The Witchcraft Treatment for Mental Illness
When medicine fails, I turn to tarot.
New Orleans is magic, and so I drag myself a thousand miles southward to beg the help of its witches, soothsayers, voodoo priests, and mediums on the tail end of a Christmas season.
This year was not kind to me, and has me looking for a new kind of magic. The old magic, by which I mean medicine, is on its way out. SSRIs settled my brain, but their side effects were fierce and unyielding. I, with the supervision of a doctor, am going off.
At least for a while. At least until we find something new that works.
I choose a crystal shop in the French Quarter, a place called Earth Odyssey a few blocks from the riverside. I’m a sucker for stones, crystals, pendants, and rocks, and Earth Odyssey is full of them. At a quarter to two, I request a psychic. I don’t call ahead because I’m tired of planning. I’m tired of holding myself together with doctors; with spit and grit and grime. I’m tired of finding new ways to heal myself.
I’m tired of finding new ways to heal myself.
My reader’s name is Kay. The woman behind the counter tells me “she’s one of our best,” and I believe her. Kay calls me into her tent. She calls me “my dear” like an auntie, and for once in my life, it doesn’t rub me the wrong way. She asks for nothing, not even my name.
“I don’t usually use these cards,” she says, pulling out a bold, vividly orange set, “but they’re calling to me today.”
“You’d know better than I do.” I mean it like a blessing.
Kay moves fast. She tells me that she likes to read first and ask questions later. She flips one, two, three cards, and doesn’t stop. The images come rapid fire, without order or arrangement. “You have a good heart, resourceful. I see a temple.” She marks the outline of a Chinese temple with her hands. “Very empathetic. You feel what other people feel.” And then she slams her hands on the desk. “Oh, you’re an empath.”
No one has ever called me an empath before, but perhaps that’s because, on and off for the last 15 years, I’ve chosen doctors over mediums. I’ve been lectured, patronized, named — but not yet cured. As my options have dwindled, I’ve increasingly turned to magic and tarot.
I’ve been lectured, patronized, named — but not yet cured.
I want to tell Kay that actually, I’m not an empath, I’m “manic-depressive;” I was diagnosed last June. Before that, I was just a clinically depressed neurotic with an intense anxiety condition. Or something. What we know for sure is that I’m an emotional burnout with a mood disorder, and that I took the medicine because I wanted to stay alive.
I want to stay alive.
Jessica Reidy isn’t a psychic, but she reads tarot cards in the Romani tradition. It’s been two weeks since I started off medicine, and almost a month since I left New Orleans. I sit with Reidy in her Brooklyn apartment to reaffirm what I already know. Because I need to know it in a different way. Because I need to hear it again.
“In my family, fortune telling was a trade I learned as a child,” she explains. “My training began when I was five and was quite rigorous — dream analysis, prayer, and meditation accompanied with hours of studying and learning the lines and symbols in palms, tea leaves, and cards. My grandmother took it unusually seriously because of our family’s legacy of healing and medicine work. Though traditionally we read playing cards, not tarot.”
She sets the cards down and says, “this is an intense arrangement. Not bad, just intense.”
Reidy talks for half an hour about my pain. She offers insight on creativity, balance, and growth. At the end, maybe sensing my distance, she says, “sometimes we don’t let ourselves cry because we’re scared that we’ll never stop,” and it hurts to hear because it’s so true. Mostly though, after years of talk therapy, it feels good just to listen.
After years of talk therapy, it feels good just to listen.
Indeed, it’s a huge relief to hear something about my problems from someone who isn’t trying to save me. Roma, too, have their own pain. Reidy certainly does. “I’ve had a colorful life with probably far too much trauma, heartache, and fear, and it’s rare that a client comes in with a problem that I haven’t already been through myself,” she says. Reading with her is a bit like speaking to an intuitive older sister — one who’s already been to the mountain.
“It is not about psychism or reading the future,” she explains. She says that fortune telling and performance were some of the few trades that Roma were historically permitted to practice. Tarot isn’t magic, any more than the Roma themselves are. Rather, tarot acts as “an informal therapy session issuing tools and metaphor to better interpret a person’s problems, to see the patterns in their life, opportunities for healing, and to make room for synchronicity. We think of it as creative problem solving with a dash of intuition,” she says, and that’s exactly what it feels like.
“I think everyone I see is looking for healing or comfort in some form,” she continues. “People usually come to me when they are at a crossroads, which involves some kind of suffering. Really, everyone’s question boils down to How can I be happy?”
I want to be happy.
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I’m not happy yet, but I definitely feel better than I did when I tried to leave medicine cold-turkey. I was 25, and my descent into madness was swift and unyielding. I dragged more than one friend down with me, and refused to admit something was wrong until it was almost too late.
This isn’t uncommon. In her excellent memoir about living with bipolar disorder, An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison writes that “it quickly came down to a choice between seeing a psychiatrist or buying a horse. Since almost everyone I knew was seeing a psychiatrist, and since I had an absolute belief that I should be able to handle my own problems, I naturally bought a horse.”
I bought a deck of cards.
Jenna Lee Forde is finishing up her grad work at York University, where she explores the intersection between tarot, queerness, and self care. “My relationship to tarot is focused around using it as a resource for self care, healing, and specifically a divination tool that has a beautiful history of female artists illustrating the cards,” she says. “I most recently got interested in tarot when I was in an abusive relationship that left me with little emotional resources to take care of myself.”
While queer trauma and mood disorders are not intrinsically linked — a distinction I make emphatically in an age of “conversion therapy” — I sought insight from Forde because I knew that she had survived something. “For me, tarot enabled a space for peaceful contemplation,” she says, “and for many trauma survivors, including myself, the process of disassociation and dysregulation are fairly normative parts of our embodied experience.”
Forde’s pain is not my pain, but I know what it is to soar above my body. I know what it’s like to detach into the abrupt high of psychosis, only to slam forward under the weight of endless sobbing depression. I know how to let loose, and I am learning to be reeled in. I am learning to be saved by psychiatrists and doctors.
I know what it is to soar above my body.
I try not to hate it. My doctors want to save me in the ways they know how, which feel patronizing and, at times, ruthless. They like to remind me that there isn’t a cure. No matter how many coping mechanisms we find, how many medicines I take, I cannot be cured. I need medicine, and I need them. Or else I will spiral. Or else I will destroy everything.
It’s been months since my trip to New Orleans, and I am completely medicine-free. It’s tempting to cut and run, but I keep coming to my therapy sessions. I stay out of duty. Or out of fear.
Forde herself is skeptical. “With the psy-complex, there very little emphasis on mindfulness practices that work to empower trauma survivors to find their own unique methods for healing,” she says. “I think tarot is a tool that can be used in conjunction with mindfulness or mindful based practices.”
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I want tarot to be therapy, and it isn’t. Not fully. Tarot is listening; it’s problem solving. And at least that’s something. “If making sense of our life means finding calm ways to organize our disorganized and traumatized parts of ourselves, I definitely think that tarot and the ritual associated with using the cards can create that space,” says Forde. “Keeping my cards in a sacred spot, breathing and grounding and taking in the images and the knowledges from other interpretations of the cards can be a great way to make sense of my life.”
What I want from tarot is what I’ve always wanted from doctors and therapists and social workers: to be told that I’m going to be okay on my own terms. To be told that I am capable of saving myself, even if it is very, very hard. To be told, as Kay did in a crystal shop in New Orleans, that “you’re going to be fine, my dear. You have a deep fear of falling apart, but you’re going to be fine.”
Author’s Note: I cannot stress enough how important it is to consult a medical professional before making any changes to your prescription. My successful come-down was due in large part to a team of psychiatrists and social workers. I am also in the midst of negotiating different medicines. Tarot should only be considered as a tool of self-healing, but not as an alternative to therapy or, when necessary, psychiatry.