life

Un/Whee

I can feel it.
Unreasonable.
Heavy.
It settles like an old velvet duvet — familiar and stifling.

“ENNUI,” I say out loud, “I declare an ennui!”

One thing I’ve learned about my mental health is that names are power. If I feel a panic attack coming on, saying, out loud, that that’s what’s happening makes it a tiny bit easier to deal with. This feeling is different, but I name it anyway.

I can always tell when it’s happening. It hits me when I’m in the middle of living life, and it’s like the color’s been sucked out of the world. Looking at interesting or beautiful things no longer inspires me. I don’t want to do anything. Nothing seems enjoyable. A tiny, evil thought in the back of my mind lies to me, telling me that this is it, I’ve reached the world’s level cap, life is about to be a long, tedious slog to the finish line.

I call it “ennui” because it defangs it, at least a little. Mental Floss points out that ennui has “connotations of self-indulgent posturing and European decadence.” It’s an oppressive existential apathy that’s hard to take seriously. Ennui isn’t as weighty as Depression, or as toothy as Anhedonia. If these neurotransmitters are going to attempt to seize power over me, they’re going to have to try harder than that. My absurdity is potent and not easily overthrown.

This feeling is scary, the lies it tells me are frightening. So, I name it something that makes it sound, to me, like the pseudo-deep affectation of a second-rate philosopher. As one of my friend’s uncles used to say, “Are you bored, or are you boring?”

Part of the trouble is that it isn’t enough to not be boring. I’d even argue that very few people are genuinely so. “Sonder” is a wonderful, if little-used, word that the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines as:

[T]he realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

With that in mind, being legitimately boring takes effort.

My partner argues that this is neurochemical. It happens too regularly, with no special reason. I could be having a perfectly lovely day, capped off by sitting on a roof and watching the sunset with a slice of Baltimore Bomb pie, and suddenly the pinks and oranges look flat and muddy and the chocolate tastes like glue.

This joy-sucking specter sticks around for a few days, perhaps a week, before being distracted by something shiny and sweeping off to go find another haunt.

Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe,
designing futures where nothing will occur:
cross the gypsy’s palm and yawning she
will still predict no perils left to conquer.
Jeopardy is jejune now: naïve knight
finds ogres out-of-date and dragons unheard
of, while blasé princesses indict
tilts at terror as downright absurd.

The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump,
compelling hero’s dull career to crisis;
and when insouciant angels play God’s trump,
while bored arena crowds for once look eager,
hoping toward havoc, neither pleas nor prizes
shall coax from doom’s blank door lady or tiger.

Sylvia Plath, Ennui

I haven’t found a way to make it leave sooner (or, even better, keep it from bothering me at all). Energy cleanses and other rituals help remove some of the background static, but the ennui doesn’t budge. It’s another cycle to understand and endure, as surely as brilliant orange autumn turns to gray winter. The best I can do is give this unwanted guest a name, speak it out loud, and know that it never stays forever.

life

When CBT doesn’t cut it.

I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve been through some stuff — including several attempts at cognitive behavioral therapy. Here’s why it didn’t work for me, and what I did to get to where I wanted to be.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the gold standard for treating anxiety disorders. It’s a reputation that isn’t entirely undeserved — there’s a load of research demonstrating its effectiveness, both combined with medication and on its own. It’s often the first thing that a doctor will suggest when a patient presents with anxiety problems.

CBT relies on recognizing thought patterns that we have that don’t line up with reality. The underlying concept is that, when we can identify distortions in our thinking, we can prevent or intervene in those distortions and keep them from negatively impacting our feelings and behavior.

But what do you do when CBT doesn’t work for you?

If you’re me, that means feeling like a failure and going into a deeper anxiety spiral first.

I first tried CBT through a workbook. It was helpful, but definitely not a substitute for going through it with an actual therapist. So, when that opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it.
And left feeling like my anxiety was entirely my fault.

I was able to identify distortions in my thinking, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that identifying and reframing them didn’t actually seem to have much of an effect. My first therapist eventually cut me loose when I failed to make substantial progress after a few weeks, and oh boy did I feel like a lost cause.

There’s definitely something wrong with the messaging surrounding CBT. Because so much of it relies on the patient identifying and reframing cognitive distortions outside of therapy sessions, CBT comes packaged with a hearty side of moralizing — if it isn’t successful, it’s because the patient wasn’t willing to “put in the work.”

That’s not true.

When medication doesn’t work, you try a different one. When other modalities don’t work, you try another therapist or another type of therapy. When CBT doesn’t work, it might not have anything to do with your level of effort, willingness, or ability to get better.

Why CBT Wasn’t the Answer for Me

Don’t get me wrong, cognitive behavioral therapy has been enormously helpful for tons of people. I suggest that everyone at least try it, because it can be great for reducing some anxiety symptoms. There are two big reasons why I didn’t achieve the results I hoped for:

  1. It offered behavioral strategies for what might be a chemical and genetic issue.
  2. It didn’t help my specific worries.

Panic disorder can look like anxiety, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it. Panic attacks show up seemingly out of nowhere, and the idea behind treating them with CBT is that a panic attack happens when we catastrophize a sensation — like shortness of breath, or palpitations. This might be the case for some people with panic disorder, but may not be for all. Unfortunately, accepting the premise behind this treatment is what leads to some of the “victim blaming” mentality surrounding CBT.

If I’m bopping along, feeling perfectly fine, and suddenly get hit with a full-blown, unable-to-breathe-or-move panic attack, there’s no time. That overwhelming, unprovoked rush of adrenaline isn’t mitigated by identifying and reframing my thoughts. While cognitive behavioral therapy was helpful for reducing some manifestations of my anxiety, it wasn’t helpful for my panic attacks — the whole reason I was pursuing CBT in the first place. If I didn’t think my way into them, how was I going to think my way out of them? CBT gave me something to do for the twenty-odd minutes it takes for a panic attack to resolve anyway, but it didn’t actually seem to change anything. I couldn’t just think myself better. Knowing it was “just” a panic attack didn’t stop the chest pain, shortness of breath, terror, or inability to move.

It also didn’t help my obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Yes, I know that it isn’t logical or helpful to check the stove burners exactly five times each before leaving the house. I know that it doesn’t make sense to smell my hallway every hour to make sure there isn’t a gas leak. Even forcing myself to not do these things so I could achieve “mastery” over them did nothing to reduce the torment.

(I’m not alone, either. The NIH says that, “Unfortunately, CBT doesn’t work for up to half of people with OCD.” As it turns out, spotting activity in different areas of the brain may be a helpful predictor of what therapy might be the most effective for a specific patient. Not everyone with OCD has the same level of activity in the same areas.)

It didn’t help my cyclical bouts of minor depression, either. This was largely because they’re another thing I don’t think my way into, they just happen. I already recognized that they don’t last forever, but they were still as frequent and as soul-sucking after CBT as they were before it. Womp-womp.

My other problem with CBT was that there are some outcomes that just are catastrophic. If I’m afraid of performing in front of a crowd, it’s relatively easy for me to say, “What’s the worst that can happen? What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of bombing and embarrassing myself. That probably won’t happen, but what would be the outcome if I did? It won’t kill me. Nobody’s going to physically attack me. I’ll probably never even see these people again, so, if the worst actually did happen, its impact on my life would be momentary, at best. The people in the audience might go home with a funny story to tell about me, and that wouldn’t be so bad. I can defang the situation by being willing to laugh at myself.” It helps!

This was less helpful for me for, say, health anxiety. “What’s the worst that can happen? I die and it hurts the entire time. That probably won’t happen, but what would be the outcome if I did? I die, it hurts the entire time, and my loved ones suffer in the process. If I’m wrong, I’m fine, but if I’m not, it’s literally the worst possible outcome.” There’s only a slight chance that I have some potentially fatal undiagnosed health issue (something that I’ve actually experienced), but, if I do, I’m still 100% dead if I don’t act on it.

It wasn’t helpful for the anxiety surrounding a past sexual assault, either. I’ve been through that. I know how awful it was. The feelings are a product of experience, not catastrophizing. My reframed thoughts felt like lies.

In short, it wasn’t a great fit for me.

There are other issues with CBT, too. A big one is that it’s a bit of a darling for insurance companies. They love it because it doesn’t take long (a few weeks, as opposed to months or years for other therapies) and doesn’t cost much to cover. For this reason, your insurance company is likely far more willing to pay for CBT… and not much else. For a patient with significant trauma, a genetic predisposition to mental illness, neurotransmitter imbalances, chronic illness, life stress, or any number of other contributing factors, a couple of sessions and some homework probably isn’t going to cut it.

Another is that, even though CBT puts the patient in the driver’s seat, the therapist is still important. If you’re working with someone who comes off as uncaring, off-putting, or smug, you might not be in a great environment for you to learn and implement the therapy. This can be especially difficult if you’re working with someone who emphasizes the techniques over everything else — there were definitely times when I felt more like a collection of behaviors, and not like a human being with my own traumas, genetics, and brain chemistry.

The underlying premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is that your thoughts influence your behavior and mental health. If your therapist hammers at that to the exclusion of other factors, you could be missing a big part of the picture.

I’ve read some other interesting theories on why CBT doesn’t work for some forms of anxiety. One of them proposes that executive function shuts down when anxiety gets too high. Some people are able to engage their cognitive techniques before this occurs. If you already have trouble with executive function, or your arousal ramps up too quickly, this can’t happen in time. In those cases, your brain needs to rely on automatic self-soothing mechanisms that trigger relaxation via the parasympathetic nervous system and the release of oxytocin. I can’t speak to this personally, but it would explain a lot.

What I Did Instead

So, cognitive behavioral therapy didn’t work. What’s next?

After feeling like I needed more therapy to overcome my feelings about “failing” at CBT, I looked at other options. I still had medication, so that was helpful, but not as helpful as it could be combined with therapy. I knew that part of my problem was that my ex-therapist’s approach seemed very inflexible — there was no room to consider what other factors could be contributing to the problem. Every negative feeling had to be proceeded by a thought, and, if I couldn’t identify and “fix” that thought, I was doing it wrong.

So, I read over the “About” pages of a number of psychologists, eventually settling on one who mentioned methods other than CBT. And I lucked out.

The therapist I ended up seeing — with whom I’ve been very happy — uses CBT as part of a larger collection of therapies. We’ve worked on my past trauma. We’ve worked on my self-esteem. I get things to read and homework to do that have helped me grow, not feel like a failure for being unable to think my way out of a panic attack. We’ve explored everything from my diet (did you know that fenugreek could contribute to depression? I didn’t!) to physical relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. I feel like a person, not like a disjointed cloud of thoughts that need to be corrected. My panic attacks are less frequent and easier to deal with, and I can recognize the signs of an impending bout of depression and take steps to make it less disruptive to my life.

CBT doesn’t work for me. It’s the go-to treatment for anxiety because it’s very focused and able to produce results in a relatively short period of time, but the same things that make it work so quickly also force it to exclude other factors that can contribute to a patient’s mood. If you haven’t tried CBT, at least give it a shot — it teaches valuable skills. If you have tried it and you’re feeling disheartened, that’s natural. You aren’t a failure. There are plenty of other therapies out there that can help. They might take longer, you might have to try a few different things out, but they work. You’re worth the time and effort.

art, divination, life, Witchcraft

Bustin’ (Disappointment) Makes Me Feel Good

Yesterday, literally the same day that I posted that tarot reading, I got a bit of disappointing news. I don’t want to get into the details, but it turns out that an artistic opportunity that I’d been pretty excited about isn’t going to happen for me. C’est la guerre. Even amid fulfillment and happiness, it’s a bit much to expect everything to be a slice of fried gold.

Still, understanding that fact doesn’t really banish the bad feelings. Here’s what did, though:

I set a timer.

I gave myself ten minutes to be completely self-indulgent in my complaining. After that, the grumpling grace period was over and I had to keep quiet about it. This serves two purposes:

  1. It keeps me from dwelling on whatever’s bothering me.
  2. It keeps me from becoming insufferable to absolutely everyone around me.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I use this time. I flop dramatically on furniture. I go full Howl’s-Moving-Castle-goopy-wizard. I get to feel my feelings, I can be cartoonishly whiny until I laugh at myself, and other people won’t secretly wish they could lock me in a dumpster.

I did some agitation pedaling.

My partner calls it “having the zoomies.” I call it having more energy than I know what to do with. Sometimes it’s from anger or annoyance. Sometimes it’s boredom. Sometimes, it’s because I ate four bowls of cereal for dinner.

All that corn syrup and riboflavin

Either way, ten minutes of furious living room biking usually sorts it out decently well. I work myself up to my top speed, and hold it as long as I can — all while mentally focused on a goal I have. When I get to the point where I can’t sustain it anymore, I release the energy toward that goal.

Sweat is also cleansing. Sweating can be a sacred act. There are reasons why so many cultures have traditions built around inducing a good sweat.

Singing along to Turisas is entirely optional, but it helps.

RA-RA-RASPUTIN, RUSSIA’S GREATEST LOVE MACHINE

I took a bath (with friends).

(No, not human ones. I don’t think any of them would talk to me afterward.)

When it comes to spells to fix a disappointment, I think they should be spontaneous. It’s not really the time to go worrying about moon phases or astrological timing — if you have needs, fulfill them. Emergency magic performed from the heart can be just as effective as a meticulously planned ritual.

Water is the element of emotions. It’s cleansing. It’s healing. It’s a great way to kill some time doing something that’s objectively good for you. It was late at night, so I didn’t have the energy to make myself a full-on brew, but I do pretty much own my weight in various teas. I boiled some water, added two bags of peppermint and one of chamomile, and asked for their help.

“Peppermint,” I said, said I, “I feel like complete ass and would like that to not be a thing anymore. Peppermint, clear my energy from all that’s dragging me down, and, with chamomile, fill that space with luck and prosperity.”

If you’re putting it in a bath, the garnish is probably kind of excessive

I held my projective (dominant) hand over the vessel, and did the energy thing. When I felt that it was good enough, I asked the brew if it was ready.

“If this be done, and done well, push my hand away from the vessel.”

(Fortunately, I felt the familiar little energetic “push” against my palm. I don’t think I had it in me to sit on my bathroom floor and troubleshoot this spell.)

I poured the brew in a bath full of warm, fresh water, dumped in an unmeasured buttload of Trader Joe’s $1.99 sea salt, stirred it with my projective hand, and called it good. As soon as I stepped in, feeling the silkiness of the water, smelling the fragrant peppermint-and-chamomile steam curling up from the surface of the water, I began to feel better.

I also had a bright, unmistakable vision of a wolf’s face when I closed my eyes, but that’s probably going to take some further research.

I followed the advice I’d been given in the first place.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea of conceptualizing things as happening “for” you instead of “to” you, though that can be tough to remember in the moment. Personally, every setback I’ve ever experienced — every call I never received after a job interview, every breakup — has always led to something better within the space of a few weeks, like clockwork. I don’t force positivity on myself, and you shouldn’t either if you’re really not feeling it, but I try to keep this track record in mind.

Anyway, all of this is to say that, when the sun is shining and everything’s going great, sometimes a minor bump in the road can seem bigger than it is. Tarot readings function as more than a prediction and an energetic snapshot of your life. They’re also advice. Yesterday’s advice was to celebrate, spread joy, and not let my emotions overrule my discernment. I have a lot to celebrate (I sold a painting recently! I can hike longer trails! I did a bunch of paid writing!), I’m hoping this post might be helpful to someone else who’s feeling the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and, logically, I know this disappointment will pass and be forgotten before long.

I turned it around.

Creativity is deeply personal. When you put yourself into what you make, it’s hard not to take rejection pretty hard. Most of the time, though, that rejection has nothing to do with you — because creativity is so personal, there’s no accounting for what people want. What I consider my best work is almost never as popular as the things I’m not nearly as attached to.

Similarly, this situation in no way impugns me as a person or a creative force. So, worn out from pedaling, freshly minty, and completely called out by my own tarot deck, I went to varnish some paintings.

I don’t want to suggest that vigorous cycling and a bath are the way to deal with, say, a house fire, the loss of a loved one, someone stealing your car, or a loved one burning down your house and stealing your car, but these techniques can help shift the energy around the things that occasionally show up to heck your day apart.

life, Neodruidry

Honoring Balance at Mabon

It’s the Autumnal Equinox, and we’re heading into Libra season. All of the articles, posts, books, and assorted other things I’ve read say that this is a time of balance, of honoring one of only two days when day and night are of equal length. For some of us, it’s a time to prepare — to acknowledge that the dark, cold months are coming, and, while we may not like them, their quiet and rest is what gives us the brighter, warmer seasons ahead.

Mabon is also the second harvest. It’s enjoying the fruits of your labors, and gathering the seeds that will yield next year’s bounty.

It’s party time over here, though.

Sometimes, balance doesn’t look like you’d expect. If you’ve been going through a period of darkness or inactivity, balance can look more like a rush. Achieving balance and experiencing balance aren’t always the same thing — what it takes to reach equilibrium is not always what maintains that equilibrium.

That’s my balance right now. I’ve had an incredible, dramatic upswing over the past week or so — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m physically stronger than I’ve been since I was a teenager, I’ve reconnected with someone who was very important to me as a child. My mental health is stable enough for me to identify areas that need healing, and work to help them. I feel vital, creative, and validated.

All of which are pretty weird things to associate with the day that marks the Earth’s gradual descent into winter darkness, but I’m not going to knock it.

Even my plants don’t seem to have gotten the message. With this uptick in my own energy, it seems like everything else in my home is being swept along with it. My violets are blooming. My nepenthes is packed with tiny new pitchers. The asst. fern $4.99 is apparently a staghorn that is putting out new fronds faster than I can keep up with — including a very formidable set of shield fronds. My parlor palm is outgrowing everything. My calathea has taken over an entire shelf with leaves like salad plates. My cats are shiny, sassy, and extra playful.

(Kiko found a tomato somewhere, and decided this was her New Favorite Toy. I had very mixed feelings about her smacking an entire-ass tomato around my living room most of the evening, but I also didn’t have the heart to take it from her. This is how badly she has me wrapped around her little pink toebeans.)

Today, I’ll make offerings of honey, tea, flowers, and incense. I’ll play music, and let the autumnal sunlight in. I’ll give thanks to all of the things that have contributed to this feeling, this harvest, and I’ll find the seeds and hold them safely for next year.

Blessed Mabon, everybody.
(Unless it’s Ostara where you are, then have a blessed that instead.)

art, life

It was scary and I did it anyhow.

So, if you missed the livestream on Canvisi, I went on around 1 PM.

Well, I was supposed to go on at 1 PM, but, having never done a livestream before ever in my life, I had no idea how they work. This was absolutely no fault of the person running the stream, either — he was very helpful, professional, understanding, and kind. I, on the other hand, barreled in at 1 and immediately launched into my introduction with the vocal cadence of a hyacinth macaw on PCP.

“HI, I’MJANDTODAYI’D-“

I saw him gesturing toward his ears, and I realized that, despite the amount of Zoom calls I’ve been on, I have no idea what I’m doing. Also my phone was muted.

Fortunately, there was some intermission music to cover for me while I figured out why my setup wasn’t relaying sound properly and tried to get my heart rate somewhere below “hummingbird.” Eventually, everything was good to go.

Honestly, streaming was kind of fun. My lighting was less than ideal, because my studio’s set up to have great light for painting — video, not so much. I managed to cover most of what I wanted to in the time I was allotted, and I didn’t forget to plug my various sites and social media. Score!

I’m actually considering getting back into making time-lapse painting videos. Maybe streaming on YouTube. That’s something for another day.

Anyhow, in honor of getting through my first livestream without wanting to run out of the room, all of the paintings, prints, jewelry, and wands in my shop are currently 15% off. Some stuff has already sold, so be sure to stop by and check it out before it’s too late!

life

And… Frolic!

Things were extremely okay. I’d even say they were approaching neato. Then they were not.

My S.O. had a high-stress presentation, not at all helped by having to do it over Zoom. The effect was like something out of a Terry Gilliam-style dystopia (which, I guess, is kind of where we are now), only without the part where anyone was wearing a giant, terrifying baby head.

I, on the other hand, had a bunch of orders to write, a presentation to plan, two cats who’ve been throwing up just often enough to be Way Too Much yet Still Technically Normal, and about ninety pounds of carpet slowly moldering in the middle of my living room. (I am not good at estimating how long it takes things to dry. I also habitually underestimate how humid it is here. Next time, I will happily pay a cute amount of money to make this someone else’s problem.)

There’s only one way to unwind from this: Aggressive frolicking.

Well, aggressive frolicking after a long drive.

First, we tried to go to Great Falls Park, but they were crowded to the point where park rangers had the entrance blocked off. It’s still a pretty drive with a bunch of scenic spots to pull off, though, and time I spend in the car with this nerd is never wasted.

Plus we found a spot bursting with bright yellow sunchokes and goldenrod. I even made a little bug buddy:

If I’ve got my bugs right, this is a pale green assassin bug nymph. Fortunately, these stealthy little weirdos are only assassins to other bugs, though they can bite if provoked.

Afterward, we found some crape myrtles suitable for frolicking amongst. The flowers smelled lovely, everyone else was sufficiently socially distant, and I was loaded up on enough Zyrtec to sedate a category 5 kaiju so the existence of grass didn’t make me break out in hives.

Most people wore masks, even the ones running or cycling, but some didn’t. We brought ours, but didn’t end up going anywhere where we were in danger of coming in contact with anyone. With an entire area of the park to ourselves, it was easy to avoid breathing at other people (and getting breathed at, in turn).

I think the closest we came to coming within a hundred feet of another person was when this extremely charming family looking for a picnic spot. They rounded a fence to head down a grassy hill, when one of their maybe-four-or-five-year-old children exclaimed, “Oh! What a nice view!” I’m not generally a person of young children or babies, but it was the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.

That was pretty much it — sun, breeze, and the smell of crape myrtles. That’s plenty for me.

See? Idyllic.
divination, life

I apologize for my tardiness.

I ate most of my bodyweight in melon and pasta and, like the mighty African rock python consuming the equally mighty springbok, I needed to sleep on a warm rock and not move for an extended period of time.

Anyway. I’ve been doing a lot of considering re: the Jungian concept of the “shadow self.” It’s a topic I’d like to delve into further, but really deserves a post (or three, or four) of its own. Suffice it to say that I think it’s what’s making the pandemic especially difficult for a lot of people — when it’s hard to be in the same room as yourself, you’re not likely to enjoy having a lot of free time on your hands.

This led on a short free-association jaunt through various meditations, trance work, and sound healing, and I landed on a specific need: a guide to what I’m trying to fix in the first place. I know my faults, and I like to think I’m relatively self-aware, but there’s more to integration than that. There’s really no road map for how this kind of thing is supposed to go, though.

In my search, I came across the Cleansing the Soul tarot spread by Emerald Lotus Divination. “Sure,” I thought, “Why not?”

It’s not a super complicated spread, but it yields a lot of information — from the needs of the physical body, to the soul, to the inner child, to how to stay connected to your higher self. I’m not really under any illusion that the general public is super into my own inner journey here, but, if you’re curious about how a theoretical spread might look and how the cards relate to each other, this might be helpful.

I used the Animalis Os Fortuna deck, and my own spread shook out like this:

What my physical body needs: Nine of Wands, depicting the iguana. In this place, this appears to mean the need to push forward. I’ve been engaging in more physical activity, so the message here seems to be to keep at it, and keep increasing my reps. I even bought a sledgehammer to make a shovelglove!

What my soul needs: Five of Wands, depicting the axolotl. Struggles, obstacles, and rivalry. I’m competitive by nature. I’m at my best when I have an opponent, even if they don’t know they’re my opponent and I make no attempt to take the competition out of my own mind. It’s practically what the concept of Instagram hate following was made for, if you substitute “hate” with “rivalry.” I’m not too enlightened to enjoy opposition. Comparison isn’t always the thief of joy — a little healthy competition keeps life interesting, and helps spur me to be a better version of myself.

What my inner child needs: Two of Wands, depicting the salamander. A pause, and to bide my time. Considering a lot of what I’ve been struggling with lately are childhood memories, it sounds like my inner whelp needs a break. I don’t blame them.

How my shadow self is impacting my life: Knight of Swords, depicting the magpie. Impulsiveness, aggression, and overenthusiasm. Consequences, schmonsequences, he has things to do. He goes for what he wants, and everything else be damned. His intentions are pure, but he’s kind of a dick about them. That’s… Yeah, that sounds about right.

This magpie’s probably choosing a new victim to swoop on.

A way that I can begin to accept my shadow aspect: Five of Swords, depicting the peacock. Defeat, and suffering from egotism. There’s an interesting pathology that impacts people in relationships with others who show signs of narcissistic personality disorder, no matter whether those relationships are romantic or familial. Laconically, it’s usually called “fleas.” They’re behaviors that seem to “jump” from a narcissist to a victim, and, if they aren’t resolved, from that victim to their victims. Essentially, they’re protective mechanisms — tiny things you do to protect yourself from narcissistic rage and other forms of abuse at the hands of someone with a fragile, wounded ego.

I can see a flea here. My shadow self impacts my life by making me impulsive and aggressive. I jump from one thing to the next if I’m not immediately good at it, because my upbringing showed me that failure meant mockery and pain. Aggression was rewarded, while softer feelings were mocked and rooted out.

How to better process my emotions: Ace of Cups, depicting an overflowing vessel. Interestingly, this card stands for optimism and new opportunities. It also shows a cup overflowing, and the suit of Cups specifically relates to the emotional self. This cup runneth over, sharing its bounty. The advice here is to process feelings by sharing them.

Something I need to be more aware of: Ten of Swords, depicting the vulture. Oof. Vulture and I go way back, and he usually seems to show up when some kind of purging needs to or is about to happen. (Did you know that vultures sometimes eat so much that they can’t fly, and need to vomit before taking off? Fascinating! Also super gross!) The Ten of Swords is despair and ruin. It’s the end of a cycle, and the ending ain’t a happy one. In this context, it means to let go and be reborn. This cycle is over, and it sucked, so get ready to start a better one.

They also poop on their own legs to cool off.

How to stay more connected with my higher self: The Queen of Wands, depicting the cobra. I love the Queen of Wands. She stands for generosity, creativity, and drama. She has power and self-possession, she’s courageous and hot-tempered. She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can probably wreck your face. The lesson is to temper that power with kindness, and invest energy into creative work.

The pandemic has done everyone’s nerves up wretched, and I think the shadow self has a lot to do with that. It’s not easy to have a lot of time on your hands if you don’t enjoy your own company, and it’s also not a simple problem to solve. This tarot spread doesn’t offer a quick fix, but it does answer some important questions.

life, Neodruidry, Witchcraft

How Antidepressants Made Me Better at Witchcraft

Have you ever seen that meme about psychiatric medication? The one that’s all, “pills are trash, forests are medicine!” (Which, by the way, is a toxic, steaming load of horse puckey.)

It’s not an uncommon attitude in some new age and Pagan-adjacent circles. I could digress into a discussion of the destructive power of the naturalistic fallacy, but it’d take at least eleven posts just to contain it. Instead, I want to point out one thing:

Medication made me way better at everything, including witchcraft and Druidry.

A lot of people express reluctance at trying psychiatric medication, and I can’t blame them. It can take awhile to find the right one, and, after that, to work out the right dose. That’s frustrating, even scary. Some worry that medication will “dope them up,” reduce their creativity, or subdue the traits that make them them. For me, nothing could be further from the truth. Without the constant high-pitched background buzz of anxiety and panic disorder, I’m much freer. I have some side effects, but they’ve been a small price to pay.

I do occasionally feel stabs of resentment that I’m reliant on something “unnatural” — but that’s a me problem. If there were a “natural” equivalent to what I need, believe me, I would have found it. I didn’t, despite years of experimentation. I came close a few times, but there was no herbal remedy for my panic that didn’t also knock me unconscious, make me throw up, or worse.

The fact is, the idea of “perfect” physical or mental health is a construct. It’s not a birthright, it’s not even a natural concept. In Sick Woman Theory, Johanna Hedva explains,

“Sickness” as we speak of it today is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, “wellness.” The “well” person is the person well enough to go to work. The “sick” person is the one who can’t. What is so destructive about conceiving of wellness as the default, as the standard mode of existence, is that it invents illness as temporary. When being sick is an abhorrence to the norm, it allows us to conceive of care and support in the same way.

By contrast, in nature, an organism that is “well” is one that’s able to meet the challenges of its environment. That isn’t a super high bar to clear — it also very often doesn’t look like the human conception of wellness. In reality, few creatures would meet the definition of “well” to which humans aspire. Animals live with parasites. Crows steal lit matches and bow over ant hills, seeking relief from mites when they need to. One crow with an injured beak needed the help of his mate to eat, and she gave it. We find deer that have lived for years with teeth or bullets embedded in them, muscle and bone growing gnarls over what biology apparently considered an impolite intrusion. We find creatures that have existed, eaten, and fucked for a lifetime, tumors and abscesses locked away behind walls of thickened bone. As salmon amply demonstrate, as long as you can survive to adulthood and pass on your genes, nature doesn’t much care what state you’re in. If you end up truly unwell, you don’t survive. If you’re surviving, even if it takes an anthill, a patchwork of scars, or an understanding mate to keep you there, you’re doing well.

“Perfect wellness” is not a natural standard, and the kind of health sold by the wellness industry is not only unnatural, it is deeply damaging.

Natural perfect health is rare enough to be nearly mythical, because there is no real binary opposite to sickness. Everyone will experience a significant amount of pain and disability at some point in their life. Some are fortunate enough not to experience that until they are very old. For others, that point just comes earlier and lasts a bit longer.

We are pushed to consider caring for ourselves as temporary, which perpetuates the myth of being “well” as a default, natural state. As long as the aspirational standard of natural perfect health exists, we’ll keep working ourselves to death trying to reach it. So, the idea that you must be naturally, perfectly clear-headed in order to commune with the Divine or perform magic? It’s kind of crap.

It’s an idea that’s also used to delegitimize practices that use entheogens — practices where altered mental states are valuable, if not necessary. It derides rituals that use substances in favor of quiet, whitewashed sensibilities.

In my case, it’s just a lot easier for me to get things done when my brain isn’t dysfunctionally revved up on a constant stream of high-test adrenaline, neurons struggling to swap about four serotonin molecules between them. It doesn’t matter if the “things” I’m trying to do are dishes or divination.

It’s not wrong to prefer natural tools in ritual, but the standards that apply to a wand or an herb don’t work when you try to apply them to the self. Medication — the help that gets us closer to the functional, animalistic concept of “wellness” — isn’t an enemy or a detraction from spiritual experiences.

If you’re hanging in there, even if you need medication to keep you here, you’re doing well. Nature and the divine won’t reject you for that.

life

I guess it’s Brain Awareness Month?

To be honest, it strikes me as a bit egotistical.

I mean, the brain is the only organ that named itself. Now we’re gonna let it decide it gets its own month?

Anyway, I’m not a fan of brains, personally. At this point in my life, I think I’d rather have a sort of undifferentiated network of nerve tissue, or just be some kind of sentient alien gas cloud.

For Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, I want to talk about what a complete pain in the ass it is to be properly diagnosed with anything neurological.

The trouble with many neurological disorders is that they often don’t have a nice, neat, non-invasive blood test that can definitively tell you what you’ve got in a visit or two. There might be a weeks-, months-, or even years-long pattern of behavior that you need to exhibit first. There might be some other symptoms that, at first blush, don’t seem like they’d have anything to do with your brain. They might need to take a bunch of pictures of your brain and then stick giant needles in your spine. It’s kind of a crap shoot.

This isn’t to complain about doctors, per se — when they hear hoofbeats, they’re trained to look for horses, not zebras. This approach usually works pretty well, unless you’re a zebra.

All my life, I’ve had what I thought migraines. I regularly felt crushing pains in my neck and head, to the point of being dizzy, hallucinating, and throwing up. Sometimes, I’d notice my hands leaving “vapor trails” wherever they moved, like some kind of bootleg Etch-a-Sketch. I had an inhuman amount of trouble seeing things in my peripheral vision during driver’s ed, to the point where I never properly learned to drive. I was told it was anxiety and I needed to manage my stress level.

I could hear what sounded like distant drumming in my ears. The pressure in my head sometimes felt like someone tightening a belt around my skull. Sometimes, the thrumming and drumming sounded almost whispery, like voices. I was told I was hallucinating and paranoid and I needed antipsychotics.

After awhile, I noticed that I had double vision. A person I dated at the time told me I was a hypochondriac, and I watched “too much House.” Around the time I lost my grandmother to brain cancer, a doctor told me that these symptoms might not be something I could just keep ignoring — in fact, they sounded a lot like a brain mass of some kind. I was uninsured and couldn’t afford the imaging I needed, so I languished in medical limbo instead. (Naturally, I didn’t express my concerns to my then-boyfriend. Why would I, when he mocked me for being worried and told everyone around us that I was exaggerating?)

A few years later, I noticed that I always seemed to have retina fatigue. My eyes seemed to keep impressions of whatever I looked at, for way too long after I’d looked away. I had odd flashing spots. I thought it might be from my new contact lenses, but, just in case, I downloaded an Amsler grid to see if my eyeballs were just malfunctioning somehow. Sure enough, the wavy, warped, and missing lines told me something really, really wasn’t right. After one episode where I wasn’t able to see anything and went to the ER, I was told it was atypical optical migraines and I needed migraine medication.

It was another three years and a cross-country move before I was actually properly diagnosed. After years and years of misdiagnosis, someone finally scanned my broken head (there was no mass) and stuck a needle in my spine (but there was an absolute shitload of extra spinal fluid). My opening pressure, the fluid pressure at the beginning of the spinal tap, was roughly twice what is considered normal — 29 mmHg (39.4 cmH2O) compared to 7-15mmHg (9.5-20.4 cmH2O). Whoops!

Your body has a lot of mechanisms in place to maintain your cerebrospinal fluid pressure within a range of ± 1 mmHg. Mine… doesn’t. For some people, this is because of medication — steroids, hormones, antibiotics, certain pain killers, and even antacids can all increase cerebrospinal fluid pressure, but it goes back down once the medication is discontinued. I wasn’t on anything at the time I was diagnosed. So, my case is considered “idiopathic,” and, in all likelihood, congenital. It will never leave me, I will never be cured. I’m stuck with it until I either go into remission, or die. Welp.

Munchausen Syndrome and hypochondria exist, but they don’t describe everyone that’s struggling with the medical industry.

Sometimes, you’ve just got a zebra brain.

Three white candles in the middle of dried vines.
life, Neodruidry, Witchcraft

Walking the Talk

I had a dream the other night. It was about someone I haven’t seen in years, and virtually never dream about. We were close at one point, but time and circumstance eventually decided otherwise.

In this dream, I was faced with a decision: I wanted to try to take on some of a soul debt that they’d incurred, to make things right again. I kept being told that I couldn’t. It wasn’t mine to take, and nothing I did was actually going to “fix” things.

It’s a bad habit I have. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to manage people’s moods, to keep mommy from getting screamy, or my younger siblings from getting in trouble. I’ve always been sensitive to noises as it is, especially a raised voice or the sound of a slap. Even now, as an adult, the thought drives nails into my brain and twists my stomach into hard, acidic snarls. Like Kiko, who immediately searches for the source of the sound any time she hears a video of a kitten meowing, I tie myself in knots to make all of the bad things stop. While “trying to fix things” seems to be helpful on its face, it’s not a good habit to have. The ability to sit with discomfort and know when not to interfere is a skill worth cultivating.

This is all some very roundabout exposition to justify asking one question: Why do we do what we do?

The person in my dream once called themselves a shaman. There’s a lot of stuff tied up in that one word, many even hesitate to use it because it often comes with a heaping side of appropriated cultural practices. It’s one of those words, like “tattoo,” that is a loan word for a widespread thing. In some cultures shamanism was just called “journeying” or “hedge riding” (much as tattooing was called “pricking” or even “embroidering”) so using a distinct loan word from another culture had appeal. For most people curious about communicating with spirits through altered states of consciousness, it isn’t necessary to turn to appropriated cultural teachings. Your elders know the ways.

This person called themselves a shaman in a tradition where they were an outsider. But why?

Was it the appeal of gaining secret knowledge?
Was it an attempt to adopt something new and “exotic,” like a hermit crab coiling into a painted shell?
Or was it a genuine desire to use these skills to help their community?

Unfortunately, it didn’t end well. They lost friends and loved ones. They were pushed away. In the end, they weren’t any better off than when they started, and neither was their community. Whatever it was that they had sought, they didn’t obtain it.

I know another person who called themselves a green Druid witch. They were a powerful witch, too. But working within the framework they chose came with rules, so they found sly ways to work around them. So why adhere to a tradition to begin with?

Was it to position themselves as an expert?
Was it out of genuine belief and respect?
Was it because they thought it would fill a personal need?

In the end, that didn’t work out so well either.

I’ve also known doctors who seemed to practice more “eminence-based medicine” than anything else, so this isn’t restricted to people in the metaphysical/religious/esoteric community. There is no shortage of people with ulterior motives, even if they don’t realize it themselves.

In the pursuit of any knowledge, self-interrogation is important. Do we seek titles? Recognition? The uncovering of hidden talents? A broader set of skills for interacting with the world? Why do you do what you do?

Know yourself. Know your motivation. Self-deception always leads to loss.