Having an illness is not a weakness. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Seeking out help is a show of strength. And there’s a certain grace to the person who finds themselves having to do this over and over again in an attempt to find the key that will unlock relief for them.
Let’s stop romanticizing the dangers of things like shaman sickness sending a person out into the wild to freeze to death. Or, at the very least, if we’re going to pretend that we’d be better off in tribal society, let’s look at how our society, our little religious community, treats those who are sick… We still send them out into the cold to freeze to death. Only we do it with shame and perpetuating the myths that modern medicine is never the answer. We do it with turning our eyes away and not speaking up when we’re worried about a friend who seems to be having a particularly hard time…
I wanted to share this quote (and the entire post, which you can read here) because it’s important for the pagan/polytheist community as a whole to read. But I’m pulling out a different quotation from it than the others who have shared it on their personal blogs, because I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone whose shaman sickness/spiritual emergency took the form of a chronic physical illness (fibromyalgia) instead of a mental one. Except, I don’t know if I can even say that, since many doctors refuse to see fibro as a physical illness, even with its primarily physical symptoms; many of them see it as a mental illness, a case of wires being crossed in the brain so that a person experiences pain where there shouldn’t be any. (I understand their reasoning for this: they don’t understand fibro because although there are parameters for identifying it, it doesn’t show up in blood tests or any other sot of laboratory-provable way. Therefore, they shove it into that great abyss wherein resides all other things that they do not understand: the brain.)
In addition to this, fibro is often accompanied by brain fog and depression (because who the hell wouldn’t be depressed when they’re in pain all the time and have trouble thinking clearly and remembering shit, when previously they didn’t?), and as a result they treat it with anti-depressants, and very rarely with opoids or other meds designed to actually treat the pain symptoms. (Since the pain isn’t really there, it’s all in your head, right?) My current doctor is leaving me on my Tramadol and Gabapentin because they seem to be working but she was frank about her preference for a “lifestyle” approach to treating fibro: sleep, exercise, good nutrition, and stress avoidance. (She’s my doctor primarily because she readily agreed to support my intermittent FMLA usage–which apparently is not a common thing, but meshes nicely with her lifestyle philosophy; it’s hard to avoid stress if you’re working 8-10 hours a day with the general public.) I was doctor-shopping not too long ago (when my previous doctor decided to close her private practice and go work with “underserved” people; I would argue that chronic pain patients are also underserved but that’s neither here nor there) and found that many “pain specialist” doctors will tell you outright that they do not prescribe pain medication for chronic pain patients. In what way are they purporting to treat pain, then? (Not everyone is a freaking drug addict out to make you lose your medical license. Seriously. There is such a thing as actual chronic pain, and it isn’t always just in our heads.) In addition, most rheumatologists will not see fibromyalgia patients; I had a rheumy back when we lived in Philadelphia, but it turns out that was because I had the good luck (?) to also have cervical arthritis; I think she treated the fibro too just as a courtesy.
Anyway, my point here is that the medical community can be just as bad as the pagan/polytheistic community when it comes to certain conditions: if you have something they don’t understand or don’t want to deal with, they all but put you out into the cold to freeze to death. In some respects, modern medicine really hasn’t progressed all that much since the historical examples given in Camilla’s post. People like to refer to fibromyalgia as a “fashionable” disease, and many of them roll their eyes a little if you mention having it (as if there is some kind of insider’s joke surrounding it), but it isn’t a joke and it isn’t fashionable; it is something people like me have to wage a constant battle to get adequate treatment for. Along with the constant battle we fight to get our limitations taken seriously by bosses and co-workers, since we don’t look sick. (It’s why it’s called an “invisible illness,” people.)
Since this is a spiritual blog, how has this affected my spiritual life? Well, as I began this post by saying, it was my spiritual emergency; it was part of my breaking process that opened me to Odin and got my “godphone” working in general. (And the medicine I’ve taken to combat it–whether anti-depressant or directly pain-related– has not in any way dimmed my signal clarity, by the way.) I’m not going to say He brought it on me (because I don’t think that), but He definitely used it to help Him get inside my head more quickly that He might otherwise have been able to. Whether this was the “madness road” or the “sickness road,” I can’t even say, because the pain I experienced prior to being medicated convinced me that I must have lost my mind; it started off with my not being able to stand up straight for a period of several weeks, and progressed from there. Waking and sleeping took on a different character than before, and the edges of reality were permanently blurred. Pain ruled my existence, and before medication there was only Odin to offer me respite from that. It was during this period that I split from my mortal spouse, Jo moved in, and my entire world shifted. Lots of good things have come from the fact that this happened, but while it was actually happening I can truly say it was pure crap.
I continued to go to work everyday because if I didn’t I would have had no place to live and no way to feed my daughter and my animals; we frequently had to scrounge for change to buy food as it was. I no longer had a car at my disposal (and haven’t had one since) and we had to walk everywhere, hauling groceries in a shopping cart, while all the while I was in a state of constant pain and exhaustion. But possibly worst of all, when it began to occur to me that this was possibly some form of shaman sickness and I broached the subject with my spirit worker “community,” I was quickly slapped down and told that what was happening to me wasn’t all-encompassing or dramatic enough, somehow, to fit that description–as if anyone else could presume to be a judge of how dramatic my inner experience was. I suppose that since I didn’t quit my job and become a homeless person wearing nothing but newspaper, I just didn’t fit the profile–never mind that this, this exact experience, is what led to my being able to converse with gods, perform divination and seidhr, and spin enchantments into wool.
This, for me, is yet another example of how our communities have romanticized shaman sickness; if it doesn’t fit the exact parameters of how we think it works in a third world society someplace across the globe, it doesn’t count. Also, if you don’t magically get well at the end of the opening process, or if you have to continue taking ant-depressants or pain meds to continue to be able to function, it clearly wasn’t shaman sickness–just plain old sickness. You end up caught between a medical community that isn’t sure it wants to treat you and a religious community that doesn’t think your experience is real or valid. If that isn’t being shoved out into the cold to freeze to death, I don’t know what is. Good thing for me my god knows His way around in the cold.