I go to see the psychic for many reasons: first, because I’ve been lying about going to see psychics and mediums in my essays for a while. Second, because I’m genuinely curious. Third, because I want to write about it.
I find my psychic on Yelp. Reading several reviews, I find myself drawn to this one in particular. I pick up the phone on a Thursday morning and call. I leave a voicemail. She calls me back and we make an appointment for that evening.
She is a middle-aged woman with clear olive skin and beautiful green eyes. She mentions she is a grandmother, has a brisk and down-to-earth presence, speaks in an attractive cigarette-and-whiskey voice. She compliments my handbag as I sit down.
The place is a small room, dark despite a row of windows facing the street. There are glass cases containing crystals and candles in all shapes and colors. There is a large mural on the wall, a many-colored woman or goddess sitting cross-legged, rainbow dots running from her pelvis to the crown of her head. There is a cabinet in the corner full of books. We sit on either side of a small curved table, which holds a crystal ball, a pack of well-worn tarot cards, several small clear crystals, and a couple small white candles.
I wasn’t specific about the services I wanted, and she doesn’t really ask. She hands me the pack of tarot cards and asks me to shuffle them while channeling my energy and my questions into them. She asks me to be sure of what I want to ask before I hand them back. I hand them back after a minute and she asks me to shuffle again, and this time really concentrate. I do it again. When I hand them back the second time, she explains she did not get enough of my energy the first time. When she deals the cards, she lays ten in a cross pattern on the table. The card in the center of the cross is Death.
She taps the Death card, “This is controlling your life. Have you lost someone?”
“When?” she asks.
“A little over three years ago,” I say.
“He was your boyfriend?” she asks.
I nod, taking the easy way out.
“Were you engaged?” she asks.
I shake my head no.
She pauses, stares at the cards, leans back in her chair. “You’re going to get married. Does that surprise you?”
“A little,” I say.
“You will meet this man in two, maybe three years. There will be other men in between but they are not your soulmate. His soul,” she taps the Death card, “will come back to you in this man.”
“Are you still close to his family?” she asked.
“Good. You should be.”
She stares at me for a minute. “His soul has not yet passed on. It surrounds you. You are still holding on. You are keeping him here. You need to let him go, let his spirit go, so he can pass on and then return to you.”
She taps two other cards. “Pentacles. Pentacles. One of them is the Ace of Pentacles.” She peered at me. “You are very unhappy. You have been unhappy for five years. Since before he died. You will be happy again, though. You have to remember, happiness and sadness are not opposites. You can be both.”
“You are going to be married. I see . . . two children. You will live beside the water, the ocean. You are very intelligent. You have worked hard for everything you have, nothing has been given to you. You will be very successful. You will publish many books. But you need to let him go. You are surrounded by negative energies. You are very unhappy. You are depressed.” She looks at me keenly.
“Your base chakra is out of balance, and so is your third eye. You’re not seeing things clearly. I can fix you.”
“I can help you, but you have to let me,” she says. “Would you like me to align your chakras?”
“Sure,” I say.
I’m there for about forty minutes. I pay for this session and the chakra alignment. She books my appointment for Monday morning and hands me a crystal.
“Take this,” she says. “It will bring you good energy. Any other questions?”
“Can you talk to him for me?”
“He will come through,” she says.
I say my goodbyes, step outside, hail a cab. On the ride home, I stare out the window clutching my crystal. I feel sad and hopeful at the same time. I feel present in a way I feel sometimes after therapy, or sometimes in church. I feel better.
The crystal is a small clear quartz crystal. Google tells me that clear quartz is for balancing your energies: neutralizing the negative and amplifying the positive. It cleanses the soul and enhances psychic abilities. I set it on my bedside table and leave it there.
When I was growing up, I went to church with my family. My parents tithed, which meant they gave a tenth of their income to the church. When I started my first job, I did the same, ten or fifteen dollars twice a month in the platters they passed down the church aisles every service, as the pastor or another church leader extolled the virtue of giving and the spiritual rewards it would bring us.
Toward the end of my church-going days, I started sending my tithe money to the local animal shelter and food bank instead.
I have since exchanged church for therapy. I go sit in her office once a week. I sign my check for the copay every week.
I think what I’ve been paying for is a sense of stability, a process or structure that holds the promise of healing.
I go back to the psychic on Monday. We exchange pleasantries, sit down on our respective sides of her small table. She looks at me searchingly, silently. After a minute, she smiles and explains, “I’m reading your energy.”
I try to give off good energy but she says, “You have some negative energies around you.”
“Why are you here today?” she asks.
“To have my chakras aligned,” I say.
She smiles. I wonder if that was the wrong response. “And I’d like to speak to him,” I add.
“He’s still here,” she says.
“So, what should I expect from a chakra alignment?” I ask. “I don’t really know anything about it. I tried to Google it but there was so much information.”
She points to the mural of the female figure. “The chakras are centers of spiritual power in the body. When they’re out of balance, you’re dissatisfied. Nothing can make you happy or bring you peace.” She looks at me sharply, “This is why you’re not happy or at peace.” She touches the center of her forehead, where you would place a bindi. “We need to work on your third eye. When your chakras are in alignment, you are at peace: mentally, spiritually, physically. When your third eye opens, you will see everything clearly. You will be able to see people for who they are.”
After fifteen minutes, I’m out the door with an amethyst too large to close my fist around, and a small red candle. She says she needs more time and materials, which I must provide. I am supposed to sit for fifteen minutes every day and burn the candle and hold the amethyst. For fifteen minutes, I’m supposed to think positive thoughts and take deep yoga breaths. I’m also instructed to write down my dreams. It seems that she will use the candle and the amethyst, imbued with my energy, and use my dreams to help me.
We will align my chakras next Monday at the same time.
I have come to accept myself as someone with negative energies, though I wouldn’t have used the word “energies.” But negative, yes. I am depressive, anxious, and over-analytical, just to start the list. I have grown to like some of these qualities, accept some, temper others. When someone tells me I have negative energy, I tend to laugh drily, kind of like when someone calls me a bitch. Like, yeah, okay, tell me something I don’t know.
I would like to be happy. I want to be lighter, freer, more present, not always in my own head, not always weighed down by the things that have hurt me. But it’s hard to be okay with that shift. If a psychic and her crystals can neutralize my negativity, does that fundamentally change me as a person?
My therapist and I have talked about antidepressants and anxiety medications. Sometimes when something bad happens, even a small thing, I get so sad it sends me into a kind of panic. In this panic, I often do self-destructive things to try and muffle the pain. Most often, I drink. I’ll go on a midday bender to try and shut down the part of my brain that is freaking out that it’s capable of feeling so much pain, incapable of regulating my sadness, or telling me that I’m overreacting. My therapist thinks that perhaps an anxiety medication could help me, so that when I feel this panic rising, I can take a pill and it can muffle that part of me, regulate that part of me.
I want to be happy. I want to be the kind of person who can take small blows and small reminders without falling apart, but I’m afraid of turning off my anxiety. For all the ways that my anxiety destroys me, it also drives me. For all the bad days that I can write off to that panic, there is also a heightened sense of purpose that I am terrified of shutting off. The part of me that is anxious is the same part of me that is capable of being a high-performing individual.
Anxiety and sadness feel so intrinsic to me. I am attached to them. This is how I feel about grief too. This is what my psychic means when she tells me he surrounds me. Whether or not his spirit is involved, that is deeply true. Four years after his death, I am still writing about it. I have my claws in the sadness.
Tuesday morning, I forget the candle and crystals and dream journal. I get up and go about my day, remember midday at my office, forget again when I come home. Wednesday morning, however, I remember.
No dreams. That I remember anyway, I write in a notebook under the date. I set my phone’s timer for fifteen minutes, light my candle and sit on the floor in lotus pose in front of my open window, the amethyst in my cupped hands.
I take deep breaths and think positive thoughts.
This is hard. I try to think of good things that have happened recently, but it just makes me think of the to-do list that is constantly scrolling through my head. I was published by an online publication, great, now I need to place my other piece in a print publication. When I see where my train of thought is going, I turn to the mantras I repeat to help with my self-loathing: I am enough. I am fine just the way I am. I am worthy of love just the way I am. Better, but they remind me of my body and my body is a charged subject.
Instead, I try to find the feeling I get when I take a cab across the city. For some reason, riding in a cab gives me a powerful sense of how far I’ve come in the last few years. I think it’s because it was something I never really did before I moved to the city.
In a cab at night, coming up Lake Shore Drive to my place in the Gold Coast, I start feeling very full and present because I feel like I manifested my own life. It is far from perfect, but it is completely different from what I left behind and it makes me feel powerful and clear-sighted.
I channel that now, looking out my open window. I think positive, vague thoughts about my past and my future and what I am capable of. It’s very nice but soon I get bored and start thinking about the piece I’m working on. I am just writing in my head, and no matter how I try to redirect my thoughts, zen out, I am still narrating my own life to myself. When I can’t stand it anymore, I get up. It’s been five minutes.
I think it’s the structure of returning to the psychic week after week that someone seeking spiritual comfort would find helpful, but it’s where I find a home for my skepticism. She charged me on my first visit for the reading and the chakra alignment, but on my second visit there was no talk of money. I’m curious to see if she’ll try to charge me or get me to come back for my third visit. She has a canny air about her that it’s easy to interpret as either spiritual perception or a con artist reading a mark.
I call my mom, who thinks all of this is silly and is a devout Christian. I tell her the similarities I see between religious culture and this kind of spiritual or occult culture. She recalls a Bible verse that talks about balancing mind, body, and spirit. When I text her to ask her about the verse later, she says the one she was thinking of is 1 Thessalonians 5:23, which says, among other things, “May your spirit and soul and body be kept complete.” I don’t know if that mirrors the chakras at all, though some reading on tripartite view of man does reveal that the Hebrew understanding on the body in Paul’s day is a closer parallel to chakras than I expected. At the time, Paul would have likely believed different organs to be the homes of different kinds of thoughts and feelings, similar to Hippocrates’s humors. So the New Testament authors would have believed, like my psychic does or purports to, that there are specific physical residences for spiritual qualities in our body.
I think a lot of what both my mom and my psychic have to say is beautiful, but to paraphrase Alice Notley, I do not serve beauty. I serve the destructive haggard witch of truth.
That’s why I’m drawn to my psychic’s promise that my third eye will open and I will see clearly. It will be funny if it works but the consequence is that I see her clearly and see she just is getting money out of me.
It’s not hard to imagine I’m being conned. She can see my naked sadness and grief, and she is selling me a better life. However, even if she doesn’t believe in her work, is she doing me a disservice?
Some people feel this way about therapy. They think therapists give you nothing, that you pay to go back and explore more and more of your problems for which there are no solutions, and the therapists have no vested interest in your actual healing, because that means they lose a customer. That makes sense to me, but I know I get something out of therapy. So even if my therapist’s agenda is to keep me on her couch, I feel better when I’m in therapy.
I think this might be true of most spiritual practices. In a sense, you get what you want to get out of them. If you believe in religion, it can bring you peace and order in a dark and chaotic world. If you believe in crystals, they can bring you a sense of control. If you want to see your future or speak to the dead, pay for a medium. It’s a way to buy or attend your way into a mental or emotional state that seems impossible to manifest on your own.
One of the things I seek in therapy, and rarely find, is a categorization or demarcation of what I’m experiencing and who I am. I want titles, boxes checked, I want the clinical name for what I’m feeling. Most of my therapists have tried to sidestep this desire, and I can see why. Often categorization is a roadblock and not a shortcut to understanding. This is why my psychic is so appealing to me. This also why I am skeptical of her. I am skeptical of anyone who seems so certain of what’s wrong with me, so certain they can help me.
I’ve been in school for a while, and I’ve waited tables a good portion of that time. Waiting tables is one of the only ways you can make enough to live on comfortably while going to school full-time. For me, waiting tables is hard because of the negative parts of my personality I mentioned earlier. I am not a people person, I am not a performer, I am not bright and positive. However, I have learned to play that role for hours at a time.
Once I was waiting on a family: a grandmother, her daughters and son, the daughters’ husbands and children. One of the women was telling me about her daughter’s swimming lessons, and I was smiling and nodding when her brother cut in: “She doesn’t care. She’s just pretending she cares for the tip.”
It was shocking and awkward, and of course, mostly true. She and I exchanged horrified glances, and I retreated into my usual I’m from a large family in Texas who I miss enormously role, which is both real and something I perform. But what does it matter if I really cared or not? (Does anyone outside of the family ever genuinely care about your child’s swimming lessons?) I am performing caring for you, because that is the role we find ourselves in. And if you feel cared for, what’s the difference?
In the same way, I think that’s how I feel about religion, about therapy, about my psychic. If she performs healing for me, and I feel healed, what does it matter? I’ll give her the money and not begrudge it, like my tables give me theirs.
I keep forgetting to write in my dream journal. I know I dream, but I forget to think about it when I first wake up, and by the time I remember, I can’t recall a thing. The only dream I can remember to put in my dream journal is one of the dreams of sexual assault that have dogged me since my assault.
I used to hang in the same circles as a girl who attached great importance to dreams and would interpret them for others, with the aid of a dream interpretation app on her iPhone. It was fun to tell my dreams and have her analyze them. Most people love talking about their dreams, but, much like your child’s swimming lessons, your dreams are only interesting to you.
I think about putting dreams I’ve had about him in the past in my dream journal, just to see how my psychic would interpret them, but that seems like a betrayal of the process.
The New York Times has extensively covered a case of a psychic as a con artist. Priscilla Kelly Delmaro told Niall Rice she would help him get the woman he wanted, who had told him she wasn’t interested.
Reading the Times stories, it’s hard to root for the victim. Rice, an online entrepreneur, was looking for a magic love potion after a woman had “categorically made clear” (his words) that she had no interest in him romantically. Delmaro charged him close to a million dollars over the course of twenty months for such things as a reincarnation portal and an eighty-mile golden bridge to the underworld. It turned out the woman Rice was pursuing was dead.
Of course, at some point in those twenty months Rice slept with Delmaro.
How could you possibly side with Rice? At the most basic level, he’s a rube, an easy mark. But it’s why he was paying for spiritual help that turns my stomach. He couldn’t accept a woman’s decision to not be with him. I am thrilled to read that Delmaro was set free after eight months in jail. She has four years of probation, but Rice’s admittance to their sexual relationship turned the sentence in her favor, since it would be easy to recast his payments as gifts.
So Rice payed over $700,000 to a psychic for the affection of a woman who had clearly expressed her disinterest in him, slept with the psychic, then sued the psychic.
As a woman who has often “categorically made clear” her disinterest with very mixed results, this story turns my stomach and makes me laugh a little, bitterly. I feel Rice got what he deserved. However, I wonder if what I’m doing is not similar to Rice. I too am pursuing a dead person who chose not to date me when he was alive.
Thursday morning’s fifteen minutes doesn’t go any better. I’m a little hungover despite an early bedtime, and I can’t even achieve the tiny amount of positivity and focus I hit yesterday. I take Advil and decide to try in the evening.
I really want to do it right.
I think I’m agnostic about the psychic and the tarot and the chakras, in the sense that I neither believe it nor disbelieve it. But I’m trying very hard to keep an open mind. If I’m going to do this, to go through the process, I want to give it a fair try.
I genuinely want to believe.
When I was reading what I could find about psychics and tarot and the occult, one of the first things that popped up, besides Rice’s story, was Alexander Chee’s beautiful essay “The Querent.” It stood as a counterpoint to the ugliness and cynicism of the New York Times series, in which no one is a believer. Chee believes in the power of the tarot.
Chee writes: “The book with the cards recommended that I quietly hold the cards in my hand and ask them for guidance. I remember as I tentatively closed my eyes and did so. This was an uncomfortable thing to do at first, but that probably says more about who I was than about the gesture. In the occult, as in life, perhaps even more so, good manners matter.” I am trying to have good manners. I am trying to be quiet and ask for guidance. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult.
I forget to sit with the candle for fifteen minutes before bed.
I say, “I really want to do it right,” and I think that’s part of my problem. I’m always convinced there’s a right way to do something. When he died, I trotted straight to a therapist’s office. I saw her for an hour every week. I wanted to grieve correctly. I asked her over and over again, am I doing this right? Should I be feeling this way? How long should this last? How should I be behaving? Part of the answer is realizing there’s no answer.
But that obedience to a process is why I’m trying to spend my fifteen minutes a day with the candle and the amethyst, feeling like an idiot on my hardwood floor. The thing is, I really want to believe.
When I was a teenager, I had a nightmare that my best friend was in a car accident. I woke up and called her and found out she had been in a car accident while I was sleeping.
When I was very in love with a man who lived in California, I was able to sense when he was sleeping with someone else.
When I was very in love with the boy who died, if someone’s phone rang on the other side of the room, I could sense if he was on the other end of the line.
It feels spiritual, a kind of prickling disruption, something nudging me and giving me a secret message. But, like most of what my psychic said, it can be attributed to reading the information presented, or lack of information presented, or common sense, or patterns of behavior.
Except for the dream. That’s hard to explain.
I have often thought I have a heightened perception that can approach a spiritual connection, that when I care deeply about someone there’s a kind of invisible electric wire between us that I can tug on. But when he died, I tugged and tugged and there was nothing there.
I had a dream that he’s alive beside me, all of him, minus his left arm, the only thing the accident took from us. In its place he has a metal robot arm that attaches to him with a kind of locking mechanism at the shoulder joint, steadied by a leather holster around his chest. We are in the kitchen with friends, leaning against each other. Later, he shows me how to fasten his robot arm in place, how to take it off at night. He is not only alive: we are living together.
It’s strange to me that wanting things doesn’t equal getting them. I mean this in both the pouty, privileged way that I’m trying to unlearn and the way that there often things we want that should be achievable but just aren’t. I am constantly wanting to lose a few pounds, as I think most women do. The thing about weight loss is that, for most healthy individuals, it’s not that complicated. You up the burning of calories and cut the consuming of calories. It’s not fun, it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not complicated. It’s achievable.
And yet so few of us do it. I’ve lost weight before, a large amount, and so now, on the other side of that, I find it weird that though these extra few pounds bother me, I do nothing to shed them.
If I want to be done with grieving, why can’t I just be done? If I want to be happy, why can’t I just be happy? If I want to believe, why can’t I just believe?
I’ve been watching the X-Files for the first time these past few months. The X-Files is a television show about two FBI agents who exclusively work cases that deal with the supernatural. The overarching plot of the series is that Agent Mulder believes in aliens and Agent Scully initially does not but comes around because she is presented over and over with incontrovertible evidence that aliens exist. The fun of the series is that Mulder and Scully care deeply about each other, but have conflicting personalities and outlooks: Mulder plays the role of believer, and Scully plays the role of skeptic. Even after she has begun to accept the existence of alien life, Scully still questions if each particular case they’re working is necessarily linked to the extraterrestrial. (It always is.)
One of the key phrases of the show is “I want to believe.” It shows up in the opening credit sequence, superimposed over a blurry image of a flying saucer, set to the show’s trademark creepy music. Mulder has a poster of the same image with the same words in his messy office. In a way, it’s the essence of the show. Mulder wants to believe. Scully doesn’t.
But Scully wears a gold cross around her neck. She is a devout Christian. They are actually both believers. They just have faith in different things.
There’s a story in the Bible, in the gospel of Mark, where a man comes to ask Jesus to heal his son. Jesus says he will heal the child if the father believes. The Bible tells us: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’”
In the father’s cry and in Mulder’s poster live the same idea: I want to believe, but I don’t know if I can.
I’m obsessed with the X-Files. I’ve been binge watching it on Netflix for weeks. In the show, Mulder and Scully have become aware that aliens are secretly colonizing planet earth, a plot the United States government and high ranking officials in the FBI seem complicit in. Mulder and Scully are fighting every possible power with no kind of thanks or recognition or support. People either oppose them or think they’re crazy. But Mulder and Scully do not serve ambition or praise. They serve the haggard destructive witch of truth.
I go see the psychic for the third time. It’s sleeting, and when she doesn’t answer the door right away, I consider leaving.
But I wait.
She answers the door when I knock again, and we sit at her table. She appraises my energy, and asks to see my dream journal. Four nights of no dreams, one night of a dream I can’t remember and two dreams I do remember.
I’m in my family’s old church and an ex-friend comes in.
I’m in an enormous, abandoned old boarding school with a baby. I think it’s my brother when he was a baby. I’m taking care of him.
“You’re going into the past in your dreams,” she says. “That’s good. That means you’re purging old negative energies. Your mind, body, and spirit are beginning to align. You are healing.”
She gives me a sage wand to burn and says, “You’re taking time for yourself for the first time in your life.” It’s not true but it feels true.
I am supposed to burn the sage for three consecutive days, starting today. I am supposed to open all the windows, light the sage, smudge it, and bathe in the smoke. I am supposed to take it into every room in my home and think only positive thoughts while I do so, no negative energy.
“Picture positive forces surrounding you,” she says.
As I’m walking out the front door, she calls out, “You look beautiful!”
I am feeling better, but at the same time I started seeing the psychic I started writing a lot, drinking less, and going to therapy weekly. They’re all interconnected, with each influencing and allowing the others. I can’t follow a causal thread.
I talk to my psychic about what my therapist says, and to my therapist about what my psychic says.
My mother giggles when I mention the psychic, yet she and my sisters believe in essential oils and herbal extracts, which seem about the same concept as sage. My sister diffuses lavender and puts amber beads around my baby niece’s neck to help with teething, though she is a devout Christian who would laugh at my trips to the psychic. I’m surprised by the similarities, and wonder what draws the line for them.
I feel if I can no longer believe in the faith I was indoctrinated with from childhood, I will never believe in anything—that if I can’t have faith in that, I’m incapable of faith. But there has to be value in being open to possibility. Surely that is part of serving truth: to always be ready to change your mind, if given a good reason to.
It’s becoming evident to me that I both believe in ghosts and don’t believe in ghosts—at the exact same time. These two convictions coexist in me. I believe; help my unbelief.
Or in my case, as in Scully’s case: I do not believe; help my belief.
I don’t think I’m going to go back to the psychic. I haven’t yet burned my sage but I think I will. I do believe that rituals can hold power, that going through the motions of cleansing can be the same thing as a real cleansing.
Last night I dreamt that it was the end of the world. I was with my family in my parents’ house and a huge storm was coming—familiar enough weather for Texas, but we had been told it was the end of the world. I trace the origin of this dream to a New York Post article about the earth being destroyed by an unknown planet sometime this month.
In my dream, we board up the windows and sit inside in the dark, waiting. The winds and rain come. In the dream, I’m holding my amethyst.
Hilary Collins received her MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University. She has been previously published by the Rumpus and the Portland Review.