Witch Way Q & A: Spiritually Awake vs. Psychotic Break
Is a "mental health crisis" just a pathologized term for a spiritual breakthrough?
(Note: if you listen to the Voice Over, I go into a bit more detail about some of the practices outlined here in the written portion of the newsletter).
Welcome to my new Q & A column.
In this new column, I answer your pressing questions about magic, modernity, mythology, cat tips, tarot quips, questions about me, personal problems, relationship issues, or whatever else you’ve been itching to know.
Anyone can write in and ask a question.
I intend to put it out about twice a month, so you may have to wait a bit, but I want to answer everyone eventually.
Send your inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org Subject heading: WITCH WAY?
Can’t wait to hear from you!
A NOTE BEFORE WE BEGIN: Tomorrow, Thursday, 5/25/23, 6pm is the Language of the Birds Reading Group. We’ll be reading Silvia Federici. More info below. Hope you can make it!
Recently I experienced an episode of psychosis, and while it was happening, I thought I was having a spiritual awakening — could it have been both?
Psychosis led me through the underworld that is the mental health crisis here in Amerikkka - the psyche ward, the dungeons, the bottomless pit - it put me in relationship to my own illusions and to people I will never forget.
The entire time, I felt like I was in a movie, and somebody else was watching.
Then when my brain was adapting to the medication, I felt like I was in a deeply liminal space. I felt more connected to the spirit world, I started reading poetry by Louise Glück, and I swear the deer were communicating with me through play. Since being on medication, I feel much more of “a return to normal” and also like the magic sort of escaped me.
How do I return to the headspace I was in without neglecting the meds? Or does Western medicine inhibit magic?
Being manic, I felt high, incredibly creative, and in touch with something far bigger than myself, but then I wasn’t really “here”. I don’t want to be so unhinged and feral, but I do want a magical life. Do you have any suggestions?
The Deer Listener
Dear Deer Listener,
First of all, I can’t tell you how much I relate to everything you wrote in this email, and I know so many other readers will too.
So many of us have experienced mental health crises and know first hand how proximity to the Spirit World is often simultaneously intoxicating and terrifying. The way our culture handles these experiences often ends up making them worse. And for people experiencing intersectional oppressions, not only is support often nonexistent, they can actually be PUNISHED for needing help.
Before I go deep into this, I want to remind everyone that I am not a mental health professional. I am answering based on my own experience as a human and as a witch. Before you make any major decisions about your psychological wellbeing, make sure you consult with multiple people whom you trust.
For about a year, when I turned 18, I had what Western medicine might call a psychotic break. Crows spoke to me, I heard women screaming, I was followed by the Angel of Death. (All described in detail in my memoir, Initiated: Memoir of a Witch).
The beautiful part of this break was that I was plunged into the well of poetry.
I felt my own heart pressed, bare, naked against the heart of magic. I felt like, “Yes, this is the world as it is. When I’m in this world, I feel closer to the truth.”
I call this well of poetry, “the underworld.” We might also think of it as the otherworld, the spirit world, the Bardo, or even the unconscious.
Inside this well is where the spirits live. It’s where poetry and dreams come from. It interpenetrates and overlaps the ordinary world. In it, fairies are real, the gods speak, and any witch who listens can understand the language of the birds.
This world that you entered, that enveloped you, and which enveloped me too, is the same world we enter into when we dream. But here’s the thing…
…there’s a reason we can’t move when we sleep. If we weren’t still while we were sleeping, we’d get in all sorts of trouble. We’d run into traffic, drink bleach, sleep with our teachers, beat up women who insult our shoes…
… the other night I was dreaming about a woman making fun of my shoes, and I reached out to throttle her and woke myself up, nearly tumbling out of bed and knocking a glass of water off my bedside table.
I hadn’t done that since I was a child when I used to sleep walk. Several times, my mother found me at 3am, out on the street in my nightgown.
My point is, for witches, the spirit world is an important place to visit, but we need to be able to enter and exit at will. We have to choose the time and the place.
In tarot, the High Priestess serves a shamanic function. She travels between the worlds and brings back medicine for her people. A community needs its priestexxes to thrive.
Most people have to go to extreme measures to get to the spirit world. They have to take drugs, fast for weeks, or meditate for 10 years on the top of a mountain to do something someone in “crisis” could do over tea and biscuits.
While being able to easily enter the spirit world is indeed a gift, it’s not a gift we can use to good effect unless we are in choice about when we leave.
If the High Priestess enters a trance and is never able to leave it, she becomes more high (as in intoxicated) than Priestess (healer and guide).
Maybe if we lived in a different culture, where we all protected one another, things would be different. But in our world as it is now, it’s dangerous to be in the spirit world all the time.
In fact, that’s what makes being in mental health crisis ESPECIALLY painful.
In my experience, during the times when I’ve been in a depression, or a nervous breakdown, or trauma-induced psychosis (etc.), the confusion of confronting the angels and monsters who live in the well was scary enough…
… but add to it that when you’re in that state, you’re not going to be able to pay your rent, drive, have a stable relationship, care for others, or safely go out of the house alone — then it starts to get truly terrifying.
You feel so isolated. And you know you’re in danger, and you often feel lost, and you don’t know how to get out of the well again, and you’re often in pain, and yet you’re afraid to climb out of the well, because even though it’s scary there – and it makes you vulnerable here – it’s still beautiful, magical…
…and for a witch, magic is everything.
Creative, magical people are often reluctant to go on medication for fear that they might lose the connection that’s most important to them.
As I’ve mentioned to you all before, I’m on medication RIGHT NOW. Two in fact. Lexapro and Wellbutrin. Due to childhood trauma, the ruts in my neurological pathways, and a world on fire, rife with grief and horror, constantly assaulting the beings I love so fiercely … I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go off my meds. (Though I do have to say I prefer anti-depressants to anti-psychotics etc. The latter really did make me feel like I was… muffled or wrapped in cotton wool. I don’t blame you for not enjoying them).
But here’s the thing – we can’t practice witchcraft if we’re dead.
You, WE, need to stay alive. The world needs all the witches it can get right now.
Your voice is important. You need to do whatever is necessary to get yourself into a stable place, so that you can start cultivating your gifts as a healer, witch, and human.
Once you’re stable, then you can start working to find the right path for you medication-wise.
So, how do we practice magic when we’re mentally or emotionally “unstable”?
Many teachers of the magical arts, including myself, will say that you shouldn’t practice tarot or spells when you’re feeling mentally or emotionally unstable — unless you have a guide with you.
I mean, we all feel vulnerable or stressed from time to time, but I’m talking about when you feel like you’re out of control. When you’re in the well and you can’t see a way out.
Some people say it’s because you might let in demons. But demons are all around us all the time anyway. Just like bacteria. We don’t normally get sick when our immune system is strong, but if our immune system is weak, we’re more vulnerable to attack.
Sometimes that demon/bacteria is our own shadow.
The forces of tarot, magic, etc. are powerful. When we’re already having difficulty finding our equilibrium, these powerful winds can knock us off balance. They can make us paranoid or afraid.
We’re libel to misinterpret divination when we’re in the spirit world — there are so many mirages and illusions in there. It’s hard to see clearly.
But that doesn’t mean you have to give up witchcraft completely.
The thing is, spells, tarot, shamanic journeying to the underworld, all of that is sexy and people like to do it. But really…
…the most important practices of witchcraft, are grounding, centering and shielding.
That means: being present in your body, stable in your sense of self, and able to set and hold firm boundaries about which influences you will accept, and which you will send away.
Here are some ways to practice:
Grounding: dance, exercise, long walks, martial arts, cooking healthy food, bodywork and massage (if that feels safe for you right now), time in nature, time with animals, gardening, meditating on your connection to the earth. Anything that gets you into your body is grounding.
Centering: making art, writing or journaling, making or listening music, making an altar, checking in with your heart, volunteering, reading and researching, creating or experiencing beauty. Centering is about reminding yourself who you are, what you value, and what you’re longing for.
Shielding: fumigate your home with smoke (lavender is good when you’re feeling out of sorts, it’s calming, but be sure to practice carefully, it’s never a good idea to use fire when you’re in a really wild place); visualize yourself surrounded by a white or golden light that only allows in positive influence; make a drawing of yourself at the center of a circle, inside the circle write all the things that you invite in, outside the circle write all the things that you want to keep away. Cut the outside of the circle away, tear it up into pieces and throw it in the compost. The purpose is shielding is to make sure you’re only being influenced by that which is healthy for you.
Finally, fundamentally, witchcraft is about relationships.
One of the things I most love about witchcraft is its concern for this world, the middle world.
The Middle World is not the lower world of dreams and the ancestors. It is not the upper world of the Gods and ascended masters.
To be in the Middle World is to be fully, deeply, passionately embedded in a matrix of relationship with all the material beings on this planet.
Witchcraft is about our relationship to ourselves, our relationship to our fellow humans, to our plant kin and animal kin, to places.
When we’re in the spirit world, often our sense of self dissolves, and CERTAINLY our ability to be in relationship dissolves.
I like to read the mystics, but would I want to try to make dinner with a person who was constantly in a state of mystical transcendence? No.
When we’re in the otherworld, it’s hard to show up for people in this world. And it’s hard to notice when they’re showing up for us.
This is why, in traditional cultures, journeys to other worlds are so clearly demarcated by boundaries.
Ceremonies open with song, they close with gratitude. We begin our rituals by lighting candles, at the end, we put them out. We summon the spirits and then we say, “Hail and farewell.”
Because when we tarry in the spirit world for too long, we forget how to find our way back.
And we WANT to find our way back, because there are people here that love us, and there is work we have to do.
In short, dear Deer Listener, there are people here that love you. We in this community welcome you. There is work for you to do here in this world. You have much to share that can be of service.
The Goddess (the life force itself) brought you into this world for a reason, and you will be back in the spirit world soon enough.
In the meantime, I invite you to stay here with us. Rest awhile. Build up your practice of grounding and centering. Get to a place where you feel safe.
Now that you know the spirit world is a possibility, you know how to get there, it’s always there for you. But next time when you go in, you will have more tools. You will have anchors here in your community so that you can find your way back to us again with ease.
Once we go into the other world, then we know the way. Once we’ve been there, our work is to develop a safe haven here in this world so we can go back in and find the others who are lost there. We need to develop a skillful use of our tools, our torches, so that we can light the way for them to come back to us as well.
I’m so glad we’re here keeping our torches burning together. I send you all my love and solidarity.
The Deer Admirer (AKA Amanda)
P.S. Readers, don’t forget to submit your own questions if you have one. You can send them to email@example.com Xx
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You have only to wait, they will find you.
The geese flying low over the marsh,
glittering in black water.
They find you.
And the deer –
how beautiful they are,
as though their bodies did not impede them.
Slowly they drift into the open
through bronze panels of sunlight.
Why would they stand so still
if they were not waiting?
Almost motionless, until their cages rust,
the shrubs shiver in the wind,
squat and leafless.
You have only to let it happen:
that cry – release, release – like the moon
wrenched out of earth and rising
full in its circle of arrows
until they come before you
like dead things, saddled with flesh,
and you above them, wounded and dominant.
– Louise Glück
Mystery Cult Event Calendar
TOMORROW: Thursday, 5/25/23, 6pm: Language of the Birds Reading Group. We’ll be reading Chapter 4 of “Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women” (if you want to buy the book) by Silvia Federici. Thank you, Mica, for helping us get the PDF! Y’all can access it here. Mica also found the painting Federici mentions in the text and that is in the folder is well. Can’t wait to discuss it with you! Here are our discussion prompts, have a think on these before the gathering if you can (but if you can’t you’re still welcome to attend):
The text discusses the persecution of witches in the medieval period was directly tied to the emergence of capitalism after the peasants rebelled under the feudal system. Capitalism has changed a lot in the past 500 years. How do you see capitalism and witchcraft interacting today?
Federici says that capitalism required “a new type of individual” who was not bound to webs or relations with the natural world, their communities, and their own bodies. How does witchcraft respond to this system of severance based on your own practices?
How does Eros (and sexuality) as an uncontrollable force (and therefore a social threat) manifest today — and how do you see contemporary witchcraft practices relating to sexuality? Is Eros and sexuality still an uncontrollable force?
During the persecution of witches in Medieval Europe the bodies of witches were tortured and destroyed, as were entire webs of relationship… where do we see similar practices happening today. Who are the “witches of today”?
Feel free to prepare your own questions and thoughts before we begin.
Thursday, 6/1/23, 6pm PST: Full Moon in Sagittarius Ritual. Mark your calendars for this, the Prophet Moon. Sagittarius is the sign of the seer or the prophet. Aiming their arrow at the truth. Part human part beast. United with nature. A healer. On this moon, we will access the prophetic voice and write our own prophecies. Aiming our arrow at the truth that, by the forces of cooperation, will come to pass.
Friday, 6/9/23, Substack Chat: Potentially Canceled (this week only). Normally we have these Fridays at 12pm, but this week I will be at a Trauma and Somatics workshop (because y’all know how I love to be trauma-informed and integrate Somatic techniques into my witchcraft!). Tentatively we might still be able to have it in the evening but it depends on how wiped I am from 5 days of intensive trauma work.
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