There is a sickness, and there is a gift. There is a power to heal, and there is a hurt that never heals, a wound that never knits closed; are they one and the same? Among many traditional shamanistic cultures, there is an idea of the “shaman sickness”, a preparatory period to Initiation. The shaman experiences unexplained symptoms, lassitude, even total apathy and paralysis ; it is a sign that they are called by the spirits. It is only in answering the call that they will be healed.
There is a thought that has plagued me, from a book that I cannot seem to find again : what if we were to treat mental illness as a gift, as a sign from the Gods? What if the instigators of culture as we know it were all identifiable, certifiable, pathological, and contained in the DSM-V? (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fifth edition : the lists of symptoms on which psychiatrists rely for their diagnoses of mental illness) Yes, my young self’s mind leapt at the recognition, when I read it : prophets and seers, those to whom the Gods and Spirits speak, are they not schizophrenic? The wild poets and artists, frenetic and verbose, are they not struck with mania? Are the dreamers and the voyagers to the Underworld, left to lie and wallow in peaceful darkness, not depressed? Are not the war leaders, the ruthless chieftains, manipulators, merciless, the psychopaths? Those who see visions and other worlds, psychotic?
It seems facile, now. It seems cruel, to say that those who suffer the pangs and aches and wild mood swings, the delusions, the hallucinations, the terrible despair, are only ungrateful recipients of a “gift”. I am not saying that. I have been there, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. However …
It seems that some cultures have ways of integrating other ways of being : that their “neuro-atypical” is not seen as a frightening deviation from the norm, but rather as a thing to be recognised and honoured. Their healers and their visionaries have fallen into trances, and have suffered a great sickness, and it has been allowed to take its course, rather than medicated and suppressed. Those who speak of visitations and visions, those who plumb the depths of the Dark have been taken seriously, their words recorded. They have been given a place to lie, as if dead, for months if need be. They have been given a drum, or a rattle, or a sacred drink, or an incense to fumigate them, and an Elder to see them through their fever and their heartache. The Vikings had the concept of the kolbítr, the “cinder-biter”, those young men who, in their late teens, would spend months or even years, unwashed, unmoving, snuggled so close to the communal fire-pit in the long-house that they could almost bite the coals ; they were let lie, like sleeping dogs, for it was understood that one day, out of nowhere, they would arise and wash in ice-melt stream, assemble a crew, and go off to discover new lands, or to raid the coasts of Europe ; their greatness awaited in them, in chrysalis. The Celtic Bard would be buried in silence and darkness before emerging with imbas forosnai : the fire in the head, inspiration. The Seer would fall into a trance, and utter inspired speech, babbling nonsense that needed to be parsed and sorted, to make some sense, to make prediction or malediction, or prophecy. Saint John of the Cross wrote of the Dark Night of the Soul, which was the preliminary stage of Union with the Divine. What if we let the depressed lie fallow, and waited for them to arise of their own free will, instead of medicating them to make them normal? What if we were to listen to the ravings of the mad, and nod solemnly, then sift through their words for inspiration?
I don’t know if it would help. But I know it won’t happen. We are required to be normal, required to be well, required to turn up for work every day and turn like a cog in a machine, like a hamster in a wheel. I do not know what would happen if we suddenly took mental illness as a sign, as a thing to be respected and let flourish instead of suppressed and stigmatised. I do not know. All I have is my own story, and the stories of those around me, as evidence. And this is what they tell me.
My first depressions came hard on the heels of my teens, brought on by heartbreak, by being far from home, by being lonely and alone. I fell into the Slough of Despond; I lay awake in agony of despair at night, and slept fitfully all day, counting down the daylight hours. A couple of years later, one of them bloomed into feeling fine, then feeling more than fine, then being on fire and shooting across the sky like a comet : I had discovered mania, though I didn’t know it yet. I thought I was just experiencing the joy of living after a long time in the Wasteland. I thought I was experiencing the longest most sustained surge of creative and wild energy I had ever had (there had been shorter, less intense surges ; signs of what was to come). I was “Touched with Fire”, as the title of a wonderful book on “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Creative Temperament”, by Kay Redfield Jamison has it, which I recommend to anyone who has suffered from this condition, and whose art it has spurred and marred. However, there was more to it than sleepless nights of wild, fey moods, and spinning tales and poetry, and libertine behaviour, and delusions of grandeur ; there was also a mystical Initiation. I was privy to the secrets of the Universe, and I could see into the heart of things. I became a Magician, I spoke to Spirits and the Dead, I summoned past selves, from past lives, I magicked unlikely objects out of bags ; I met Archetypal figures, and synchronicities and weird events and people manifested all around me. Yes yes, they said, magical thinking and altered perceptions are all part of the deal. It’s typical. It’s symptomatic. And when I came back down, I went into deep depressions, each time, each of those three or four times when, around the Equinoxes, when the light is changing rapidly, I spun off into the Otherworld. I was “away with the faeries”. Baffled friends, hearing me try to recruit a rising singer-songwriter to a record label I had just invented, called me “Narnia”, because that’s where I appeared to be living. And then, the coming down to Earth. And then, the going into the Underworld. I would retreat into a cave. But my blessed parents, they had read somewhere of the kolbítr; they let me lie. I remember hours lying in darkened rooms, watching TV all evening, alone (the modern version of the fire-pit), Sundays obsessively reading every page of the newspaper and all its supplements, lying in front of the big open fireplace : kolbítr. I entered chrysalis. And then one fine day, I basically got up and moved to Paris, to become a writer, to live in garrets, to live out my dreams, which was my equivalent of raiding the North of England and burning some monasteries.
For years, I thought of my time of wildness and of fire as a “sickness”; they had treated me with pills that had deadened and numbed me, made me gain a lot of weight, made me sluggish and slow, and dampened all the fire out of me. However, I look back now, and I think of those times as times of my Initiation, as times of my Trial by Fire. Many more trials would come.
There is a question that still haunts me : if we were to treat mental illnesses as “shaman sicknesses”, to treat mania as imbas forosnai, depression as a time in chrysalis, a Holy Dark Night of the Soul, then does it actually make sense that so many of the most spiritual people, the most magically active people I know, are also the most prone to depression and even psychosis? Is their wound the very crack that lets the light get in? I do not mean to diminish the suffering of those who go through the very real illnesses that attack the psyche ; I do not mean to say that all of those diagnosed with mood disorders, or personality disorders, or anxiety disorders, are only unrecognised prophets, healers, seers, and magicians. Their suffering is real. Our suffering is real, and really manifests as sickness, and sometimes the medications provide blessed relief. But we know all too well that the side-effects often mirror the illness itself, or are almost worse than it. We know all too well the stigma and sense of powerlessness that these diagnoses can leave us with. What if those of us who speak to spirits and deal in magic, and also suffer from these malfunctions of the psyche could tell ourselves a different story? I recognise that this is a privilege: not everyone has access to the world of Spirit, to the practice of magic; but might it not be a tool, along with medication and therapy, that could not only help to heal us, or alleviate our symptoms, but also to empower us as we see that our very wounds are what give us our power, our insight, our empathy for those who suffer? What if we were to embrace our roles as healers and walkers between the worlds, and try to help other sufferers, by bringing them on visionary journeys, by enchanting for their wholeness, by working our will to find their way?
Can the physician heal herself?
I know that my own woundedness, my own openness and vulnerability make me fragile : they also make me full of empathy and love for those that suffer ; they also make me a good listener, and a good shepherd of those that walk through the Valley of Darkness. I can accompany a Soul through its Dark Night, for I have been that Soul. I listen with a compassionate heart, I give good advice, I believe and honour the stories and visions that they struggle with. But can I do it for myself?
This time seven years ago, I was going through my Second Magical Stage: this time, instead of wild, fey magic springing up all around me, instead of the strange Mystery Play that became my Initiation, and subsequent Fall, I was studying: I was learning the basics of Hermetic Magic, of Chaos Magic, of Kabbalah, Tarot, Pathworking, Journeying, Meditation, practicing banishing rituals and evocations, invocations and raising power, directing it, working sigils, encountering the Gods and Spirits: I was bonding to a sacred geography in a symbolic, holy place. I was becoming an Adept. But still, I Fell. That Winter, after a magical Autumn, a significant thirty-third birthday on which I saw a chalk White Horse on a Yorkshire Hill, and a sunset over a Turner landscape, after fish and chips in Whitby, and Evensong in York Minster … After all of that, that magical day, I plunged back down into the Dark. Depression, the Black Dog, the Seeping Mist enfolded me, I lay wrapped in misery in my squalid bed, shutting out the daylight. I struggled through the festive season. All was horror, all was bleak, all was pain. The outside world was aggressive and too bright, too loud, too awful. All the news was bad, and I was the worst of the worst. I couldn’t write, couldn’t think. My PhD thesis was in tatters, and I didn’t even know where to start to fix it. I struggled through my teaching hours, then ran home to hide. I was in bits. I was broken. I was frozen.
But Imbolc came. And I, who had been honouring the Gaelic Gods, thought of the Goddess Bríghid ; she had always been associated in my mind with the Lightbearer, and the Opener of the Way : traditionally, she is the Goddess of Fire, the Forge, Inspiration, Poetry, the Home, the Hearth, and Healing. Her sacred day is Imbolc, the 1st of February, which in Ireland we used to celebrate as the First of Spring. It may sound strange, but it is indeed when the very first stirrings of Spring can be felt, though it may be cold and even snowing. It is the season when the ewes begin lactating, as their bellies carry their young : Imbolc probably comes from “i mbolg”, “in the belly”. It was a sign of new life, of new plenty, as their cheese would soon come and replenish the stores. And so, I began a Working. On Imbolc, I called upon Bríghid to come to me, and open the way before me ; I had a mantra, for my unfreezing: “Melt me from my frozen self, bring my heart to life”. Kafka said that literature is the axe to break the frozen sea within us : for me it would be magic, and calling upon the Gods. At each quarter of the Moon, from that day, I would call upon the Gods on the Wheel, starting with Bríghid and Oghma in the East, for Light of the Intellect, for Clarity, for Will, for Dawn ; then Lúgh and the Morrígan in the South, for Fire and Passion and Spirit ; then Arianrhod and Manannán in the West, for the Sea, and Dream, the Moon, and Sorrow ; then Daghda and Danú in the North, for the Earth, and Solidity, and the Physical World, the Protection of Stone, Darkness of the Mounds. I called around the Quarters, around the Wheel I had constructed ; I called in these Gods, Quarter by Quarter of the Moon, and each time the mantra changed: “Break me from my solid self … Heal me from my broken self … Free me from my shackled self”. I performed these rites at a small portable altar in my study, where so many fruitless hours of thankless labour had been squandered on my thesis : it held a singing bowl, a white candle, a leatherbound book, a beech-handled knife with blackened blade, and my blackthorn wand, chosen, cut, and lacquered by my grandfather as a walking stick for me when I was five, a little shillelagh. Little did he know that when he was long dead, I would be using it to invoke the Gods of our People, to abjure darkness, to conjure visions, to heal my desperate despair.
The Working lasted four weeks. By the third, I was able to sit back down at my desk and assess the mess of my monumental work in progress, my thesis ; by the fourth, I was able to get back to work on it, I was able to get up in the morning, I was able to greet the day with a smile, and even a little spring in my step. And one might say: “yes, but often the course of a depressive episode is run in a month or two” ; and one might say: “yes, but didn’t you adjust your medication, and perhaps it took that long to kick in?” ; and one might say: “yes, but didn’t you see your therapist each week during that time, and might not his help and sympathetic listening have given you the push to get yourself out of the slump?” ; and one might say: “ah, I bet you took my advice and took exercise, or changed your diet, or repeated positive affirmations in the mirror every morning!”
And I might say: “yes, I may have done all those things ; I believe in giving magic every chance to work : I believe in letting the Gods work through me, not in letting them do all the work. I tried everything. I did everything. But I worked magic, and called upon the Gods : the story that I tell myself is this : I did the important thing, and that is the story. Perhaps everything else I did was only the result of the magic, of the help of the Gods. Perhaps, if you want, the psychological support I gave myself through ritual and belief, and symbolising my illness and its cure, was an effective spur to natural healing.” I might say : “My wound is what lets in the magic ; my cracks are where the spirits whisper to me ; I am a healer, I heal myself ; I am a shaman, who was sick, and now is well ; I am a kolbítr, who arose one day, and splashed his face in the snowmelt stream, and assembled a crew, and went off merrily to pillage and burn monasteries, or to discover America …”
To read more from Malachas Ivernus and his band of malcontents, see https://thehollowbehindthehearthstone.com/