In the early 90′s, I went through a profound experience of psychosis, a complete and radical change of my consciousness from a state of relatively normal perception and comprehension to a state of deeply unsettling confusion, anxiety with a persistent altered mind frame. Thoughts were easily jumbled. I alternated between periods of frenetic excitability and then spiraled into deep despair and hopelessness. Social interactions could often be torturous to the point where isolation often felt like a good answer. I felt like I was cracking, coming apart. On a deeper level, I believed something had happened to me, changed me; that something possessed me.
I fell into madness over a period of weeks. I started dreaming about a gigantic black boa constrictor encasing me in its grip. I dreamt about the snake chasing me, staring at me, pulling me into its gravity. In a few weeks, I had lost my old self and was transforming into someone else. I felt spellbound.
I spent nearly a year in a state of confusion and disorganization. I felt as if something was inside me, taking me over, crawling and climbing through my body and mind. In parts of my body, I felt paralysis, almost as if I had experienced a stroke. The right side of my mouth felt stuck, numb. I couldn’t smile properly. I felt crooked. In my mind, I also felt as if energy pathways that traveled through my body were overwhelmed with something “Other”. Some deep, extremely intelligent, but not “evil” force was instituting itself deeper and deeper into my being; as if it were burrowing in. It felt as if this “other” was not doing this malevolently but almost out of scientific interest, ascertaining my thoughts and mind frame, taking it all in. This “other” felt otherworldly, alien, and I felt that the longer it burrowed in, the longer it kept a hold of me, the more likely it was that I would get sicker, crazier; until eventually I would not be able to tell my psychotic experience from reality. I would not come back.
The concept of spirit possession is an ancient concept and one familiar to most animist tribes as well as all the major religions. Cross culturally, psychosis is often explained as malevolent supernatural intercession or spirit possession. In the Christian world we are familiar with movies where someone has become possessed by an evil demon and it takes the work of a priest to drive out the demon through an exorcism. Today, few Christian organizations openly talk about exorcisms but the idea of casting out demons still plays a role in many Pentecostal and charismatic churches. To many in this Judeo Christian culture, it feels like a relic of a by-gone era; superstitious mumbo jumbo. Scientific explanations of psychosis are seen as much more plausible; as disruptions of neurochemistry, a build up of dopamine, a lack of serotonin or neuronal malfunctioning.
In tribal and animist societies spirit possession plays a much more prominent role. Madness and disease are often explained as forms of intercession from the spirit world. In Kenya, ancestor spirits known as aimu may take someone over and cause the person to go into a frenzy. These aimu must be propitiated with ritual objects to complete an exorcism. Shamans of the Yupik people (of modern day Alaska) have traditionally performed elaborate rituals that include exorcising evil spirits as a healing tool.
In other societies, possession is invoked through practices such as tribal drumming and dancing, deep meditation and prayer. In these heightened states, people from cultures throughout the world will invite a spirit, ancestor, animal or deity into their being and be temporarily taken over. Invariably these possessions lead to deeply altered states, profound perceptions and sometimes a torturous descent into confusion, disease and psychosis.
When spirit possession leads to disease, trained healers and tribal members seen as spiritual conduits will often act as intermediaries with the spirit world to help propitiate these spiritual forces, perform exorcisms, drive away evil spirits and bring health and sanity back to the person. They use tools such as hallucinogenic plants, drumming, singing, prayer, ritual objects and herbs to help the afflicted individual to regain their footing in the community.
Once I fell into this state of psychosis, I felt deeply confused and utterly alone. The normal response to someone going through a profound state of psychosis is to take them to a doctor or a psychiatric hospital. But somehow on a deep level I felt that would not help me. I’m fairly certain now that I would have been labeled as Bipolar I, a disorder where a person cycles between periods of profound debilitating depression and extreme highs and mania that included bizarre states of consciousness and delusional thinking. Certainly I would have at least been placed on a mood stabilizer and perhaps an antipsychotic as well. In the long run I am fairly certain that these drugs would not have helped me. While each person needs to weigh the pros and cons of taking psychiatric drugs for working with extreme states, I knew it wasn’t the right choice for me.
In this state of deep despair, I felt that something was happening to me on a spiritual level that couldn’t be addressed by a pharmaceutical drug, or even normal therapy. In my mind it required spiritual healing. In this day and age, this can seem quite a dangerous idea. We have heard many stories of deeply religious families trying to pray away disease until a person dies. We have heard of people avoiding medical care and relying on spiritual practices, or worse, charlatans, who take their money promising a cure that is ineffective.
So I have to walk carefully when I talk about how I dealt with my own psychosis. It was a personal choice to avoid psychiatric care. I know for many others, psychiatric drugs have felt like a positive option. This is a challenging choice because the long term use of psychiatric drugs such as antipsychotics generally have deleterious health effects. New studies are showing that long term use of antipsychotics are likely to increase the likelihood of additional and frequent psychotic experiences. WHO studies show that those in Developing countries who don’t take antipsychotics tend to have better long term recovery rates than those in Developed countries who take antipsychotics on a long term basis. This can be a challenging issue to confront. I know for some, psychosis becomes so overwhelming that psychiatric drugs have felt like a good option for managing those states. I won’t advise. I simply will tell my personal story.
Healing and Transformation
Finding a way through this extreme state of mind proved deeply challenging. I had dropped out of school and spent my days lost in confusion, staying home alone in a cabin out in the woods. Finally, I decided to visit a woman who had helped a few friends of mine. She was becoming known as a healer, an herbalist and a plant spirit medicine practitioner. When I first visited Joyce Netishen in the summer of 95, I was feeling increasingly insane. I cycled rapidly between darkness and elated disorganized mania. I could not look people in the eye without being thrown into severe panic and emotional turmoil. I felt very very alone.
Plant Spirit Medicine is a term (and a book) coined by Eliot Cowan. Cowan started as an acupuncturist and started exploring non-needle ways of helping his clients. PSM is a mixture of folk herbalism and shamanism steeped in traditional five element Chinese medicine, and especially the Worsley form of five element medicine. Joyce had apprenticed with Eliot (as well as the same Huichol Shaman that Eliot apprenticed with in Mexico) but had also developed her own style and practice.
When Joyce saw me that first visit, I was in a bad state. Really bad. Back then she worked in an airy well lit office on the fourth floor of a building in downtown Olympia. She listened to my story for a short while and took my pulses, then had me lie down on her massage table. Joyce then offered me a drop of plant spirit medicine under my tongue. This medicine was essentially the distilled essence of an herb that Joyce had allied with, communicated with, prayed with, and then offered to me in a state of deep intention. Similar to flower essences, the medicine of a PSM practitioner is a subtle energetic medicine. But instead of working on particular emotional states, the medicine supports and nourishes underlying spiritual harmony while also clearing out blockage and dis-ease.
When that first drop hit me, I felt like I was hit by a lightning bolt. That force, that “Other” that I had been vaguely aware of, became crystal clear. I could feel each meridian, each energetic pathway in my body lit up and I could sense the presence of this “Other” pervading through all these currents, spiraling around my body and appearing as an electric black blue matrix. I felt like my fingers had been forced into an electrical socket. The “Other” was made plainly aware that it was being seen, and it didn’t like it. Instead of having authority, it was being placed in a state of vulnerability. On a personal level, this experience was torturous. I recoiled. I started pulling at my hair. I started groaning and crying out. I probably looked like I was a character in a cheap TV movie about Demon possession. The feeling I received was that this “Other” had inhabited me as a a way to see through human eyes. The “Other” simply wanted to gather information. There was no maliciousness. It was akin to a human dealing with a bug. My life and personal experience of pain or madness simply didn’t matter to the “Other.”
I knew in this moment that it was time for this “Other” to go but in that moment I felt protective. This being had truly become part of me, symbiotically encased itself inside me and it felt harsh, cruel, to exorcise it. I remember pleading with Joyce to let it be and I remember her saying that this being was not serving me, was causing me great suffering, that it was time for it to go. I agreed.
In this extreme state, Joyce provided another drop, offered another herbal ally. This was the big one. This was the on that made it go away. Later when I talked to Joyce she let me know that she had given me Mugwort (Artemesia scouleriana). In PSM, mugwort is a powerful medicine for moving energy and clearing disharmony, and for some, clearing a possession.
Interestingly, Mugwort has been used cross culturally throughout the world for warding off evil and in cases of spiritual possession. Ancient traditional practices in Europe, China and North America all mention the use of mugwort for warding off malevolent supernatural forces.
When the Mugwort medicine hit underneath my tongue, it felt like corrosive acid had come into my energy field. The medicine confronted the “Other”, hurt it, pushed it down and out, banished it. I could sense the “Other” crying out, perhaps in pain, perhaps in startled astonishment. The plant, the medicine, was doing its work. The “Other” was leaving. Finally free. I was myself again, deeply wounded, but intact and for the first time in a year, alone.
When the “Other” left, I was in a deep state of emotional suffering. The damage that had been done was extensive. I felt shattered and it took years to build up my confidence again. In that time I went on seeing Joyce and eventually apprenticed with her, learning her craft and built sustaining relationships with the plant world and the plant spirits. In that place of total loss, a spark of life grew. From disorganization, chaos and confusion, I kindled a new way of looking at the world. The spiritual dimension of experience, the vast and subtle healing power of the plant and natural world became much more clear.
When I look back at that experience now I wonder a few things. On a certain level, I could see the whole experience as imagined, a part of the process of psychosis, a grand delusion. And from a scientific and logical perspective that seems rationally true. But from a different perspective, I see how the descent into darkness and then coming through a horrific and torturous experience through the help of a healer and plant medicine is a story that is as old as time. We are walking in a world where treating madness through the use of double blind study proven antipsychotic neuroleptics is the main accepted form of treating “mental illness”.
But only recently, and in many cultures throughout the world, the spiritual dimension of madness is of prime importance. There are countless stories of people going through crisis states, spiritual emergencies, and then recovering with the help of a healer, or shaman. We have disconnected ourselves from that tribal community and our search for shamans leads to white coats and pills. In our willingness to reduce complex narratives to simplistic diagnostic codes, we have turned off a tap to the original healing source, Nature itself.
Did I truly go through a possession, an exorcism and a healing of psychosis through the use of plant medicines? Certainly on one level I did. And in the process, I discovered my own deep connection to plant medicine and towards offering this medicine to others. In many cultures, those who have dived down into these dark and confusing realms apprentice with the shamans in their tribe. They are given tools to learn to swim in these realms, instead of drown. Through apprenticeship, that suffering and wound becomes the gift for healing and helping others. My apprenticeship with Joyce helped me to heal from some of the deep suffering I went through. I learned how to trust and walk in a good way again. The world of plants and herbs have been my road back. And for that I am deeply grateful.
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