“Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.”― Desmond Tutu
Natalie Sunflower, photographer and survivor. I am first spirit, woman, mother, daughter, and grandmother. I was adopted by my Chiricahua Apache uncle when I was in my late forties. He was the one who prepared me for the Red Road, along with my Oglala Lakota friend and Sun Dance leader. It was in these ten years that I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and immersed myself in the Indian community and some of the Lakota sacred ceremonies. I was on my way, so I thought.
This is my story.
I was born on the east coast and raised there until I moved to New Mexico, in 2000. I became very active in the community of Santa Fe, and Northern New Mexico in the ten years that I lived there. It was magical on so many levels. I finally felt that I had arrived. The town’s name, “City Different,” spoke to me — anyone who was, or is, a bit different certainly feels welcome there. I had found my home, my sanctuary. I felt connected on a very deep level to the land, and its sentient beings of earth and sky, and the people. The years spent there were the most sacred and the most rewarding times in my life. I was happy there. I was married at the time, and we were renting a lovely home where friends and family would feel safe and welcomed.
In 2009, when the economy collapsed, we were hit with a hailstorm that put hundreds of holes in the roof of our home, and if that wasn’t enough, my husband lost his job. Our home went from livable to condemned, and to make matters worse, the landlord decided to sell it. We were losing our home, and our personal belongings were placed in storage — to this day, they remain. We packed what we could, and headed to the east coast. We were devastated!
When we arrived in Pennsylvania, we were hit with my mother’s dementia and my son’s addictions. Dementia had caused my mom to become verbally abusive and lash out at any given time. I was also visiting my son in Rehab and also jail — I was losing myself. I found myself down the rabbit hole I call “depression.” I was experiencing the worst sadness, and I was dying, metaphysically speaking. It was overwhelming.
One day I snapped, I think some might call it a nervous breakdown. I shook for hours, did not speak to anyone most of the day. I didn’t realize at the time I had broken down — but I do know this, never, ever have I snapped like that before with anyone in my life. I reflect back now and see it was a nervous breakdown.
Caregiving is extremely tough on caregivers, and there is nothing to prepare one for it, unfortunately. In my mind, I thought if I can help my son become clean, and take care of my mom, then losing our home, friends and family, would be worth it, right? As it was, I felt like I wasn’t making anyone’s life better. I realized I was becoming more and more sad and alone. I had only one friend in “Pa,” and when we spoke with one another, it was always healing in some way. But, I needed so much more healing on so many levels. If I had been in New Mexico, I would have done Inipi Lodges (sweat lodges) as they not only heal on the outside, but also on the inside in a very powerful way. But, I was so far from what I was used to — I felt a bit like colonization, I felt dislocated.
After nine years of caregiving for my mom, with my son in jail — awaiting his release, I made a decision to leave, if my mother would live with my sister and her husband. She agreed. My son was doing pretty well, so I thought all is okay, I can leave now and start my healing journey. Imagine my surprise when I called my mom, after arriving in Nevada, and she told me she’d changed her mind – she was staying in her home. I became very concerned for her safety, I called her every day but I knew in my heart I could not leave her, a 93-year-old woman with dementia, alone in her house. She had fallen quite a few times when we were living with her, not to mention in and out of the emergency room with UTI infections and dehydration. I know my sisters were checking in on her, but that was not enough. So, my mom was put into a nursing home before Thanksgiving of this year. She was suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. My mother, like me, loved her home, and took loving care of what was given to her in life. The pain of losing one’s home is something I understand.
“If ever there is a window for forgiveness, open it up, it’s vital for healing.”
I still have triggers, like water leaking from somewhere, or not hearing from my son as often as I’d like. But, it comes down to making the right choices in life and he was not making good choices for himself, or his daughter — so I realized I can’t do any more for him, it’s all up to him! Anyone who has had an addicted loved one knows, at any time things can change.
I pray every day asking for guidance and protection for my family, whom I love so very, very much. Mothers bring children into this world, and have no idea what is going to happen. Who would have thought my son would be touched by the drug epidemic in this country? That’s a hell you don’t wish to visit, but like the old saying, “If you’re in hell, keep driving!” Dealing with a loved one with addictions is torturous on a daily basis. But, I am learning throughout this process of healing to detach with love, that’s all I can do, anything else is insanity. I’ve had some hard lessons to learn as I am sure thousands of parents have had, as well. We can love our children unconditionally, without enabling them, and that’s a fact. I pray for him, every day, and keep the hope and faith alive.
My husband and I separated the last year we were living with my mom. He finally received a good solid job offer from a well-known company, and we finally were able to get health insurance, which we hadn’t had in ten years — and get off of food stamps. With everything we were dealing with, our marriage had suffered gravely.
I am still in the healing stages, and the desert seems to be the place where Spirit wanted me to be in order for healing to take place. A friend threw me a life-line, and offered a sanctuary, and I took it. One thing that is helping me to heal is photography. When I am out shooting it connects me to what is truly real — the beauty of the sky and land, and all the sentient relatives who walk upon her and fly above her. I give thanks to the four directions, and to our Mother, and our Father each day for the things I do have. Each day is different, some days are better than others, but it really depends on me. I allow myself to cry, I have filled rivers with the tears that I have shed over the years, but I am the willing patient who wishes to be healed.
I have learned much during this year and a half. Some say whatever doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger. It takes mental strength to be a Sun Dancer, and it takes the same mental strength to get through life, when life decides to take you off your path, for whatever reason. I’m still not quite sure why things happened the way they did, all I know is I am a survivor, and I am a warrior. The fight for understanding and healing goes on, until my tears are all washed away. I continue to reflect and forgive myself, and others. Playing the victim is not my thing. Forgiveness is really for ourselves, to free ourselves. If we truly love, unconditionally, then we too can forgive. It’s very liberating, try it!
So, I give to you my story. Women everywhere have their stories to tell. That’s how we heal — through sharing, we are not alone. Around the world, we see even greater suffering in the lives of men, women and children on a daily basis. I truly am blessed in so many ways, and for that I am thankful.
I thank women everywhere who have the courage to share their stories without fear, and shout out, “I’M STILL HERE!”