Cognitive Uselessness


In December 2021 I had a solo art exhibition at The Craig Gallery in Dartmouth Nova Scotia. 

Worry functions as a cognitive avoidance response to perceived future threats.  Worry has also been described as “Cognitive Uselessness” because it does not work.  Worry, which is an attempt to generate ways to prevent bad events from happening and/or to prepare oneself for their occurrence, often leads to an increase in anxiety and not a sense of relief, calmness, or preparedness.

I first heard this term while in therapy.  It seems that I have become quite skilled at this avoidance response and I have often told myself that it was in fact productive.

In 2020 I was diagnosed with PTSD and had to leave my nearly 17 years of working as an emergency medical dispatcher.  I had been holding in the pain from this work for so long and I just couldn’t do it any longer.  This body of work has become an expression of my experience in both the painful moments, and the healing moments.

My goal was to use my preferred medium of clay to express the things that I’m not always good at expressing through words.  To allow vulnerability and pain to show in this work, as well as some of the healing work I have been doing.

I chose the form of the urn to symbolize the practice of laying something to rest.  I imagine I can lay a particular worry or fear to rest in the urn and let it go.  I also see it as a vessel of respect – so when an urn is representing a healing or happiness – it is to give that self-healing or joy a place of respect.

My hope is that this body of work connects to others to show that there are many ways of expressing your pain and your healing.  I’m happy to share with you my way of expression.

The Scar Inscribes the Journey: In 2018 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My surgical scar is the external reminder of the fight against disease, however the battle I continue to fight is with the internal scars. All of my scars are the markings of
my life’s journey.

Radiation: The day before my breast cancer surgery, my friend organized a sweat lodge for me. It was a moment for me to connect with others in a safe space and harness all my strength for the upcoming healing. Jane gave me a bundle of cedar and told me to wrap it in ribbons.  I held onto it during the sweat lodge, and carried it with me to the hospital and held it right up until I was rolled into the operating room. I did 16 radiation treatments a few months later, and was delighted to see that the Cancer Centre was surrounded by cedar trees.  Every day going in I touched the tree branches, and every day going out, I touched them again. There are 16 bundles of cedar attached to the urn and my original bundle on top.

Lashing Out: Before my diagnosis of PTSD, I didn’t have a way to express my pain.  I lashed out in anger because that was what I was comfortable with. I could understand anger, it was justifiable, and it was basic. I’ve learned that it was my attempt
to defend and protect myself.  My hurt and pain about a variety of things was not accessible for me to be in touch with but anger was.

Depression: I struggle with words to describe the feeling of my depression, but the surface of this urn is as close as I could get. It’s dark, sharp, and erupts. It’s heavy and it is slow.

Raw:Vulnerability. Emotions feel like being raw. The fear of experiencing the pain of emotions feels raw.

A Year Full of Worry: I made this large urn to be a place to lay worries to rest. I made it large enough to hold all my worries. To let them go, to lay them down, to be free.

Panic:This urn represents what it feels like inside of me when I am in my high anxiety and hyper vigilance state.  I’ve never been a fan of big crowds but now, being out in public creates a panic and a state of constant awareness of danger – emergency – the unexpected. I’m on full alert for something bad to happen. Or I am reminded of past emergency calls I have done and see them like billboards everywhere I go.

I'm Fine: Broken, pain is oozing out and I’m trying to hold it all in. While in coping mode – just trying to get through the days – how often do we say: “I’m fine”. For me, this is what it felt like on the inside.

Mending After Another Call: This is how I envision my internal emotional surface.  After each bad emergency call or trauma, I would sew myself up and put it away.  To then wait for the next one. I’ve been told that it’s not always the trauma that does the long-term damage as much as what happens after the trauma.  I would isolate myself after bad calls in my pain and I imagine stitching up each wound in order to carry on. There is no way I could feel the pain of other people’s trauma and continue to do my job.

Crow: The helper. Part of my healing and learning about self-care has been in creating a relationship with the birds in our yard.  Crows are a big part of that bird community.  They wait for me in the morning on the neighbor’s roof looking for some breakfast.  I watch them play, fight, preen, or just hang out. Their loyalty inspires and comforts me.

Horse Guides: Gratitude. I stumbled upon horse therapy and was very reluctant to give it a try.  After my first session I was so deeply touched.  The horses are intuitive teachers and create an opportunity for me to be vulnerable and present. FLAR Equine Experience has been a vital part of my self-care and healing.

Frankie & PJ: Our present dog Frankie has become a strong comfort to me. She brings laughs, cuddles, and love.  Our first dog PJ was just pure love and comfort.

Grandmother's Love: Nanny Balsor taught me creativity, strength and self-preservation. Gram MacLeod taught me humor, loyalty, and forgiveness. Gram MacLeod gave me her braid she cut off when she became “too old to wear a braid”.  She wanted me to do something creative with it.  Her beautiful auburn hair still holds its colour after all these years. Nanny Balsor is still living, and I asked my Mom, who looks after her, to collect some of her hair for me.  It is so soft and fine and beautiful light grey.

Twenty-Two: Made in rememberence of the victims of the mass shooting in Nova Scotia in 2020. Heidi Stevenson, Lisa McCully, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins, Emily Tuck, Jolene Oliver, Aaron Tuck, Jamie Blair, Greg Blair, Corrie Ellison, Gina Goulet, Tom Bagley, Kristen Beaton, Joey Webber, John Joseph Zahl, Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, Lillian Campbell Hyslop, Dawn Madsen, Frank Gulenchyn, Heather O’Brien, Joy Bond, Peter Bond.

One Moment of Joy: Throughout this last year of depression, it was rare for me to feel joy or happiness.  My wife encouraged us to go away for a few days and it was during this trip that I had my one moment of pure joy. We were at The Hawk beach on Cape Sable Island, the sun was going down, the weather was lovely, and we saw piping plovers.  For the very first time I saw them.  They were running around on the sand, flying over and running through the water. In this moment, with the safest person in my life – my wife, I was experiencing joy for the first time in a long while.

Balance: I’ve been using the tree of life motif on my pottery since my first urn in 2009.  There has been quite an evolution of design, but the meaning has always stayed the same.

I take great comfort in my studio.  Working there is my safe space and working with clay has allowed me to express myself in ways that I don’t often find in words. This tree of life urn is the ultimate symbol of the self-care and healing of my studio practice.

A Glimmer of Hope: Depression takes away your hope. I can still remember when the darkness lifted just a little bit and I felt a glimmer of hope that things will get better – that I will get better.

A Lack Of Yin: Sleep disturbance has been a big struggle during this last year.  I decided to try acupuncture to see if it would help.  He told me my Yin was low and I needed to work on balance, reducing stress, and being more mindful.

Shattered Identity: When I realized that I likely will not ever go back to working as an emergency medical dispatcher, it created a state of panic.  Who am I if I am not a helper?  Who am I if I am not doing this work? Who am I? The star of life is the symbol of emergency medical services. The thin gold line represents emergency dispatchers and their relationship to public service. A video of the smashing of the Urn can be seen on my Instagram account.