Wolf is my anxiety spirit guide.
I only learned that wolf is my anxiety spirit guide this past year, but the story of this painting—and why it was so important for me to create it—goes back about 6 years to my first full-fledged-I-think-I'm-dying panic attack. Okay, so this post is going to get a little more personal than I've gone in the past and a lot more vulnerable. Brene Brown would be so proud! But in order to really tell the story of Dyani, I need to take you on a little journey called Childhood Trauma and How it Keeps Fucking with You Your Whole Life. By Julia Eva Bacon. Foreword by Pema Chodron.
Picture it... 2009, Lassen Volcanic National Park, the wilds of northern California. I had volunteered through my non-profit employer to serve on a 2-week environmental conservation crew. We would camp under the stars by night, tackle invasive species by day, and never feel completely clean again. It was hard work and it was amazing. Driving to our work site at over 8,000 feet with the most breathtaking landscape stretching out to the horizon, listening to Beck's Guero over and over again because it was the only CD in the work van, taking turns cooking meals, and in general being completely enshrouded by nature. It was just a little outside everyone's comfort zone, and that was part of the experience. About 10 days in, we had a work site that required us to hike 3 miles into backcountry (no water/pit toilets/roads/civilization) for 3 nights. Our crew leader gave us a primer on how to poop in the woods. This would prove to be invaluable information about 12 hours later. We arrived at our site and set up camp in pristine wilderness. I'm talking 'moon reflecting off mountain lake with Sandhill cranes calling in the night' wilderness. And yet I could feel something unsettled in me, something on edge, like sensing an earthquake coming, unsettling. [Sidenote: as someone who has suffered from IBS since age 3, this is NOT the feeling you want in a place where the closest toilet is a 3 mile hike through untouched forest]. Back to our story!
It didn't fully hit me until I was completely zipped into my sleeping bag, next to 2 other crew mates. I describe this feeling as a white, hot lazer of pure energy that starts at the top of your head and zips down to your toes. "Oh, shit," I said out loud, "I think I'm sick." At this time I had no idea what anxiety even felt like. I'd never even thought of myself as someone who could be susceptible to it. I'm, like, one of the chillest people you'll ever meet, man. Honestly, I thought I had contracted giardia. My insides were exploding, my entire body was shaking, and it was starting to rain in the near freezing temps of the mountains. I won't regale you with all the gory details except to say that a very, very strong neural pathway was formed in my brain that night, one that shouted "being way out in nature with no toilets in a 20 mile radius means you're probably going to die!" It's amazing how loud and how often that message repeats itself once anxiety has firmly rooted itself in your body.
It took about another year to discover that what I had experienced that night—and many subsequent nights while traveling, camping, and even just being in situations I felt I couldn't easily escape from—was actually a panic attack. For the next 5+ years, I avoided being out in nature for any length of time, avoided traveling, and eventually avoided social situations that brought up similar thoughts that might possibly lead to anxiety. I became terrified of it.
Last year, after suffering yet another panic attack during my honeymoon (the first major traveling I'd done in years) I decided I needed to get to the heart of this. I started reading books like Lisa Wimberger's Neurosculpting. Which led me to a local therapist who specializes in EMDR and hypnotherapy. I wasn't entirely new to therapy—I'd done some extensive work to unpack the childhood traumas that caused my IBS, left me with PTSD, and a lifelong pursuit of all things spiritually healing. Much to my surprise, I found out that being hypnotized is exactly like going on a Shamanic journey. Except that instead of a drum, you have a therapist saying lots of nice things to you in a quiet voice. Honestly, at the beginning I started to have anxiety. "Shit. I'm stuck here on this old couch getting hypnotized and I can't leave because that would be weird and rude, and what if..." I tried to focus on my therapist's voice... "You're standing at the top of a spiral staircase. Each step you take you go deeper and deeper.... "Oh god, don't laugh, she just quoted the Office Space hypnotist! What if she has a heart attack and I'm stuck in a hypnotic state forever!!" But then it started to feel familiar... you always start a Shamanic journey by visualizing an opening or some vehicle that will take you up or down. I almost always go down—that's where you find animal spirit guides. Immediately the scene in my mind changed and I was back in my old happy place: the forest. Which I had abandoned about 6 years ago. I looked down the staircase, and saw Wolf at the bottom.
I spent the next 15 minutes in a dreamlike state, totally awake, just voluntarily...altered. I barely heard the therapists voice. I was in deep conversation with my guide. She didn't so much talk to me, but showed me symbolic things from my own past, times I was deeply connected to spirit, times before my anxiety when I felt whole. She reminded me that I was in a safe place. I emerged from that experience not completely magically healed but with this enormous sense of protection and insight. A door had been opened.
From that time on, I've had a much different perspective on my experiences with anxiety and when it does come, Wolf comes with it. I still don't leave the house without my fail-safes in pill form, I'm not going to lie. But Shamans understood the power of our connection with nature and the wild beings around us, and their ability to heal. I paint my guides because they are a part of my human nature, and because their stories are my stories.
Soon after that powerful Wolf encounter, I knew I needed to create the painting you see above. I researched wolf conservation centers and by the craziest luck or serendipity or Universal alignment, I found The Wolf Mountain Nature Center in Smyrna, NY, just a 4 hour drive from home, and they were offering a photography session for artists that weekend. I'm not kidding. I booked my spot, booked a hotel, and my gracious husband and I set out on a weekend adventure to meet the wolves. We spent a chilly morning and afternoon on the expansive grounds, photographing about 6 wolves from a viewing platform. The amazing caretakers at the center hide raw chicken in the woods, and the wolves have a lot of fun finding it and chowing down while the humans snap photos in total awe of their presence. The photo that became the reference for the painting was of a black-phase Alaskan Tundra wolf named Dyani. It was no coincidence that she was the spitting image of my anxiety guide.