Medical Journey as Initiation

Before my prophylactic surgeries, I had to have an MRI to make sure there were not any signs of cancer yet, which I was nervous about due to being injected with some kind of heavy metal as the contrast. As I mentioned before, I sat in the room awaiting the procedure just thankful to have my little notebook with me to help me focus on praying. Finally I got in the machine, laying face down with my arms out to either side, and was slid into the tube. The thumping began….noticeably close to the classic trance-inducing frequency (around 220 bpm). In fact, I was having trouble concentrating on the tech’s voice in my headphones because instead I was slipping into an altered state of consciousness. Suddenly I recalled this image (which I’ve been fascinated with for so long it made it into one of my books):

There I was, poison flowing into me, rhythms beating in my ears sending me into trance, in the same physical position as this historical shaman… it felt significant.

In fact, throughout my medical journey, it struck me over and over again how downright shamanic the whole process was. Which I suppose makes a lot of sense, given the radically transformative nature of the surgeries. A friend called it “shapeshifting,” which definitely fits. I was transitioning from one state to another in many ways. From menstruating, at least theoretically fertile, woman to instantly post-menopausal “crone” (or hag as I prefer – might as well embrace that identity as I’ve embraced my gray hair and other signs of aging), firmly and permanently now childless. From a curvy, classically feminine body to one more ambiguously gendered, neutral, able to shift more easily into a masculine mode when needed, for instance during horsing.

Please note: I realize a lack of breasts or uterus isn’t automatically masculine and would not cause the same feelings in many other people, there are a wide variety of valid reactions, but for me this just enhanced a sort of flexibility in my astral body that I suspect had already been there to some degree. I am only ever speaking of my own very personal experience here. For me, I found these changes were deeply Othering, furthering my long drift toward the outskirts of human society with its various categories and roles, and I welcomed that.

I hadn’t, however, expected to find so much spiritual power even in the most mundane aspects of the process. Of course, I was being opened up and my organs and tissue removed and sewn back together as something new – that’s almost a classic initiatory experience. I certainly had to face my fears repeatedly as in most initiation rituals. But there were other steps that played a part.

For instance, before my hysterectomy, I was required to drink a noxious liquid to purge my insides to make the operation safer. I had to give up some of my most reliable plant allies beforehand, but was also given access to others (including a medicalized version of one of the poison plants I have grown and loved and sometimes ingest ritually). There was purificatory bathing with antiseptic cleaners. A special diet to follow, before and after, and a period of total fasting. I had to undergo tests to prove my health in order to move forward, and to pass through several gatekeepers which were owed payment for their assistance. There was a special space set aside for the “ritual” to be held, with even more intense purity protocols. I was put into a deep trance state from which I emerged transformed.

And afterwards, during a liminal period set aside before I resumed normal life, there were rituals of healing and integration. For a week, I had to remove the excess blood and lymph via drains in my body, manually collecting and measuring and disposing of these fluids in an extremely visceral, somewhat disturbing twice daily practice that was eerily reminiscent of old shamanic dreams I’ve had. For weeks (and still sometimes now) I would experience periodic electric shocks across my chest, as the nerves knitted back together – and day by day I watched the incisions in my skin do the same. I did daily work with breath and chi to keep my physical and spiritual energy circulating, and received treatments from a healer to help with that.

This isn’t just a metaphor. This is the reality of my experience. I was taken apart and put back together in a new shape which changed my societal status, my spiritual capabilities, my bodily functions, my aesthetic appearance, even my emotional landscape to some degree. And every step of it was sacred, even the parts surrounded by medical professionals who (while overwhelmingly competent and kind – especially nurses, who are incredible) most likely had no sense of the role they were playing in a religious journey.* Even the parts with laxatives and binding garments and covid tests, as awful and “mundane” as can be. All sacred.

It was beautiful and humbling to see how the gods and spirits could manifest and accompany me in even the strangest and most overwhelming situations. Even in an MRI tube. Even on the operating table, as my last mental words before the anaesthesia dragged me under were Their names. There is no part of our lives They cannot touch. And transform.

*Many nurses took incredible care of me, but I will always remember the name of one. As I was being wheeled into the OR for the second surgery, having burned bay leaves for Apollon just that morning, I was told that my nurse for this part of the journey was named Amber. I felt remarkably calm after that.

[And one last note – Early on in my process I was lucky to listen to Ivy Bromius talk with Gordon White on Rune Soup about “Health Crises as Initiations” in regard to her work with the spirits of chemotherapy and other aspects of her experience which resulted in The Cancer Grimoire. Highly recommended to anyone going through an illness or just interested in ways in which one can approach such situations from a religious or magical perspective.]

~ by Dver on June 12, 2022.

6 Responses to “Medical Journey as Initiation”

  1. Love how you go into and embrace this journey, and all its accompanying steps and difficulties and embarrassments and fear. I’m so grateful to you for introducing me to Ivy. Her wonderful little booklet was my lifeline.

  2. At the risk of sounding all James Frazer, I think this goes to show in a comparative way how science and “magic” (I’m putting that in quotations because I’m sure calling shamanism a kind of magic is probably a gross oversimplification) have common ancestry as fields of knowledge given to us by the Gods to engage with the world around us. A medical surgery is essentially a shamanic healing on the physical level. Considering that in several cultures there is a literal comparison between surgery and shamanic practices (with the inclusion of literally removing bad spirits and spirit objects) I think this is pretty much a slam dunk observation on your part, Dver!

  3. Greetings from the Texas Gulf Coast, USA. I am stunned and awed. A few weeks ago you questioned if you had anything more to say and considered setting aside this blog. Then you write this…thank you…thank you…thank you for keeping this blog open. Your experiences are profound and you have a knack for expressing them that pierces to the core.

  4. I went through something similar when dealing with my brain injury and hospitals. It can be an initiation when you are open to it.

  5. Just going to leave this last addition to the post as a comment. I recently read a NY Times article called The Feminist Case for Breast Reduction which had this passage that was strikingly close to the things I’ve been talking about, considering it was from (I assume) a non-pagan:

    “While writing this, I had a conversation with a friend who suffered from dysmorphia as an adolescent and described having a face that drew negative responses from people her whole life. She decided to undergo elective facial reconstruction in her late 30s. She told me: ‘I wasn’t concerned with the improvement so much as I was concerned with having a literally violent, cathartic experience where I would go through a tremendous amount of pain and reconfiguration. And by doing that, I would reclaim ownership of my body and of my face from every single opinion about it.’ In her words, I recognized an element of my own experience. My surgery had not only been a medical process but also a spiritual one, and the violence of it had been key to that. When I fasted the morning of the surgery and donned the surgical gown, it felt ceremonial, a rite marking not only a physical change but a metaphysical one.”

  6. […] transformations, and her further observations on Asklepios’ role in healing, and comments on her medical journey as initiation, which I suggest everyone have a look at! Many thanks, Dver, for your excellent […]

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