My Mysterious Son


In the autumn of 1996, my son was seventeen when he told me one day on the way home from school: “I don’t know what’s happening, I can’t find my old self again.”  He’d had a seemingly marvelous summer staying with family in Mexico, fishing and learning to surf.  He’d achieved nearly a full scholarship for his junior year at a Boston private school.  However, one teacher had observed that, in class, he “sometimes seems to be out of touch and unable to focus his mind.”

Soon after the new term began, I found written on the wall of his room in un-erasable black magic marker: “I am going to die, and the world will be a better place.”

Following a traumatic night and seeing a psychiatrist who specialized in adolescents, Franklin had to be hospitalized.  Actually, he requested it.  The hospital evaluation stated as “reason for referral: a three week period of … increase in psychotic symptoms, including paranoid thoughts, command hallucinations telling him to hurt himself.”  Preliminary MRI results came back essentially normal in terms of any neurological condition.  But, with his mother’s and my reluctant consent, he was immediately put on several medications – an antipsychotic, a mood stabilizer, and an antidepressant.  When Frank was released a month later, the discharge summary spoke of tests indicating “an acute deterioration in his cognitive functioning, consistent with symptoms associated with the onset of schizophrenia.”

Had he lived in another time, my son told me, he probably would’ve been one of those mad artists like Van Gogh.  He wrote in a journal:  “Meditation as opposed to medication.  Is it the answer or a combination of meditation and counseling?  Where does bipolar illness come from, and why do so many people have it?  Is it from abuse, is it from intense desire, is it a chemical difference from the norm?

He knew then that there was another way.  His parents did, too.  But it would take us a long time to figure it out.

– – – – –

The private school wouldn’t accept Frank back, but he managed to graduate from another high school designed for young people with similar difficulties.  He began seeing a psychiatrist who ultimately prescribed what he called a “last-resort antipsychotic,” Clozaril.  Frank hated the way various meds dulled him and caused him to gain weight.  Wanting more independence, at nineteen he left home and went on to live in a series of group homes, as well as once for six months in his own apartment until he suddenly decided to go off his medication.  For a decade, he went in and out of hospitals, one time for as long as a year.

I’ve never forgotten a hospital physician telling me: “I went through an existentially profound moment with your son.”  She’d asked Frank if he realized why he was there, was he mentally ill?  Frank said no.  Why then? she persisted.  She expected a rambling answer but he’d simply replied: “My chief complaint is loneliness.  I am lonely.”  In that moment, the doctor said, shaking her head, “your son was so sane.”

At his mother’s impetus, we tried vitamin therapy as an adjunct to the medication.  But to Frank, it felt like just another round of pills and didn’t last.  While I also looked into some alternatives, I then saw no choice but to accept the medical treatment model.  When my son refused to take Clozaril because of the required blood draws, Zyprexa became the psychiatrist’s second choice.  Within six months, my handsome son had put on close to a hundred pounds and been diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes.

When I read in the New York Times that Zyprexa’s manufacturer, Eli Lilly, knew full well about these side effects but never bothered to inform psychiatrists or patients, I was outraged.  I enrolled Frank in a class-action lawsuit against the corporation that eventually brought a compensatory settlement.  But I feared the damage was already done.

One morning in spring 2007, from a Boston hospital where he’d agreed to resume taking the Clozaril, I drove my son straight to rural New Jersey – and an alternative treatment center for young adults called Earth House.  It wasn’t cheap, and I’d obtained financial help from my brother.   A daily schedule of exercise and activities, combined with an organic diet and an orthomolecular physician, resulted in his dropping all the weight that Zyprexa had added.  Earth House residents were required to remain on their psychiatric medications, but Frank’s level was able to decrease considerably.  It seemed like a miracle, and I’m sure his eighteen months at Earth House saved his life.  Eventually, though, the expense proved too great.  And his mother and I were faced again with the agonizing question: where does he, where do we, go from here?

From Franklin’s journal:

If you are trying to cross a river, you take a boat.  If you have no boat you either make one or swim.  If you can’t swim then grab onto a log.  If there are no logs then swing from a vine.  If you do not succeed then try again.  If you do not succeed a second time then ask your neighbor how you will cross the river.  If he does not know then ask someone else.  If the whole world doesn’t know how to cross that river then you will either have to give up or invent a new way.  You invent because you need.  You need because you desire.”

– – – – –

I was desperate.  After Earth House, residing in another group home alongside barely functional older floor mates, Frank sometimes spent days in his room.  Then our family pediatrician, who’d grown up in East Africa in the 1940s and made an annual pilgrimage back to witness the wildlife migration on the Serengeti, invited me to bring Frank along on the trip.  Overcoming initial trepidation, he really wanted to go.  He was 32, I was 64.  Frank is also biracial, and I saw this as an opportunity for him to see the continent that his mother’s ancestors came from, and hopefully for the two of us to forge a stronger father-son bond.

I was not wrong about that, though hardly in the way I anticipated.  In January 2012, we went through two harrowing nights during our couple of weeks in Tanzania.  On the first of these, Frank disappeared at a bush camp.  On the second, he was justifiably angry at me for being too controlling.  Alone together as darkness fell, he went into a monologue that soared so far into space and deep into time that I didn’t know whether anything could possibly ground him again.  I was terrified, including of the truths he voiced about my own psyche.

I was already aware of my son’s psychic nature, his uncanny ability to read my thoughts or offer sudden flashes of prophetic insight.  Ever since a therapist friend had advised me to stop correcting what I had considered Frank’s delusions, our relationship had vastly improved.  In fact, I’d come to appreciate and enjoy his unique outlook on life.

This night in Africa, however, was unlike anything in my experience.  We did come through it together, but only after a role reversal: I became the one suffering the “breakdown,” and suddenly he became the caregiver.  I relate the story in a just-published memoir, My Mysterious Son: A Life-Changing Passage Between Schizophrenia and Shamanism, which contains a number of Frank’s writings and artwork.

I consider our experience in Africa the real beginning of a shared quest, beyond my being a parent with a so-called mentally ill child.  Frank understands things on a multi-dimensional level that is beyond me, but a great gift.  African healer Colin Campbell has written: “People hearing voices for instance or feeling certain things are in touch with other realities, especially the whole mythic realm, that Western society does not have a time or place for.  Who is going to give voice to those parts of us?”

That is what I set out to do in writing a book.  A year after Africa, when I took Frank to see Malidoma Somé in Jamaica, the shaman described their encounter as akin to “meeting a colleague.”  I’d first spent time with Malidoma in California.  He is a diviner from West Africa, able to “read” meaning in a pattern of cowrie shells, stones, and other objects spread by a person’s hand.  Malidoma spoke of my task as “holding the space” for Frank, and instructed me in a ritual calling upon my Caucasian ancestors to find a place for him at their table.  Malidoma said they couldn’t fathom him, and needed to; it was central to his healing.

I would never have embarked on this course, had I not read The Horse Boy (a father’s account of bringing his autistic son to a shaman in Mongolia) and shortly thereafter attended a conference in Maine on “Innovative Solutions to Building Recovery with Alternatives to Psychotropic Medications.”  There I listened, with my heart pounding, to Robert Whitaker and other speakers on the dangers of these drugs – and alternative ways to think about and treat “mental illness.”  There, too, I met a woman who was studying a shamanic path.  And this led me to find Malidoma.

 – – – – –

Frank instantly fell in love with Jamaica.  Some years earlier, he’d written in his journal: “The larger the soul the greater the suffering.  From suffering comes beauty.  Bob Marley preached and taught it when he said ‘One Love, One Heart, Let’s get together and feel alright!’”  And feel alright Frank did, as he sat alongside Malidoma doing a series of drawings that reminded the shaman of ancient glyphs.  They found one another fascinating.

I left them alone but, as they’d requested, tape-recorded their meeting.  Malidoma told my son that the pattern he’d made on the divination cloth spoke of being “in touch with the ancient Mayan, Egyptian, and Native traditions.  Here, I even see Dogon cosmology.”

“Oh nice,” Frank replied.  “This is an ancient game.  From Atlantis or … ?”

“Yeah.  The other planet that is called – ”

“Pluto.  Neptune,” my son interjected.

“That’s right.  All these energies…”

Frank pointed to certain rocks that he’d moved around to form the pattern.  “I love these.  These are special rocks, old, quite old.”

“Very old indeed … The way you know things is unbelievably calibrated.  And so far beyond the normal human consciousness, I mean somebody – ”

“Somebody could walk up to you and be angry at you for that, though,” Frank interrupted.

“That’s right, because you’re so far advanced.  This world is borderline, just skimming the surface.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Malidoma told my son that “the sequentiality of time and space only applies to you if you want it to.  Otherwise you can find yourself here, and then go far into time, then come back so fast that nobody notices … You process so much data that sometimes you are in multiple places at the same time.  And yet, you still look like you are here in body and flesh, sitting in front of me, when in fact it’s everywhere.  There is something about that which also makes you, as you sit here, look like you are a sub-space antenna.  Picking up messages from so far away.”

Frank laughed and asked Malidoma whether he was from Senegal or Nigeria.

“No, from near Senegal, it’s Burkina.”

“Burkina Faso.”

“Yeah” – Malidoma laughed now – “you see, you know it.”

“I respect – lot of respect – I’m trying to learn how to be, you know, a nicer person.”

“That’s why – your knowledge of geography, the different places in the world, is just outstanding.”

Frank laughed again and said, “Thank you, or should I say, ‘Dashi.’”

Dashi!  And also the knowledge of language, universal language, it’s just amazing.”

Later I looked up the word “Dashi.”  It’s of African origin, a name sometimes given to female babies.  The Internet site said: “People with the name Dashi … fight being restricted by rules and conventions.”

Malidoma continued to interpret what he observed in the divination design: “The light that shows here is not of this world.  How could that be connected to the body that is sitting in front of me, I have no clue.”  Frank continued to draw for him.  “Yes, you’ve been there.  Through various tunnels.  And it has led you to various worlds.  And it looks like you’ve left something of yourself in those worlds.”

Hearing this section on the tape, I flashed back.  Shortly before his sixteenth birthday, Frank had handed me a typewritten sheet of paper with some trepidation.  I read it while he sat across from me in his room.  It described “something I saw last night (December 30, 1994) while I was lying in bed.  My eyes were closed, but I wasn’t asleep.”  He went on to write of going through a square, then a series of circles – one of which turned into a sun – “and as I came closer, all the time I was moving; it became a tunnel.  This tunnel was as if it was in space … ”  He’d gone through an opening into a beautiful scene with columns and a pyramid and, as he ascended higher, glistening water.  Then he saw another tunnel, “like a cave, with dips in the earth … shiny and full of colors….the last thing I remember is going through that tunnel slowly.”

Now Malidoma asked if he could keep Frank’s drawing of a bird, “because this is also a sign that shows how your spirit can fly.”  How to explain what the shaman saw?  I can’t say, but I believe it concerns a reality far greater than Western medicine’s diagnosis of schizophrenia.  Malidoma told Frank that he observed nothing in the divination pattern to indicate that he was sick.  “It doesn’t show?” Frank asked.  In that case, he added, “Give ‘em a call for me if you could, you know, in the hospital, tell ‘em that.  Write a good note for me or something.”

– – – – –

Above all, I know that being in Malidoma’s presence added immeasurably to Frank’s self-confidence – slowly but surely shattered over the years by the onslaught of doctors and drugs.  Both I, and his mother, have continued to seek communication with our ancestors on his behalf, very different and difficult journeys that have made a difference in our own lives as well.  My son and I have made a third trip, one outlined in part by Malidoma, to the sacred lands of New Mexico.

Had we been able to discover such alternatives earlier, Frank might long ago have been able to leave medication behind.  And he may still, for now at 35 he is more active on both artistic and practical fronts than in years.  He’s out and around, every day.  He attends music therapy and art therapy classes.  He will be resuming a limited class schedule at a technical college that he once attended.  He knows I’m there when he needs me, as a supportive but not overbearing fatherly presence.  He knows not only that I’m proud of him, but hold deep respect for all he’s been through and who he is.

Long ago now, the day after he was born, a close friend looked in his eyes and said to his parents: “You know, I think Franklin is really your teacher.”  And so he has been.  And so I am grateful.

“What is behind a situation is a mystery.  We are left searching for reasons that things are the way they are… Clarity and cloudy times come and leave.  Points are made and life proceeds.”

– from Franklin’s journal.


  1. Thanks for this fascinating post.

    One of the huge problems with our mental health system is the way it claims what might be called, not “knowledge of good and evil” but a very similar “knowledge of health and sickness” – and it is sure that conventional ways of knowing are entirely healthy, while other ways are definitely sick.

    Just changing this one thing, and going to a place of not being sure, of considering that there might be value, alongside the danger, of looking at things in other ways, does a whole lot to change the relationship between the person with anomalous experiences and those around them, as you found out. And the chances for the person to then increase in self respect can then be immensely helpful.

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  2. Dick thank you for sharing your story of being a father. The mysteries of madness and the journey.

    As a mother of 3 sons who have, like me (and my mother and 2 younger sisters), experienced psychoses or altered mind states, and psychiatric drug treatment, it’s very interesting to hear what it was like for you, and for your son. Going through it together. I know what that’s like. I still have two sons who are coming through, now 30 and 36. I’ve become a writer, for the sake of justice and to make sense of it.

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  3. Everything in the brain is chemical and Zyprexa does its magic there but none of these drugs heal the mind or the spirit in us. We have a son with a similar story and he has blessed us with his spirit as well. What a father you are for sharing your sons journey and for joining him in his life. I tell my son that whatever you do make sure you are having fun at it.

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  4. Thank you for your inspiring story. You give great hope to other parents who have been struggling for years to find real help for their adult children. I have been travelling shamanic and other routes with my son for several years now, and if I can offer some hope to you, I believe that one day your son will be able to get off the medication. The reason is that once a person finds his purpose in life, and gets a firmer footing on his path, the crutches (meds) may no longer be needed. Best wishes for your son’s continued good progress.

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    • Rossa, I wanted to write and thank you so much for your heartfelt response to my book. Also for posting the review on Amazon. My hope in writing this book was that it would be of benefit to people who have been through similar situations with their families. I am saddled with a very bad cold and not up to a more cogent reply but did want to let you know. And also my thanks to all the others who have weighed in on this forum.

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      • Dear Dick Russell, my son is 23 and has been on bipolar medication for a long time until he stopped 2 years ago and had his first episode of schizophrenia six months ago. He was hospitalized for 6 weeks, is more stable now and taking strong medication. Would be very thankful if we could exchange via email about my ambitions of contacting Dr. Malidoma Sidomé. Please reply to alannalockward(at) Many TXS for your extraordinary contributions.

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  5. Sounds like you’re a wonderful father, and as if you’ve written a fascinating and important book, I hope to read it. I have just started writing, as well, since my experience with the “mental health” industry, onto and off of staggering numbers of mind altering drugs, in combinations that should have killed me, resulted in an interesting spiritual journey. Filled with stories of being one with all (or the “collective unconscious”), keeping the old friends while making new friends … with all of creation. It’s a beautiful lyrical libretto love story between ‘everyone else,’ and the the good and just Creator, Himself. “… [T]he sequentiality of time and space only applies to you if you want it to,” the “spirit can fly,” describes my journey well, too.

    And it’s amazing the psychiatric industry does not realize that psychotropic substances cause mind altering conditions, but rather, believe the effects of their drugs are the result of “life long, incurable, genetic mental illnesses.” I do hope and pray our Caucasian brothers and sisters do some day learn to “hold a place for [us] at the table,” and by us, I mean those who are capable of utilizing not just the left (analytical) side of our brain, but the right (creative), as well.

    The ignorance, injustice, and arrogance of the current “warrior elite,” boggles the mind of those of us who see a better way. My best to your family. And I pray we, as a society, continue to collectively evolve, which the psychiatric industry seems oddly hellbent on preventing. If they only knew how blind they really are. But researching the web gives me hope that there are many who are waking up.

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  6. Other male animals when the reach sexual maturity.

    ” A herd is made up of one adult male with a harem of mares and their young. Once another colt comes of age, he must either challenge the dominant stallion or leave the herd.”

    “Male elephants spend their formative years with the herd, but leave around age 13 to 14 — when puberty sets in.”

    “Some of the younger wolves of the pack may leave to find vacant territory and a mate.”
    ” … take orders from their parents and older brothers and sisters, but their relationships with each other change frequently. During their play and other activities, they are constantly testing one mother (another) to find out who will eventually be “top wolf” in their age group

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    • The King and Queen can not abdicate their position of power, and do not want to give up their authority. The only solution is physical separation, different castles ( living in different houses/apartments) so that physical conflict between the Prince and his parents is reduced. In time hopefully the Prince will create an income from work to sustain his independence and find a Princess/wife/mate.

      Myself , my severe shyness kept me from social interaction with members of the opposite sex the same age. Being lonely and independent is not sustainable, because there is no joy in the independence. My income came from a Government disability welfare , that is nothing to be proud of. Of what value was I ?

      My mother would tell me how great I was , while my father would tell me how lazy I was. Who was I to believe? Bipolar thinking of how great I was, to how horrible I was, was constant.
      Today, my father has finally shut up, and gives no more orders.

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      • Yes, Mark, at some point our evolution as humans tells us that the child must separate from the parent. Some adult children, I believe, feel that their role is to protect the parents, and to do so they spend a long transitional period as children in order to make sure that the parents stay together in the family unit. I believe that all of these relationships are very complex. Could you perhaps see that your father saying you were “lazy” might have been his vote of confidence in you? That you were not “mentally ill,” only lazy and therefore you were not your diagnosis? There are all kinds of ways of looking at this.

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  7. I met Malidoma Some once. He did a group reading based on the 4 elements. A friend noticed that her partner and I had not received a reading. Malidome replied, “They are the witches who harmonize the elements. ” If the elements are out of harmony might it be because we have discounted all the witches?

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  8. Thank you so much for this wonderful shared writing this week, especially. I recently started shamanic counsel and healing work for myself and I will continue on this path of the red road for myself. During the journeying ceremony, I dare say, that even at a great distance, I broke my shaman’s years old rattle and I feel terrible for it, but will send her a painting to appease it being given to me for my healing. My ancestors are with me and it was interesting to me to learn that my Grandmother who completed, spends much of her time with me today. I feel a special responsibility to Her safekeeping and to my own journey.

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  9. I am so glad that Frank Russell is doing so much better today. However, I don’t take much stock in the magical realism part. It is an interesting story, but that is just what it is, a story of one person’s experience. It really doesn’t explain, let alone prove, anything. My take away, is that the Dick Russell changed his attitude toward his son, becoming much more accepting and supportive, dropping his attempts to control Frank Russell’s illness by controlling him. It seems that Frank Russel similarly experienced some helpful, transformative self-acceptance. These kinds of resolution of the family and personal dynamic are well documented as having a positive outcome on people with brain disorders. (Yes, there really is such a thing as mental illness; refusing to believe in them doesn’t make them go away.) I am intensely reminded of the work of Dr. Xavier Amador and his LEAP institute on just this area (popularized in his book “I’m not Sick, I Don’t Need Help”) of improving the family support relationship to improve communication and facilitate better outcomes.

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    • I think you’ve made several good points about acceptance and changing one’s own attitude, which is a big part of recovery, for sure, but, for many, there is still a psycho-spiritual side to schizophrenia that goes largely unaddressed until you tackle it through rituals and shamanic practices. There are levels of communication and the one you raised is one, but it does go deeper. The so called illness demands the respect that can often only be appreciated symbolically.

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    • John

      There is such a thing as emotional and psychological distress and dis-ease, but there is no such thing as mental illness, no matter how much anyone wants to defend it as such. There are no medical, physical tests for such an illness.

      I must agree with what Rossa posted. Much of this must be dealt with symbolically and not with Western rational thinking, it’s this kind of thinking that’s caused such a mess of all of this to begin with.

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    • John writes, “However, I don’t take much stock in the magical realism part.” Having read the book from an Integral perspective, I would not conclude that Dick is stuck in the magical stage of consciousness but rather includes and transcends both the magical and the modern stages. Integrating the magical is an important step in the evolution of consciousness. What Dick has written is an emergent perspective on extreme states which is not addicted to modern nor allergic to magical stages of consciousness. Perhaps in future articles Dick might expand on the last chapter of the book for us. Deep bow to Dick, Malidoma, and Frank for their work!

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  10. What a fascinating story!

    I am thinking, when your son’s illness first started, he wrote: “I am going to die, and the world will be a better place.” It could be a symbolic message from his soul, that his teenage self has to die so that his adult self can emerge. The world indeed will be a better place after his teenage self dies, cuz what’s waiting in line is a healer when he is fully grown into adulthood.

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  11. Dick:

    How smart of you to have a tape recorder! My mind cannot keep up with my daughter. She takes my breathe away with her knowledge and ability to handle so many conversations, both internal and external simultaneously. In cognitive behavioral therapy, a shift in one’s perception of another may be called boundary setting. In Christianity, it’s called forgiveness. In Shamanism its called magic! Jung spoke about parents projecting their shadow. I am all too familiar with this, as I tried to live vicariously through my children. For several years, I asked myself, how does one ‘reel back’ one’s shadow if one suspects that one has allowed one’s psychic, hidden garbage to spill over into their children? Psychotherapy or talk therapy are available only to the privileged plus it seems to beg the question: why is our society paying ‘professionals’ to listen to people? Where are one’s friends and family members? Where is the village? Institutionalized religion, on the other hand is accessible to the masses, but ideology can be oppressive and soul wounding. For instance, some fundamentalist churches cannot identify with young people who despair over environmental destruction or whose lives have been affected by war and prison. Institutionalized religion rarely offers consolation and wise counsel to families with children who are questioning their sexuality, survivors of domestic abuse, physical and sexual abuse. Even liberal ‘progressive’ churches whose leaders recognize and address many of the social and political forces attacking people’s spirits everyday making it difficult to believe in a kind and loving Creator, simply wash their hands by outsourcing spiritual emergencies (i.e. people who experience extreme states) to psychiatry. I believe that a practical alternative is shamanic healing. When I started exploring this with my adult 24 year old daughter, it resonated with her. She writes from the secure facility where she is locked up: “I’m curious about a deep, intrinsic change in the world’s layout that seems to have been brought about by some shift within me, or some actual change in the world’s capacity to keep up. Maybe it’s again about the difference between fiction and fact. I still don’t even know what a fantasy is.

    As a child, I asked my dad (an Episcopalian minister) the definition of a miracle. He said, a ‘breakthrough in reality’ I believe that sometimes to stimulate a ‘breakthrough in reality’ we need rituals that bind us and symbolize our interconnectedness. Our relationship with one another, with plants, animals, plants, and spirits is broken. If our relationships were healthy, we wouldn’t be destroying one another and our planet. Shamanism, bring it on! Sounds like a chance to have fun, express joy and heal. Sure beats brain disabling medications and lining the pockets of the mega wealthy big Pharma corporations.

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  12. Thank you for highlighting this ancient connection between Shamanisim and mental health…

    I was diagnosed with bipolar, then self induced bipolar after a psychosis, years later i met my teachers and they identified a ‘calling’. Following the foundation training i now know how to stay connected to the earth and understand deeper my purpose with healing.

    In Old Zulu culture madness only means you need to check in with your ancestors and that you may have a calling.

    Check out their website:

    Big Love and happy adventures
    To ALL our relations 🙂

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