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the witch wound: queerness and madness

Content Warning: This post discusses mental illness, hospitalization, and police

The archetype of the wounded healer or lame artisan is found in folklore around the world, including many European mythologies. There have been many articles written recently about the “witch wound.” Some of them posit that modern women, especially those of European descent, are carrying generational trauma from “the Burning Times,” which is an inaccurate understanding of the witch trials. More information on this historical myth and its role in neopagan religions can be found here.

It is not only a women’s issue. The witch wound affects people of many identities, and the traumas it represents are not just those that the patriarchy has inflicted on cis women. It also carries the hurts of ableism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and many other interrelated oppressions. Healing one’s witch wound involves finding your place in the current cultural milieu and understanding how systems of oppression have affected you and your peers.

My own wounding began at a young age, in small bits and pieces. I felt it when I was shushed in Sunday school, on picture day when I was forced into a stiff dress, and when my body was mocked by my classmates. I was prone to depression as a child, but was able to find respite from social stress in books and art. Eventually I made my way to college. I was an honor student and took pride in my schoolwork, and I had won a scholarship to a local university. I enjoyed questioning assumptions and looking at things in a different way, but in my youthful passion I did not realize how I was affecting the people around me. In my sophomore year, I started to explore my gender identity. I was trying to use a new set of pronouns, a new name. Looking back I can see the significance of this to my path as a witch, but at the time I was just figuring out what was comfortable for me.

My life ground to a halt in the fall of 2012. My faith in academia and its narratives of success was broken irreparably. After a long struggle with depression, panic attacks, and undiagnosed autism, I ended up being involuntarily hospitalized (some folks call it being “sectioned,” after the legal code Section 51-15). I’d had a massive panic attack in a public hallway. Instead of the university working with me to understand why I was struggling socially and experiencing such debilitating anxiety, they called in campus police officers to put me in the back of an SUV and ship me to a psych hospital for five days.

At the hospital I did not mention my gender identity or spiritual beliefs. I played nice and tried to keep to myself. I was chastised for not participating enough, even though I was there against my will. I was threatened with forced medication when I cried too much. The nurses mocked my request for toiletries that were unscented — I did not know I was on the spectrum, but I had made the connection between my sensory issues and certain cosmetics. After my release, I did not return to classes. I lost my scholarship. I spent well over a year trying to recover, and most of my friends from school did not try to contact me. Still, I am very lucky that I was financially stable and white. Similar situations have ended in much worse ways for those in different circumstances.

I worked to rebuild my life, though mental illness has been a constant challenge. I have dealt with disordered eating, substance abuse, divorce, and family deaths. Depression resulted in my being hospitalized a second time, though thankfully that was at a much more caring facility, and under my own volition. Sometimes I lashed out at others like a wounded creature, hateful and suspicious. I have had to relearn trust in myself, my partner, and my community. It has been a long difficult road, though I am proud that I was able to pursue continuing education outside of the university system. I sometimes think of going back to college, but I cannot bring myself to reenter the competitive and stressful hierarchy of academia. After years of therapy, self-help books, lots of drugs, and a very supportive partner I have been able to climb out of the chasm and see some light. Part of healing this wound has also been sharing my story and working to de-stigmatize autism and mental illness for other folks in my life.

My story may be familiar. It happened to our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins. It doesn’t always have a happy ending. The psych ward has been used as a threat and a punishment for anyone who steps out of line, but especially for women, femmes, and queer people. It was used to incarcerate political activists, anarchists, communists, and sex educators. There is a long history of abuse and mistreatment of ‘patients’ in these facilities. The white walls of psychiatric hospitals have found their way into horror films and jokes, though usually without much context or nuanced analysis. Padded cells and syringes of calmative medication are symbols of control, of those whose presence is deemed “too dangerous” for polite society. People like me are to be mocked or hidden away.

This wound still runs deep, and my experience has left me with a lasting anxieties. The smell of gauze, the sound of sirens, or an offhand remark about people who “need to be locked up” can send me into a spiral of panic. I spent years afterward ignoring my gender identity and pushing away the issue. I still question my instincts and intuitive knowledge. Rejection by my peers and ex-partners has sparked the terror of being abandoned or confined again. Finding a community of supportive queer, autistic, and mentally ill folks has been such a blessing. I have come to love the many weirdos and witches in my life, all living their best selves in defiance of restrictive social roles or pathologizing ideas of ‘normal.’ Eventually I started using non-binary pronouns again, and felt comfortable exploring my gender expression. Almost 7 years exactly after this trial began, I am beginning to feel like myself once more.

Madness and magic so often go hand in hand. The transgression of gender boundaries is sacred in its own right. It is no wonder that queerness has been pathologized and medicalized. The kyriarchy must control and define anything that threatens it, even if that means breaking down children, artists, and seers. My wounds make it difficult to speak my truth, make it difficult to stand up and fight back. I was once a child with a mind full of dreams and hands full of art, but fear and hurt have kept me from living out my human duties.

I often question whether I should walk this crooked path, but I keep finding myself called back. I feel called to share my story and to reach out to others who are dealing with similar struggles, and to help heal these cultural wounds. I want to create a better future for my autistic, queer siblings. I hope that sharing my story sheds a little bit of light and lets others know they are not alone. We must tell our stories for those who were not able to do so, for those who are no longer with us. For the mad ancestors who have been silenced but will be quiet no more. Long live the weirdos.

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