Shapeshifting My Life
by Susan K. Garrett
Just last night it happened again. I havent had one for over six months,
not one of this magnitude for a year or more. Exhausted after a grueling 5-day
art show of exhibiting and selling my paintings, I thought I would sleep like
the dead. At 3:00 am I was up; heart pounding, mind racing, something tearing
at me from inside, not letting me sleep, not letting me breathe - no time to
be dead to the world or myself.
After almost 27 years of these night time episodes, I recognize them and almost
welcome them. In the beginning they were diagnosed as anxiety attacks. I was
given valium to obliterate them and that part of myself that was desperately
trying to speak out. After 27 years of fighting them and trying to annihilate
them, I have learned what valuable tools, perhaps even gifts, these episodes
Last night at 3:30 am I took my vision journal and flashlight and went out
into the yard under the stars and trees and allowed this process full onslaught
of me. I opened myself to the ravagings that are so intense that they take me
over physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For almost two hours in the dark
heart of the night, I cried and questioned and begged and raged these feelings
into consciousness, giving birth to catharsis and shape-shifting my life.
I would tear everything down and apart, ripping my life asunder, piece by piece
and limb by limb. After Id torn everything down, I would give myself over
to the universe and ask the questions I needed to ask and be open to receiving
Surely a madness. I am surprised I will even tell you this. Since I was a child
I was always afraid people would think me mad and lock me away somewhere. One
of my earliest memories of fearing to be mad came when I was nine years old.
I had this extraordinary dream of swimming in the ocean and being eaten by
a whale. I can remember being chewed apart piece by piece, and it felt glorious
and sensual. I can still feel the incredible peace and consciousness expanding
sensation of feeling all the little pieces of me floating around in the whales
stomach and being conscious and content being there.
I was aware of all my other little pieces, floating around, somehow still connected
to them. Then, the little ocean inside the whales stomach grew and grew until
it became the universe. I could feel all the little parts of me connected and
expanding through all the universe intensely and serenely aware of each other
and aware of an overall consciousness or being that was not just part of everything
but actively encompassing or guiding or growing with everything.
It would be nearly 32 years before I would tell anyone of this dream. And,
32 years later the feelings and experiences of this dream would be with me as
vividly as the night it first came to me. I was afraid then and for the next
32 years that I would be thought crazy for having such a dream. After all, I
had already heard at the age of nine that only insane people can have dreams
in which they die.
For 32 years my visionary and spiritual life went under- ground as I tried
to be like everyone else. I was a child with learning differences in school;
I always understood things differently from everyone else. I struggled with
my studies and received my BA degree in psychology and philosophy.
My mind would soar with the possibilities I saw in Martin Heidegger, Gabriel
Marcel, Kierkegaard and Hegel. These peoples thoughts were like drugs to my
mind. I could stay normal on the outside while flying with them on the inside.
I looked acceptable and successful as I was working on my masters degree in
philosophy, working full time at a psychiatric hospital and engaged to be married.
This is when the anxiety attacks first arrived.
The thing I can most remember about the anxiety attacks was the overriding
panic and intense nebulous fear that struck with each one. They kept me terrified
with my breathing accelerated and heart pounding for six to eight hours at a
time. The valium I was given was a welcome addiction and dulling effect but
could not drive the fear away.
I dropped out of school, quit my job and talked my fiancee into moving back
to my home state to live. We married, then divorced seven years later. I jumped
back into another marriage a year after that; all the while keeping semi-control
on the anxiety with the valium. I had no idea at the time that the anxiety attacks
were psychic and spiritual growing pains, and that I was halting my growth by
medicating and ignoring them.
I was just trying to be normal and happy like everyone expected. I continued
on for seven more years holding the anxiety at bay until the year my father
died. With my fathers death, the anxiety ravaged me like a wild animal
and the fear became focused on death and illness.
My one and only daughter had been born one year before my father died. At the
time of her birth I decided to give up my connections with psychology and become
an artist. The creative process was very healing and nurturing for me. It gave
me time and space to be with myself in a multi-level way.
My life to this time had always been filled with inner thoughts and musings;
I had a very unconscious spirituality to me. Though I didnt know it at
the time, it was a very indigenous way of being with God. Id given up
my formal beliefs years ago. With Sartre and Nietzche, God had become passe;
atheism, agnosticism and nihilism were the religions of the day. I felt more
spiritually alive in the woods than any church Id ever been in.
When my father died I came face to face with the old and new testament God
and hated Him. I promptly, vigorously and vehemently told Him so. I was embarking
on a very dark time of my life. Armed only with the love of my one year old
daughter and my hatred of God I descended into hell, and unbeknownst to me,
the road to healing.
I was so very angry when my father died that it overwhelmed me. The anger was
so intense and took over to such an extent that I never really grieved for my
father - I "angered" instead. The anger was the valium that kept the
grief and sadness at bay.
Three months after my father died, I took my one year old daughter to the mall
one day. I came from the parking lot through Sears to the center of the mall
with my precious daughter in her stroller. As I walked to the center of the
mall I was suddenly suspended in time. For what seemed like an eternity, I became
oblivious to everything around me.
I didnt know who I was or what I was doing there. I was just standing
there not knowing anything and not caring. All the anxiety, fear, loneliness,
and anger was gone and the universe was as it should be. A calm and peace born
of being totally disassociated from the world and its problems settled over
me. It was light and soft and wonderful. I had a slight, nagging feeling that
there was something that I should remember but it also slid away.
After what seemed an eternity but what in reality was only a few minutes, conscious
awareness came crashing back. With it came the realization that I had totally
forgotten who I was and where I was, and most of all I had forgotten the existence
of my little daughter. I was horrified to think that in this state, I might
have walked off and left her or abandoned her. This realization brought on absolute
fear and panic. Terrified and crying I took my daughter and fled from the mall.
What might have otherwise have been seen as a spiritual awakening was translated
as a total loss of control and mental collapse. Luckily, I was recommended to
a psychologist who helped me heal through process and self analysis and without
medication. During the two years I worked with this man, he recommended many
books to me.
One of these was , about a womans past life memories. This book opened
my mind and for the first time since my teen years, I started seriously contemplating
all the mystical and spiritual possibilities of life. Though still hostile about
God and organized religion, I snuck in the back door of spiritual life with
an openness to reincarnation and mysticism.
My therapist also encouraged me to record and work on my dreams, and to use
my painting as therapy. These truly are powerful healing tools that I continue
to use today.
As well as I was doing however, the death of my father opened the chasm of
fear to such an extent that I was aware of it constantly. My therapist taught
me to deal and function with this fear in my life but it was like a raw and
painful wound that constantly had to be worked around. Fear of death and disease
insinuated itself into my whole life.
My anxiety attacks were regular and always on the theme of death and cancer
(my father had died of multiple myoloma, a bone cancer). Every time I had an
ache or a pain, I thought I had cancer. I had developed respiratory problems
after my daughters birth and they had become chronic. My daughter also developed
them and she was constantly sick. At the age of three-and-one-half she developed
high spikey fevers and constant upper respiratory infections, and she started
dreaming of God.
One night God told her that he wanted her to come and stay with Him. When she
told me this I fell apart. I begged and pleaded with her to stay here, to stay
with me. I told her I needed her and loved her and I began to beg God also;
my first unhostile communication with Him in a long time. The next year and
a half were rough, my daughter and I were sick almost all of the time.
The medicines the doctors gave us kept us going but we never got well, and
they were running out of the ever more exotic antibiotics that were supposed
to help us. I resentfully prayed to God - He was bringing me to my knees and
I didnt like it one bit. Over this time I developed my out door praying
technique where I would talk and cry and rage and ask for help. Eventually I
learned to ask God/the universe what He/it wanted from me.
This is when I began recognizing the gifts being given to me. People were put
in my life and experiences were put in my path. One of these was a homeopathic
healer who changed our lives. By this time, not only did I have upper respiratory
problems (bronchitis, pneumonia and constant infections) but major digestive
problems from the antibiotics, muscle inflammation in my upper body and my anxiety
This homeopath turned my daughters health startlingly around, in a matter of
months her fevers disappeared and for the first time I began to feel that maybe
she wouldnt be taken from me. My health problems, however, were more numerous
and deeply rooted. In addition to homeopathic medicine I was recommended to
other healers, one of whom became my gateway to an alternative culture.
My masseuse, Joanne, knew and used many modalities of healing with me. She
also invited me to be in a womans group where I met women practicing astrology,
wicca, past life regression therapy , gestalt therapy, yoga, reiki, holotropic
breath work and other alternative modalities.
For the first time in my life all the mystical aspects of life that Id
believed in and only read about were embodied in real people who befriended
me and cared for me, shared with me and taught me.
I was getting stronger and healthier and beginning to take chances in my life
again (I had been playing it safe for a long time because of the fear). Hopefully
and apprehensively, I took my- self to a workshop with Barbara Ann Brennan,
a psychic and spiritual healer. Often during the workshop she openly spoke to
her spiritual guide.
One afternoon she told us she would ask all of our guides to be present and
speak with each of us. I was truly surprised (shocked) when my guide came and
spoke to me. I had no idea it was this easy, this available to me. He had a
presence that I could see in my minds eye and sense physically with my body.
He spoke to me in thoughts and answered my questions and even had a sense of
humor. He has been a warm and guiding, wonderful and humorous presence in my
life ever since.
I tried many different workshops to introduce myself to various modalities.
I became deeply involved in shamanism which took me back to my childhood mysticism
in the woods.
Shamanic journeying and healing were as natural to me as breathing and walking.
Moving between realities and working with power animals and guides was second
nature to me. It was in a class with the shaman, Michael Harner, that I found
out that my childhood whale dream was a dismemberment dream and a shamanic initiation.
This dream was a great gift, not something to be dreaded. For the first time
in my life I spoke the whale dream. Michael heard me and validated my experience
and I felt honored.
Through my friend, Joanne, I was introduced to Geatalt psychotherapy and for
the first time I thought, "now here is a therapy that really works."
I began a three year training in Geatalt psychotherapy thinking to equip myself
with tools to heal others.
This, however, became an intensive three year personal process. After the first
few months of training it became clear to me that never in the past had I had
such support and love from a group of people and perhaps never again might I
have this. It was time to do my deep work, the work that scared me beyond anything
else in life.
The many wonderful alternative modalities I learned and studied over the last
few years changed my life extraordinarily, healing me and strengthening me but
they had not relieved me of my crippling fear of cancer and death and the constant
incessant anxiety attacks.
I had tried everything to escape these fears - medication and meditation, biofeedback,
imagery, relaxation, breathing techniques, etc. At a point where I seemed to
be making headway and things seemed to be calming, my closest and dearest childhood
friend called to tell me she had breast cancer. This stoked these embers of
fear into an inferno in no time at all.
What I had known all along but had lacked the courage and the strength to do
was to come face to face with these fears. I knew that with the love and support
of my gestalt training group and my awakening spirituality that this was the
time to do it. So, full of terror and hope and belief I embarked one one of
the most extraordinary adventures of my life. I enrolled in hospice training
and became a hospice worker.
In order for patients to be accepted into our hospice their physician must
state that the patient has six months or less to live. Most of our patients
come to us with less than three months of life left and the overwhelming majority
are cancer patients.
My first patient was dying of breast cancer. I was terrified and afraid that
I could not handle it. I was afraid I would say or do something to this woman
to hurt her because my fear was so great. The night before meeting her I had
a dream. In this dream I am shown into a "wisdom room," a library
of dark wood and beautiful antique furnishings and so many old books.
This room has a sense of peace and calm and rightness, a place of clarity that
I can feel into my depths. With this feeling I am then shown into my patients
room. She is sleeping in bed with her daughter sitting next to her and though
my patient is 87 years old I am surprised to see that her hair is richly colored
Looking at this woman I realize in an instant that I must not pity her or see
her as her cancer. She is a real and vibrant human being and needs to be treated
that way. She should not be treated as a victim or as her disease. At this point
my patient awakens and looks at me and I realize she is wondering if I will
I reach deep inside of myself and give her a big and radiant smile full of
acceptance and love and she smiles back at me with a glowing face full of happiness
and joy. At this point, her daughter says with some surprise, "I see she
The next morning, enveloped by the feelings and wisdom and love of this dream
that was still so present with me I went to meet my patient, Lillian, and was
truly able to see her as the wonderful and vibrant person she was. Over the
next three months I came to know and love this woman.
Under my care she grew stronger and started eating more and taking more interest
in her life. The staff at the nursing home was totally amazed. I learned a very
powerful lesson, that people flourish when they are treated with love and dignity
and are recognized and acknowledged for being themselves.
When my very dear Lillian died I realized that I had a special gift, that I
was able to create an atmosphere or space for Lillian where she could be who
she was and live to her fullest potential until her moment of death. Just because
she was dying did not mean that she was becoming less of herself or less of
a human being - she was fully herself to that last breath and beyond.
I was given many gifts through Lillian and my hospice experiences. As Lillian
came closer to death I began to sense the presence of an angel with her; the
closer to death she came, the more powerful the presence of the angel became.
This is something I am able to see with all of my patients now. I was also
guided to develop a shamanic technique where I take my patients to and beyond
the moment of death to see who and what will be waiting for then when they do
die. Most often family and loved ones are present, sometimes pets, often religious
This never ceases to have a powerful effect on me. I have even been gifted
to be present while patients were experiencing and describing death bed visions
and conversations with saints and deceased loved ones.
Working with hospice over the last three and one-half years has had a profound
effect on me in every area of my life. The spiritual emotional, and psychic
openings created for me have been no less than extraordinary.
I would like to be able to say that my fear of cancer disappeared but this
is not so. It has changed. I will try to explain. I understand death and disease
as process now. I see the extraordinary beauty and wisdom and healing in the
I have even come to understand that a cancer death gives one the time and situation
to realize the oncoming demise and to tie up emotional and spiritual loose ends
and often to make remarkable spiritual and emotional breakthroughs.
I have seen the beauty and spirituality and awesome power of conscious dying.
I have also seen cancer at its most vicious and devastating, impacting negatively
on patients and their families. I am still scared. I know I have more work to
do here and I can say this without turning and fleeing.
My gestalt group helped me work through my fears and empowered me in my hospice
work and other areas. I have grown as never before. I was able to create healing
around my fathers death. In the last year of my training my quest for healing
around death and cancer came fill circle.
My fathers mother, my beloved granny, who is one of the finest human
beings I have ever met, died of cancer at the age of 99. I was gifted with the
experience of being with her when she died and guiding her to the other side.
Through some divine intervention, all of my relatives who had been at her death
bed not 20 minutes before her death all found they had something they had to
leave and do, leaving me alone with my granny guiding her and loving her through
those last moments. I was profoundly touched.
There were many gifts and healings given that day, if you knew how to see them.
When my family returned to find my grandmother dead, we did a ritual at her
bed speaking about her and all the loving and touching and funny moments we
had with her.
Then my uncle led us in the Lords Prayer and as he did my 13 year old daughter
started pulling on my sleeve and pointing at the window saying, "Mom, look,
look..." When I looked up I saw a cardinal sitting on a branch, pecking
at the window as if to get our attention.
My daughter said, "Look mom, its Granny, I know it is." We
had a second affirmation of this as my cousin became so distressed at our grannys
passing that he had to go into the back yard to be by himself.
When he returned, he told us that the cardinal followed him into the back yard
and sat with him until he left to come back into the house. In several indigenous
cultures the cardinal is known as a spiritual emissary.
There was a marked difference between the way I was able to create loving and
healing from my grandmothers death compared to the lonely and fearful and angry
experience I made of my fathers death 12 years before. I marvel when I see where
my anxiety attacks have led me.
During the last few years I have become increasingly more interested in death
and dying. I was gifted with a friend who has been doing research in past life
regression therapy. She felt that with my background in hospice and gestalt,
I would be a natural as past life therapist.
I started training with Roger Woolger, a gifted past life therapist and researcher
and found that this work feels like an old friend to me. My personal experience
with my own past lives has been powerful and spiritually expanding. I am still
being worked by two regressions I had four months ago.
One as an aboriginal visionary which related strongly to the vision of my art
work. The second was of myself as a young man at the time of Jesus. As this
young man I had gone to hear Jesus teach. I can remember listening to him, feeling
the love and peace in his presence.
Then I became ashamed of myself, realizing that this man could see right through
me to all of my faults and dark places. At this point, full of shame, I turned
to go away and as I did this, Jesus came down to me and touched my shoulder
and turned me around. I can still feel the touch on my shoulder.
As I turned to him I remember looking into the depths of those incredible eyes,
being drawn into them and the love and acceptance that was there for even my
dark places. He told me to come and I spent the rest of that lifetime following
him and working in his name.
Whenever I find myself doubting my beliefs or my abilities, I recall that moment
of being turned around and I take a new perspective on myself and the situation.
The therapist who was guiding me through this regression told me afterward
that at the point in the regression where Jesus turned me around, she could
see a glow around me and that she could feel an uncommon presence in the room.
She became very concerned for my welfare because my breathing became so slow
that it seemed to stop. She feared I might leave much the same as I feared my
daughter might leave after God asked her to come stay with him. It took her
a while to move me out of this state but then I continued with the regression.
I brought back with me this sense of being turned around, of not being allowed
to deny myself or walk away from my true inner being. Since this regression
I have gone back to this moment with Jesus in a visionary or shamanic way and
have been comforted and received information.
The presence of that moment has filled me with a powerful strength and centeredness,
and the feeling that love and the sacred are always available to me.
I think of that moment almost every day now. It is always with me. It gives
me the same feeling as floating in the belly of the whale, expanding into the
The moment with Jesus gives me an intensely centered, grounded, individual
and personal experience of myself; the moment in the whales belly gives
me an integrated, expansive, harmonic, cosmic and pantheistic experience of
myself. And, I intuitively feel that these are both the same experience.
The most striking thing I notice about myself since attempting this writing
exercise is the realization of what an extraordinary life Ive had to this
point and how guided I have been. I often think of myself as hum drum and everyday.
But my life experiences have been powerful and extraordinary, and just what
I have needed. I also marvel at how lovingly given these experiences have been.
Though some of the experiences originally felt difficult and harsh, from the
vantage point of the EHE I can see they were given with a depth of love and
caring and tailor made for me to bring me to where I am now.
I also notice that when I backed away from challenges in the past I was always
brought around full circle to meet them again, often with a new perspective
and more strength and support.
The EHE has left me with a good feeling about myself; that I have accomplished
something and that there is a design to my life - a path. In truth, I have had
so many remarkable experiences that I am afraid I lapse into a state where I
take them for granted, not seeing them for the riches they are.
Writing some of them out has helped me relive them in all their pain and passion
and magic that is still so alive within me. I wish I knew how to keep this alive
and present in me at all times.
The whale dream is still unfolding for me and holding my ultimate truths. I
feel the experiences of life chewing me apart and this is at once painful and
pleasurable and ultimately wondrous. No matter how many little fragments of
myself there are, I am constantly connecting and rediscovering them.
I realize all of me mirrors, reflects and becomes the universe. I can see parts
of myself in everyone and everything, and them in me. Every time I realize or
renew these connections, the universe expands for me and I am in awe at the
wonder of it all.
I am by no means at the end of my journey. In many ways it seems I have just
begun. I am now working on my masters degree and am trying to integrate my art,
shamanism, hospice and past life regression therapy.
I can feel it coming together but do not yet see a vision of it as a whole.
I am and will continue to work with people in a healing, teaching and visionary
manner through therapy, art and spirituality.
This has become even clearer to me since doing the EHE. I would like to help
people explore their spirituality and find their lifes path. I would also
like to help people explore the passage of death.
In the future I want to do research on the between life bardo states using
past life regression techniques. I am very curious about where we are and who
we are when we are not in these bodies.
I would also like to write and publish my experiences with spirituality, death
and dying. I would like to change our present fearful views about death and
dying, and in the process, create a healing for myself.
I am presently changing my artistic style to incorporate my visions and dreams.
The pastel I have enclosed with this paper, called " In the Whales
Belly," is the first of these.
I want to swim with the dolphins. I figure theyre as close to whales
as I can get at this time.