Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Through the Valley of Death -- and Back

This is an art blog. It’s also a blog about personal experience, parenting, and life. Once in a while, my posts are more about life than they are about art, but I think the two are inseparable. So… warning: this is going to be long and very personal but hopefully, if you are going through something similar it will inspire you to take action. 

In the past month, I’ve learned a lot about stress. I learned about a thing called “adrenal fatigue”, about the importance of completing a “stress cycle”, and that it’s not “just stress”, but a physiological condition that if left unchecked, can actually kill you. I learned that in order for a hug to release oxytocin and dopamine (which alleviate stress), the hug has to be heart to heart and ideally last 20 seconds.

“What could you possibly be stressed about?”, you might ask. “You always look happy and calm and in control of your life.” I mean, yeah—I curate my image on social media. I don’t show you pictures of me with tears running down my face or with yogurt smeared all over my clothes, or groaning in frustration as my toddler squirms during a diaper change like he’s possessed. Kids can be stressful. Mine are 5 and 18 months… they’re still very little and very needy. But what else? Painting deadlines? Keeping up with the new house? Family tension? Over-committing to things? Crossfit? Unmet needs??

Maybe it’s all of above. Either way, since at least November–probably longer—I haven’t been myself. There was this feeling of never being fully awake or alert: a brain fog. No matter how much I cleaned up my nutrition, or how much sleep I got, or how I tailored my workouts, I couldn’t find energy for even the most menial tasks. The new house, already a mess (because, you know, THE TODDLER), succumbed to total disarray. My studio time, already dismal, became less and less as I couldn’t muster the energy to sit down at my easel and start painting. I had blood tests done. The doctor said I was “perfectly healthy” and that I was probably “just stressed.” My skin was breaking out like crazy; I had infections and rashes that wouldn’t go away. I was depressed, and no fun to be around. I had anxiety over seemingly everything, big or small. I couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep. People were asking me in January, what my goals were for the New Year. And I couldn’t give them a straight answer, because the reality was, I just wanted to feel better. 

So I paid a long-overdue visit to my therapist. “Am I ever going to feel like myself?” I asked. “I don’t even remember what the ‘real me’ was like before this relentless exhaustion set in.” 

“First of all,” she said, “It’s totally normal for mothers of kids your age to feel burnt out. Everyone will tell you that this is the hardest time. Secondly… it sounds like you have adrenal fatigue.” I had never heard of adrenal fatigue before. It happens as a result of ongoing, long-term stress, caused by things like trauma, PTSD, or hello—motherhood. “With repetitive stress, the adrenal glands can stay ‘turned on,’ putting out adrenaline and cortisol on a rather constant basis” (quoting my mom here since she was so succinct in her description of it). But since the “real” doctors kept telling me I was fine, when I clearly wasn’t, I was open to other ideas. 

My therapist referred me to a naturopathic doctor, and I ended up testing off the charts for adrenal fatigue. He sent me home with some natural meds, and I experienced my first-ever session of acupuncture. When I arrived home, the “edge” was completely gone. I was able to be patient and kind with my kids, and not flip out over the little things anymore. It was finally a step in the right direction. 

To help with my healing, I decided to go on a solo getaway. My husband fully supported this and stayed home with the kids so I could have my adventure.

I spent 4 days/3 nights off the grid in Death Valley National Park, and it was absolutely amazing.

Mosaic Canyon

This trip wasn’t really about painting. It was about being under zero pressure to perform, conform, or please. It was about not being needed by anyone for just a few days. About being silent and alone – which, as an introvert, I need regularly and haven’t been getting! It was also about losing track of time, so that for once I would be out from under its control. I was free to go to bed when I wanted, wake up when I wanted, explore to my heart’s content, and hike all the most dangerous and least kid-friendly places you can imagine!

Jeep Wrangler. Love this vehicle!

I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do, but I spent most of the time driving around, hiking, and breathing in God’s creation, while listening to audio books and music that fed my soul and affirmed my need for healing. I slept 10-12 hours every night! I did a little bit of painting too.

Salt Creek

My first painting using my brand new Fly on the Wall easel, made by Prolific Painter.
Colors for this piece: Alizarin crimson, Chinese Orange (Sennelier), Yellow Ochre (Michael Harding), Mentler Mustard (Rembrandt), Tit. White, Ultramarine, Cerulean blue (Sennelier), Ivory Black (Gamblin)

"Salt Creek" - 8x8" - oil on panel

"Zabriskie Point Diagonals," 8x10. Painted in about an hour and a half, mid-afternoon. 

"Zabriskie Point Diagonals" - 8x10" - oil on linen panel

Painting an alluvial fan in midday light, 12x9" oil on panel

My favorite excursion was the 8-mile round trip hike to Panamint Dunes. These dunes were special because you have to really work to get to them. The gravel road that leads to the “trailhead” isn’t marked and requires a high clearance vehicle. So that automatically weeded out a huge number of tourists and ensured that this would be a more exclusive, quiet experience.

My rented Jeep Wrangler handled the rough, pothole-ridden road well, and to be honest, I kind of enjoyed it (like, a lot. Now I want a Jeep for Christmas…). I think in another life, I would have lived in a van or gone camping all the time. A life, perhaps, that didn’t require me to be always close to civilization and schools and pediatricians’ offices. And while I will never regret having children, this trip (and past hiking trips for that matter) has made me long even more for the independence I can’t have when I’m caring for my young ones. I’ve always said that Elsa is my “spirit” Disney princess. She is fiercely independent, and seeks after adventure and solitude. Something calls her “into the unknown,” and I relate strongly to that feeling. Of course, I wouldn’t really know about Elsa if I didn’t have a 5-year-old daughter who is obsessed with “Frozen…”

But I digress.

It took about an hour and half to walk the four miles out to the dunes. There was a kind of spellbinding rhythm to it. You could see the towering sand from miles away, and the trail didn’t need to be marked. All you had to do was walk a straight line through the desert.

Virgin sand

My tracks from there and back

When I got to the dunes, I met a group of four young men and women who had backpacked out there and were camping out for several nights. They were very friendly and we enjoyed some deep conversation as we sat at the top of the highest dune. I found out that they were aspiring artists (filmmakers) from LA. They were all very charming and I enjoyed their company for quite some time. After they left, I hung out at the top for a while longer, trying to hang on to every sensory experience: the 360-degree view for miles, the warmth of the sun, the sound of the breeze, the feel of the sand on my bare legs and feet. It was magical.

A couple of things that were brought to the forefront of my mind during my wanderings:

I was reminded about my purpose. One of the points in the book I was listening to (“Burnout” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski) was that people need meaning in their lives in order to make it through stressful situations. If you don’t have purpose or meaning, it can be easy to stop trying, or default to giving up.

Here’s where I find my meaning:

In my art

In my kids

In love and serving others (my husband, kids, others)

In learning new things

In honoring my Creator with my thoughts, words and deeds

What gets in the way? According to the “Burnout” book it’s “Human giver syndrome”: the false, contagious belief that women have a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others. Hmm… I might be infected with a touch of that. Anyone else relate? But I also think that turning inward and focusing only on yourself, can be just as damaging. More on that in a minute.

I was given a new perspective: There’s a place in Death Valley where you can stand overlooking a cliff over 5000 feet above sea level—straight down to the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. That kind of view makes you feel small, and sometimes, that’s a good thing, because if I’m small, then my problems are too. Death Valley, and the Panamint Dunes especially, brought everything literally and figuratively into PERSPECTIVE. That was the word of the trip. The young people I met at the dunes were incredibly optimistic and wise. I heard one of them say, “Today should always be the best day you’ve ever had.” Such a positive outlook! From what he told me, one of them had met with trauma and came out on the other side a better person. Now he’s making a film about it. Wow. PERSPECTIVE. My stress, my issues, my frustrations… they should not be robbing me of my joy, optimism, or sanity. I should be dealing with those stressors a little bit at a time each day, while acknowledging that they serve a purpose.

Dante's View

A little painting at Mesquite Dunes

That person out there had the right idea

I also realized that I’ve been so stuck inside my own head that I have not been open to giving or receiving love. I’ve treated it like a commodity rather than what it actually is: a wellspring that never runs dry. Stress, fatigue, and depression left me retreating constantly inward instead of reaching out to the world and people around me. I hadn’t been open to interactions—such as the one at the dunes, or even simple acts of affection to and from my loved ones – because of stress. That is obviously a sign that I wasn’t okay! But now, I feel like I’m seeing that stress from the objective viewpoint at the top of a pyramid of sand. That stress is smaller than me, it’s smaller than my Lord, and together, we can take it on! We can also, as the authors suggest, “Close the stress cycle.” This trip is a start to that. Finally, some clarity! And I can start forming a game plan for “closing the stress cycle” each and every day.

This trip boosted my confidence. It was a good reminder that yes, I can do a thing. I am a grown-a$$ woman who is very capable, strong, smart, and able to go out on her own and thrive. I felt like I had been released from captivity.

Coming back home from a trip like this makes me a better mom and a better wife… and hopefully a better painter too. Already I feel a weight off my shoulders. I feel refreshed, calm, and ready to tackle the challenges life has for me. Thanks for reading, and I hope if you are going through something similar (ahem, I’m mostly talking to you, moms!) that you take some time for yourself. It’s not selfish – it’s necessary.


Saltwater flats

Zabriskie Point

All the little people

View of the Panamint Dunes and Amargosa range from where I was staying, about 15 miles west

An artist at Artist's Palette along Artist's Drive :-)



  1. This is a fantastic story and I'm so glad you're finding healing. So much of it resonates with me. I need to dig in and investigate for myself. I rarely laugh and have fun these days but I work, work, work and get a lot done but i'm just not having fun doing it. Any advice where to start?

    1. Thanks, John! It sounds like you need to find what helps you recharge and be intentional about fitting it regularly into your life. I let this go for way too long. I hadn't gotten away from the grind in over 7 months (but who's counting?)! Honestly, physical activity is the #1 way to work stress out of your body, but mine had gotten so bad that even Crossfit wasn't helping anymore. Hiking, painting, silence and solitude are my therapy. What's yours?

  2. The thing is that I can't say with certainty that anything is going to recharge me right now. Normally it would be hiking & being out in solitude or playing music.

  3. You might just have adrenal fatigue! I highly recommend trying acupuncture.

  4. I'm going through the same kind of burnout. My first thought after I read your blog was how brave of you to take this trip. My whole life has been one of extreme stress from a dysfunctional family. I go through this fatigue off and on. There have been many times that I have made house in the pit of depression. Prayer and The Lord have lifted me out. When I feel myself becoming a hermit I just make myself start getting out with friends. It helps a lot. Your trip sounds amazing and healing Thank you for sharing.

  5. Gosh, I feel you! I don't know what I'd do without my faith either. And yes, the human connection is so important. Hang in there, and thanks for reading!


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