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Kimberly Nichols, NewArtLab

NewArtLab: Catharsis


In 2011, filmmaker Adam Haynes and I set out to collaborate on a short piece surrounding the concept of intense human experience. I was given eight words and told to expound upon them from my memory bank and to write freely without editing or fear of critique. In the end, I realized that each memory chosen could be connected, by dots to present a peripheral framing of my overall psychological, physical and spiritual narrative. In performing this exercise, and in the pursuant act of sharing it (naked in front of strangers), the psyche could then experience a cohesive sense of catharsis.

IMAGE: “Catharsis” by Kimberly Nichols


I am actually a little afraid every day of my life but it’s mostly the fear of falling off of my authentic trail by succumbing to other people’s opinions, external pressures, or a need for money. It’s a semi-irrational fear at that, but one whose frail tremble is a great grounder and impetus for the psyche.

Severe, physical, heart-stopping fear is another thing and there are only two instances in my life where I have dealt with this.

The first was a period of fear stemming over a certain time in my life when I was approximately five years old and being inappropriately abused. In bed at night I always kept my hands and feet tightly beneath the covers in the dark because the fairy tales of my life were not innocent fables but stories marked with terror. When I heard “Wee Willie Winkle Runs Through The Town Upstairs and Downstairs in His Nightgown,” I saw an evil young boy looking for kids to chop off their fingers and toes if they so much as glimpsed from beneath the blankets an inch. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night by nightmares that featured a cool breath on the back of my neck and I knew it was the breath of the person who had sworn me to secrecy and that they would kill me if I told. That breath on my neck, icy like a knife, was my sign that they would always be there watching. I frequently woke with stomachaches from stuffing this fear in over the eight hours of darkest silent night. Sometimes I would wake up and see the Cat in the Hat at my window, mocking me with his secret ability to get kids to do bad things while he babysat them. On a few occasions, I would wake up in the dark and see the ghost of a person standing in my room at my bed, breathing and sulking over me. I would peek out from the slits in my eyes over grueling amounts of midnight hours to check if that person was still there and they always would be, floating near my bed leaving me frozen and numb and petrified. I knew if I moved they would surely get me. It was tortuous to stay in one position all night but I didn’t dare move. In the mornings, I would come to find that the “person” was actually a shimmering form of light from some helium balloon that I had forgotten I received the day before that was floating near my ceiling, or it would be the reflection in a glass mirror of shadow and light coming in from my parent’s room across the hall. But I never remembered this again when I would encounter this phenomenon the next time, so sincerely aware that there were things that could hurt me. For a long time back then I used to go to bed praying to some unknown God, spurred by my Catholic grandmother’s assurances that God hears everything. I would say the same thing over and over every night. I would close my eyes, put my hands together under the covers and beg God to add 300 more years on top of my life because I didn’t want to die. I did this every day so that I was semi-assured that the extra days and years would rack up in my life’s expectancy and I would never die. I was so afraid of dying at age five and needed this nightly ritual to give me a false sense of assurance that I had a bank account of life storing up on my behalf. I would also make sure when I went to bed, that I left half of the bed free of my body so that my supposed “guardian angel” had a place to lie down next to me and protect me throughout the evening. I knew there were things that happened in the dark when no one was watching and those things always happened to me. So I was terrified of the night. These night terrors stopped in my teens but as an adult while I was dealing with the true healing surrounding my abuse, I would have these horrible reminiscent dreams where I was led to a basement by some circus master growing sicker to my stomach as I followed him down. I would be brought to a room with a curtain and he would be just about to open it to reveal what was behind it and I would be stricken by such an extreme sense of horror, feeling like I would absolutely, positively die if I saw what was revealed. This fear kept me stuck for years and was of the literal heart palpitating, short of breath kind that I had absolutely no control over stifling.

The second time I felt such intense fear was when my daughter was around seven years old and I lost her in a downtown crowd in the city where we lived. We had just had a lovely dinner at an outdoor restaurant with a friend and we got up to walk to our car. It was a really busy night and the streets were bustling with people. I literally took one moment to give our dinner companion a hug good bye, my daughter by my side, and the next moment I turned to look at my daughter and she was gone.

At first it was a small tremble in my gut, I didn’t believe she was lost, just merely somewhere close by in the shuffle of adult feet passing all around. I started to become more frantic though when I couldn’t find her anywhere in the small radius around me. A weird thing happened in this moment. My brain immediately went to the thought that everything was going to be all right, it was just an impossible leap to make mentally that anything could actually be wrong. But as I looked around and spun in circles and started to walk up and down the street, I had the sudden magnificently bright realization that she was gone and that in being gone, she could absolutely be lost, or taken, or stolen. It occurred to me that I was no longer in control of this situation and in that striking moment my composure was lost. I stopped being a rational and normal being with the idea that things have solutions and instead I started to scream hysterically. “I lost my daughter!” I kept screaming again and again to everyone who passed me. “Help me!” I shouted to anyone who walked by my place on the sidewalk. I started running around in circles, looking here and there, and my heart was beating so bad I knew I was going to have a heart attack. As a policeman approached me, I didn’t feel the same sense of ease a person of authority usually brings. I wasn’t assured in my heart that he could help me. She was gone! I couldn’t stop screaming her name over and over again with the shrill shriek of a bird being tortured, its limbs being cracked and pulled from its body limb by limb. In one clarity-filled moment, I saw the busy downtown street with the cars rushing by and I had the deep, primal urge to throw my body in front of a car and kill myself. My fear was throbbing, my pain was deep, my whole soul was about to flee my body and leave me a vast and empty shell. The moment I stopped seeing faces and hearing the voices around me; the moment I was about to fling myself under a nearby tire in the street, my daughter came casually sauntering back down the street towards me after roaming a few blocks alone and then realizing I was not with her. She didn’t know the street familiarly but was simply using her intuition to walk back down from whence she came. I recall thanking someone in my head that she was so smart as to do that and as I grabbed her and clung onto her with dear life like a crazy person, my heart was beating so bad in my chest I feared that I would seriously stroke out right their in front of all the gawkers. I didn’t care what anyone thought at the point and the fear gripped me all night, even when back at home, just in the recollection of that one moment where I could have lost the only thing that I could honestly say I would die for. Even thinking about it now brings me right back into that grip of terror as if it were happening to me right here and now in this moment. It is not a memory that diffuses with time but stays equal in its intensity.


I have always wanted to run an official bordello.

I would be the most sought after madam around. When a customer would come in to get their sexual delight I would make them fill out the over 500 true and false statements in the MMPI psychological test that delivers uncannily accurate results in letting me know who he/she is at their core. Not the external part of their soul that has built up through a lifetime out of preconceived notions, thanks to the media, life influence and bastardized porn, nor that which they wants in their idealized visions, but the part of their soul that was there before and now lies dormant with the cumulative truth of their most primal desires.

Once I analyzed the results of this test, a man might be delivered to a room with a tiny Asian woman who knows how to scratch his skin in a way that makes him shiver instead of the plastic breasted beach babe he originally came in seeking. And he would have the best un-inhibited night of his life and I would win tons of referrals from his talk of my establishment thereafter throughout the streets of town. He would be slightly dazed, a little mystified and completely satisfied; going back to the memories of the night I created for him when he needed to release himself alone at home. I would have customers coming from miles. Tapping into that core.

The sexual is so warped in our social consciousness for we are each individually made up our own specific nerve endings that respond to the things they respond to; whether borne from the safe and healthy gestation of a so-called normal sexual history or prone to mysterious and odd predilections from the result of early stage traumas or neurosis, the key is not in bouncing to bed to fumble through the motions but to guide each other consensually through the navigation of our personal inclinations therefore finding pleasure in the unexpected click that emerges through true electric intimacy.

When I was in my late twenties, I had a lover who was also a good friend. We knew each other so well and had no intention of being in a relationship resulting in our abilities to both let go fully. With no goal attached to our union, no expectations other than pleasure, and no inhibitions about being free with our bodies, warts and all, we found a deep sense of authentic bonding and were not afraid to dialogue honestly about what we wanted. With no fear of rejection or judgment we had an arena to experiment within that led me to believe that I would be cheating myself if I ever went underground again, inside my skin, afraid to express what I really wanted. For I learned it doesn’t matter if I am shut down at the gate for admitting my needs, the liberation comes with the admitting alone, leading the body into a place of power and control in its own sexual destiny. From that point forward, I no longer approached sex being compelled to fake anything and found that in that uncomfortable vulnerability of staking claim on my own true titillations, I was welcomed by my future lovers as someone in touch with my own erotic vein.


My father was my best friend until I was twelve and he moved away to Minnesota with his new family and suddenly I didn’t see or hear from him but once a year. This hurt me in many unseen ways that built themselves up in my subconscious and displayed themselves in other areas of my life that I didn’t fully recognize until later on in the course of trying to have normal, healthy relationships with other men.

But during the course of his dying from adrenal cancer when I was in my twenties, he would call me every Sunday for a chat. The first call, he admitted to me that he had cancer and that he had felt guilty for many years in which not a day went by where he didn’t think about me and my sister and the fact that he was so out of touch with us. We ended up talking and sharing our lives for another few months every week, which gave me great healing in many areas.

A week or so before he died, I went to visit him with my daughter and my boyfriend and I had the opportunity to spend one blissful day with him that reminded me of time we had spent together when I was a child. Everyone else in the house left and we laid together on the couch in the basement watching car racing on television and I laid my head in his lap all day in silence. I would get up to go to the bathroom or run upstairs for something and he would always be by the trash in my absence, throwing away food from the plate that sat before us so I would think he had actually eaten something when the truth was he couldn’t eat, it was too painful. At one point, he told me that my grandfather, who had passed away when I was twelve, was in the room on the other couch waiting for him.

When I left he looked at me with frightened eyes.

On the way home from his house, my daughter found a dead monarch butterfly on the ground and gave it to me as a gift in memory of my dad. One night shortly thereafter, my daughter and I danced together in the living room with the butterfly nearby us in a small plastic case and my daughter said we were dancing for grandpa. Later that night, I went to bed in tears early because I felt too sad being awake.

That night, from a deep sleep, I woke up suddenly and it was if I were no longer in my body, but I was pure consciousness floating somewhere near the ceiling of my room looking down upon myself curled up under the covers of my bed in the dark of night. I was purely molecular because I felt no form, just presence. I saw to the left of me, outside my sliding glass door, a deer nosing around the frame of the window. In that moment, I had the overwhelming feeling of knowing that everything was going to be all right and that there was never going to be any reason to be afraid. A rush of the softest peace ran over my entire sense of being.

Later that evening, in the wee hours post-midnight, my sister called to wake me up and tell me that our father was gone.

The Buddhists describe a kensho moment as “seeing into your own true nature” and this is what happened to me that night. I realized that we have no idea about the silence we find inside that bodes the truth of our existence; in that this is not the end all be all, this ego-consciousness, this flesh consciousness, and that there is something far greater at hand working to keep the harmonious nature of this thing we call the “universe” together. And it is available to us 24/7.


In the fifth grade I won my Catholic school spelling bee one afternoon, to the delight of my teacher, who was proud that her young student had beat even the more seasoned eighth graders. It was my first sense of feeling that I had a gift at something and that it was exceptional. It produced a butterfly buzz in my stomach that comes with accomplishment and was the first taste of success in my prepubescent bones.

I was lauded by my peers and spent the next month preparing for the California statewide competition’s second phase. I felt the first flicker of wanting to extend myself further then, propelled by the notion that hard work produces an elevation to another level and then another and I was eager to climb up that ladder. I studied diligently every day during my lunch break with another teacher reciting and going over endless lists of words. The ego boost was amazing yet frail and I learned that at the tail end of that spike of excitement was the potential for extreme humility.

When it was time to compete I was thrilled that my mom and dad were both there and I felt confident that I had studied enough to handle every word thrown at me. Of course, in the great grand scheme of words, I knew there were still elusive beings floating out their unbeknownst to my vocabulary but it didn’t daze my strength going in to the arena.

The first girl who was given a word spelled the word wrong and immediately started to cry. The pressure that builds up when you are on stage and expected to not falter is huge, and the girl fell into that trap with a swift failure. The judges and audience let out a sigh when she missed the correct letters and because it was the very first attempt, they decided that they would not count her misspelling because everyone agreed it was just extreme nerves over being first. I felt a pit in my gut at that moment, a small flicker of the realization that it wasn’t fair. When it came to my turn, I was so focused on thinking about the unfairness of the girl’s second chance that I misspelled my own word, which was “poison”. A dark cloud descended on me with swiftness and I too, started to cry. I felt devastated that I had missed a word that I knew how to spell but furthermore I felt a stab of disappointment with the subconscious irony that I had been indeed poisoned by my own thoughts towards the feeling of being cheated. Where was my second chance due to nerves? In one second I was brought down from my cloud of excitement into the stadium of humility and became again, human, like everyone else.


I recall the ten seconds before the accident clearly. I had just left a friend’s house late in the evening and was mere blocks onto my drive home when I was passing through a green light at an intersection. I was listening to music and thriving on the good feelings of dinner and conversation when all of a sudden out of the corner of my left eye, I saw a quick flash and then time stopped.

I was suddenly no longer in my car but looking down on myself from another place outside my car and in the sky. I saw my face looking up in horror and then just as quickly as I had left my body, I was back inside it, stopped in the middle of the road, surrounded by the smell of smoke and torn metal.

In shock, I opened the door and jumped out of my car and stumbled over to a curb where a kind, dark-skinned man rushed over to sit next to me and hold my hand. “I saw everything,” he said, “it wasn’t your fault.”

In the minutes directly after things started to float clear before my eyes. A gardening truck sat across the street, its front end smashed into a tree. Men started stumbling out of the truck and one of them was clutching his eye and screaming.

I started to quickly go over the events that had just occurred in my brain. Was I hit? Did I have a green light? Was this my fault? In the midst of this accident, all thoughts tumbled over themselves and confusion reigned and I was left sitting in a cloud of warped space and unclear certainty.

I started to feel the pain once they loaded me into the ambulance. As we drove away I saw the crumpled heap of my car and like a mad dash, the thought came flying through my head that I might be hurt. I looked down at my body and quickly scanned myself for injury of which I saw none. Other than a few scrapes on my flesh here and there, I was not badly maimed but my left side was aching unbelievably from a set of badly bruised ribs. The driver of the truck hadn’t fared as well. For some absurd reason, we were both in the same vehicle and he was holding the remains of his eyeball and moaning at me, the whole way to the hospital, that he was sorry. It was only then that I realized I was the true victim.

For when the unexpected happens it takes us out of our control zones and into an unknown territory where our normal markers are gone. The things that we rely on escape us and we are no longer the masters of our agenda. Instead, the random steps in to jostle everything that we know.

For three weeks I was bedridden with bruised ribs. I was slave to my caretakers. I could not work or go about my days in the way I had come to know. Being in this suspended state that was unplanned and unfortunate made me discover an extreme sense of Zen and an appreciation for the void of stasis. My twisted metal remnants of my car sat in my driveway for weeks, longer than was appropriate. There was something comforting in keeping it there; almost as if as long as I had that hulking beast in my presence I had permission to skip out on the normal course of life as I knew it and lounge in that glorious uncertainty away from the de rigueur of everyday life. Of course, at some point I had to decide to step back onto the predictable train, taking a few rebel pieces of my newfound love of the blank and non-existent realm of time and place with me.


My water broke in the bathtub so I had no idea that I was about to give birth to my daughter. I had spent the day with the first signs of the flu and as the day progressed, I continued to feel sick. Being pregnant and sick is like having a double-sided hammer constantly bouncing back and forth on top of the joints and bones so I would take a bath about every two hours to feel some relief from the shivers and ache. I started to have cramps in the afternoon but when I called the hospital to report them, I was told that the flu sometimes induces a false sense that the baby is coming and that I should instead rest with lots of fluids. So when I was in my sixth bath of the day that evening, and my water broke, I had no idea it had just happened as I was submerged in water myself at the time. By the time I was deep into labor, and cramping like a banshee, my husband had the good sense of taking me to the hospital despite what the nurses on the end of the telephone had to say. When I was checked into a hospital room and finally looked at, it was discovered that I was fully dilated and the baby was on its way.

It was game time and there was no room for relaxation techniques or drugs to be injected into my system to make me feel better. This was going to be natural childbirth without any medicinal aids and I was already screaming from the pain.

They don’t tell you this when you get pregnant but childbirth KILLS. It is potentially the worst sort of pain to endure for a human being because it is like a runaway train inside your body, crashing into your entire sense of being with such guttural vengeance that you have no choice but to embrace it fully. I had read that the key to quick childbirth was to get to the moment when you are feeling the most intense, mind numbing pain, and at that point don’t turn away from it. Push through it. Meet it with a vengeance and go right into it. So when my doctor arrived in his golf outfit fresh from the greens with no time to even put on his scrubs, his hands held before me at the top of one of my biggest rushes of excruciating horror, I mentally told myself not to turn away, that I needed to stop this immediately and that the only way to do that would be to push right past it. And I did, I pushed with a vengeance and a high-pitched scream and my daughter came out into this world.

Another thing they don’t tell you about pain, is that the minute it is gone, you completely forget it. Our brain has the beautiful ability to remember things except when it comes to pain. Is this a nice gift from our creator; that we are alive enough to experience the sensation of pain but that once it is gone we swiftly lose memory of it? Is this the universe’s way of keeping us all from running into caves, afraid of life, sheltered in our own paranoia and avoidance of potential pain. People go on to have more children, to step out of their front doors, to continue to embrace existence with only a dim fear of pain instead of what would be a stunting abortion of life if the accurate visceral memory stayed ever present.


Some things in life happen without any clear logic. Although there are probably many more instances of this in everyday life then we care to stop and analyze clearly, there are two examples in my life that stand out for me.

When my daughter was around ten I was involved with a group of women who would go into the canyons and mediate together and sometimes be led by a shaman into guided visualization exercises. One Saturday, as I laid on the rocks of the desert under the sun with a circle of sisters, I had visions of myself and two other women in a boat, floating off the shore of some beautiful and vast Mediterranean island and got the sense that they were my family. It was a sweet little anecdote in my day that I tucked away after the experience.

About a week later, my daughter called to me one morning as I was just waking from sleep. I went to her and she was really excitable because she had just had what she called, “a very strange dream.” She went on to tell me that she was in a boat with my sister and me and we were floating away from an island. Tingles ran down my spine. I had told no one about my vision from the week prior, and in fact, had totally forgotten about the visions from the moment I had left the circle of women that day. Then my daughter proceeded to tell me that she had then left the boat in the dream, floated to heaven, looked into a mirror and then was inside my belly as my daughter.

What an astonishing and strange thing to realize that we are all interconnected in ways that bypass and evolve from the simple physically fleshed relationships we partake in day to day.

When my sister was pregnant with her first child, I was going through a rather difficult phase of my life and trying to extricate myself from a bad relationship as well as trying to figure out ways to change careers because my vocation was sucking the lifeblood out of me.

I fell asleep one night during this period and had a remarkable dream. In this dream, a gorgeous little brown eyed, dark-haired girl came to my bedside. She was a beautiful creature, almost Egyptian in her coloring, probably around four or five years old, and was barefoot wearing only flimsy denim overalls. Her eyes were like globes the size of the moon and she placed the palm of her hand daintily on my forehead and whispered into my ear, “It’s going to be okay.”

I asked her, “Who are you?”

She answered, “I am your sister’s daughter.”

I woke up feeling happy and called my sister to let her know I had seen her daughter in my dream. What baffled us was the way I described this child’s looks, more darkly featured than I would have imagined would have emerged from the union of my sister and her husband.

Sure enough, when my niece was born, she was dark and when she hit the age of four she looked exactly like the girl in my dream.

I am not making this up, and although my sister too is part of the evidence of this strange mystery having been on the receiving end of my phone call after this dream, it’s something we mention once in a while from that place in our human existence that sees and notes the presence of strange phenomena such as this but that we do not dwell on for long as the impossibility in the truth of something like this is all we can grasp from our place of limited information and knowledge in this world.

To me, this is the beautiful part of life. Things without answers that leave you wondering with no clear peace; a kind of unsettled characteristic that you have no power to resolve so you are left standing like a child in a new state of wonder.


Who were you before you were the you of you who stands here today? Do you remember your dreams from the time when your dreams were clear? Did you grow to become all you wanted to be?

Or did you get in your own way?

I knew some things inherently when I was barely ten and these things were strong, blinding heartbeats in my waking hours. I knew I wanted to make things from nothing that expressed my feelings and that I wanted to make things from nothing to express the things I observed and that I wanted to dance every time I heard music, especially the drums. And I knew that when I was doing these things, time disappeared, my fears flew away, people reacted to me and paid attention to the things I was making, dancing and saying, and that I was happier than any other time when I was not doing these things.

This was always my dream. We all have them. But how many of us sidestep our own dreams to become part of someone else’s dream? Or how many of us simply stop the dream?

So I became an artist and a writer to create original and concrete manifestations of things I came across in life with the express wish that some stranger would view my work and see something that they otherwise would never had seen had I not created it; a little piece of life that would make them step out of their shoes into mine and in doing so realize that we all have the potential to understand each other’s truths in ways that would make us feel inherently connected because we are.

A life is only the sum of our biggest moments of intense memory; made up of the events and circumstances that took place to shape our present. And then, in the evolution that stems from learning from these experiences, we can find the illuminated gem of walking the rest of our days. Fully examined and laid bare at the hands of others, we grow best when vulnerable, raw and humble. In these honest moments together, cultivated by the mysterious ether of dreams, we may fully knock down all our built up notions that continue to hold us apart.

The film based on Catharsis will be released in 2013

Article written by Kimberly Nichols

Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine and has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California for the past decade. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She was a founding editor of Newtopia in its former incarnation where she was also a member of the NewPoetry Collective. She is currently at work on her novel King Neptune’s Journey and an art work titled The Fool. She has recently embarked on a journey of study in shamanic and medicine lore and wisdom under a series of respected teachers. Follow her daily beat poetry on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.




  1. Pingback: Catharsis « - September 15, 2012

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