanity towards others.

I hammered it into a pile of plaster dust and mangled wood and bent nails. When I was weary of  hammering, I hung the tool on its hook and smiled. A very small smile. Then I broke down, sobbing hard.

Linda helped me to a chair, lightly put her arm around my shoulder, and sat next to me. We sat for a long time. Finally I stopped crying, found tissues, and wiped at my eyes.

Linda looked out the window. “It’s beginning to snow. If you get your coat, we could walk outside for awhile.”

We walked around the hospital grounds. The new snow covered the piles of gray snow in the parking lot. The air was cold and fresh and very clean. It was good to breath the fresh air.

I learned a life long lesson while working with the sculpture over those several weeks.

Art heals.

Not overnight. Not in a week.

But art, practiced over a lifetime, offers the spirit a path towards healing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is a re-post the 11-part series I ran in January 2013 on PTSD, art and healing. I believe the story too important to not be retold, in the hope that my experiences will inspire others on their journeys.

Unlock the Art – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Bisbee Arizona

Art Lives © 2012 Bo Mackison

“Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life.” ~ Henry Miller

(This post is the sixth in a series of my story, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

After I’d stabilized, I no longer needed the quiet and non-stimulation of the Quiet Room.

I was transferred to a hospital room on a locked unit. This specialized unit, designed for protection of the patients, did so with a minimalist approach. Anything deemed dangerous was contraband. A good rule of thumb – if an item might pose a danger to a curious, unsupervised two-year old, it was off-limits on 6-West.

A locked psychiatric unit, especially in a high-rise facility with no outside access, provides a stark existence.

Boredom was rampant. Angry outbursts from patients, or the television set on a high volume, or perhaps angry patients fighting over the television set were standard fare. It was the way of the system.

The locked unit was a transition phase prior to transfer to the treatment unit which offered occupational therapy, art therapy, music therapy, and a variety of classes that helped patients transfer to out-patient programs.

Enter my guardian angel, Linda, an occupational therapist.

She looked beyond my outward appearance, angry and confused, and saw potential. Linda took me under her wing, quickly assessing a way to connect with me.  In my fragile state of anger and despondency, she spoon fed me massive amounts of art and writing activities.

Her creative immersion theory worked.

“Art is not a part of life, it is not an addition to life, it is the essence of those pieces of us that make us fulfilled. That give us hope. That give us dreams…” ~ Hasan Davis

We began with the simplest of media – paper and glue.

Until I earned off-unit privileges, I did projects in the common room. Linda brought me stacks of magazines,  paper, and glue sticks. I began with torn paper collages – an activity that was a great match for my state of mind.

At first, the mere act of tearing the magazine pages into hundreds of strips provided an energy outlet. Gradually I worked to combine pictures and words which provided an outlet for my feelings, my emotions.

Linda gave me a list of requirements that would allow me to accompany her to the off unit therapy room – a room filled with an endless variety of art supplies.

So meaningful was the art I was creating, I was eager to earn privileges to be off unit.

This would prove to be a pivotal experience, one that opened my eyes to the miracle of creating and set me on the road towards healing.

–  based on journal entries, 1990-91

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This is a re-post the 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on art and healing. I believe this story is too important to keep buried in my blog. It is my hope that my experiences will inspire others on their journeys.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Rapunzel, Rapunzel © 2012 Bo Mackison

Above all be the heroine in your life, not the victim. ~ Nora Ephron

(This is the fifth post in a series of my story, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

I was in my mid-thirties, a wife and mother of three children under the age of nine, when I had a spirit breakdown.

Most people including medical professionals diagnosed this as a mental breakdown. But truly, though it was my mind that could no longer carry my burden, I most keenly felt a disconnect from my spirit, from my center, from my being.

For years, I had successfully woven together a life, one that looked similar to the other women in my neighborhood. Married, mother of three, I worked part-time in the physical therapy department at a local nursing home. I led Girl Scout troops, worked in the concession stands at Little league games, organized a co-op playgroup for my two-year old and her friends. I was active in church and school functions.

One day in an early October, I received a jury duty summons in the mail.

Two weeks later, I was in a courtroom, one of thirteen jurors chosen to hear an assault case. The case was a first degree sexual assault case; the victim was a woman my age, married with three children, active in her church and hometown.

The woman testified repeatedly how she was could not recall clear details of her assault, how instead she’d had an out-of-body experience. She said she had floated above her body as two assailants raped her. She had observed the attack in a detached haze. In her dissociative state, she felt no pain, no fear. Even after she returned to her body, after the assailants had run away, she questioned what had truly happened. It was several hours before she went to a hospital and received counseling by a law enforcement/rape crisis team plus the necessary medical examinations.

The testimony about the victim’s dissociation caused a stir amongst the jury members.

Jurors were skeptical. Many of the jury members, especially the men, did not believe her story. They accused her of telling lies to cover her own part in a possible illicit affair. However the women on the jury found her testimony very believable. One woman juror, a recently retired nurse, stated dissociation was a well documented medical phenomenon.

I took part in the jury deliberations, but as I listened, I felt an overwhelming sense of deep unease – a perceived threat from unidentified fear, unexplainable.

After several days of deliberations, the jury found the men guilty. I left the courtroom shaken.

Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth, and that is not speaking it. ~ Naomi Wolf

During the next six weeks I replayed the woman’s story repeatedly in my head.

Visions of her rape and the testimony about her dissociative experience haunted me. I began to feel less connected to my life. Time became distorted. I struggled to keep up with my typical activities and my children’s schedules. I also began having flashbacks and nightmares.

I wanted to run away, escape. I felt unworthy to be a part of my family.

I imagined myself in a place where no one would know me or have any expectations of me. I imagined hiding in a tall tower, alone with my shame. I wished for a life like the fairy tale character, Rapunzel, alone in her tower – with no contact with people until I could get a grip on my out of control emotions. Then I could be rescued and my life would return to normal.

I desperately wanted to hide in a fairy tale, one with a champion and a happily ever after ending.

During this time, I had glimpses of my truths, yet denial was strong. I wanted to return to the life I knew, yet I had a vague understanding I would never be the woman I’d been only a few months before.

Unsure and frightened, I lived in limbo.

– compiled from journal entries and letters, 1990-91

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I am re-posting an 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on PTSD, art and healing.  It is my hope that my journey will also inspire others.

Four Walls and a Bright Light – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Bathed in Bright Lights

Bright Lights © 2012 Bo Mackison

Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. ~ Pema Chödrön

(This is the fourth in the series of my journey, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

I spent several months in the hospital.

After my initial admission, my condition worsened from extremely ill to critical, and doctors transferred me to the equivalent of the critical care unit of a medical unit. But unlike a medical ICU with its high-tech equipment and constant activity, a person who needs a psychiatric ICU requires a different sort of healing space. She needs as little stimulus as possible. It is a time to quiet a system gone haywire from too much input.

By law, a patient must be placed in the least restrictive environment to treat their symptoms – I signed an admission form with a list of my rights – but my condition required drastic measures.

The “Quiet Room” was my world for several weeks.

This room was an 8 x 8 foot cell-like space. The walls were padded, the floor was indestructible rubber tile, and the window was completely curtained in black, then covered with steel mesh and an over-sized piece of plexiglass.

There was a mattress on the floor, a single sheet, a plastic-encased pillow. And a closed circuit camera high on the wall monitored my actions at all times by a nurse in the nursing station.

There was a door, but no door knob. Staff came in to deliver my meals, monitor my meds, and help me with basic needs. Otherwise, I was left alone — to rest. I craved someone to talk with me, console me, soothe my terrors, even simply to sit in the silent room with me, but rules required the nursing staff to monitor me by watching a television monitor, not to interact with me.

Most disturbing to me was the inset light in the small room’s ceiling.

It was an obvious necessity. I understand that now — twenty-five years later. If I had been in a darkened room, there could be no surveillance on camera, and that was necessary for my care. The caregivers would not be able to see me pacing. Or crying. Or rocking myself, trying to calm myself, comfort myself. Or worse. But I hated the constant light. Bright, with a yellow cast, I felt as if the fiery light was burrowing through my eyes into my brain.

I worked to record my dreams  in my journal, though my wandering scribbles were barely legible, my htought processes distorted. I’d pleaded for paper and pen, so instinctive the need to work through my experiences with words, and an occupational therapist supervised my safe use of writing materials. My nightmares were constant chase scenes in unfamiliar rooms, up and down stairwells, through basements and attics, jumps from roof tops which ended in me running through traffic up, six lanes zigzagging towards me. Attacks. Violence. I never identified who was chasing me. The dreams were on repeat, and so I lived them and re-lived them.

I couldn’t tell night from day. I didn’t understand what had happened to me, why I was here, nor how long I would need such extreme care. I was angry, and disoriented, and terrified. I had flashbacks and existed in a state of panic much of the time.

I describe this time in my life because this was me hitting the bottom.

I could no longer function in the state I was in. I couldn’t go back to the life I’d enjoyed only a few weeks earlier. My only choice was to acknowledge my fears, just as Pema Chödrön recommended in the earlier quotation, and move closer to my truths.

– based on journal entries, 1990-91

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I am re-posting an 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on art and healing. Although this is a difficult subject to write about and explore, the message is too important to keep hidden deep within my blog. It is my hope that my journey will also inspire others.