Dead Men Walking: Shaman Sickness

excerpt from Wyrdwalkers: Techniques of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

The term "shaman sickness" is not one that you'll generally hear outside of most spirit-worker circles, and that's because we have only relatively recently learned to identify it again, after centuries of not understanding what it is that happens to shamans at the beginning of their careers. The term denotes a period of illness (often seriously life-threatening in some way) which is caused by the Gods and wights in order to completely remake someone and turn them into a shaman. The phenomenon of shaman sickness is found in tribal cultures around the world, with remarkably similar sets of traumas. It is the hallmark of the classic shaman in many parts of the globe.

I should disclaimer two things right here: First, in spite of all references about global shamanic traditions, we are again only speaking for the Northern Tradition. In some tribal cultures, it seems that their spirit-workers do not go through such changes and experiences. I can't comment on that one way or another; however, it seems that in the traditions of northern Eurasia, this is the way things work, the way that the spirits want it, whether we like it or not. Again and again we find references to this in circumpolar shamanic traditions, and also ones in other areas of the world. The following century-old comments by Siberian shamans from Marie Czaplicka's book on the subject are typical both of what many tribal cultures say about shaman sickness, and what modern classic shamans in the Northern Tradition find to be true today:

Whether his calling be hereditary or not, a shaman must be a capable - nay, an inspired person. Of course, this is practically the same thing as saying that he is nervous and excitable, often to the verge of insanity. So long as he practises his vocation, however, the shaman never passes this verge. It often happens that before entering the calling persons have had serious nervous affections. Thus a Chukchee female shaman, Telpina, according to her own statement, had been violently insane for three years, during which time her household had taken precautions that she should do no harm to the people or to herself.

I was told that people about to become shamans have fits of wild paroxysms alternating with a condition of complete exhaustion. They will lie motionless for two or three days without partaking of food or drink. Finally they retire to the wilderness, where they spend their time enduring hunger and cold in order to prepare themselves for their calling.

To be called to become a shaman is generally equivalent to being afflicted with hysteria; then the accepting of the call means recovery. There are cases of young persons who, having suffered for years from lingering illness, at last feel a call to take up shamanistic practice and by this means overcome the disease .... Here is an account by a Yakut-Tungus shaman, Tiuspiut ("fallen-from-the-sky"), of how he became a shaman: "When I was twenty years old, I became very ill and began to see with my eyes, to hear with my ears that which others did not see or hear; nine years I struggled with myself, and I did not tell any one what was happening to me, as I was afraid that people would not believe me and would make fun of me. At last I became so seriously ill that I was on the verge of death; but when I started to shamanize I grew better; and even now when I do not shamanize for a long time I am liable to be ill."

The Chukchee call the preparatory period of a shaman by a term signifying "he gathers shamanistic power". For the weaker shamans the preparatory period is less painful, and the inspiration comes mainly through dreams. But for a strong shaman this stage is very painful and long; in some cases it lasts for one, two, or more years. Some young people are afraid to take a drum and call on the "spirits", or to pick up stones or other objects which might prove to be amulets, for fear lest the "spirit" should call them to be shamans. Some youths prefer death to obedience to the call of spirits. Parents possessing only one child fear his entering this calling on account of the danger attached to it; but when the family is large, they like to have one of its members a shaman.

During the time of preparation the shaman has to pass through both a mental and a physical training. He is, as a rule, segregated, and goes either to the forests and hills under the pretext of hunting or watching the herds, 'often without taking along any arms or the lasso of the herdsman'; or else he remains in the inner room the whole time. "The young novice, the 'newly inspired' (turene nitvillin), loses all interest in the ordinary affairs of life. He ceases to work, eats but little and without relishing his food, ceases to talk to people, and does not even answer their questions. The greater part of his time he spends in sleep." This is why "a wanderer . . . must be closely watched, otherwise he might lie down on the open tundra and sleep for three or four days, incurring the danger in winter of being buried in drifting snow. When coming to himself after such a long sleep, he imagines that he has been out for only a few hours, and generally is not conscious of having slept in the wilderness at all." However exaggerated this account of a long sleep may be, we learn from Bogoras that the Chukchee, when ill, sometimes "fall into a heavy and protracted slumber, which may last many days, with only the necessary interruptions for physical needs."

Second, this is not something that every spirit-worker is going to go through. On the contrary, most won't. Shaman sickness is something endured by the classic shaman - another reason why, at least in this tradition, I'd like to see the word "shaman" reserved for those who have gone this route, and "spirit-worker" or "shamanic practitioner" (or even "seidhworker", "vitki", or "volva" when appropriate) used for those who haven't. I know that I have no hope of instituting this definition outside of this tradition, and I don't intend to try. However, those of us who work with the wights of this area of the world should understand that for us, this is the division.

There's no need to feel like you're not as good a spirit-worker if you haven't gone through shaman sickness. Rather, you should feel grateful, because it kills people, sometimes quite literally. Every tribal culture whose spirit-workers go through such a spirit-triggered ordeal agree that not everyone survives it, and there is an attrition rate. Not going through this condition means that you retain the ability to make choices with your life. It might also mean that your "wiring" isn't such that it could survive the transition, and the Gods know best about these things. Be grateful that you are still alive, and do the best work that you can with what you have.

When I first met other spirit-workers, many of whom had gone through or were going through shaman sickness, I learned that there were two distinct forms that it took (although sometimes, some people got hit with both at once at full volume). We jokingly, sarcastically referred to them as the One Road and the Other Road. The One Road is the Death Road, and it attacks through your body. Spirit-workers on the Death Road come down with physical illnesses, some of them life threatening; there may be months or years of hideous, painful, chronic illness that slowly wears you down and "kills" part or all of your astral body, not to mention bringing your physical body close to death. In fact, the "classic" end to this road culminates in a near-death experience (or in some cases and actual death from which the individual does not return), sometimes with a vision of dismemberment where one is actually taken apart and rebuilt by the spirits. Usually it's not only one specific illness, but a cascade of them - or one which drags on, lowers the immune system or otherwise throws the body seriously off, and starts the cascade. Sometimes it may even start with a severe physical injury, and goes from there. One of the telltale marks of the Death Road is that if modern medical science manages to cure one of the illnesses, it will either recur in a more virulent form, or something just as horrid will take its place. Shaman sickness is remarkably resistant to modern treatments.

I walked the Death Road. Between a combination of medication-resistant lupus and secondary congenital adrenal hyperplasia, I sickened further and further for the better part of a decade, and hemorrhaged quite literally to death at the end. I still wonder if I'd had the luxury of knowing what was going on, and perhaps another human being who understood to help me through it, I might have gotten to the end much sooner. Certainly I'm well aware that I came close to not making it; my patron deity was very clear about that. Still, there was a certain level of physical death that I had to achieve, and there was not going to be any safe or easy way to achieve it. Most of what I went through was entirely necessary to make me what I am today.

The Other Road is the road of Madness. On this road, the death is of the personality that came before, and it can come about through a period of mental illness. The mental instability during shaman sickness is especially difficult, because the individual is legitimately experiencing contact with unseen (to most others, that is) entities - and they are also seeing and hearing them through a veil of insanity. Figuring out what is real and what isn't can seem nearly impossible, especially since any mental health professionals that they consult are likely to be less than helpful. They may concur that there are brain chemistry problems, but they will neither believe in any of the spirit-contact nor understand the need to see the illness through to some end, whatever that is. Psychiatric medication may be prescribed, and the individual may end up in the hospital. In some cases, the spirits may drive the sufferer away from medical help if they think that it will retard the process, even if this has them sleeping on park benches for a while. In other cases, the sufferer accedes to the wishes of mental health personnel, but it doesn't necessarily fix the problem.

Psychiatric medications for people who are on the Other Road are an ambivalent subject. As discussed above in the section on whether spirit-workers should use psychiatric medications at all, it will largely depend on the individual in question, and divination should perhaps be done in order to get a clear answer. On the other hand, if you are walking the Madness Road as part of a spirit-triggered shamanic rebirth, They may well prefer to you to experience it fully, without the buffering effect of drugs - at least for a time. And if a particular psychiatric medication interferes with your ve in any way - such as making it difficult to move energy or ground and center - it is unlikely that the spirits will allow you to take it, so as above, do divination first to find something appropriate. This advice includes any herbal remedies, but for the latter, it is imperative that a spirit-worker who utilizes herbal remedies should make an alliance with the Grandparent-spirit of that plant, or it may not be all that effective. (Spirit-workers can't just make assumptions about the use of living things for their aid; we are held to a higher standard, even by wights that we haven't met yet or whose existence hasn't occurred to us.) Also, be aware that herbal remedies can interact in difficult ways with allopathic medications, so be careful.

You may also need to consider how much of the issues brought up by shaman sickness are chemical and how much are trauma that no chemical can help, and that needs to be worked through by itself. If, for example, there's a large chemical component that is preventing you from making any headway on the emotional things, you may be able to bargain a deal where you temporarily go on medication long enough to throw yourself fully into working out your emotional issues (assuming that you are not taking one of the anti-empathic meds that simply repress your emotional issues so that you don't have to look at them). Of course, you'd then have to dedicate every day to making yourself emotionally stable enough to go off the medications and deal with the rest of the shaman sickness process without going under. Other tools of modern psychiatry that some modern spirit-workers swear by for "getting ready to survive shaman sickness" are DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).

While one might think that the Madness Road is, if not easier, at least less life-threatening than the Death Road, that would be incorrect to assume. A spirit-worker on the Madness Road may commit suicide out of pain and despair, or do something stupid that gets them killed, or go so thoroughly mad that they burn out their own gifts and live practically catatonic for the rest of their (usually short) lives. One of the big dangers of the Madness Road is being too crazy to realize that you're all that crazy, especially if you've actually got wight-contact going at the same time. It's also common for your judgment to be entirely off about all the important things in your life, even the simplest ones.

What the spirit-worker going down this road desperately needs is a sane, reasonable person that they trust who shares the same or at least a similar world view to them to be their reality check. This "reality check" should give them feedback as to their apparent sanity based on their behavior as a human being, not based on some socially acceptable scale of belief. They should understand that talking to the unseen or doing odd ritual behaviors is, for this spirit-worker, not evidence of insanity. However, being unable to hold a sensible conversation or negotiate reasonably and rationally over some mundane matter might be, as might losing one's empathy or ability to see the world views of others, or becoming paranoid about the motivations of your loved ones and attributing unrealistic and sinister motivations to them, regardless of all evidence to the contrary.

It is important to remember that the mark of a shaman who takes the Madness Road is that they only suffer from those extremes during shaman sickness, and then they recover. A functioning shaman may have odd social behaviors that are the result of his bargains with the spirits, but s/he is fully aware of how they look to others, and can communicate patiently and sensitively past that hurdle. They are able to have healthy relationships and negotiate sanely with others. They need to be sane, in order to do their jobs - not just because the job is so stressful, but because it requires them to understand and empathize with many different clients. They need to be able to live in this world as well as in the Otherworlds, or they are ineffective. This means that in order to function as a shaman, they need to come back from that illness. It's important to have faith in the wights who guide this process, as they understand how to bring someone back from it, but it's also important to have a human support system who can help you with regular infusions of reality about how you look and sound to "normal" people.

At the same time, there will still always be a faint air of insanity about people who have walked the Madness Road, even when they are acting completely sane and normal, just like there will be a faint aura of "death" around those who have walked the Death Road - and for people with the Sight, they may be able to see and smell Death in their auras. (That "smell of death" is difficult for most non-Sighted people to interpret, and they may end up associating it mentally with "evil" or "wrongdoer" or just "creepy". Even if they are lawful and upright people who never harm anyone, people may just "feel" after being around them for five minutes that this is someone dangerous or harmful.) That's because shamans don't ever really come all the way back. One spirit-worker, however, pointed out to me that walking the Madness Road has one significant benefit: A shaman may well be asked to deal with people who are broken in all sorts of ways, and having spent time insane can give insight and compassion in those cases. When one spends time delving into damaged psyches, it's good to know the territory intimately.

I remember seeing a beggar in the New York subway during my sickness. He was shirtless and filthy: he had open sores on his skin and was staring down intently at the concrete, his cupped and dirt caked hand extended in front of him while his shoulders were hunched like he was getting ready to spring. He was also sitting in a full lotus position: to this day I've rarely seen another American who was able to do that. And I realized that in India he would have become a sadhu, and people would have known exactly what was going on with him. But in our culture he was just "mentally ill."

I wonder about the distinctions between schizophrenia and shaman-sickness. One possible distinction might be: "You recover from shaman-sickness; schizophrenia is a chronic and degenerative condition." But this leads to yet another question. How many cases of "schizophrenia" are just untreated, or badly treated, cases of shaman-sickness? If I had received "psychiatric help" during my 1994 episode of shaman-sickness, I might well have decided I was insane. I would never have listened to the voices: I would gladly have taken whatever medications were required to silence them, and today I'd be living in a welfare hotel and collecting a disability check - or I would be yet another suicide statistic. Winding up on the streets self-medicating with marijuana was one of the luckiest breaks I ever got: things could have been a whole lot worse.

I got better once I stopped fighting the voices and started listening to them. I also noticed that my spirit-voices spoke in complete, coherent sentences (or at least clear thoughts and images). The neurological noise, by contrast, tended to be garbled words or sentence fragments repeated inanely. I still get those when I am tired or under stress: I treat them as a warning buzzer and have managed to work with and around them. I'm still given to logic-leaps and mental tangents which are common to schizophrenics and creative folks alike, but I'm able to dial it back to "charmingly eccentric" instead of "drooling nutcase." But the scars are still there. This is one of the things which can make the whole question complicated: "in contact with the spirit world" and "bug-fuck-nutty" are not necessarily mutually exclusive, even after shaman sickness has run its course.

-Kenaz Filan

Modern psychiatry is not, of course, terribly supportive of people's claims that they are hearing spirits talking to them. And, to be fair, only a tiny percentage of cases of mental illness (or, for that matter, life-threatening disease) are actually manifestations of shaman sickness. It is likely that if shaman sickness were an accepted diagnosis in this culture, many mentally ill people would claim it as theirs. We know this because it does happen in cultures where it is accepted. One example of this is the central figure in Margery Wolf's ethnographic paper The Woman Who Didn't Become A Shaman, a Taiwanese woman who started having alleged possession incidents and claimed to be speaking to unknown gods. Local shamans were called in and examined her, but decided that she was merely mentally ill and not actually suffering from any culturally acceptable form of shaman sickness. The author, watching the episode from an academic Western (and aspiritual) viewpoint, felt that the reason for the rejection was that the woman in question was of low status, or something equally socially unfair. Not really believing in the "spirits" of the actual shamans, she was mystified as to why those professionals would claim that those spirits were not in evidence for the afflicted woman.

This means that someone who ends up on the Madness Road is going to have to be very, very careful as to what they say to any mental health practitioner. If you are actually hearing spirits in addition to the sockpuppets in your head - or hearing them through a field of distortion - then this is something that you're going to have to work out on your own, perhaps with help from a trusted diviner. No psychiatrist is going to be able to address the root of the problem if they don't actually believe in it.

On the other hand, sometimes the Gods want you to clean out your mental problems in preparation for this soul-wearing Work, and they may want your feelings clear and loud so that you can deal with them. Talk-therapy may be useful here, as long as you stay away from spirit-work and keep on the subject of your ordinary human problems, of which you likely have just as many as any non-spirit-worker, whether you believe that or not. If there are major issues cluttering you up that will interfere with future Work, your patron wights will do what is necessary to make you clean them up.

Recently I learned that there is a Third Road, the Art Road. This was described by someone as being the road for the spirit-worker who has dedicated themselves to some Art. They live it, they breathe it, it is their identity and the source of all the joy and creativity in their world. The Third Road forces them into a position where they must give it up entirely and walk away, never to touch it again. I have little more information on this Road - unfortunately - but I would assume that it would lie close to, or lead to, the Madness Road. (There is also that the Roads cross each other. Severe illness can be accompanied by bouts of mental instability, and mental illnesses can have physical side effects. Most cases of shaman sickness will involve a lot of one and a little of another.)

One thing that must be stressed is that shaman sickness is a long process. It's not some sort of weekend-long epiphany after which the individual claims to be completely changed. It is long, slow, and agonizing. It can last months or, more often, years. It can also recur if the Gods and spirits feel that you have reached a level where more work needs to be done. If you're mired in shaman sickness, understand that it is going to take its own time. Lay in supplies as if for a long siege, and the best supplies are patience, devotion, and doing as much spirit-work as you can manage, given your situation.

We do know this about shaman sickness: It is triggered by the Gods and wights, and once it starts, even they cannot stop it. It has to go through to its end, whatever that may be. While there's nothing that will make it stop, or reverse, there are some things that may help to speed it up. One of these is deliberately going through ordeals. Not everyone is cut out for, or should go down, the Ordeal Path - but for those who can do it, it can bring the body and mind closer to death and thus speed up the process. Taking these multiple trips to the personal Underworld of body and soul brings you closer to Death, and gets you more quickly to the point where they can do their astral modification work and get it over with, and get you out the other side. For more information about the Ordeal Path in the Northern Tradition, look for that chapter in Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism. For more information about the Ordeal Path in general, we recommend Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM And The Ordeal Path.

Shaman sickness doesn't happen to every spirit-worker, but when it does it can be pretty frightening. First, though, I want to distinguish between Kundalini sickness and shaman sickness; they are related, but not the same thing. Kundalini sickness is what happens when you are changing the way your body runs energy from 110 to 220 volts. Kundalini energy is basically this coiled energy that sits in the base of the spine and comes up. Working on that channel connects your genitals to your brain, and has other benefits like making your brain work better. Upping the voltage makes your core go from idle to forward motion within your energy system, but when that comes up, it comes up quite violently. It can break things, if you're running too many volts for your wires - or too many amps. Your wires will melt, things will get damages, your capacitors will burn out, and you can really seriously damage yourself. You can damage your kidneys, you can give yourself migraines, you can fry your nervous system permanently.

A woman that we know actually died from it. She had a site dedicated to the dangers of Kundalini sickness. As it stands, it's quite easy to prevent it from happening. You just need to do your Kundalini exercises carefully, drink lots of water, know that it can happen and back off if it starts to happen instead of doing more. It requires your whole body, eventually. It is a kind of natural modification that slowly rewires everything for 220 instead of 110, as it were. You can go through months of not being able to eat, puking everything up. People go blind for minutes or hours at a time. There are weird wandering depressions.

Some of the symptoms of shaman sickness are related to Kundalini sickness. Some of it is just that the spirits have to get you close enough to death to receive their modifications. Part of it can happen just because they have kickstarted the thing, waking your energy body. There are all sorts of blockages in your energy system because you haven't been using it properly and they will smash through it. Then once they've done that, they start to kill it off. They make sure it's all working, and then they just drain the life away from it. It's terrifying, painful, and depressing. I certainly thought that I was dying. There can be psychotic breaks, despair, long drawn-out illness. You can't get healed. You have to hit bottom somewhere.

I don't know if you can help it along. There are things that would slow it down, but I'd be more interested in trying to speed it up. Certain meds can slow it down, and so can fighting it, but that will just kill you in the end. I think accepting it speeds it up. Ordeal work can speed it up. The problem is that speeding it up can bring you too close to death too fast, and that can kill you too. The knowledge doesn't come from people, it comes from solitude and suffering. The Inuit will stick you in an igloo for months without much food, for the initiatory ordeal. Of course, maybe that's for the safety of the tribe as well. Because part of your karmic record has to be cleared away, you act out every imbalance that you have, with grotesque violence. So I was just horrendous to be around during that period. You're a source of bad luck, and certainly a source of bad vibes.

We ended up having a full-on funeral for a very large part of who I was. A part of me was laid to rest and chose to die, because I had become so sick and dysfunctional. I was depressed, I had terrible asthma. That part of me - she was so sick and hypervigilant, she gathered all of that into her and took it to the grave with her. And now she's feasted as a hero; she's one of my ancestors now. It was rough, though; it still upsets me to think about it.

How do you choose what part of you gets to die? First you have to know who they are. This requires a lot of meditating and introspection. They need a name, they need a history. Write a saga about them. Write the end of the saga "And then they died to save me." And they need to be ready. Just because you want them to sacrifice themselves and go die now doesn't mean that it's the right time, and that they're going to want to do it. They have to want to do it. You can't just kill them, because you become what you kill and you have to take the karmic load. It's actually much better if they can do it themselves, because then you who are left don't take the karmic load. If you kill them, you still have the karma. If they kill themselves, they take it with them. It's easier on what's left. Of course, some of them don't go down easy. You can ask the spirits to kill them, because then the spirits will take the karma. But then you have to make sure that the spirits will take only them and leave the rest intact. Or you can ask your deity to kill them. Then you have a proper funeral and mourn them, really mourn them.

So I don't know if that has to happen to everyone, but I suspect it's not that uncommon. But that's a big undertaking, to decide that this is what's needed. If you are going to do that, you need to talk to other shamans. If you can't, do lots and lots of divination, and get confirmations from omens, so that you can get a clear idea that the divination is correct. "I want to see a freaking billboard that has her name on it somehow, or I want to drive past something with a huge grave on it, or something. I want that level of clarity." Because if you do kill a piece of yourself off, there's no going back.

Of course, I don't think you should even contemplate it without advice from your patron deity. What I'm concerned about it someone going to a workshop and saying, "Oh, I saw my totem animal guide and it told me that I should kill myself." You need to have a long-term established relationship with a patron of some kind. They can trigger the shaman sickness without showing themselves to you, or you can be too thick-headed to notice that they're there. Usually in anthropological tales, the spirits come first. Those who go through it without hearing their spirit patrons end up dead.

But mainly it's about letting go. Meditations on emptiness. Meditations on letting go. Relaxation exercises. Dissolving work. Letting go as hard as you can.

-Lydia Helasdottir

I was mentally ill for three years. I wasn't even aware of what was happening until I managed to contact a few other spirit-workers online and they told me what was going on, after which things really took a turn for the worse - kind of like, "Okay, so you know what's going to happen to you - hold on, here we go!"

I had several violently psychotic episodes as well as "missing time" and memory lapses. There were numerous bouts of insomnia, some of which lasted as long as four days at a time. I became paranoid and convinced that people secretly hated me, and what little sense of self-worth I had was beaten into the ground. I was severely depressed and overreacted to everything with wild mood swings. My judgment was likewise disabled -- once I freaked out completely when I accidentally locked my keys in my car, and had to be talked down over the phone by a friend, who likewise had to solve the problem of my locked-in keys because I couldn't think straight or reasonably.

My life turned into a bad country-western song. I lost my job, my car, my social life, even my cat. My family, from whom I hid the fact of my shaman sickness, kept haranguing me about being unemployed and acting strange, which stressed me out further. Basically, my entire life fell apart and I was helpless to do anything about it. What made all of this even worse, though, was that except for a couple of dear friends who were busy having and raising a baby, I was geographically isolated from everyone I cared about. Days would go by where I wouldn't talk to anyone I knew, or maybe nobody at all if I didn't leave my apartment, and once I figured I had gone about four months without even touching another person. Not having hardly any human contact all that time was in and of itself an ordeal.

I think that for a lot of us, shaman sickness can be described as a Hobson's Choice sort of affair - either you die fast or you die slow. Either you get Cweorth and burn on the funeral pyre, or you get Ear and you rot. I rotted. I don't really remember there being a single turning point in all of this - in that respect, I didn't have a classic sort of shamanic experience. But things slowly began to resolve themselves. My life got rearranged differently. I was being internally rearranged as well - I lost a lot of old emotional baggage, and my self-esteem was built from the ground up, much stronger than before. I lost any uncertainty about my experiences being "real" as well. And I was lucky; despite being unemployed and nearly incapable of taking care of myself for three years, I did not wind up homeless, nor did I starve. My family turned out to be surprisingly understanding when I finally told them what was going on, as did all of my remaining friends.

Then one day, Loki said to me that I was done, the shaman sickness was over. And I managed to survive, somehow. I feel fortunate.

I didn't have a near-death experience like other spirit-workers I know, but there are parts of me that rotted away and were buried and are gone forever now, or that were taken by Loki or Hela and replaced with other things. The most significant aspect of shaman sickness is that whoever you were before it began becomes more or less irrelevant after it's well and truly over - you vaguely remember what it was like being that person and feeling her feelings and thinking her thoughts, but it may have so little connection to who you are afterwards as to seem like another person entirely. So yeah, I think it's true; you don't come back all the way, whether you actually die and are brought back to life in a physical sense, or whether you just get killed off a tiny piece at a time.

What I did, after my initial reaction of "No, this isn't happening to me!" was simply to accept it - that my life was going to implode, that I was going to go crazy, and that there was nothing I could do to stop it. I know that's the last thing most people are inclined to do, but if you're going to be shaman-sick and the spirits are going to put you through the wringer no matter how loudly you protest, you might as well make it as easy on yourself as possible.

Just as people get injured more often in auto accidents because they unconsciously brace for the impact, if you try to resist, you're just going to be hurt worse. You have to go with it - you have to ride the pain and loneliness and insecurity and fear without letting it drag you completely under. It's hard, but it can be done. You have to keep in mind that it will end, and that when it does you will be a stronger person for it, and will look back with amazement and hopefully, some compassion for yourself for the things you went through. Yes, there is the chance you won't make it - some of us don't. Some people die, or are broken forever. But you can decide not to let that happen to you.

No matter how much things suck, no matter how bleak the future looks or how unprepared you feel or how scared you are, you can survive this. If there was no chance of your survival, the spirits would never have done this to you. You are not the first nor the last person to ever go through this, and you are not alone - even if you're geographically isolated or stranded among people who don't understand and are hostile to the whole thing, you are not alone.

-Elizabeth Vongvisith

Mental illness has historically been what I'm hit the hardest with, and this time seems to be little different. I'm emotionally unstable, and prone to wild mood swings, deep depression, anxiety, anti-social behavior, and the occasional manic episode; I can behave very badly and hardly realize it. The depression can be overwhelming; it's arrested my ability to work and if I'm not careful I become sick for not taking care of myself. Even though I've had to live with it my whole life, the instability that comes during shaman sickness is unique (and interestingly enough, when I'm doing my job and not dealing with sickness, my depression is nearly nonexistent; I don't even have to be medicated for it). The mood swings and weird behavior alienate people and I've lost long-time friends over it. My fortune and circumstances have also been screwed over, which seems to be just par for the course.

How to make it pass more quickly? Hop into it headfirst and try not to hang on to any part of your life so hard that it breaks you when it's ripped away. Obeying all necessary taboos will keep things from getting as bad as they could be, and doing your job can win you some small assistance from the spirit world. But you can't go through that kind of crisis - emotional, physical, and spiritual crisis - and not be dramatically changed for it. I can now look at some of what I went through and say, “Well, at least it's not that again!” The relative difficulty of whatever mess is in front of me is readjusted accordingly. It removed the doubt of the validity of what I was experiencing; some things end up written so deeply that no amount of rationalizing or self-doubt can argue against it. On the surface that appears to be a good thing, but speaking for myself, some of the ways I achieved that knowledge were horrible (and others simply monstrously unpleasant). The way I understand it, part of the purpose of shaman sickness is to saturate you with poison; in the way that fever drives out illness, shaman sickness strikes at the illness of your life in order to heal you. Getting to the harmony and “health” necessary for a spirit-worker isn't accomplished by comfortable forms of healing - it's amputation and fever, like cutting out cancer or making the body such a toxic environment that whatever invading parasite is driven out or killed. The life that was originally present is forever altered because it was “sick” by the standards of spirit-work. When you're “healthy” you are by necessity a different person.

-Jessica Maestas

Early on, I was shoved down the path of Madness. I took quite a few steps on that path and sank deeper and deeper into an often suicidal depression. I was blessed by Loki to be given a choice, though: He allowed me to take a long term look down the madness path and quickly chose physical death instead. It's a hell of a lot easier - for me, anyway. I still carry shards of memory and scars from my experiences of slowly feeling my sanity and hold on reality slipping away (and there are times where the terror of that time still rises up in some perverse shamanic PTSD), but I managed to not go too far down that path. I instead chose to walk the Death Road.

Once my choice was made, I was immediately struck ill for a fortnight. I was unable to eat, drink, could barely urinate and lay flat on my back in feverish agony. After that, things slowed down and progressed at a more stable pace. Having walked the Madness path for a little bit, I have motivation to keep moving down the Death path. I know that if I hesitate too long in what needs to be done, or refuse certain challenges, I'll be thrown back into madness. It's... um….incredible motivation.

My shaman sickness involved losing myself. I started having intense visionary experiences with the Gods that I was honoring. Then things started being taken from me: I lost my apartment, my job, the physical mobility that I'd enjoyed as a dancer, my career, every single one of my friends, and the religious group I was working with at the time. Had it not been for the kindness of the priestess who had trained me, I would have ended up living on the streets. I was forced into emotional and spiritual darkness and for a time, I thought I was back on the Madness road. I think I did go mad for a time. It was as though my emotional landscape was being ploughed up, forced through a sieve, halved and carefully planted with new seeds that would eventually blossom into skills of priestcraft and shaman-craft.

In many ways, I got off easy. I know that just as I must now go through a series of ordeals, I may be taken into another cycle of shaman sickness. Odin has hinted at this strongly over the past year. I'm not quite sure what exactly this will entail, though Odin seems to favor a workable blend of mental and physical anguish.

I don't think there is anything that will make shaman sickness pass more quickly. I think the way to survive is to surrender to the process and to trust in one's Gods and just bear up and go through it, knowing that if one endures, there is a light at the end of that very dark tunnel. This was the only thing that allowed me to get through it … that hope and an inborn stubborn streak. Finding a community of other experienced shamans and spirit-workers and having a good spiritual foundation can help immensely too but ultimately the only way out is through.

Of course, the saying is true, you don't really come back all the way. How can one come back fully from the type of traumatic experience that shaman sickness is? The whole purpose of the sickness is to break a person down, change and re-pattern them into something the Gods and/or spirits can use; to open them creating a vessel or tool. The person as they were before the sickness essentially dies. What returns is different, and the person carries with him or her the scars and remnants of their sick-time. It defines their path and work from that moment on.

So if you're going through this, pray. Utilize consistent devotional techniques like centering prayer as a lifeline. Do what you can to keep yourself as physically healthy as possible—no use adding extra strain. Avoid psychiatrists—they don't understand the spiritual and nothing they do will accomplish anything but prolonging the inevitable. You'll likely have no luck with most modern "core"-type shamanic practitioners, because they haven't gone through this and the nonconsensuality of it may frighten them. Try to find other classic shamans and spirit workers, those who have already been through shaman sickness. They may not be able to do anything to help, but just having a support group of people who understand and can reassure you that you're not going crazy, who have gone through the sickness themselves, can be immensely stabilizing. Unfortunately, I really do believe the only way out is through. Do whatever you have to, whatever your Gods are suggesting to open yourself to the process and just endure. I don't know of any other way to survive it.

-Galina Krasskova

Shaman sickness itself causes drain, never mind when it's synergistically combined with emergent gender issues and emotional rebirthing. I tend to think of them as inextricably linked in the cases where they occur together. In my particular situation, I've dealt with insomnia, major depression, malaise and physical exhaustion, frequent illness, digestive upset, food intolerance, self-destructive episodes, and gender dysphoria. Then there are the bouts of profound self-doubt, extreme spacey-ness, forgetfulness, various kinds of madness, fairly extreme changes in emotional response (including rage which requires a physical outlet) and a desire to run from deity. Never mind the actual day-to-day world collisions and near dissolution of everything I have financially, romantically and career-wise. Your whole world suddenly becomes very precarious. I've known others in my position who have had these same or similar experiences.

Having a good support system is really important. This can also be tremendously difficult to achieve when the people closest to you are alienated at times by your behavior and inexplicable changes. You're in the process of dying and being remade, and your loved ones may not recognize or like who and what it is you are becoming. Things you are required to do by the spirits seem contradictory to what is sane and healthy behavior; these things may be seemingly injurious to your person, financial stability and ability to help maintain a functional household. It's no wonder that people around a shaman-sick person have a hard time dealing with it. It's important to keep your lines of communication open with any significant others. This can be tremendously difficult when people are judging you harshly, but you absolutely must be forthright. If things are going to fall apart, there is little you can do to change it anyway, so it might as well happen honestly and succinctly. Being as honest and open as you can manage gives the other people in your life the opportunity to either rise to the occasion or bow out. There is, in the end, no use in prolonging the inevitable or in denying yourself potential support.

My advice is to find other people who have experienced these things firsthand. For a quiet introvert like me, finding and accepting community support was a difficult task. It was also one Hela insisted on and I cannot thank Her enough for it. I have found a community of warm and helpful folks who actually understand my predicaments and have useful advice to offer. It's a terrible thing to navigate this experience blind, with most people around you convinced you are simply going off the deep end to no avail.

From my own experience and what I've seen in other situations, fighting deity and running from responsibility is not something that ever ends up helping in this process; in fact it is personally devastating. I spent a good amount of time being avoidant and it has resulted in punishments and a work backlog. Things seem to go better when you're doing what you're supposed to, and if your experience is anything like mine you're going to be exhausted either way. It's a lot less painful when things are running smoothly ... well, most of the time. Much of the work is grueling and sometimes pain is just part of the process.

The initial stage of shaman sickness seems to me to be a lot like boot camp. You get hazed and ordered to work and be productive, and you scarcely know what you are even doing. For me it's been a sink-or-swim situation a lot of the time, and the only thing I can do is have faith and try. You might get tossed "on-duty lights" that seem way out of your league, all the while trying to navigate your own personal issues. It can be immensely difficult and intimidating, but you have to step up to the plate.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about why things are the way they are and my intuition screams that They do things this way because it's Necessary. I know that my patron Hela in particular is motivated by Dire Necessity and Purpose, two things I constantly work at keeping in mind while I struggle with my work. All my life I've had this sense of needing to do something incredibly important (and frankly being bothered by it), and I've spent a lot of my life wondering what that was. I'm not a very ego-centric person and am not drawn to accolades, so I had trouble wrapping my head around this inward push. I think I'm beginning to understand.

-Steph Russell

My shaman sickness took roughly 6 ½ years and resulted in excessive weight gain, extreme depression, suicide attempts and a completely changed personality. Collectively, they created a situation in which my family members rejected me and eliminated my support base. I'd say that it was primarily mental illness, with physical side effects. The only advice that I can give is to stop fighting it and dive right in, as the more you deny and struggle the harder it becomes. Also, contacting friends you trust and people who may have lived through it for venting or guarding you during the difficult period is helpful. Life would have been far easier if I could have just gone into seclusion and dealt with the spirits rather than holding down a regular job, but this is the modern era and there's nowhere for novice shamans to go. If having friends who've survived isn't possible, finding knowledgeable people to explain it to your loved ones (if appropriate) could help.

One thing that might help is to find the culture most akin to the manifestation of sickness and see how they handle the transition. Echo it as much as possible. That's what I did. For those without such a culture, you might review the lore of an accepting culture as well as the lore of yours, and see the parallels - then work the parallels to help the transition.

-Aleksa, spirit-worker

Know that it will pass and do not act rashly or irreversibly when not sane. Mindfulness of external word and deed is vital. Suicide is an act of weakness, not a sensible option. Perseverance is all one can do. Don't lose your sense of humor or your will. Don't forget how to love. There is a profound absurdity to a lot of it; see it for what it is.

-Krei, spirit-worker