Snake Medicine: Transforming Our Stories

Lisbeth Riis Cooper
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Within the field of psychiatry, there is an exciting new approach being explored for understanding emotional distress called Narrative Psychiatry. Narratives, or stories, are a time-honored and universal approach for understanding all human experience. We humans recreate our world and guide our actions through the stories we tell each other and ourselves.

Sascha Altman DuBrul, founder of the Icarus Project, shared this narrative approach in his recent blog on this site, Generative Narratives and the Counterculture Psychiatrists.

If we realize we are making meaning through the stories we tell, then it might be wise to ask,

“What kind of stories do we want to tell? What stories help us heal and grow?”

I would like to share a story from one of the Mother Bears who is helping guide the development of our family recovery network, the Mother Bear Community Action Network. This is a wonderful story of hope, personal empowerment and transformation—all essential qualities for the recovery process.

We would also love to hear your family’s recovery story. You can share it here in response to this post or send us a message through our Facebook page.

High Four and Two Thirds

 It took a rattlesnake bite to enlighten me to this truth:  Mood swings are normal.

The truth be told, someone did share that very important piece with me while on retreat in the desert. I arrived with the complaint that, in spite of all my time, effort, and money to find balance and to live on an even keel, I inevitably found myself back in the abyss of depression. I’ve tried everything from pharmaceuticals to crystals, acupuncture to EMDR, exercise and diet in the quest for life without peaks and troughs. My attempts at maintaining the midline of the mood pendulum resemble Sisyphean futility.

After sharing all this, my very sage counselor asked me a question that no one had ever raised for me, “Why on Earth would you even desire this image of being even and balanced?”  Gosh, I don’t know?  Aren’t we supposed to be that way?

Honestly, it never occurred to me that mood swings are normal. From the time I heard about mood swings, the whole concept had been pathologized. My middle school girlfriends took Midol as a prophylactic panacea for everything from irritability to bloating. God forbid anyone might have a clue that they (shhhhhh!) had their periods!  Then there was a component of the feminist movement that denied the existence of mood swings since they were typically ascribed to women as a sign of gender weakness. On the other side of that hill was “mother’s little helper.”  A little Valium concealed a lot of stress, for a little while.

I can’t recall a single message in our culture that embraced mood swings as desirable. Madison Avenue seems to prey on our desire for normalcy, and pharmaceutical companies are happy to comply. Convince us that we’re broken, and we’ll chump up endless dollars to fix whatever society says is ailing us. In the face of all this, my counselor was looking like a heretic! She was Jesus in an air-conditioned office offering me the salvation that I’ve been seeking!  It was preposterously wonderful to question the status quo of normalcy!

“Why would you desire to be anyone other than your true, authentic self?” she inquired.

Authenticity, integrity – these are things I value!  Gee, I don’t know? A little voice from my 12 Step experience chimed in with, “Acceptance is the key to all our affairs.”  Could it really be that easy? Just embrace the ups and downs and get on with life? What would that look like? Damn, what I really thought was, “What would all my ups and downs look like to other people?” Neurosis is a hard habit to break. But I’ve overcome greater demons. I can do this! I left her office feeling elated. Note to self: Elation is the desirable component of mood swings!

Feeling jubilant for the first time in ages, I exercised harder, meditated with more focus, ate healthier, and even ventured into the scary and unfamiliar territory of artistic expression. It was an amazing, enlightening, inspiring week. I was jazzed about feeling jazzed! It’d been so long.

Then it was time to pack for the trip home. My mood slumped at the thought of departing Self-Help Disney-in-the-Desert. However, I did have a Right of Passage ceremony as closure to this phenomenal week. Following my ceremony, I took a meditation walk. Was it a distraction or was it fate that the feathers of a white-winged dove caught my attention on the trail? I’m casting my vote for fate.

Snake MedicineI reached down to pick up that feather and immediately withdrew my hand at the sensation of something sharp pricking my finger. Yep, two beads of blood on my right index finger. Damn, no cactus in the vicinity. Really? Did a snake really just bite me? I never did see that snake, but countless blood draws, six days of hospitalization (three in ICU), and enough antivenom to bankrupt a Wall Street broker verified that it was, indeed, a rattlesnake.

Here’s where fate shows up for me: The hospital chaplain dropped by for a visit.  I’m in pain, and I’m still not sure why I’m in ICU for a snake bite. This can’t be good. But the chaplain reassured me that my minister at home contacted her and suggested that a visit might lift my spirits. In her hand she had a copy of Animal Speak by Ted Andrews. I just love synchronistic irony. I’ve studied shamanism and animal totems. I have a copy of this book at home! This is just too cool! How could she know? This is where the real journey begins…

While Animal Speak doesn’t address the particular aspect of what this creature has to teach me, it did initiate my inquiry about a rattlesnake’s life cycle. They are truly amazing creatures worthy of respect. For obvious reasons we fear them, but rattlesnakes can be vulnerable, too.

Several times a year, a rattlesnake must shed its skin. The period before a snake sheds is a particularly challenging time for this animal. As the skin ages, the coating over the snake’s eye becomes cloudy and occludes its vision. At this point, the snake cannot hunt or eat, and it must go into hiding to avoid becoming prey to hawks and other predators. This period of vulnerability is necessary and unavoidable.

All snakes must shed their skins in order to grow.

When it is finally time for the snake to wriggle out of its old skin, it must first rub its nose against something abrasive to initiate the process. Yet, at the end of all this, the snake has grown and boasts a shiny, resilient new skin.

This, too, is the cycle of my life. My counselor helped me see this, and the rattlesnake helped me to internalize the message, figuratively and literally.

After the bite, it took five months to regain the use of my hand. I’m missing the distal phalanx of my index finger, but I can still type with it! I’m learning to play the cello with it! I can still hold a tennis racquet!  And yes, I still get depressed.  And I still feel joy.

My hand surgeon offered me a prosthetic finger tip, but I declined. While it may make my hand appear normal, it wouldn’t help it work and would actually impair its functionality. (Sounds like my antidepressant experiences!).

My “High Four and Two Thirds” is my reminder to follow my personal rhythms.  Those vulnerable, depressed periods are just precursors to growth and catalysts for necessary change. Fighting this process, beating myself up, and succumbing to conventional thinking that there’s something wrong with me have only exacerbated and prolonged the pain of depression.

It can be okay to hide under a rock for a while. It might even be necessary for our growth!

7 COMMENTS

  1. This story was awe inspiring. For those who struggle with periodic depression, I can’t imagine a more depression-inducing situation. Hospitalization far from home, a life threatening accident, poison literally coursing through your veins. Painful rehab. And losing part of your most used writing finger!

    My first thought is that we sorely underestimate the strength ond courage of those who are the most sensitive among us. They demonstrate great courage every day, which sometimes include getting out of bed to face a difficult day.

    My second thought is that real healing comes not from any of our pills or potions (even herbal ones!), but from the way we choose to interpret our experience and the willingness to question assumptions and ask “why is this” “what do I need in this moment to feel well? What do I need now? That present moment focus has been helpful in my own recovery. So have a few rocks!

  2. Thank you for sharing your compelling story of recovery. It is apparent that recovery starts in the mind. Ah ha moments that start the recovery process can come externally, or internally at any moment in time …All the reason for all of us to listen, watch for opportunities, and stay “engaged” wherever life takes us. Thanks for sharing. Betty Steward, [email protected]

  3. I am inspired by the way you look at healing in a shamanistic way. I try always to put a postive perspective on my son’s original mental health diagnosis. At first, the whole experience seemed negative – I went on an antidepressant to “cope” but really to hide. With a lot of effort and plenty of reading material (mainly counter-cultural and shamanistic), I began to realize that his experience was my experience and it was a hopeful and necessary journey. The snake shedding its skin is a perfect metaphor for growth and change.