Autoimmune Disease as a Shamanic Illness

When things are painful and don’t make sense logically, I try to find a spiritual reason. And so it was with my autoimmune disease. I have been diagnosed with both Crohn’s Disease and Ankylosing Spondylitis. I believe that I have had the Crohn’s disease since I was 14, although I wasn’t diagnosed until an episode sent me to the hospital for a week when I was 36. Previous to that I had suspected that something was very wrong with me but just kept pushing myself to pass as normal. But as it goes, you can only burn the candle at both ends until you hit a wall and your disease simply forces you to start living a very different life. Perhaps you can relate.

Shamanism is the oldest religion and every culture all over the world has it’s own shamanic roots. It is the Prisca Theologia, the very base of the “family tree” from which all other religions and philosophies originate. You can see a fascinating chart illustrating this family tree here.

In Shamanism, one does not simply become a Shaman. Rather, they are chosen by the spirit world. And if they are reluctant, they are eventually forced.

Even as a child I was fascinated by nature, animals, and spirituality. I would climb a tree and just sit up there for hours watching the leaves flutter in the breeze and daydreaming. As a teenager I loved to make art and became deeply involved in Tarot and mysticism. I wanted to help people when I grew up. I was headed down a path, the one I’m fortunate to live now, but my parents steered me in a more “practical” direction.

Working, hustling, and “the grind” were all emphasized and celebrated by both my parents and society at large. I finished an advanced degree a year early while working full time and interning full time. I paid for it all myself, and just because college was over didn’t mean I was going to slow down. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to. No accomplishment was ever good enough. And after all, wasn’t I “the daughter that never finishes anything”? The hustling never stopped. I stopped making art. I was too busy working. I climbed the corporate ladder and by society’s standards I was “successful”. But I was also hurting.

My stomach pain was at times paralyzing. If I said it felt like my internal organs were tearing themselves apart, it would sound like I was exaggerating or being dramatic, but that is what it felt like. Doctors dismissed my concerns and honestly, I was happy to dismiss them too. I didn’t want to think that there was anything wrong with me. And so I ignored my symptoms and the more I ignored them, the worse they got.

A Shamanic Illness is what happens when the spirit world decides to take matters into their own hands.

This experience of an illness worsening and worsening until you are finally forced to stop is very characteristic of what is known as a shamanic illness. Sometimes it can culminate into a situation where a person is in a coma or even has a near-death experience. During that time the person may have dreams or visions calling them to be initiated as a Shaman.

When I was lying in that hospital bed, I had a lot of time to think and made a lot of realizations.

It finally got to the point where despite some pretty strong discipline and willpower, my illness would be ignored no longer. On my way to the hospital, I texted my boss to let her know I wouldn’t be in on Monday. She was the only person I told I was in the hospital. The next week when I was back at the office, I was greeted with a huge pile of work to complete. There was no easing back into it as far as my job was concerned. I was someone who had never taken a sick day, and yet I had been gone for a week and no one said anything or showed any empathy. There were only long complaint sessions of how much work had to be done to cover me in my absence.

I honestly believe that if I hadn’t gone to the hospital I would have eventually died. To me this was serious, life changing, but clearly it was “no big deal” to the coworkers I had regularly taken on additional work for and had spent hours off the clock helping in the past. Although I didn’t quit my job right then and there, I made the decision that I would never place my loyalties or dedication to a corporate job ever again. I would start living a life that was actually inline with my values and who I was always meant to be.

When I finally quit that job my coworkers were shocked. They figured that I must have had something really good lined up to be walking away. But I didn’t, and in the end I didn’t feel like I owed anyone an explanation. In truth, I really didn’t know what to say. I doubted I could explain what was going on in a way that would make sense to them. I was being called to a different path.

When experiencing a shamanic illness or crisis, it is also not uncommon to have depression, anxiety, and an increased need for sleep as part of the process. Would-be shamans often seek solitude away from others. They have a hard time being around people and just don’t seem to fit in. What makes this experience different from say a severe and persistent mental illness, is that these feelings abate after accepting their role as a Shaman. Training would then commence that typically involves fasting, meditation and other practices meant to induce discipline and self control. Practices often includes dietary restriction and avoidance of material consumption. To me this is very reminiscent of veganism and minimalism.

Through these practices the trainee finds healing and peace. The shamanic illness is resolved.

Since changing the way I live, my autoimmune crisis seems to have been resolved. I do take some pretty powerful medicine, but I am lucky to not experience any side effects from these drugs. I also have not had to go back to the hospital and my doctors tell me my disease is in remission. People seeing me would assume I live a normal life. And yet I don’t live a normal life.

My life now is not one that most people would approve of. I am an artist. I am a writer. I commune with spirits. I try to provide healing to others. I feel connected with Mother Earth and the ebbs and flow of nature. I see the beauty in a forest wildflower and a snake slithering across the path in front of me. My life is less “successful” but I feel more alive.

If you are reading this article, it may be that you are questioning if you are experiencing your own shamanic illness. If so, try living a more spiritually entuned life and see if things change for you. Seek more solitude, take long walks in nature, be more intentional with the food you eat and the purchases you make, meditate and connect with spirit. You may just be surprised how things change once you stop fighting it.

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