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When the Ostrich met the Owl
In February of 2022, I went to see a Shaman.
I learned of this Shaman from a friend of mine who was gifted a Spirit Animal session by her friend. My friend was a tortoise; her friend was a raccoon.
At the time of this dinner, I was having intense panic attacks almost daily. We were dining at a Vietnamese restaurant that would traditionally have been my jam, but mid-way through my meal, I was engulfed in panic. I couldn’t eat. Everything in my body was screaming for me to get up from the table and go outside to pull fresh air into my lungs. I wanted to scream, “HELP! Something is really wrong with me.” I sat extremely still and focused on regulating my breathing until it passed. I never finished my vermicelli noodle dish.
Driving home, I asked my sister (who had joined us for dinner) if she could tell I was having a panic attack and she said, “no, not at all.” I was so used to having them that I was getting better at riding the wave of the anxiety, breathing, drinking cold water, telling myself, “it’s a panic attack, it will end.”
But getting good at having panic attacks doesn’t make them any less exhausting and awful and draining.
I had a handful of panic attacks in college after a stranger attempted to kidnap me - more on that another time. No panic attacks for 20 years. Anxiety, but no panic attacks. And then, out of nowhere, on July 15, 2020, I had the mother of all panic attacks in a furniture store. I had no understanding that I was having a panic attack. I legit thought I was dying. I will also write more about this whole experience later. In the past two-ish years, I’ve had maybe 20 big panic attacks and hundreds of little ones. I employed all the strategies from my experience as a psychotherapist and worked so hard to deal with them through Exposure and Response Prevention techniques. I had also been doing EMDR because 2 of my 4 children had medical emergencies in the years leading up to this and I thought maybe it was the trauma of watching them almost die? Especially since one of the triggers was eating. I would get five bites into a meal, something I didn’t eat everyday, and feel an overwhelming fear that I was allergic to an ingredient. That’s what happened at dinner. I don’t have any allergies but my son is allergic to cashews and pistachios and I once had to inject him with his Epi-pen and watch him get so swollen his eyes shut tight and he struggled to breathe. HIs little body was covered in huge welts from head to toe. So again, I don’t have allergies, but my subconscious raises these intrusive thoughts that hit my brain and then I feel like my throat is closing, my heart races, and I’m sure I will pass out any moment. Impending doom abounds. Being in big stores, cave-like stores (like the furniture store I was in that day, or Costco, or the back of Target) was also a trigger for a long time. Driving with my kids in the car or driving over bridges was challenging for a while. And sometimes the trigger was just a really uncomfortable flippy-floppy feeling in my chest.
During this time, I also wore a heart monitor and found out I have bradycardia, episodes on non-sustained ventricular tachycardia, supra-ventricular tachycardia, premature ventricular contractions, and premature atrial contractions, and that three of my four heart valves leak. The cardiologist basically said, “yeah, that’s not normal but don’t worry about it and we’ll see you in a year.” That doesn’t work for someone who is already having panic attacks and, side note, has a history of major health anxiety. One interesting thing I learned is that supra-ventricular tachycardia induces panic attacks and is often missed because physicians assume anxiety. Hmmm. So, I’m going to therapy and working my ass off on exposures and letting the panic wash over me. I’m still driving, I’m still working everyday, I’m still going into stores and doing all the things that scare me and feeling so afraid all the time. And I’m confronting this information about my heart. It’s not normal but it’s not life-threatening, just uncomfortable. Of course, I join all the facebook support groups. I’m going to bed at night terrified I won’t wake up. I’m doing all the things, but nothing is working to soothe the base level of fear around my own mortality. I am terrified, everyday, of dying and leaving my children.
I cry easily watching them play, I smell them when they’re sleeping, I fear they won’t remember how much I love them. I don’t want to die. Nobody else (parents, husband, siblings, friends) seems too worried that I’m going to die, but I am consumed with death anxiety. I think about my death within moments of waking up, while I’m seeing clients, while I’m doing laundry, while I’m eating dinner with my family, when I go to sleep. I have even fallen into the pattern of waking up abruptly, about 45 minutes into sleep, gasping for breath and shaking with fear. I thought maybe I had sleep apnea, but I wore a little monitor on my finger that squashed that theory.
I hated not knowing why I was so fucked up. That part is still hard. Is it because I was really sick in January of 2020? Did I have Covid before Covid was a thing? I had a fever for 6 days, was negative for flu and strep, had terrible back and flank pain, had to sleep sitting up. I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. After that, I had some weird things happen. Like, I had vertigo twice, which I’d never had. Maybe I had Covid and it inflamed my heart? The actual facts of my life, my reality, was more settled than it had ever been. My children were all healthy, we weren’t broke, I was getting along with my husband, I enjoyed my job - was I finally “safe” enough to process trauma stored in my body? I tried doing Internal Family Systems work with myself to ask the sensations what they wanted me to know and to assure them I was here to help. I did experience old trauma stuff come up from childhood and young adulthood, like a catalogue of terrifying and shameful experiences that all involved themes of sexual assault or abuse. Some memories emerged that were confusing and unclear and I had a really hard time trusting myself, my body, my intuition around the who, what, where, when of very early childhood. These memories and confusion over the whole heart situation left me with overwhelming feelings of uncertainty and not knowing my own self. I had this sense that if I could know 100% the cause, I could heal. I could deal with anything, face anything, but not knowing exactly what I was facing made it all so difficult.
I did know that to heal, I needed to develop the part of me that could say, “well, if I die, I die.” I needed some level of acceptance around death.
So when my friend brought up a Shaman, which I didn’t know we had access to in my Midwestern town, I was super intrigued. “Oh yeah! Give me her information! That sounds super interesting and fun.” Inside, I was hoping against all hope that maybe this would be a thing that could help me with my debilitating anxiety. I was ready to turn to metaphysical answers.
Fast forward to my appointment. I arrive at the destination I programmed into my phone. I’m disappointed by the cookie-cutter condo; the front door hidden behind the garage, like the whole place just looks like a beige garage from the street. I am skeptical that healing can occur in a suburban condo.
I enter the home, take off my shoes per written instructions, and wait in a little living room. A woman appears at the top of the stairs beyond the room. She has shoulder-length black hair, a bit wild and stringy, very dark, sunken eyes, white skin, and she’s wearing dark clothing, leggings and a baggy top. She looks physically uncomfortable.
“I don’t think you’re here at the right time,” she says. Not friendly or unfriendly, just stating her thought.
“Oh! I’m so sorry,” I say. I always apologize first and figure out whether I should have later. I check my email on my phone and confirm I’m in the right place. “Oh, my email says 1:00 pm.”
“I must have written you down wrong. Do you mind coming back in an hour?” She asks.
“Oh, sure. That’s just fine. I’ll be back,” I say, smiling and gathering my things and slipping on my shoes.
Getting in my car, I wonder if this was a mistake. But I’ve already driven 25 minutes from home, so I run an errand and return an hour later.
When I enter the home this time, she’s waiting for me. She directs me to go down the stairs to her basement and she follows behind me. After a few steps, I realize she has sat down on her butt and is kind of scooting down the stairs. She then crawls from the stairs to a chair and motions for me to sit on a couch next to her.
The basement is dark with a large mirror spanning one wall. There are drums and oils, crystals and eye masks, all for sale. It smells like incense. Tapestries and natural paintings cover the remaining walls. It feels like we descended into a little mystical lair - nothing like the condo’s exterior or main floor. I find myself confronting a belief that white people can’t be spiritual healers. Like, I won’t get as much out of this experience if the practitioner doesn’t have brown skin. I recognize this thought is racist, but also kind of feel like the people on Instagram who would tell me this thought was racist would also tell me that these are Indigenous practices reserved for people with brown skin. I’m not sure what the appropriate way is to feel about having a 60-year-old white woman Shaman.
The woman next to me introduces herself, confirms that I signed up for a Spirit Animal session, and gets to work explaining how we will find my spirit animal. I can’t distinguish if I like her or not, if I connect with her or not. She is neither overly warm or cold. She is simply laying out what we are going to do today and how it’s going to go. She will connect with her Spirit Animal, the Ostrich, and together they will go find my Spirit Animal. I will just need to lie down and relax and enjoy the drumming. There is nothing for me to do. She asks if I have questions. I have 7,000 but don’t ask any of them. She climbs off her chair and scoots over to the other side of the room where a large blanket is laid out on the floor. She tells me to lie on the blanket and gives me an eye cover.
Once I’m situated, she wraps the blanket around me and tucks it in under my feet. I instantly feel afraid. The higher my anxiety, the less open I am to new experiences. I have the fleeting thought that I might go into a trance and lose my mind. That the intervention of drumming might make me go mad. “Calm the fuck down,” I say to myself.
The drumming begins and I can tell she has lit a candle as a new scent makes its way through my nose. When I first change positions to lying down, my heart tends to act up. I can feel it pounding, skipping a beat, starting to race. I can hear the drumming but I’m more attuned to my chest and head. The thought, “what if I have a panic attack,” comes up and I try to settle myself. The eye cover makes it pitch dark even if I open my eyes. There was a time, in college, where it was really hard for me to close my eyes in the shower. When I was shampooing my hair or washing my face, I would feel panicky and need to open my eyes.
I stay with the drumming. I start to settle a bit. I start to wonder if she knows my animal yet, if this is all bullshit, if I’m going to be a crazy person for the rest of my life? I relax into the drumming and start to enjoy the blackness. I don’t feel the intense need to rip the eye cover off my face. As the drumming continues, I convince myself that I’m a cat of some sort. A jaguar or a cheetah. I’m just getting lots of purring, low to the ground, hunting, shiny coat vibes. I’m thinking of jungles. I start feeling calm and strong. I’m not really thinking at all. And before I know it, it’s over. The drumming stops. Silence. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now, so I just kind of lay there, waiting for direction. Finally, she says, “when you feel ready, you can sit up.”
When I’m sitting, she tells me my Spirit Animal. A Screech Owl. She tells me that my Spirit or Power Animal will lend strength and wisdom to my life. The Screech Owl is part of me and will help me build power and focus energy. She pulls a thick book from a table behind her and begins to read about the Screech Owl.
I learned the following about the Screech Owl Spirit Animal:
The owl is a symbol of the feminine, the moon, and the night
Owls have been called cats with wings
Depending on tradition, the owl is associated with wisdom, magic, protection, evil, death, astral projection, fertility, and reincarnation of the dead
As a bird of the night, owls see in the darkness. They see and hear what others try to hide and are comfortable with the darkness within where we store our own secrets.
Owls keep silent, need silence
Owls possess keen perception of others
Owls are family-focused. Some mate for life or until their owlets are mature
The males bring food to the female and the babies (this hits home as I do not cook or feed my children - my husband does all of the feeding us)
Owls don’t build their own nests but make homes from existing structures
Screech owls are fiercely independent but can cooperate with others well when need be - maintaining individuality throughout
As soon as I heard the whole owls and death correlation, I felt a punch of warm anxiety in my gut and my mind went a bit fuzzy. I thanked her for her time and watched her scoot back to her chair. It’s then that she told me she had fallen in her garage last week and was having trouble walking, which really helped me understand why she was crawling all over the place like a gremlin. I thought maybe it was a Shaman thing but nope, just the result of a slippery floor.
I left feeling a little more scared of death because I got the death spirit animal. And I was bummed to be a bird and not a jaguar. And I was not feeling a super connection with the Shaman.
I went home and read all things owls. And called my sister to tell her all about the experience. I could relate to the owl in the following ways:
My whole job is to help people see their own darkness (not that I would call it that) with clarity and to bring the hidden to the surface to promote healing and self-actualization
Again, in my profession, I work with transformation and change (the softer version of death, little deaths of self over and over)
I read people pretty well and can see what’s not being said
I have not tapped into any magical, mystical sides of self
I like hanging out with people to work on a project or for a purpose, but I’m not that social. I have a handful of close friends that I love dearly but don’t actually hang out with that much. I’m more likely to socialize through work or volunteering.
My children and partner are everything to me - my highest purpose
My husband feeds me.
I am never in silence. I think quiet is what I often crave but never experience in a home with 5 other people and screens all over
I am independent
I have been fierce and courageous in the past and especially with my children. My husband always says I’m amazing in an actual crisis but terrible in hypothetical crises.
I kind of hate meat. I still eat it. But I don’t relate to being a hunter or carnivore.
My visit to the Shaman had not magically cured my anxiety and I went to bed with the usual fear of death. I woke up the next morning with the usual fear of death and set about my day. Around 11 am, as I was switching out laundry loads, I looked out the window and froze in awe. Resting in a tall tree in our yard was an OWL… and it was staring at me. We stared at each other for a very long time. I can’t recall ever seeing an owl in nature. I’ve heard them hoot, but had I ever seen one outside of a zoo? I felt the natural world show up to support my healing. The owl is not afraid of death. And if the owl is not afraid of death, then there is a part of me that is not afraid of death. There is a part of me that is actually comfortable with death, adept at death.
So… I was sold and have been back to the Shaman a bunch of times and will be writing all about it.