The Rider-Waite tarot deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith.
One winter morning I shuffled a deck of oracle cards with my eyes closed, and I realized that despite the blackness, I could still see what was happening in front of me. Here were the details of my hands, with the movements of each finger, every twitch of every narrow knuckle, made plain; I could see the cards, which were not clear enough to distinguish completely, but showed their blurry, colorful faces in broad strokes. I decided to further test this ability by holding colored pens, randomly chosen from a pouch, before my shut eyes. The pen test indicated that I could also “see” the colors behind my lids—imperfectly, yes, but well enough to grasp whether I was looking at a light color or a dark one, and I called out the hot-pink one immediately.
Journaling and drawing divinatory cards had both become routine parts of my life earlier that year, when I was fighting psychosis and struggling to make the world cohere; I’d found that tarot and oracle cards offered a decent framework for structuring a fractured existence. Tarot cards vary from deck to deck, depending on the artist and/or creator, but typically follow a seventy-eight-card structure of Major Arcana, consisting of twenty-two archetypes, from The Fool to The World, and Minor Arcana, consisting of four suits of fourteen cards each (Wands, Pentacles, Swords, Cups), from Aces to Kings. Oracle cards offer more variety; their content and theme depend entirely upon the creator. The one I primarily used that winter had watercolor illustrations: “Redefine Boundaries,” read one card; “Higher Self,” read another. Whichever card I drew served a double purpose, foreshadowing how the day might take shape and also giving me a shape with which to understand the events of the day. And on that day in 2013, I could see with what some call clairvoyance.
But the day went on, and the strange ability left me incrementally, as though a heavy curtain were dropping, until when I closed my eyes there was only darkness. If I close my eyes right now, I still see only this ordinary darkness.
At first I mentioned this only to C., and then to one or two of my closest friends. I joked with them that as far as superhuman abilities go, being able to see what’s in front of me with my eyes closed is a rather pathetic one. I certainly couldn’t take that show on the road. And my “sight without sight” happened only one other time, on September 29, 2014, when I was not psychotic: again, I realized that I could see the world with my eyes closed. Again, I tested myself with colored pens and found myself to be accurate. I asked a new friend, a mystic, for advice, and she told me to contemplate whatever seemed unclear to me at the time.
So after a bunch of fleeting images—a girl clutching a book to her chest and plummeting into the ocean—sinking for a really long time, hair floating—hits the bottom and then ricochets back up to the surface, gasping, still clutching the book, in the middle of nowhere—looking around—a buoy appears and she struggles to climb onto it—she climbs onto it, drops the book, grabs it—sits on the buoy for a long time—the buoy eventually crashes against an island & she climbs onto the island, which is basically a large, pointy mound—when she reaches the top, the book explodes out of her arms as a white bird and flies upward—the bird goes up for a really long time (at this point I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, because it felt like the bird was just going to keep going up forever)—eventually it explodes into a white light that spreads over the entire sky, enveloping the universe.
The curtain dropped again a few hours later. I haven’t experienced the ability since.
If you’re curious about whether your unusual experiences are signs of mental illness or psychic ability, the internet is happy to offer an opinion. Forums dedicated to mental health in general, and schizophrenia in particular, are full of threads with headings such as “Have you noticed psychic ability since you became schizophrenic?,” “Schizophrenia or a medium?,” “Am I psychic or am I a crazy schizophrenic?,” and “Psychosis and psychic powers?” Some assume that psychosis and psychic ability are mutually exclusive, while others assume that they are indeed suffering from a psychotic disorder but might also be gifted with supernatural ability. Both are potential ways to look at the silver lining of a disorder that few would see as having benefits at all.
What makes psychosis a condition that seems open to interpretation as an ability rather than an illness? For one, many psychiatric diagnoses hinge on “distress” as a criterion—it’s possible to show up at a clinician’s office with the hallmark symptoms of depression, but if you’re not distressed, your condition won’t meet the criteria for major depressive disorder. Schizophrenia is one diagnosis that doesn’t require the presence of distress in addition to other symptoms, which leaves room for interpretation; without distress, a symptom might be a welcome attribute, and therefore an ability.
In Legion, a 2017 show based on a Marvel comic, David Haller is a man with schizophrenia, though the advertisements tantalizingly suggest he “may be more than human.” The show posits that though David is institutionalized in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, his symptoms are not signs of pathology but rather of supernatural gifts. The one-line description of the first episode on the FX website reads, “David considers whether the voices he hears might be real.” Because this is a story set in the Marvel universe, we can assume without watching that the answer to this question is “yes.” As with A Beautiful Mind, the viewer is forced to experience reality as bewilderingly as David does. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum reports on the show’s surreal visuals, adding that “this gemstone surreality turns everything into theatre; it also forces us, like David, to absorb what we see without knowing if we can trust our perceptions.” Later in the article she indicates that Legion is “one of those shows that treat mental illness … as a metaphor for being special, so if you have a problem with that approach it will not be your jam.” In Twitter conversations about the show, viewers wondered if the lunacy-as-superpower narrative is, in fact, harmful to the cause of mental health advocacy, causing deluded individuals to eschew help for the sake of believing in their own magical capabilities—but such beliefs can handily thrive without the help of an FX television show.
When I began to hallucinate, in 2005—first hearing a voice, and then seeing what wasn’t there—my mother suggested that these symptoms might not be pathologies but rather spiritual gifts. According to Chinese superstition, initial hallucinatory experiences may be indications that one is meant to become a “soul reader,” a skill akin to a fortune-teller or medium. “People use it as a career,” she told me, “so don’t be scared.” No one else had tried to give me a perspective on my symptoms beyond that of mental illness.
Over the next decade, I would occasionally consider the utility of seeing psychosis as an ability: I could improve my mental health by thinking of schizoaffective disorder as a tool for accessing something useful, as opposed to a terrifying pathology. As Viktor Frankl says in Man’s Search for Meaning, we want our suffering, if it must be endured, to mean something. Yet I had no idea what this belief would look like in practice.
My friend Paige and I first met in 2014 through a mutual friend. She is a gregarious introvert, and in possession of a magnificent, snorting laugh. Her waist-length hair is often in Pippi Longstocking braids. She unironically describes herself as a pizza-loving witch, and provides mystical services ranging from tarot card reading to mediumship to shamanic journeying. For years she would come over every Tuesday to cowork with me. More than once she’d delay our intended work with a story, say, about helping a murdered little girl—whose spirit was unhappily attached to Paige’s Tenderloin apartment—cross over. I remain open to such stories because I don’t believe that she would invent them. She aligns her beliefs with the Picasso quote “Everything you can imagine is real.”
I was also introduced to J., an artist with occultist tendencies and a weakness for Chanel. I have yet to meet her in person, but we speak on the phone at times; I turn up the volume to catch her wispy voice through my earbuds. She once described the experience of going to Italy for the first time. She was overwhelmed, she told me, by the sounds she heard from centuries of Italian life, including a cacophony of ancient voices in fluent Italian.
In my friendships with these women, I have tried to imagine whether a psychiatrist would be comfortable venturing a diagnosis based on their seemingly logical sensory experiences—particularly sensory experiences that sound like magic. J.’s Italian recollections reminded me of lucid dreams I’ve had in which I moved through crowds and could distinctly see every individual face. While inside the dream, I marveled at my brain’s ability to hold so many faces, all of them strange, and wondered if they were invented or dredged up from memory. Although both of them struggle with recurrent depression, neither Paige nor J. has ever been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, including anything in the realm of the schizophrenias.
It was Paige who introduced me to their shared spiritual mentor, Briana (Bri) Saussy, who runs a thriving online business under her own name with the tagline “Sacred arts for the soulful seeker.” Education in what might be called witchcraft or occultism—what Bri dubs the sacred arts—frequently lacks rigor. This is not so with Bri, who graduated with both a B.A. and an M.A. in classics, the history of mathematics and science, and philosophy from St. John’s College, and who cares about maintaining the strength of pedagogy alongside a life of prayer and blessing. Bri became, and still is, my spiritual mentor as well—one with whom I have had monthly calls and exchanged regular emails. In seeking her out, I was intrigued by the idea of finding a way to make sense of my idiosyncrasies and anxieties. When I mentioned this to Bri, she laughed and said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but belief does not simplify life.”
My first phone conversation with Bri was a paid consultation. I told her about being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and my later diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease. After she prodded me about my dream life, I went on to tell her about my history of lucid dreaming, current issues with nightmares and PTSD, seemingly psychic experiences, hallucinations, and delusions.
She said, “It’s very interesting to me that you started feeling like you were dead—and, if I understood the timing of that correctly, that sensation was happening around the onset of your Lyme disease. When I hear that, [it sounds like] it could be part of a paranoid delusion, but you did have a chronic illness in your body, and it was one you weren’t aware of. I see that as maybe a really dramatic way of your ensouled part telling the rest of you, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here.’ ” Bri pointed to my unusual experiences as indications of being “necessarily liminal.” A term she frequently uses is thin-skinned. As she explains it, people who are thin-skinned have perceptions that are wide open; they perceive what is happening in the other realm. Thin-skinned, or skinless, individuals will start to think they’re crazy because they see, sense, and feel things outside of the regular scope of experience.
This perception of otherworldly experience is echoed in the book Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma, by the Jungian analyst Jerome S. Bernstein. Bernstein posits the idea of “Borderland personalities”—people whose sensitivities and unusual perceptions are “nothing short of sacred.” “Problems result,” he writes, “from the fact that most often Borderland personalities themselves do not register their own experiences as real. They have been conditioned, like the rest of us with a [W]estern ego, to identify with the negative bias against the nonrational realm of phenomenology. Thus they see their own Borderland experiences as ‘crazy’—as pathological. And because they do, they become even more neurotic than would otherwise be the case.”
During my first call with Bri, she recommended that I try her three-day, self-paced audio-and-workbook course about working with liminality. There was nothing about her matter-of-fact, gentle way of speaking that alarmed me, though I knew the course would cost more money than I’d already paid for the consultation. I didn’t feel as though I were speaking to a charlatan—if she were, she would be the sort who truly believed in her own trickery.
The class description for Beyond the Hedge: Foundational Techniques for Embracing the Liminal explains the titular phrase as follows: “In older times one way of talking about someone who could travel into the liminal realms was to say that they went ‘beyond the hedge,’ an old idiom meaning that they could travel beyond what was safe and known into territory that held mystery, magic, and great promise.” The course covers three foundational techniques: using the body’s intuition, working with talismanic cords, and building relationships with allies and spirit guides.
Exploring the possibilities of the sacred arts brought up the question of medication. Even as I considered that I might be thin-skinned, and therefore privy to otherworldly experiences, at no point was I inclined to quit talk therapy or my regimen of psychopharmacological drugs. Perhaps this seems contradictory, or indicative of skepticism, but I knew that I’d suffered greatly during psychosis and was not interested in turning face-first, again, into the storm of bleak and blustering insanity. By learning about the liminal, I was not trying to prolong my psychotic experiences, but attempting to make sense of them. I wanted to create a container for what had happened to me and shove the nastiness into it.
Francesco Botticini, The Three Archangels and Tobias, 1470, tempera on panel, 53.1″ × 60.6″. Public domain.
The second-century Gnostics claimed that among ordinary Christians lived the pneumatikoi, elite believers who possessed spiritual wisdom beyond that of their peers. The pneumatikoi could speak in tongues—a phenomenon called glossolalia—as evidence of being possessed by the Spirit; though occasionally intelligible, glossolalia “for the most part … consisted of frenzied, inarticulate, incoherent, ecstatic speech.” The psychiatric term for inarticulate, babbling speech is schizophasia, or word salad, and it is one of the more visible symptoms of schizophrenia. Incoherent speech may indicate truths too profound to be understood by the lowly; it may also indicate a deterioration of the mind.
Language was central to Jacques Lacan’s distinction between illness and mysticism. He compared the writings of Daniel Schreber, a judge and famous sufferer of what was then called “dementia praecox,” to those of John of the Cross, stating that, as John Gale writes, “while John of the Cross wrote in a poetic way, Schreber did not.” The former’s poeticism opens spiritual dimensions for the reader, where the latter’s babbling shuts them down.
The line between insanity and mysticism is thin; the line between reality and unreality is thin. Liminality as a spiritual concept is all about the porousness of boundaries. Liminal and medial—the latter a term most associated with “the Medial Woman,” as conceived of by the Swiss Jungian analyst Toni Wolff—are often used interchangeably, and refer to the gray area between here and the otherworld. In Beyond the Hedge, Bri describes the otherworld in metaphors: “the realms above” and “the realms below” Earth, “middle Earth,” “fairyland,” or “imaginal realms.” Death is the only manifestation of the otherworld that I can understand; birth and death are obvious manifestations of the liminal. To a lesser extent, I’ve considered the otherworld through major illness, trauma, and marriage, which are also liminal conditions, and, unlike dying, have marked and scarred the timeline of my life.
The metaphor-laden otherworld is accompanied by a metaphor-laden liminal space. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., a scholar, poet, and the author of Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, describes a mythological old woman who “stands between the worlds of rationality and mythos … This land between the worlds is that inexplicable place we all recognize once we experience it, but its nuances slip away and shape-change if one tries to pin them down.” The liminal can also be described in psychoanalytic lingo; Estés refers to “the locus betwixt the worlds,” referring to Jung’s concept of “the collective unconscious, the [objective] psyche, and the psychoid unconscious.” Estés goes on to say that this locus, “the crack between the worlds—is the place where visitations, miracles, imaginations, inspirations, and healings of all natures occur.” Fairyland may seem quite different from the collective unconscious, but this is Bri’s point in coining the phrase sacred arts: she aims to credit the variety of faiths and traditions that feed her practice. In Beyond the Hedge, she explains that liminal work crosses different faiths and religions, and those faiths and religions have, in turn, developed into individual ways to journey into the otherworld, and individuals often return bearing gifts for the community.
And yet liminal experiences, as Bri describes them, are not necessarily unusual or gifted to a special few. Dreams are the most common expression of liminality—more common than, say, seeing or feeling the presence of saints, angels, or God, which are all liminal experiences. To work with the liminal is to probe the notion of what is real versus imaginary, or even psychotic. In the beginning of Bri’s Beyond the Hedge workbook, she writes, “Anyone who wishes to gain proficiency in liminal work is going to have to become comfortable with the unseen. One of the best expressions of this are the words of Jesus Christ to St. Thomas: ‘Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.’ ” Working with the liminal involves working with faith. One article of faith is This suffering will be of use to you someday.
Bri says it this way: “I think that when we’re talking about … schizophrenia, we really want to be clear about what is rational, two plus two equals four; what is irrational, two plus two equals spaghetti sauce; and what is nonrational … A lot of people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia that I have spoken with, that I have worked with … are not irrational at all.” The divine is nonrational and indicates the limits of symbolic understanding; insanity is irrational and indicates a structural failure of reality.
The nonrational psychotics, Bri tells me, have intact reasoning, “but it’s coming, or it’s partially informed, I would say is usually the case, from a different source than what we’re used to. There’s an internal logic, and often their insights are dead-on if you can peel back the code that those insights are often delivered in, and start to understand how that internal logic works.” She judges psychosis by its utility: “If there’s something of use there, then you take it. And so even if it’s a scary vision, if there’s something of use there that you can take and you can apply to your life, I wouldn’t consider that schizophrenic. I would consider that liminal.”
Our world values what is rational, and fears what is irrational: the raving homeless man on the morning bus; the murderous, delusional “psychos” we see on Law and Order—law and order being, after all, the ultimate institutions of rationality and reason. To understand the nonrational takes looking beyond the surface, and into the realm of the mystical.
I experienced my first hallucination in my early twenties as a senior at Stanford, and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of eighteen. The voice in the dorm shower had said, quite clearly, “I hate you.” What amazes me about hallucinations is the efficacy with which they kidnap the senses. The voice that said it hated me was as real as any other sound in that room. I in fact wondered if I was subject to a phenomenon having to do with the drain and the pipe system—perhaps I was hearing something said on another floor, and yet upon consideration, the voice didn’t seem to be coming from the ground.
I finished my shower, dried off, and returned to my dorm room wrapped in a towel. I told my roommate, who was aware, albeit abstractly, of my mental health issues, that I’d heard a voice in the shower. I was stunned by what had happened, but was calm as I recounted the story.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
But what if the voice held some sort of function? I can reach for interpretations—the most obvious one being that I did hate myself at the time, which had fed self-destructive behavior for years. Perhaps the voice was saying that if I didn’t find a better therapist, my self-destructiveness would eventually put me in grave danger. This message strikes me as too basic to be worthy of a hallucination, but then again, who am I to judge?
I listened to the three Beyond the Hedge MP3s in bed, one per day, flipping through the accompanying PDF on my iPad while I listened. Bri lectures by phone in the recordings; the class was initially taught over the phone with live participants, who then asked questions when the line was opened for questioning.
What I have found most useful from Bri’s teachings is the use of talismanic cords. Bri offers a few uses for such cords during liminal work. According to her, the cord offers protection depending on where it’s tied: a cord around the stomach reins in desire, while one tied around the head prevents overthinking. I anointed a linen ribbon of unknown provenance with an oil Bri had mailed to me, labeled “Balm of Gilead.” I tie the ribbon around my ankle when I begin to feel as though I’m slipping. I’m not like Paige, who uses a cord before actively journeying into the otherworld. Though it seems antithetical to the point of the course, I don’t want to go into the liminal realms. I want to know how to control myself when frightening things happen to me, and if there’s a chance that a ribbon around my ankle will keep me either tethered to this world or safer, somehow, when I do tumble out of it—though it may need to be used in tandem with medication, and reported to my psychiatrist—that’s good enough for me.
After all, the otherworld was not made to be visited too cavalierly by mere mortals. In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Estés uses the story of Vasilisa and the Baba Yaga to caution against dithering in other realms. At one point in the story, the Baba Yaga tries to tempt Vasilisa into asking too many questions about the oddities of the Baba Yaga’s world, but the wise doll in Vasilisa’s pocket jumps up and down, warning her to stop. This, Estés says, is a caution against “calling upon too much of the numinosity of the underworld all at once … for though we visit there, we do not want to become enraptured and thereby trapped there.”
Photo: Nheyob (CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)), from Wikimedia Commons.
I met Bri in person at the café Downtown Subscription in Santa Fe one winter, during my nine-day trip for Lyme-disease treatment. Porochista Khakpour and I had been shuttling from place to place, and my arms were bruised and dotted with marks from various IVs by the time I arrived. Bri was already there, waiting with tea; we greeted each other with hugs and exclamations. I sat on the tall chair across from her, concerned about how long my body would be able to hold itself up so far off the ground, and I was already exhausted—the day had been a hard one, as Porochista had learned that morning of her longtime friend’s suicide. Travis had been announced missing the day before. That morning, Porochista had said, “I think he’s alive. I think he just … went off somewhere.” I looked over at her a few hours later. She was sitting on the bed, hunched over her phone and crying.
For Bri and me to be meeting in person at all was something of a miracle—when I settled in and asked her whether work had brought her to Santa Fe, she said that she’d driven the thirteen hours from San Antonio with her husband and son just to see me. I smiled. Dear God, please help me, I thought, struggling to remain upright. I told her about what had happened to Porochista. I asked if there was anything we should do.
“What I do when anyone dies,” she said, “is go and light a candle for them. I would go to the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine in town and I would light a candle for them. The other thing that I think is important to understand after death happens is that a lot of traditions say that there’s a three-day period where the line is a little staticky as they’re sort of adjusting. But blessing [Travis], and blessing his family, is a good thing to start doing now, as well as being open to signs and omens of him communicating with her directly. A song might come on that she associates with him, or words on a sign, words on a magazine.”
As she spoke, I noticed the abundance of milagro heart charms, or folk amulets, in Bri’s jewelry and about her person. Later that week, on a journey to Chimayó, I would see similar milagros for sale in the gift shops; I bought a red wooden cross adorned with milagros that now hangs above my altar. Bri’s eyelids and rosy cheeks shimmered with gold dust. I told her about what had happened to Porochista, who had accompanied me to the café and was sitting across the room. “Ageless,” Porochista called her, once we were back in our motel room.
Bri and I chatted about magic and its utility during oppressive political times (Donald Trump was to be inaugurated later that month); the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One; the importance of work (“Whatever your work is, that work matters. It’s about touching the people that you’re here to touch in the best possible way”); her route from lawyer-to-be to teaching the sacred arts online; the origin of the sacred arts in her life. A terrific thing about conversing with a teacher, particularly when ill, is that there’s no need to carry the conversation—give a good prompt or question, and they’ll happily expound. But I wrapped up the conversation after about an hour, feeling guilty for having brought her so far to chat with me for such a short time. Still, I felt no judgment from her. “You seem tired,” she said. “Please, go rest.”
Instead of going straight back to our motel, which we knew would lead to an unbreakable inertia, Porochista and I made our way to the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine. The sun had set, taking any wintry warmth with it. We moved slowly because Porochista was using a cane, and the ground was covered with hazardous patches of black ice. We had no candle to light, but there were clear boxes filled with petitions, and I told her that she could write a message to tuck into one of the boxes. I waited on an ice-cold bench and stared at the Lady’s benevolent, smooth face. For the Guadalupe Feast Day the previous month, Bri had sent out a prayer that included these words: “Wherever there is loss, sadness, gaping holes full of the howling winds of grief and sorrow—there She is.” We’d gone to the shrine for Porochista’s friend, yes, but also, and perhaps mainly, for Porochista and her grief.
I originally went to Bri because psychosis had made me fear my own mind. Since then, the sacred arts have given me some solace not so much through the beliefs they provide as through the actions they recommend. To say this prayer—burn this candle—perform this ritual—create this salt or honey jar—is to have something to do when it seems that nothing can be done.
At the time of this writing, I haven’t experienced a hallucination in years. A few visual blips will occur, or occasionally a loud clap in the room when no one’s there, but my senses have otherwise been absent of maggot-ridden corpses or eerie voices. My last serious episode of delusional thinking is four years behind me. But there are the episodes that preclude psychosis, or even mild psychosis—the episodes in which I must tread carefully to keep myself where I am. When a certain kind of psychic detachment occurs, I retrieve my ribbon; I tie it around my ankle. I tell myself that should delusion come to call, or hallucinations crowd my senses again, I might be able to wrangle sense out of the senseless. I tell myself that if I must live with a slippery mind, I want to know how to tether it, too.
Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias and the novel The Border of Paradise. She received a 2018 Whiting Award, was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2017, and was the recipient of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize in 2016. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, Esmé lives in San Francisco.
Excerpted from The Collected Schizophrenias, by Esmé Weijun Wang (Graywolf Press, February 5, 2019).
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