36x36 Acrylic/ Canvas/ Gold & Silver Leafe/ Glitter/ Gold Plated Butterflies/ Art Resin
He passed me a business card that said Nancy Gaittens LSSI and said “She will be able to help you.” And although I very much doubted that, months later the pain and unmanageability of my everyday existence was enough to call her and schedule an appointment. I was sure once we spoke she would let me know that I was completely fine and wasting her time. “Professional help” just sounds so drastic.
I had no ability back then to explain the events of my life in chronological order. But I met her that day and talked for two hours straight, me staring at a painting of a forest on the opposite wall. She had an unnerving way of looking into my eyes when I spoke, and leaning in towards me. All she said was that I needed to start looking at the role that drugs and alcohol played in the events of my life. Which I thought was completely ridiculous. She gave me a children's book about two caterpillars that turn into butterflies and asked me to come back next week. I lied as I left and said I would. She asked if she could hug me. I said ok and stiff as a board awkwardly put my arms around her. She held onto me an extra five seconds that first day, just like the last day.
But I ended up back there, sitting in that chair in her office and speaking to the forest painting on the opposite wall. She told me that because of trauma, all I could feel inside was chaos and so everything on the outside was chaos too. She told me that I wouldn’t be able to deal with any of it until I stopped using. She told me that since I am a writer I should print out everything I write that week and bring it to her office, that she could read it on her lunch break. I hardly believed she meant that, but she did. Even now I imagine her sometimes, eating a sandwich in 2009 in that cluttered office at her desk in Robbins, IL, reading those stacks of paper. None of it made any sense but she seemed to know what I was saying. She was the first person to ever say I was talented.
It took me a whole lot more pain, chaos, insanity and exactly one year to get clean for real. I got clean because she told me she wouldn’t be able to see me in her office anymore if I keep showing up high or with stories of how I had used that week. She was adamant that until I did something different, nothing would change and I was wasting both of our time. I didn’t understand any of it, but she read everything I wrote and acted as if it was worth something.
When I finally did get clean I moved to Las Vegas six months later. I simply wanted to live with palm trees where it was sunny. I had no money but I did have this pink sequin bikini and the hope of an ideal. I had no idea how to shop or prepare food. I didn’t know anybody. But there was a pool. She would send me special black nutrient rice and stay on the phone with me to explain how to cook it. She always told me she could only promise me that if I stayed clean, it would be worth it, but the level of how worth it would always be up to me and the work I did or didn’t put in. This was a time in my life when a carton of Marlboro Lights and a large milkshake from McDonalds was what I considered an extravagant dinner. So her information was complex to me.
I emailed Nancy every single day for hours about what it was all like, moving across the country with nothing, and every single night she wrote me back. On 9/11 I almost relapsed. I was so homesick and felt so alone. I had no food, no money, and I had run out of cigarettes. I was sick of the struggle of trying to live clean. I watched that twin tower footage a hundred times that day and called her to tell her I was going to go use as I spread jam on saltine crackers and pretended I could afford donuts. She simply said to me “Heather Lynn. Just go to one more meeting.” So I did. And it was in a kids classroom. Some lady with red hair had five years clean so there was all this food to eat. I met my friend Melanie, and Shelli, my sponsor. I started going every week. I stayed clean. I haven’t watched 9/11 footage since that day. I am afraid of what I will feel, because the capacity to be that lost, scared woman is something I believe will always be in me.
Eventually my life got very different. I stayed in recovery and always referred to Nancy as my mentor, mostly because I used to wait on this super asshole attorney named Francis every day in a bar I worked in in Chicago. He was extremely successful and talked about his mentors constantly in between shots of Louis XIII. So I told her I would like to be successful enough to say that I had a mentor - someone that taught me to be successful.
In 2017 Nancy came to visit Kevin and I in Las Vegas. They got along famously. We would sit on the couch of our patio for hours and hours into the night. Nobody could speak with Kevin and I like Nancy G. We took her to see the Mojave desert. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Las Vegas. That day we found a massive sand dune, the Kelso Dunes. We started walking in the sand. Nancy had a horrific asthma attack that day. There wasn’t anything we could do to help her except get her the hell out of there and back to our place to rest. I knew she was sick so I would always ask her - how will I know you are with me when you are gone? She would respond “I will be the wind.”
Fast forward 5 years. Kevin and I are in London. I had just seen Nancy in her home in Chicago the week before. I was in a daze in her house that day, very emotional because she had only a few things on her refrigerator door and one of those things was mine and Kevin's Christmas card from 2016. As always she hugged me for an extra five seconds before I left. That afternoon in London a week later her daughter called me to tell me that Nancy had died.
If you know a phone call like that, you never get to un know it. Eventually I composed myself, walked out to Kevin to tell him. All he said as he wrapped his arms around me was “She is on the top of that sand dune now. Taking a deep breath.”
A week later I’m driving from San Diego to Las Vegas and as always a car is flipped on the 15 so the freeway is completely shut. I’m in Yermo & take the detour where the map takes me, not paying much attention as I get on the 40. It was 15 miles through the desert on some side street before I realized where I was - on Kelbaker Road - and in the distance the Kelso Dunes.
A storm was starting and the sun was going to set soon. I audibly gasped driving up to that dune and at the last minute cut the wheel to turn onto the service road that leads to the foot of it. It’s one of those roads that you can only go 5mph on. Gravel and holes mostly. Fifteen minutes later I was at the foot of the dune. Wind whipping my hair. Lightning. Desert orange purple sunset sky. The tears in my eyes made it look like there were gold stars in the sky. I didn’t know what specifically to even feel so I just sat there in the wind and lightning, allowing the experience of synchronicity to move through me - in awe of the simplistic power and interchanging events that led me here to see and feel all of this.
She used to tell me a lot of things but especially always reminded me that to truly significantly heal meant to go to all of the same places I had already been but with different eyes. I laughed with the thunder like a small, wild animal in that empty desert, just me and my giant stuffed dragon and crystal ball. I am still able to comprehend her humor and everything she said and the way she would lean into what I was saying, looking into my eyes. I will never see her again, but I will never not have her instantly right next to me either. Somehow her eyes are still right there with me, listening every time I re-find my voice. The voice that she taught me I have.
This painting is the story and dream that exists in a crack of light so sharp and profound that only the middle of the desert can provide the emptiness and sight required to live it and at the same time know what I am living. As I was finally leaving the dune, after a good hysterical cry in the rain, the playlist in my car flipped to a song I’ve never heard. It’s just this piano but “and you’re with me wherever I go” caught my attention. So I turned it up in time to hear the last lyric
So if you love someone
you should let them know
the light that you give me
It was a moment of perfection. I scribbled EVERGLOW onto my arm in sharpie so that I could stretch out that moment onto a canvas. My intention was to paint the sweetness of the pain of perceived loss, change, healing and feeling like no matter what - one of the people that I loved and respected the most in the world believed in me enough to know I was capable of living in a different world, one that eventually I would be able to see within my own experience.