By Suzanne Berndt - 06/01/2023


I recently purchased a vintage watercolor painting that I found attractive and repelling, simple and complex, familiar yet to be honest a little bit haunting. What more could you ask from a piece of art? It was dated 3-12-1950 and the title of it was written in a beautiful hand-penciled font…After. It was painted in colors like azure, pecan, soot and goldenrod. It was a picture of an undulating, quiet road with a lone figure walking away, their back to the viewer and “moving” I imagined step by deliberate step. The subject was rendered by a few, brief brush stokes, dark and mysterious and genderless. I was drawn to it and because I made the purchase online, I did not have the advantage of seeing the artwork up close. The seller said the signature appeared to be “Conklin” but they could not be sure. The title, the subject matter, the rendering of the mystery figure and the reasonable price made me want it for my office wall. I kept it in my online cart for a couple of weeks, looking at it blown up on my computer with my glasses on then off, studying it for nuance and meaning. Something finally made me push the purchase button.

In hindsight, the title was what did it. After. My brain went to, after what? What was that figure experiencing? There seemed to be more “afters” than befores at this point in my own life. After the death of one child. After the transition of another child. After a 27 year marriage that ended in divorce. After a cancer diagnosis and then a second cancer diagnosis. After the untimely death of a sister and only sibling. After the death of a parent suffering from dementia during Covid. After the coerced adoption of a kitten that I did not want but that sat for hours on my chest purring incessantly and who became a constant companion. Lots of afters that have brought me to this point. Some of the afters I would willingly trade in for befores if given the opportunity but all of the afters I hold dear if not somewhat tentatively because of how they have formed me. I have walked on the road of After like the figure in the painting, sometimes feeling like only a few brief brush strokes, myself.

One of my most recent “afters” was after training in ketamine assisted psychotherapy. Part of my training has been taking my own therapeutically guided journeys with the medicine in order to better understand what non-ordinary states of consciousness can do for my clients. I am a different person after these journeys. This medicine is not a cure all for everything that ails us, as some of the popular press would have us believe, but the literature does show that roughly 2/3 of clients get symptom relief from things like anxiety, depression and other challenging long-term psychological issues. Fostering realistic expectations with clients in a therapeutic setting is important and working with an informed therapist familiar with psychedelics and non-ordinary states of consciousness is key. The literature and anecdotal reports indicate that ketamine can in some instances:

  • Diminish rigid thinking patterns and increase more psychological and cognitive flexibility in the way people respond to things
  • Increase a sense of interconnectedness
  • Increase tolerance of and appreciation for ambiguity – becoming more comfortable with the mystery of things
  • Create spaciousness to reflect on one’s identity and experience without falling into negative beliefs or overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame
  • Increase access to a wider range of feelings that may not have been accessible in the past
  • Decrease reactivity while increasing creativity
  • Develop empathy/compassion for oneself and others

Changes may be experienced quickly or they may be experienced more slowly and methodically, step after deliberate step like the figure in the painting. These slower changes can create more insight as the client works to integrate and take time to reflect on their experience with the medicine. My personal journey involved an increased ability to sit and even befriend the mystery of being human. There was a clarity in the mystery and I was less attached to outcome.

The painting arrived about a week after I bought it. It sat in my car in its meticulous packaging as I drove it to and from work, the grocery, Pilates, Mount Lemmon, an 80 year old’s birthday party, a spring training game. I was afraid to open it. It might not be as interesting as it looked online. The one time I brought the package into the house, the cat began to chew on the adhesive tape and I envisioned the possibility of a feline intestinal blockage that would cost way more than the artwork. I waited a little longer until another “after” – after cataract surgery. Both eyes. The cataract surgery was almost miraculous and allowed me to read street signs from a considerable distance without prescription lenses. The results of the procedure also turned my previously beige cat into a white cat.

I removed the painting from the sheath of brown craft paper and bubble wrap. I wasn’t disappointed. It was very much like it appeared in the online picture. I loved it. Then with my new found ability to read without my glasses, I noticed the title in the beautiful hand-penciled font…AFTEN. AFTEN? Not AFTER?! Seriously? Who or what is AFTEN? I was finally seeing what the artist had written. More clarity did not mean less mystery.

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