Loosening the Barriers Within – Postscript to “The Barrier Series”

Beach Boardwalk

Passageway through the Barriers © 2015 Bo Mackison

This is the twelfth post–a sort of post-script–in The Barrier Series, a series of posts which chronicle my healing journey. I wrote the initial series in 2013 and updated several posts in the fall of 2014.

I wasn’t sure if/when there would be a twelfth post. I felt I was in-the-midst after I published the eleventh post, that there was more to write. Yet as much as I worked on the twelfth post I was unable to find the right words. A wise friend suggested I wait, and if it was to be, eventually I would find the right words. This post is the result of that wait.

I continue to walk on the journey of healing, the road remains, both the same and different. I gratefully share with you Loosening the Barriers Within, The Postscript.

Perhaps the passage of time is a kind of healing, or a kind of salvation granted equally to all people.”
~ Mizuki Nomura

Loosening the Barriers, Within

Yes, surely there is passage through the barriers

First, a primitive observation,
in the reflection of light a glimpse,
then, a gradual realization
that the grip of self-hatred which dimmed my heart,
insistent and unrelenting, no longer served.
No matter the lesson, how old or well learned
no longer a truth, the acceptance of unworthiness,
no longer the me I had always known – living on the razor’s edge.

A loosening of the grip, so gradual
for a time I stand unsteady and perplexed,
it takes time to trust in reality,
the realization that I am no longer the person I believed I was.
I am not the lies spoken; I am my truth heard.

I sit with unaccustomed contentment
and consider the old me, discordant
with the me uncovered, re-discovered.

In a period of dark, a depression with such depth
I lost hope of returning to the surface.
and drifted in a turbid soup colliding with
gripping emotions, unspeakable memories, unclear thoughts.

A gift perhaps, this dark unpredictable void,
time expanded and contracted, unaware of clock or calendar.

Through the murk, I glimpsed a life delicious with discovery
a life of depth, both reassuring and of concern,
the path uncertain and unknown, of course.
At last I looked through a lens, finally in focus, and recognized
the place I am, must be, need be.

Endless possibility sustains the strength to see anew, to redefine beliefs
and cast away the useless, a pure and nascent purge.
Sparked by sacred conversation, seeking the Divine,
my awareness stood on trembling, newly awakened ground.

I’m uncertain how the circumstances inter-played
but truth spoke out, in a ferocious din:

The less space I allow in my heart, mind and spirit
for thoughts of unworthiness and self-contempt,
for the holding of others’ blame and shame accepting them as mine,
for the belief that I did not deserve life itself,
when those thoughts compressed, new spaces opened.

Infinite space for my truths,
for worthiness, self-love,
for the honoring of my path, my story.
Infinite space for the Divine, the holy, the mystical that
exists in me, in every person, in the whole of humankind.

And my work and mine alone? First, responsibility for myself,
the work resplendent — self-care, self-love, self-respect.
Work that acknowledges my desires, worthwhile and deserved.

How much easier to welcome and acknowledge the Divine in me
when I shove the shit out and make room.

There is a deep connectedness to each of us in our solitude,
connection that offers life, not simply to survive but to flourish
in the experiences of both the
everyday and the glorious — the two, indistinguishable.





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.


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. 

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.


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.


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.