The Skeptic Visits a Shaman

The Skeptic Visits a Shaman

After heartbreak, writer Rebecca Green finds healing—and her spirit animal—in a place she never expected.

Photo Credit: Gary Seronik

I’m lying on a padded table, clutching two heavy stones. A didgeridoo vibrates inches from my body, sending chills through my toes. Tears flow as I try to stop caring about my smeared mascara. I have to be at work soon. I don’t want anyone to know that I visited a shaman.

A month earlier, a man I loved told me he could no longer “push himself” to be attracted to me. He had warned me when we met that he usually lost interest after sex and that he had rarely slept with the same woman twice. But since his last failed relationship, he had sought enlightenment from a shaman in the Peruvian jungle, and so he promised that he was different now. Seduced by my own fragile heart’s reawakening, I believed him. We had sex once, and he never wanted to touch me again.

We dragged out the relationship for a few more painful, chaste weeks, but his interest never returned. One afternoon, he announced with compassionate contempt that it was over.

I called my psychiatrist, renewed my Prozac prescription—and then threw all the pills away. I didn’t want to be on antidepressants. I wanted to grieve properly. I started seeing my therapist twice a week. I wrote letters to my wounded inner child, took a mindfulness seminar, and read psychology books, but the pain wouldn’t go away.

I don’t believe in chakras. I don’t detox or juice or meditate. But I envied the numb joy of the man who had hurt me. On a desperate whim, I asked him to recommend a spiritual healer. He told me about David, a local shaman.

A week later, David and I sit in the healing room of his Eagle Rock bungalow. Elk skulls and whale bones adorn the terra-cotta walls. Dream catchers flutter at the open windows. Broad-shouldered and blond, David tells me that I’m haunted by family trauma. That I attract weirdos who want me to mother them. That my dad is controlling and my mom plays the martyr. He tells me I’ve blurred the boundaries between self and other. This is all true.

I lie on the healing table. David places a small, heavy stone in each of my hands and covers me with woven Navajo blankets. He tells me to breathe: two deep breaths in, filling the diaphragm and then the upper chest, then one slow breath out. He tells me to use only my mouth, as the nose connects us to the brain—the enemy of healing. For several minutes, I just breathe.

David asks me what I love about myself. I say two true things: my ability to be alone and my adventurous spirit. He is silent. Then I say: my connection to animals. He becomes interested. I tell him about Tyrone, my Jack Russell terrier who is sick for the first time in his 13 and a half years. David asks whether I’m aware that my dog is not just a dog but also a spirit. I say yes but feel phony. Doesn’t everyone believe their dog is more than a dog?

David says Tyrone’s illness began with my broken heart. The timing is right. He tells me that Tyrone is taking on my pain to protect me. He tells me to send psychic messages to Tyrone that it’s OK to just be a dog.

David asks whether I dream about animals.

I talk about hiking in Alaska two years ago. For weeks after my trip, I dreamed about Alaskan animals. David tells me that my spirit animal is a ptarmigan. I smile. I spent hours in Denali, captivated by these chicken-like birds scurrying across the tundra.

In my dreams, I often took on the body of a ptarmigan. Ptarmigans blend into the arctic foliage in the summer and look like shadows. In the winter, they are as white as snow. The ptarmigan doesn’t often fly, but when it does fly, it soars. In my dreams, I soared too. I would wake up feeling heartbroken and magical.

David plays the didgeridoo and rubs lavender and peppermint oils on my icy feet. He asks me why I’m afraid. I say I’m afraid that Tyrone is going to die and that I will never soar again.

“Tyrone could live to be 20,” David tells me. “And you will be a mother some day.”

I can’t stop crying. I hadn’t told David I was afraid that I would never be a mother.

I open my eyes and feel dizzy. David tells me that coming back from the spiritual realm is difficult. He prescribes a liver cleanse. I have a terrible poker face.

“It’s not magic,” David chuckles. “It’s just vitamins.”

And then: “If you detox your own liver, you’ll help Tyrone’s liver too.”

I shiver. I hadn’t told him that Tyrone’s liver was failing.

“Animals are your gift. Watch them. Watch the birds.” I know that I will start watching everything./p>

As I leave David’s house, I check my reflection in the window. My face is warm and radiant, no sign of streaked mascara. I drive to work, marveling at the flow of traffic on the I-10 freeway, mica shimmering on black tar like a galaxy of diamonds.

A week later, my best friend and I have a fight. I sit in my garden, praying for forgiveness. I’ve never prayed before. Then I see the hummingbirds feeding off the passion fruit vine. Hummingbirds don’t flock, but here is a flock of hummingbirds. David told me that when his daughter was born six weeks premature and couldn’t leave the incubator, he saw hundreds of hummingbirds hovering outside the hospital. His baby lived. My friend forgave me.

A voice in my head asks me whether this is real. Another voice answers that it doesn’t matter. I could stop seeing what David asked me to see, but I don’t want to. There’s magic in the not-knowing, there’s healing in the belief of healing, and there’s comfort in hearing a shaman tell you that you will soar high above the earth again, into the clear sky.

Without knowing me, David gave me compassion, warm blankets, and infinite hope. I had given another man my heart and body for a promise that he would stay. He left me. For $250, David gave me what I needed. Miracles don’t have to be free.

And they don’t have to be magic. Tyrone’s appetite has returned and his liver tests are normal again. He leaps and frolics as he did 13 years ago. Every night, I whisper in his ear, “Just be a dog.”

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