Sheila K. Collins
Sheila K. Collins is a dancer, social worker, and improvisational performance artist. In Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and Rituals That Heal (She Writes Press, August 28, 2013), Sheila shares how she survived the loss of two of her grown children. See Sheila's book trailer (on YouTube), friend her on Facebook, and Tweet her @SheilaKCollins. You can also visit her blog for healers, Dancing With Everything, on her website.
Read Sheila Trask's review of Warrior Mother for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Sheila Trask
Posted on 08/27/2013
In your Preface to Warrior Mother, you write: "I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered." Do you feel that writing it ultimately helped you heal?
Writing has always been an important way for me to process the events of my life. I've kept a journal since I was in my early twenties, but writing Warrior Mother has been different. Making the effort to craft the stories for a reader, made the kind of difference that performing before an audience does (over performing when no one is present). Yes, I would say it has been incredibly healing, giving me a deeper and broader perspective, and an appreciation for the gifts interwoven into the toughest of times.
How have others responded?
Those close to me, my husband especially, couldn't understand why I would spend so much time writing about the difficulties our family had experienced. He told me once, when I was bound for a writers' workshop in Iowa, "I hope someday you will find something more pleasant to write about." I knew he had come full circle when he made a toast to me at the first pre-publication event for Warrior Mother, thanking me for spending the time to create something beautiful from the difficulties our family faced, something that could help other families.
How do you think your dance and performance art experiences informed the writing of this book?
Although I was trained and performed professionally as a dancer, today I use an improvisational art form known as InterPlay that combines movement, storytelling and singing. Using these tools was the way I began generating material for the book. There is a form we call a "Big Body Story" where, in response to a word or image, we tell a short story using our whole body; voice, movement, and gesture. Without consulting my journals I would take a short memory of a scene; something someone said or an image still in my head, and tell a Big Body Story from it. Then I would write it down and play with the words on the page. I came to call this my "Big Body Writing."
Did the writing, in turn, change your later experiences as a performer?
That's harder to say, but I think I became more trusting of the tools or forms we use to tell our stories, and of my fellow performers and the audience. I've become less afraid of stepping into the place of not knowing how it's going to turn out, and allowing my truth to emerge. I feel more certain that, in the end, the story will resolve in a satisfying and often surprising way.
I was struck, though not surprised, by the way doctors and nurses were reluctant to give you an actual prognosis, for either your son, Ken or your daughter, Corinne, as they approached the final days of their illnesses. Why do you think they were not able to speak the truth to the people who needed it most?
Both Ken and Corinne were involved in cutting edge medical technologies, the outcomes of which were somewhat unfamiliar or unknown, to their physicians and nurses. The compilation of pills known as "the cocktail" for AIDS patients was still in trial when Ken took it. There had been some reports of very sick patients rebounding into health from taking some variation of the drugs that interrupted the virus at different stages of its life cycle. No one had any way of knowing what version Ken was taking. It was about a year after he died that the correct timing and dosages were arrived at.
Corinne had switched immune systems with a 51-year old man through a bone marrow transplant. When this new immune system demonstrated it was having trouble with her cancer, there was talk of giving her a booster from his system that held some hope for improving her situation.
But the deeper truth in both situations was that my children did not give up easily on being able to secure more years of life. As their parents, we supported their hopes for a longer time than might have seemed reasonable to others observing the situation.
In a way, writing Warrior Mother forced you to relive some of the worst moments of your life. Were you ever tempted to don rose-colored glasses and only remember the good times with your children?
In reality, memory doesn't work that way. In avoiding the negative memories you create distance from the pleasant ones as well, especially since they are often wrapped tightly together. I often say, when reporting on family gatherings, there's always the agony and the ecstasy, and things can switch from one to the other in a millisecond sometimes.
What compelled you to tell the whole story, warts and all?
Being a professor of social work, and having worked with families in family therapy for over twenty years, I was familiar with the literature on dealing with illness, dying, death and loss. Yet there was so much I didn't know when I was going through these things myself. And there was so much that I learned that I wanted to share with others. I discovered much that we don't talk about with one another so that one generation's wisdom doesn't get transferred to the next.
You write about ritual/spiritual and technological/medical healing modalities side-by-side. Were you always comfortable in both worlds?
At times I'm uncomfortable in both worlds because each system seems to operate unaware and disconnected from the other. Indigenous systems of healing contain much truth and it was rare but encouraging to find a western doctor who respected that. When I went to Brazil, I felt fortunate to meet indigenous healers who held respectful conversations with western physicians.
When you went to Brazil to meet with John of God during Corinne's illness, what were you hoping to achieve?
Corinne was healthy, except for the cancer cells that were not responding to the chemotherapy western doctors gave her. I knew there were documented cases when other kinds of interventions had worked, and I was looking for something beyond the medical model, something that took into account the psychological and spiritual aspects of a person and their family and community. This was a big stretch for me because I don't understand intellectually how these types of treatments work. But truthfully I don't understand scientifically how many western medical treatments work either.
I knew that a person's beliefs strongly affect their health outcomes, like the research on placebos has proven. Corinne's faith that she would be healed was so strong; I felt she would be a good candidate for a spiritual healing.
What do you feel you and Corinne gained from the experience?
I can't speak for Corinne but I know what I got from the experience, and I'm not sure I'm finished integrating all the lessons that were there for me. But one I can speak to clearly. When I was back in Texas with Corinne and things would get rough in her treatment process, I was able to go to the Casa in my body/mind and connect with the energy I found there. Because I was able to do that I was able to avoid the fearful, worried mother place that could be triggered so easily by Corinne's crises in the hospital and afterwards. This meant I could really be there for my daughter and she didn't have to take care of me while she was handling her own life threatening challenges.
What message do you hope your book brings to others as they care for dying loved ones and/or grieve the loss of those closest to them?
Just as there are challenges in the good times, there are blessings in the tough ones and the sooner we can say yes to what life is asking of us, the sooner we can experience the gifts in the tough times. One of the things people don't tell us is the importance, the imperative really, of loving ourselves through it all. Love is what connects us to our loved ones, and true love never dies.