I never would have thought that I would stand on a stage and allow myself to be fully seen. Growing up I felt a lack of belonging in this world, as if I was invisible. I can remember myself as an infant in my crib, having soiled myself, allergic to my mother’s milk. I’m crying, reaching my arms out and no one comes to save me from the wretchedness around my little body. Was anybody there? Did they even care? Was I invisible? I was convinced that no one could really see me.

This lack of belonging, this darkness inside, hid beneath the surface until I couldn’t contain it anymore. My junior year of high school the doctors finally labeled it - they called it recurrent major depression. It eroded my liveliness and led me to question time and time again whether my life was really worth living. Through high school, through college, I tried all the interventions, yet nothing seemed to keep the darkness away for more than a short time. I was merely treading water just to stay ahead of the current. Later, I poured myself into my career, desperately seeking meaning and purpose, and it worked…until it didn’t.

In my thirties, I found myself more desperate than ever, yearning for healing, seeking a sense that my life mattered. I sat before an expert whom I believed could finally help me fend off the darkness for good. Her modality was somatic - exploring childhood reflexes. After one particularly challenging virtual session I closed my computer, looked around my lonely apartment, and I wept. I wept for the child in me that didn’t receive the nurturing on the other end of my reach. I wept for the adolescent in me that felt like she had to grow up so quickly, and do life on her own. I wept for the present day me, who hurt so deeply, and was craving to be finally seen. “Was this it? Was I even being seen?” I thought. “How could my healing path take me to this lonely place with no one here to hold me?” I knew then I needed something different, a different kind of medicine.

I was eventually drawn to psychedelics. At first I made the wrong choice. Feeling like I wanted to die, ketamine was my eleventh hour effort to save my life. That was how I found myself in a brightly lit room with a needle in my arm, an anesthesiologist pumping ketamine into my veins. In a syrupy voice he whispered, “I’ll be back,” as he flipped off the light and left me for the hour. The next thing I was aware of, I wiggled my fingers and toes and they were stiff and cold, and the room had grown dark. The sun had set. I felt a rush of fire shooting through my chest. I thought my soul was leaving my body. “Take me back, take me back, I’m not ready to die,” my desperate voice proclaimed. Was anybody there? Did they even care? Was I invisible? I left the clinic shivering and aware I wanted to be alive and that I wanted healing more than ever, and I knew it wasn’t this.

The moment I met Valery, the part of me I thought had died in that ketamine infusion felt seen. Instead of feeling the urge to hide, I felt safe and able to be seen, even my most wretched parts. Valery, an ageless woman dressed in shades of black and gray, with a dash of purple in her long dark hair, smiled gently at me and I felt my rigid body soften. I held back tears of relief – feeling a sense of containment and safety that allowed my racing heart to settle. I had just met this woman, and in this hour-long initial session, I knew she was going to be the one to help me save myself.
Watercolor and Acrylic: "Containment"
Before the ketamine infusions at the clinic, the anesthesiologist smiled smugly and told me to “Just show up and let the ketamine do the work.” Before my first session with Valery, she invited me to make my wish for self-healing into a doll. I took this project very seriously. I wrote my intention on a large heart shaped bead and sewed it into the doll’s center. The second I knew I wanted to be alive, the question, my intention, became clear, “So now what?” I chose a floral fabric that meant new life and growth and flourishing. I gave her a beaded tulle skirt for the playfulness and lightness I’d hoped to gain through this experience. Lastly, I gave her a giant smile, the one I hoped to have.
Handmade Intention Doll
A few weeks later, I sat on Valery’s plush couch, covered in the softest sheets and blankets I’d ever felt, moments away from receiving ketamine for the first time with psychotherapy as well. As I placed my intention doll on the altar, I thought about the question woven inside her. I asked it as a prayer to the universe.
Intention Sewn Inside Doll
As I laid on Valery’s couch, I felt the ketamine start to flood my system and I felt my nerves quiet down. My body softened and I felt tingling in my arms and legs. I saw a vortex of darkness and light. The music felt like the earth and my body melted with it into the couch. For a moment all was still, until I felt a bubbling of emotion. I saw myself as a young child, alone. I felt deep sadness for her. My lips trembled and I wept silently. Afraid to take up space. Afraid to be seen. Afraid that my sadness was too much for Valery, that I am too much. I sensed Valery’s hand on my arm. The unspoken message, “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere,” ricocheted through my body.

Liquid Acrylic: "Darkness and Light"

I started to breathe more deeply. My leg twitched. Valery told me to let whatever movement wanted to happen, happen. I’d been overriding my nervous system for so long, containing my emotions, containing my tears, and for what felt like the first time, someone wasn't running from me. I was not overwhelming the other person. My darkest parts were welcomed in this space. At first it felt foreign, like a wound that has been hidden under bandages and is finally exposed to fresh air. I didn’t know what to think or feel or do. And I continued to breathe. And I continued to settle.

I woke up the next morning before my alarm, threw off the covers and planted my butt at the kitchen table and started creating. Art and poetry began pouring out of me. Soon poems were writing themselves in my dreams. I would wake up and have to create what came to me that night. Before I was even done, I’d get the idea for the next piece. I felt like my soul had finally returned to my body. I would see people walking around the drab streets of Chicago with their heads buried in their phones and I wanted them to know that they can create too. They have art within them too. Suddenly I wanted everyone to experience something like this, and I wanted them to feel that deep connection and know they matter.
Watercolor and Acrylic: "Joy"
All I knew was that creating felt damn good. Then something unexpected happened. It wasn’t just that I was creating - people were loving my work. This kept going. As time went on my work became more and more resonant. People went from saying “Oh, that’s nice” to “Wow.” Some were even moved to tears. I didn’t know how to describe what I was feeling, except that I felt more and more alive.

Before I knew it, I was invited to open Psychedelic Art Week in Chicago, to tell my story with Valery at my side. What an honor to stand on stage next to the woman who was the catalyst for my beautiful evolution, and to share the story of my healing journey. To think, people actually wanted to hear the story…my story.

As the day drew close, the critical voice stirred up doubt as fear danced around the edges of my frame. What if this was a mistake, and someone else should really be on stage? What if I made a fool of myself, and the poems fell flat, or the art looked clumsy? And worst of all, what if no one showed up?

As I started to choose my outfit, I felt like I was preparing for my funeral, as if this was the final viewing of me. What would I wear for that? I imagined the crowd dressed in black, somber music playing as I was processed in. I would lay before them, face as white as ash. At least I could look sensational while exiting the world. But this wasn’t my funeral. Not even close.

I landed on a colorful, “trippy,” three-quarter length shirt, with black pants and fancy black boots. I felt like I had to look the part as a consumer of psychedelics. I would later regret my choice of footwear – my left shoe being slightly more snug than the right – no room for the eventual foot swelling that was inevitable after standing for 4 hours straight.

Finally the day came. I arrived at the venue an hour early, wired with excitement and anxiety. I’d mentally rehearsed this day for weeks - picturing myself on stage, delivering with grace. I was ready. As I ascended the long dark staircase to the main floor of the venue, an image of my past self flashed before my eyes - I saw myself laying in bed, blinds pulled down to block the brightness from the outside world, sheets tangled from fitful tossing and turning, thinking “What’s the point of getting out of bed?” I remained there for almost 24 hours, barely getting up, save to use the restroom. I felt so hopeless and scared. I did not know how I might survive the grip of another depressive episode.

Watercolor and Acrylic: "Lost"
Beams of sunlight met me near the top of the staircase, pouring in from the large windows of this spacious room with white walls, and dashes of colorful artwork adorning the space. I walked over to set my belongings down and was greeted by Valery. I felt such a sense of relief in seeing her. She looked at me with tender eyes and we hugged. I felt an immediate shift in my energy, a gentle calming.
Watercolor and Acrylic: "Calm"
Having been to the venue before, I knew there was no formal “stage.” It only struck me when I arrived, how sad that fact was. Somehow stepping on and off the stage had monumental significance in my mind. If I wasn’t on a real stage, was my story even legitimate?

I looked around for a podium. Perhaps I would stand at it, get a feel for the room and the layout of the crowd. What kind of venue, that hosts speakers all the time, doesn’t have a podium? The doubt came crashing back in. The all too familiar feeling of disappointment with a world that just couldn’t seem to make space for me. Am I, yet again, just an afterthought? Not today. I get to be on stage, even if I have to make the stage myself.

I had asked the event organizers to have Kleenex on hand, if not for the crowd, for me, because I knew tears would be shed - hopefully tears of joy. They took my request seriously. There were over a dozen Kleenex boxes in a large plastic bin. I took the bin and looked around for other objects to build my own podium. I found a round end table and put the bin on top of it. It wasn’t quite tall enough. I grabbed a yoga block and to my surprise, that added just enough height. I used a yoga blanket to cover the wonkiness of my makeshift podium. Wonky or not, this is where I was going to stand and share my healing journey.
As I was setting up my artwork on a table, I pulled out one of my weaving pieces – a navy blue wall hanging with an interlay of a woman, arms above her head, holding up the sun. I thought to myself, “I cannot believe I made this, and people want to see it.” When I pulled it off the loom in the weaving studio, the instructor stopped the class and had everyone gather around to see the final product. People looked at me with disbelief, and I swelled with pride, not just for what I had made, but for the way it touched other people too.

Hand Woven Integration Piece

As I was setting up my artwork on a table, I pulled out one of my weaving pieces – a navy blue wall hanging with an interlay of a woman, arms above her head, holding up the sun. I thought to myself, “I cannot believe I made this, and people want to see it.” When I pulled it off the loom in the weaving studio, the instructor stopped the class and had everyone gather around to see the final product. People looked at me with disbelief, and I swelled with pride, not just for what I had made, but for the way it touched other people too.
Hand Woven Integration Piece
Each piece I pulled out had a similar story - a work of art that expressed the vibrancy of my soul. I took a step back and saw everything that I had made on display, filling a medium-sized table. This is my work, I thought to myself. I created all of this.

The room filled so painstakingly slowly. Empty seats scattered about. Was I somehow letting people down before the presentation had even begun? I felt myself begin to panic. I had invited several members of my support system, yet the universe suddenly had other plans for most of them that day, and so my cheering section was a party of one: my boss. I thought I was ready to raise my voice, and yet, there were so few people here to listen. As I looked around the room, I heard my soul speak, “Everyone who needs to hear this talk will be present.” I breathed a sigh of relief.

The plan was for us to use a microphone. Another moment of panic. There is something so terrifying to me about using a microphone, especially when this was such an intimate discussion. I can remember the last time I used a microphone. I froze and literally no words came out. I wanted this to be different. I needed this to be different. I was about to share the trajectory of my very personal healing journey. I wanted to be heard loud and clear, but wasn’t my voice loud enough on its own?
Watercolor and Acrylic Collage: "Anxiety"
The event curator formally introduced Valery and me. Valery took the “stage,” i.e. walked over to my makeshift podium. I sat quietly in the corner, desperately trying to ground myself. I took many deep breaths as I recited mentally, “This is my moment.  I chose this.” I visualized myself standing in front of the room, opening my heart. Calm. Confident. Energized. “I can do this,” my internal wisdom whispered. The anxiety so palpable in my body left me wondering if anyone got close enough to me, whether they could feel it.

I stepped up to the makeshift podium and couldn’t help but notice a constriction in my throat.  What if, after all this time, I couldn’t raise my voice? What if I wasn’t “better” and my darkness still plagued me? Forcing the first few sentences out of my mouth was no easy feat. For a moment, it felt as though I could barely speak. Was this the depression gods taunting me, reminding me of all those times that I had nothing to say? I felt simultaneously hot and cold, feeling the marks of sweat growing on my shirt from my underarms. I could feel my face flush – my energy now visible to everyone in the room.

Then I felt the part of me, that even through the darkest days of my depression, had whispered, “I’m here too.” I felt her, steady and strong. We had made it to our stage. Now she spoke through me. Her voice, my voice animated, resonant. I read, “I want to take root in my life.  I want my foundation, deep in the bedrock of the earth to fiercely and independently hold me up.  I want to feel this rootedness in every fiber of my being - the firmness, the stability, and with the unwavering groundedness that I exist.” I felt myself fight back tears. There were nods in the audience. I felt goosebumps spread across my exposed skin. I could not help but think of all those times when my darkness stunted my creativity, going weeks or months without touching the things that made me feel most alive in the world. I wanted to create, yet I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but sit and stare. “How is this my life?” I would ask, to which I never received a response. 
Collage: "Be the Mountain"
As I finished the poem, I looked over at Valery and she smiled and nodded. Tears of joy streamed down my face. As I reached for a tissue, I realized the stack of kleenex boxes never got distributed throughout the room. There were literally all sitting behind me and for a moment, I thought I might need to use every one. Initially I laughed when I saw that many Kleenex boxes, because how much crying did the event organizers think was going to happen? Nonetheless, I was a grateful consumer of the Kleenex.

I was running short on time. I felt as though I was in the final stretch of a marathon, having run twenty-six miles already, so close to the finish line. By this point my ears were ringing so loudly, my telltale sound of exhaustion, and I asked the room if I should skip to the last poem, to which members of the crowd shouted, “No!” My eyes fell on a woman in a white sweater toward the back of the arranged seating. Our eyes met and I watched as her lips proclaimed, “Read them all!” It was like when Valery placed her hand on my arm. I felt seen.

I continued, “As I move closer to the center of my own being…” I looked out at this same woman - eyes closed, gentle smile on her face. It was as if I was the sun and she was bathing in my light, taking in every ounce of warmth and comfort emanating from me. After all of this wondering, laboring over my delivery, practicing every day for weeks, I saw my light wash over this woman, like I was holding her hand as all of her wretched surfaced. I felt the words come up: Go forth my friend. Go and share your light.
Watercolor and Acrylic: "Share Your Light"
Deepest gratitude to David Alder and his course Parables of Change that enabled this story to come to fruition, and to Valery for her unconditional love, wisdom and guidance through difficult times.

Get in touch with me on Instagram @mylove.lution
The artwork on this page was hand-made by and belongs solely to Lauren M. Parente.
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