How Magic Helps Me Live With Pain And Trauma
I will do the best with what I’ve been given.
I love my cane, but I rarely hold onto it without rage. I was naive and nervous the day I bought it, the cheapest one at the drugstore. I was excited to finally do this — I’d needed a cane for a long time, but resisted finding one, my feelings all tangled up with internalized ableism and fears about pain (will it get better? will it get worse?). I was alone. I practiced walking up and down the aisle with a plain black cane, seeing how it felt with my body, learning how to hold it. I felt self-conscious. I worried about staff thinking I was just fooling around.
The night before, I got off the bus, coming home from a disabled queer femme performance. My apartment was one block away. I walked excruciatingly slowly, crookedly, using my umbrella to support me. If I hadn’t had it with me, I would’ve been stranded. For a moment, a raccoon walked alongside me. I took this as a sign. Raccoons are scrappy animals who make the best of what they have access to; they look soft but they are fierce creatures who can do serious damage. Raccoons live on the edges, and they demand food and shelter when nobody wants to give it to them.
I bought the cane. I bought wrist guards and knee supports, too. I’d been on social assistance for nearly a decade. They should’ve reimbursed me for these purchases, but I dropped the receipt on the floor and went to bed. I woke up with yet another migraine and, too weak and slow to get to the bathroom, I rolled over and puked on the receipt. I imagined bringing it to the disability office anyway, a small form of revenge, a demand to see my illness and honor it. But it felt futile — I knew they wouldn’t see me. I was crazy and I was in pain. I’d been told directly and indirectly that I was making it up, exaggerating. I wasn’t sick, I was lazy. I didn’t need support, I was manipulative and attention-seeking.
My first cane was black like tourmaline, a crystal used as an aid against jealousy, negative thoughts, destructive forces, and internal conflicts; I’d adorned it with Hello Kitty stickers. When I brought it home, I adjusted it to a comfortable height, anointed it with oils and prayers, and welcomed it into my life. It was a live creature come to help me out, lend me a hand, give me access to the spaces and activities that were slipping away. I used to walk for hours at a time, no destination in mind. I’m a city witch, I believe in city magic. I found signs of magic in plants growing through sidewalk cracks, symbols of encouragement in graffiti, charms and rocks found in alleyways, the sound of squirrels scurrying up old trees with fallen acorns, tiny free libraries on quiet streets.
I allowed my cane to support me, but it was a weapon, too. As my pain worsened, navigating the city became more difficult, sometimes intolerable. Accessing public transit is a nightmare, and I hadn’t realized how difficult ordinary things I took for granted, like flipping through books at a used bookstore, or getting a cup of coffee, would become with only one hand free, with a wobbly, crooked body always threatening to collapse.
A few months later, a tarot reader warned me of the danger of holding my cane as a sword and shield. She wanted it to be my wand. She lived with chronic illness, too, and had been through a similar process: a mysterious illness, no cause or treatment known, no name fully agreed upon; a series of symptoms, diagnoses, tests, baffled doctors. Lost time stuck in bed; mistaken for hungover or drunk in public. She told me not to disguise my pain, nor pretend to be less sick to appease others.
Sleep at night. Learn how to say no. Talk to the moon when the Sun is shining. Put glow-in-the-dark stars on your ceiling. Invite your friends into your home. Ask for support. Your pain will give you opportunities to be loved, if you let it.
The cane I use now is purple, and I imagine it built of amethyst and lavender, another magical object pressed to my palm, holding my body, giving me strength to move through the world when my bones and muscles are no longer enough. Amethyst promotes healing and psychic visions, and is often used in recovery from addictions and alcoholism, too. Lavender grows in abundance in the city, and aids in sleep, calmness, and rejuvenation. I chose this cane as though it would save me. (I chose it also after reading this Amazon review: “Four stars. I like this cane but I did not know that a lavender cane signifies that one is queer.”)
I screwed an ice-pick onto it; it was ineffective in snow and ice, but the sharp silver spikes helped me feel safer. Sometimes I daydream about the handle detaching to reveal a knife inside. Men harass me, as always. They say things like, “Hey, sweetie, what happened to you?” And I’m acutely aware that I cannot run.
I have complex trauma. Complex trauma, or c-PTSD, is a response to prolonged, repetitive, and cumulative trauma. Folks often develop complex trauma as a response to childhood abuse or neglect, poverty, relentless invalidation, interpersonal harm and intergenerational trauma, and systemic oppression.
Common symptoms include but are not limited to: unstable or fragmented sense of self; dissociation; emotional dysregulation and self-destructive behaviours; chronic feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness; difficulty trusting others or oneself; volatile and inconsistent relationships and friendships; and suicidal ideation. Many folks with complex trauma, like myself, also develop severe and debilitating illnesses, such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, multiple chemical sensitivities, and chronic migraines.
Many traumatized queers also struggle with addiction and alcoholism (I’m currently five years sober, and it has not been easy). Other diagnoses under the umbrella of complex trauma are borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and developmental trauma disorder.
Mental and physical illnesses are inevitably interconnected, and it can become a chaotic loop of seemingly endless hurt. Being too sick or in too much pain to hang out with friends or participate in community, or being unable to access public transit or gather in public spaces, compounds the loss and loneliness of madness and disability, and being mostly housebound becomes a particular alienation amplifying symptoms of trauma. It’s a difficult cycle to interrupt and reinterpret.
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Many folks turn to magic once they’ve exhausted the resources available to them. For me, spirituality, witchcraft, and astrology helped me to find a place in the universe, develop internal resources for coping, and begin to connect with other mad witches, traumatized queers, crazy misfits, and broke disabled femmes. As my chronic pain condition worsened, my pockets became heavier with crystals, and more and more surfaces in my home became altars. I have a small cauldron, foraged plants, and endless amethysts. I have tinctures friends have made for me, trinkets given as gifts; I keep meds on my altar, too, and transit tokens, and nail polish; my library card, postage stamps, 12-step chips, keychains, patches.
The milk-crate furniture of my bachelor apartment contains jars filled with found objects from the city walks I can no longer take: petals and stones, pinecones, dried leaves. There’s a magic to these objects, too; they are reminders, tangible proof that I felt okay in the world for just a moment.
I remember the coven I created when I was 13, the way I learned — or taught myself — to cast spells. I remember the ostracization I faced as I became crazier, and I remember when my parents and my friends’ parents stopped allowing my coven members to speak to one another. We had become too dangerous. I remember having the audacity to call myself a witch while locked up in a detention center as a teenager; I remember reading my cards while incarcerated on psych wards as an adult, knowing there was something there that nobody else could give me. Back then, I didn’t want healing. I wanted revenge.
I’ve been told again and again that neither magic nor illness nor my gender are real, or real enough. They are irrational and crazy, exaggerated and fake. Yet they form the foundation of who I am, and feel both crucial to my survival and sometimes simply mundane. I may not have become so committed to magic if it weren’t for being traumatized, and I may not have survived my past and ongoing trauma if it weren’t for my daily magical practice.
My cane becomes a part of my rituals, an ongoing presence, a wand and a sword all at once. It is a sword because I am angry about injustice and inaccessibility; it is a wand because I care about healing and liberation. Now it is adorned with stickers of the full moon, and the Moon card from a tarot deck: the dog, the wolf, and the crayfish crawling at the edge of the sea, carrying messages only I can hear. My cane emanates a magical energy, holding onto me as I hold onto it. My cane is my fifth limb. We have conversations. We carry each other.
If chronic pain and illness arise as manifestations of trauma, magic arrives as an antidote. DSM language may describe me in some ways, but it’s limiting and problematic, too. The language of magic, witchcraft, tarot, and astrology give me new ways of understanding myself. The witch’s calendar offers me other ways to comprehend the cycles of madness and pain, a structure and a guide to my days. Following moon phases, tracing patterns in my body and mind as the seasons change, tether me to the earth in my recovery process, give me gentle and necessary reminders to stay grounded, stay hopeful, stay alive, resist cynicism.
Prayers, affirmations, and visualizations, are not enough on their own, of course, but one must recognize this one thing they have in common: they’re free. I don’t need to keep the receipts and bring them to the disability office, ask the system for permission to stay alive.
When one is traumatized, systems of meaning-making become invaluable. Magic is resistance. Magic sees unbearable realities, unbearable emotions, and makes them bearable; magic moves us toward creating impossible futures. Like the raccoon, I will do the best with what I am given. I will cast impossible spells. The alternative to magic is death.
Illustrations by CB Lavery