Mother's Day Remnants

Holidays. They can be incredibly joyous or leave us in our own messy pool of feeling sorry for ourselves. Especially during a holiday, it can be hard not to compare our lives to others. We’ve all done it. At times we are satisfied with the results of this comparison. At other times, it can leave us restless and sad as we look at photos of family gatherings on social media. We might not even be totally aware of this until it happens. This year, I had an unexpectedly difficult Mother’s Day. The fact that it was cold and rainy didn’t help.

After the sudden loss of my mom, I expected all future holidays to be difficult. Oddly, this turned out not to be the case. If you’ve had a significant loss, you might agree with this. It doesn’t take a holiday to bring back remnants of that loss. It can be something as simple as a smell, a particular piece of music, a dream or a memory. You can be standing on a street corner and something can just hit you out of nowhere for no reason whatsoever, like a giant wave suddenly washing over you. This can happen at any time, in any place.

I’m often fine during the Christmas holidays and even on my mom’s birthday. I often expect myself to feel sad, but thankfully I’m a person with a fairly cheery outlook and this helps. If I’m busy enough with distractions I’m generally better. Distractions have a way of temporarily keeping me away from my real feelings. This is not always a bad thing. You might feel like this is true for you too. Distractions are the gatekeepers of sorrow, of longing, of truly getting into the core of it all and sometimes we don’t want to go there. I’m always happy for distractions, but this past Mother’s Day I had a hard time finding those distractions.

My daughter, who lives nearby, was visiting with her fiance's family during the day. We were to see her later in the evening for a special meal. That was all fine until suddenly, there I was with a big wave of longing to spend the day with her, my mom and everyone else I’ve loved or lost. I wanted to have them all back. But I knew I couldn’t. A loss doesn’t have to be a death. It can be simply missing someone or the loss of a past relationship as we knew it. Collective losses are hard and as we know, thinking about one loss can often bring them all back, whether animal or human.

For example, our last cat Sammy passed away in February. He was almost 21. My husband and I were both young when we adopted him and his sister as kittens. Measuring the span of those years means that those years are gone. Sammy was a sweet distraction as the years whizzed by. He was a loving creature who I felt was my soulmate and would be there for me in times of need. So there I was, no Sammy; shiftless without my favorite people/creatures and painfully longing for one more day with my mom. My husband was understanding as he told me it was okay to “have my feelings.” It must have been a difficult day for him having to deal with me. I am grateful for his love and patience.

Finally I knew my pity party would serve me no good, so I went to my studio to paint. At first it was hard to focus, but I knew that painting has always been therapeutic. As I painted I began to sort things out and the action and focus kept me balanced and present. I wallowed in my own crap for only so long as I began to remember all that I have, and all that I’ve had throughout my life. And thank goodness I began to smile again.

Afterlife , tempera paint on paper

Afterlife, tempera paint on paper

DREAMS AS MIRRORS

How well do we know ourselves? To be honest, when I was younger I didn’t give it much thought. Then I was hit with a tsunami and trying to understand myself became important. I began to dig deeper, looked in the mirror and tried to figure out how to deal with what had landed on me.

In my last post, I wrote about my experience of changing the feeling of fear through the process of painting or drawing a dream. In that dream and others, I’ve thought about each of the characters representing themselves as they appear in the storyline of the dream.

In other dreams, I’ve wondered if maybe all of the characters represent the self. Many experts think this is the case. If the dreamer is the producer, writer, director and acts out all the characters, it’s important to try and figure out what the dream is trying to say. Next time you have a dream, see it this helps: imagine that all the characters represent you, and they possess all the information you need to understand what the dream is communicating. After all, you dreamed the dream. Why assign the power of the message to anyone else?

One night I had a dream that I was in prison, wearing an old, tattered dress. There was a dirt floor and a tiny window with bars. I was skinny, hungry and barefoot. A female prison warden came over to me and told me she could get me out of the prison. She said she had the key, and as she spoke I could see the keys dangling from her waist. At first I was quite frightened of her but later, as I began to sketch the dream, I realized that I could get myself out of my inner prison, if I could just trust myself. I could stay there, or decide to let myself out. Her key was my key.

The Dream Warden

The Dream Warden is lonely
keeper of my prison.
I’m frightened,
afraid of what might happen.

But she’s gentle
I’m shocked.
She’s creative
I’m surprised.

She’s powerful
and beautiful.
She’ll give me the key
if I trust her.

She wipes off my face
and wants my company.
“It’s nice to have company.

You can trust me
I can get you out of here.”

Dream Warden,  colored pencil sketch on vellum

Dream Warden, colored pencil sketch on vellum

Dream Warrior

Have you ever had a dream so real that you could swear it wasn’t a dream? Or one so clear and vivid that when you woke up, things seemed less familiar than when you were dreaming?

Most of us pretty much take our dreams for granted. We’re exhausted after a busy day and are just happy to be able to fall asleep at night, let alone dream. Some of us think we don’t dream much at all. Others have vivid technicolor dreams that stay with us throughout the day. Most of the time we’re so involved with our waking life that we just brush those dreams off without a second thought. Then one day, a special dream appears out of nowhere that we can’t forget. It stays with us and may even appear over and over during a period of weeks or months as a recurring dream. Numerous times throughout the day we might have sudden flashbacks of scenes, or recall tiny fragments of the dream as we try to retrieve it. We might even find ourselves frustrated, as we long to remember the smallest of details. I believe those kinds of dreams are important to pay attention to. Maybe they were disturbing or downright scary or its potent storyline woke us up suddenly like a bolt of lightning. Maybe what we call nightmares are really dreams that are trying to get our attention and are not there to scare us, but to bring us greater wisdom.

After my mother’s suicide I had many scary dreams and at a certain point I began to draw and paint them. I was starting to gain confidence in the idea that bringing my thoughts and feelings to life was critical, as well as my dreams. They were all equally important in the healing process. I noticed that the more I painted my dreams, the more I remembered them. As I painted them, I began to think that they might even give me clues to another meaning and to see the dream in a completely different way. The dreams became another road map.

The definition of a dream is: A succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep.

When I read this definition, the word involuntarily stood out to me as key. Just as trying to create images without a specific result in mind during waking life, dreams effortlessly appear from within, unprompted and free to emerge from the psyche. There’s not much we can do about our dreams to change them. They are totally authentic. We don’t really know where they come from. Some people say that dreams are pictures of feelings. I also believe they originate from such a deep subconscious place inside us, that accessing them is like finding a hidden treasure, a treasure that is us. There is such a wealth of information about ourselves in dreams. Trying to access them is like self-excavation. Who knows what we will find?

I had a dream one night that I was walking down a lonely road. It was dark out and suddenly a giant creature popped out of a trapdoor in the road, much like a jack in the box. I suddenly woke up. The dream frightened me quite a bit, as I was already feeling wounded. After staying with me for days, I began to paint it. At first I did several loose drawings, then painted a fairly raw image until it transformed into a more finished version. As I continued to work on it, the dream image began to take on a different meaning for me. The once scary monster, became a symbol of a helping warrior. The warrior was powerful but had a heart that was broken. It was still standing strong while at the same time was non-threatening to me. But it was only in the action of engaging with the image that this occurred. By giving it life and bringing it out into the open air, it transformed before my eyes from a frightening beast into a benevolent being.

Dream Warrior,  cut paper and airbrush

Dream Warrior, cut paper and airbrush

The Gift

If we look hard enough, slow down and listen long enough, we can often find gifts in the places we least expect it. They are all around us; outside our window, while sharing a meal with friends or simply having a talk with someone we love. Hopefully we can realize how lucky we are to have these things in our lives, however tiny they seem. Tiny gifts add up to larger ones and if we begin to notice them, our lives can feel more abundant, even with sorrow, loss and devastation. It took me a long time to learn this.

One day several weeks after my mom’s suicide a close friend said to me, “Annie, you have to find the gift.” How could I possibly find a gift? The worst thing had happened. I had just started painting the demons, taking small steps to try and discover if I had the power to change the trajectory of my healing. But frankly, finding the gift just seemed like too distant a concept.  

As I trudged through day after day in a cloud of fog I didn’t forget what she had told me. Maybe I would have discovered this on my own at some point in the future, but I know it would have taken me a long time. Finding the gift? This mantra stayed with me. I kept thinking about what this truly meant. How could I find the gift in such a disaster? Are there gifts among ruins? Finding the gift for me I knew was a journey unto itself. It felt like finding a needle in a haystack, and if you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation you know how daunting this feels. I knew the journey would be difficult.

As I continued to paint the demons, they became softer, as described in my last post, Sleeping With Demons. Painting them was becoming comforting and the fear was beginning to subside. I felt more powerful, able to escape their clutches and as I mentioned, I even began to feel compassion for them. However, at this point I was still feeling like I led a double life, the external life and the internal life. At the time, I was still doing illustration work for children’s books and magazines while simultaneously painting demons on the side. It was quite a contrast in imagery! However, what I started to notice was that it was the act of painting the demons, not just the finished art, that made me feel better. I remembered how much I’d enjoyed that workshop in California when I’d painted the dark, disturbing images before my mom’s suicide. I was beginning to connect the dots. By merely picking up that paint brush or that oil pastel and just seeing what came out on that piece of  paper became the healing moment and the more I did it the better I felt. It didn’t matter so much what it looked like or if it was a ‘good’ painting. Admittedly, letting go of that concept was, at first, very difficult. As trained artists, many of us know how we can get in our own way. We ask ourselves constantly, “Is it good enough?” I knew that suspending judgment was key.

It would be slow, but I knew I was on my way and that was the best part.

Water Demons , oil stick on paper

Water Demons, oil stick on paper

Sleeping With Demons

Like most new experiences, things might seem strange at first. When we move into a new home it can feel odd. If we close our eyes and walk around the unfamiliar layout, we don’t know where anything is at first. The unfamiliarity can be unsettling. After awhile things shift and become more familiar and what was strange and foreign becomes common and expected. We begin to trust our senses.

After my mother’s death, at first there was this odd strangeness, much like inhabiting a new space. But there was also an additional intrusive element. As I described in my last post, The Unwanted Guest, I was carrying around demons. Navigating a changed inner world with these new companions was scary. They continued to follow me around, sit on my shoulder, lurk behind the shower curtain, follow me as I took a walk, slept, ate and worked with me. They took over my space and downright spooked me.

As kids, our magical thinking allowed us to imagine these beings were real and we had to somehow cope. Was the Boogeyman under our bed or in our closet? Our parents told us not to worry, that it wasn’t real. We didn’t really believe them, since our fears seemed very real. As grown ups now, we tell ourselves that this is foolish, that there are no such things as demons, especially with names. But what if we know they are there, feel their presence in their invisible form while at the same time telling ourselves that this is completely crazy? How do we name and make sense of an invisible force that we feel has and might continue to cause us harm? When I decided to face the demons, I thought about this a lot.

In the early 1990’s I met a man named Shaun McNiff, artist and founder of the Expressive Therapy Program at Lesley University. At the time he had just written a new book entitled Art as Medicine and was giving a lecture in Boston. The title resonated with me so I attended. At the time I didn’t know much about this topic, but kept thinking back to the dark paintings in I had done in California. He taught me that the paintings have a soul and I realized at the time that I would need to do the work to make my demons visible, to give them form and shape, no matter how scary it was. I wasn’t sure what this would lead to but I started to wonder, “What am I really afraid of, the worst has already happened?”  

At first, when I started painting the demons they were invasive, scary and mean. They were there, swirling all around me, in and out of my body. And like anything, after awhile, I slowly began to get used to them. They still slept with me, appeared in dreams, ate with me, went on road trips and worked with me. But very slowly, day by day, I began to get used to them and their presence wasn’t as scary as it had originally been. And as I painted them more and more I began to question if their presence could take on a completely different meaning in my life.

After weeks and months of painting them, their visual presence in my work completely shifted. They were no longer threatening, but softer, even expressive and sometimes sad. I realized that it was possible to actually befriend the demons and even welcome them into my life, thus diminishing my fear of them. I wondered if maybe someday, they would decide to just wish me well and disappear. I realized that maybe all along they hadn’t been there to harm me but to help me. Could I go on to learn something from them, feel compassion for them and even embrace them?

Sleeping With Demons,  oil stick on paper

Sleeping With Demons, oil stick on paper

The Unwanted Guest

I would think that being invaded by a unwanted guest is similar to suddenly coming down with a physical illness. One minute you’re healthy and feeling fine and then you get stricken. Maybe it happens over one day or a series of days or weeks. Maybe it was the flu, or something you ate, or something more serious like diabetes or heart disease, or you were told you had cancer. Even with the very best of intentions and extreme self care, we often have little control over our physical state. There are genetics involved and invisible germs and viruses. If you’re lucky, your flu shot will work. With a physical illness, you can hopefully take steps to heal, such as seeing a doctor, getting plenty of rest, taking a prescribed medication or undergoing a series of treatments and then go on to live a perfectly normal life.

However, unwanted guests are hidden and sneaky. They can creep up suddenly, invade your space or be brewing inside over a long period of time. They can be caused by an ongoing stressful situation before finally taking hold inside. Sometimes this manifests into physical symptoms, sometimes not. You can seem okay to everyone else, until you don’t anymore. You can feel okay physically, but inside you know something is very wrong. If the unwanted guests are really disruptive they might even take on the meaning of a demon. You just want to get rid of them.

The definition of demon is: An evil spirit, especially one thought to possess a person or act as a tormentor.

I’m not really a believer in ‘spirits’, but when my mom died by suicide it was as if there was an intruder invading me and my life. It was as if there was suddenly another being, a tormentor beside me. One that I didn’t like. One who had spoiled everything. One that I had to get rid of and defeat at all costs. The intruder suddenly had friends. I was surrounded constantly by the spell they had cast onto my life. They had inhabited my body and soul and would not leave. They were unwanted guests and at times they definitely felt like demons.

At first I did everything I could to ignore them. I went to work and did all my daily routines.  Having order in my life was helpful but nothing I did would rid me of them. They stayed with me during the day, sat with me at night, drove around with me in my car, invaded my dreams. I imagined them to be ugly and mean, gauzy grey shadowy figures there to hurt and torment me. Months went by. How was I going to get rid of them?

I finally decided I would have to confront them. This was the beginning of my transformation.

The Intruder,  oil stick on paper

The Intruder, oil stick on paper

Why You, Why Me?

Have you ever thought about how long it takes to really get to know someone? I recently read a interesting article that said if you want to get to know someone, you’re going to have to put a lot of work into it, not just a once in while meet up. I was surprised to find out that it takes 50 hours to make a casual friend, 90 to have a real friend and over 200 hours to become close friends. That’s a lot of hours!  But no matter how long we know someone, or think we know them, we really don’t know what is in the dark recesses of someone else’s psyche. That’s what I learned from my mother’s death. I never in my wildest dreams could ever imagine I would be a suicide survivor. My mom, jumping off a balcony, was such a violent and incomprehensible act. How could that be possible? She would never do that (the way I thought I knew her). How well did I really know her? I came to realize that we never get the full story from those we think are closest to us.

Suicide, unfortunately, is not that uncommon. In this country, someone takes their own life every 40 seconds. It’s a topic we seldom want to think about, or discuss, understandably. “How could those who seemingly have a great life, do something like that?” people wonder. Even today, with the recent loss of celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade it’s still a fairly taboo topic.

When I started a suicide survivors group (see March 31st blog post) in our community, I realized how much more common it is, but how little people ever talked about it. That is, unless you’ve been through the shared misery. Wives had lost their husbands, parents lost their children, friends lost their friends. Even today, many people I know have been touched in some way by the tragic loss of a friend or relative by their own hand. But no matter how much you hear of or talk about it, you still wonder, “Why Me?”

For example, when you read the news, have you ever thought, “Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me?” It happened to someone else and occurred far away in the distance and we’re in the safety of our own home. There is comfort in knowing that. Things can seem random until you look at the big picture, such as small isolated events leading up to a larger event. Maybe we can’t pinpoint the reason for it, but we want to try to understand why it happened. This makes it all tremendously difficult. We can rack our brain some more, or finally decide it is what it is, but no amount of trying can change it back. How do we get to the place of acceptance?

Being wrapped up daily life at the time, I just didn’t see my mother’s suicide as possible, but my deepest self knew something big was coming. We don’t easily go to those deepest places within ourselves. But my paintings knew. They definitely knew.

Why Me?  Collage and airbrush

Why Me? Collage and airbrush

The Dream is the Escape

We hope lightning doesn’t strike. Thunder in the distance means there’s the possibility of lightning or a storm approaching. Sometimes we ignore the thunder and sometimes we listen. It’s trying to tell us something important, to get our attention, that there might be danger on the way. How do we know if we should listen to those warning signs?

After the suicide of my mom in 1987, I felt much like what I’d read about lightning strike victims. My body felt rigid, I couldn’t sleep, my brain was foggy and as the days, weeks and months went by I felt as if I was born into to a new body and suddenly a new life, even though my outer life hadn’t changed much. My home and my work was the same and the sun would still rise and set each day. The issue was how to integrate this unfamiliar inner terrain into my waking life.  I began to see a therapist and after some time we began a group together called, “Healing After Suicide.” The group met monthly for two years and I was shocked at the amount of people from our community that had experienced similar types of losses. For a time it was comforting to share with others who had experienced this specific kind of agony. But as time went on, I was still left with the same feeling. Talking about it had helped only a little. I was still left in a place of emptiness and isolation.

Of course to outsiders everything looked fine and I’d wanted it to appear that way. If you’ve been through a difficult event, you know what I’m talking about. How do you crawl out of an unfamiliar place into your changed life and feel okay? You want to escape this new feeling, and go back to where you were. You wake up in the morning and it’s not a dream. The dream is the escape.

When lightning strikes, it can snatch that innocent trust from inside of us forever. We say to ourselves, “Something did happen, can happen. Could it happen again?” How do we process this and make sure that lightning doesn’t strike twice? The truth is, we know we can’t, unless we are all tea leaf readers. So how can we move on from where we are?

Months later, when I looked at the dark, ominous paintings that I’d done in the painting workshop, I saw that I’d had those inner whispers. They had been there all along, buried deep down while I painted on that gorgeous day with the breathtaking view. They had somehow come to the surface while I was still unaware, consciously, what I would go on to experience several months later. On some level I must have known that there was trouble coming, that thunder clap of a premonition.  But honestly, how many of us believe our guts with absolute certainty?

The Void , watercolor and cut paper

The Void, watercolor and cut paper

Before and After

Everyone’s life is a series of interesting stories. Mine is defined by the before and the after. I’m sure many of you are defined by this as well. You can remember the day it all changed; the time, what you were wearing, the thoughts you had and the exact surroundings. It doesn’t matter how long ago that defining moment was. Life is unpredictable and we don’t like to think of this until it all changes. Why would we? It’s much more comforting to think that the way it is now is the way it will be forever; what should I make for dinner, which Netflix series should I watch or who will take out the trash? It’s amazing to me though how so much of our lives are filled with those kinds of days, weeks, months and years. The ones we don’t remember until that one day. The day that becomes frozen in your brain forever, and never, ever leaves.

I would have rather not had a defining moment, but I didn’t have any choice. My husband and I had just bought an old house and moved from Boston to northeastern Connecticut where we had family and the real estate was cheaper. We were both freelance illustrators at a time where faxing sketches and sending jobs by Fedex was new. I was in my early thirties embarking on a new journey and a new place. These early days were filled with a combination of hope, fear and excitement. I had taken the painting workshop several months prior to our move and the turtle image (see March 18th blog post) and the other paintings remained in a drawer. One day I took them out to have a look, to really look. I had remembered that over the week they had progressively become dark and unsettling and had taken on a nightmare appearance. There were strange creatures chasing me while I stood on the edge of a cliff, a ruined picnic and a ghost creature coming out of a window towards me while I ran down a city street, as well as a painting of a vicious, gigantic red dog behind a house on fire with me blindfolded. What was so interesting about them (looking with fresh eyes several months later) was that I recalled that while I was doing them, I was having a great time. To an outsider, one might think that I was going through a difficult time in my life, or that I was depressed. Neither of those were true. So what was going on?

Now, years later I look at them and can see that they were a premonition, a subconscious voice within me trying to tell me something. Little did I know that several months after I painted that first painting in that beautiful place, my mother would unexpectedly take her own life.

Back in the 80’s, suicide wasn’t talked about much. Somehow, over the following weeks and months I went about my life, neatly picking up where I had left off. But inside I was totally and permanently altered, as if someone had suddenly pulled out the ground beneath me. Now I had two lives; the inner and outer, the before and after and I hardly ever talked about it. But inside I was screaming.

Inner Warrior,  acrylic, watercolor and ink

Inner Warrior, acrylic, watercolor and ink

A Turtle?

Have you ever faced a large blank piece of paper and just started to paint or draw? I’m not talking about looking at an object, a photo or scenery and trying to duplicate it. Doing that is valuable and many of us did this in art school and continue to do it. I’m talking about something quite different.

As kids, we didn’t worry about what our crayon drawings looked like, we just did it. People think that creative decline begins in middle age. However, statistics show it happens after the age of five when kids enter school! Maybe you had a teacher who told you the sky had to be blue, a leaf green or the sun yellow. Maybe you made the sky pink instead and your teacher said it was the wrong color so you just never took those crayons out again. Kids don’t need to think of themselves as ‘artists’ first in order to create freely. In fact, it might be easier if you haven’t done much art in your life.

It’s a scary thought. The sheet of paper will be staring back at you, begging for you to first start and then to keep going. Fearing it won’t look good is totally understandable. I felt the same way.

In my adult life I had never tried this, but that’s what was facing me in 1986 when things changed. Although at the time I consciously didn’t see the power of this. At the time I was in California taking a painting workshop and I was clueless about what to paint, (even after thinking of myself as an artist for years). All that art school training paralyzed me. I was standing near an open door overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “Should I paint the scenery?” I wondered. With no manuscript or written article to follow as I had done as an illustrator, I felt lost, so I just started to scribble with different colors. The first mark was the most important because at least I made a mark! That one mark led to the next and the next. I was trying not to judge, but admittedly it was hard. But I persisted. It was like driving a car and having absolutely no idea where I was going. And a turtle appeared.



The Turtle , tempera on paper

The Turtle, tempera on paper

Can You Relate?

When you least expect it, your life can change in a blink. That’s what happened to me almost thirty-two years ago, and it changed me forever. Maybe you’ve been changed too by an event in your life. Maybe you didn’t tell anyone and kept it a secret. Maybe things on the outside looked the same to everyone else and at the same time maybe you were trying to keep it that way. But inside, you were completely different and the world became an upside down place. You suddenly had to re-arrange the way you thought about everything and everyone. Can you relate?

It isn’t easy to write this post. I’m a master procrastinator. I’m good at washing dishes, straightening up, going food shopping, cooking, taking walks, going to the gym, petting the cats, etc.. When it gets down to the really hard stuff, there is always something else to do.

I am certain that there are many of you that have been through a life-changing event. And hopefully we can share how we got through it in one piece and went on to experience life’s wonders as a whole person again. Because when your life is shattered, you need to figure out how to pick up those sharp pieces, put them together and move on. Whether a difficult illness, event or sudden loss, at one point we all had to make a decision about what to do with it and how to heal. Mine was to create art.

Hide & Seek,  watercolor and ink on paper

Hide & Seek, watercolor and ink on paper

Baby Steps

For the past six months I’ve been on sabbatical from my teaching job, working on a project entitled Healing Art; A Visual Journey. It includes a web site, blog and workbook. The project documents thirty years of work dealing with navigating life’s challenges through the process of creating art.

I am also interested in hearing stories and seeing the images of others that are willing to share!

Detail:  Who Are You Really?  colored pencil on paper

Detail: Who Are You Really? colored pencil on paper