This is the twelfth and final photograph of the “Barriers Project” in which I have explored the journey of claiming my story and sharing my healing process.
“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 backlit art on the tunnel wall. It was a digitally designed collage of medical records, x-rays, charts and lab reports – all created expressly for the project, no real people’s records were used in the 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 — it’s a photographer 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 was going to be an important photo in my life, and not just as a photograph. The photo encapsulated – in a single digital frame – my journey that spanned over two decades, a summary of the last 20+ years of my life!
Prior to entering the tunnel, Sherpa and I had walked past an artist’s rendition of the Southwest — red rocks and cacti and sunshine painted on large murals along a wall, brightly illuminated. When I turned around, three-quarters of the way through the tunnel, the yellow-orange images of the Southwest spilled into the darker-hued tunnel of medical records. I saw the last twenty years meeting my present. Wow!
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 my current living situation 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 well in a sheltered environment, a place where I did what I felt confident doing while passing unwanted responsibilities on to others. Through all the therapy and medical consultations and group programs, I made friendships and relationships with others enmeshed in the same mental health system. It was a safe place, but it was also restrictive.
Eventually I realized I needed to move beyond. I needed more than a life of few responsibilities in the shadow of over-protection. I needed to stop defining myself as mentally ill and instead accept my mental illness and the self-care it required.
It was a huge realization – and one that terrified me.
In my case, I knew I could never change if I stayed in the protective, though loving, environment I’d known for years.
Sherpa and I had vacationed in Arizona several times, and I deeply connected with the Southwest and the desert. After much thought, I hatched a plan to return to the Southwest, alone, which would provide me with the necessary container to practice the skills of living independently. After working out a careful plan and constructing contingency arrangements for safety, Sherpa agreed.
Three years have passed since that time of initial planning.
I’ve lived in the Southwest for a part of each year. That first winter, I stayed eight weeks. I learned how to take complete responsibility for day-to-day living — buying groceries, preparing meals, driving in an unfamiliar city, going shopping, putting gas in the car, and taking care of myself. As simple as these tasks might appear, there were many days I greatly struggled. I had many weekend visitors — family who came for an Arizona vacation, but also to provide me with back-up. I’d applied to art shows in advance of my visit. I did several Arizona shows and Sherpa planned his visits to coincide with the shows. I also spent my days visiting new places, taking photographs, making prints and cards. I discovered a way of life I had never experienced. A modified version of solo living. I managed.
The second year, I stayed in Arizona for ten weeks. I had fewer visitors, more art shows. That winter I was incredibly lonely, and sought support through long distance phone calls. But I again I lived on my own, and explored even more of the natural world. I turned to nature and the solitude of the desert for support. I managed, again.
This year, my third year, I’ll be in Arizona for almost five months. Though there are still rough spots, the days are filled with many positives. I have forged friendships, joined an art group and a camera club. I do freelance photography shoots in addition to a few local art fairs. I volunteer with a social justice group. And every day, I pick up my camera and go out for an explore. I print my photos. I share my art. And I experience a deep sense of gratitude for what my art has given me – a way of making meaning in my world. I am thriving!
“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 that robbed me of so many precious hours of my present. Though holding my husband and children in love, and providing our children with as much normalcy as was possible, were among the highest priorities, the truth trumped all.
No matter how successfully we traversed life on a day-to-day basis, my family lived and grew up with an intimate knowledge of mental illness – its sorrows, its high and low points, and yes, even its successes.
In the process, they 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, just the way they were.
No matter how difficult the day, or the week, or the month, my husband and children gave me their support. We weren’t perfect, far from it. At times each of us felt cheated, felt that we were denied a normal life. But ultimately, we reconnected and moved on, moved 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, Letters to a Young Poet
Sometimes, living through difficulties and trials, we discover how to survive and thrive. I realized that there is no good reason to live my yearned-for life someday. Waiting for someday can be a mighty long wait. It was time to experience the gifts of each day and its difficulties. Every single day.
Bo Mackison is a photographer and owner of Seeded Earth Studio LLC. This post completes “Barriers” – a twelve part series exploring photography, possibilities, and the healing process. My deepest thanks to all who accompanied me on this journey – as a participant, an observer, or a reader. Thank you.
(The introductory post to the project can be found at “Heading in a New Direction.”)