I grew up in Frederick, a large town located in Western Maryland. I personally love the place – it has a beautiful historic district, a wonderful linear park that runs through much of the city, excellent restaurants, a vibrant theater district and lots of mom and pop stores that make shopping interesting. It also had a water problem. You see, Carroll Creek runs through downtown Frederick. It makes for a lovely visual feature – a lazy creek winding through the linear park, weeping willows on the banks. The historic district features bridges crossing over the slow current flowing through our city. It’s not at all unusual to have to yield right-of-way to a family of ducks during the warmer part of the year. The overall effect is quite aesthetically pleasing, and most of the residents love the Creek.
The thing is, waters rise. In 1976, a flood devastated downtown Frederick. Carroll Creek overflowed its banks. Standing water filled the streets and people needed to be rescued via boat. The shopping district that is regionally so famous took damage in the millions. It became obvious that a solution was needed.
Today, when a deluge of rain hits the region, Carroll Creek remains in her waterway courtesy of a large flood control project that routes high waters safely away from the city. The plan has been so effective that other cities look to Frederick’s engineering as an example of how to manage the same problem. (If you’re curious, read more about that period of city history here)
Waters rise. Even with an established course, floods happen. I’ve been thinking about Carroll Creek lately. About the need to guide the flow of water, to have a mechanism for managing when a deluge simply will not be held by the streambed.
I talk a lot about Shadow Work in magick. Shadow Work is a spiritually integrated approach to trauma and emotional management. Our culture, by and large, pushes repression – we just don’t talk about trauma. We don’t discuss emotions. We don’t take time to feel what our hearts are telling us. We try to just ignore the rising waters.
There’s a specific variety of fantasy thinking that I run into with some frequency. It’s the notion that ‘working on yourself’ or ‘working on a relationship’ can be done simply by being more aware of the problem. That helps a little, of course. Staying aware of the water problems Frederick used to have meant people didn’t put expensive things in the basements of the row houses downtown. But awareness doesn’t keep the flood at bay.
This is fine. Nothing to see here.
Awareness is not enough. ‘Thinking about stuff’ doesn’t solve jack shit. When I’m in a pastoral counseling session with a client and I ask them what they’re doing to work through a piece of trauma or to change a particular pattern in their lives, the response I often hear runs along the lines of ‘thinking about it a lot/trying to be aware of it.’
My sweet summer children, that is not enough.
The water needs somewhere to go. New paths need to be created. Staring at the same creek bed and hoping the storms don’t hit too hard won’t help. If the same problem crops up again and again in your relationships, if you find yourself retreading the same unpleasant emotional ground over and over again, if you keep slamming your head into the same metaphorical brick wall, it’s time to pick up a shovel and dig a new waterway. Unless the pathway changes, really changes, the pattern repeats.
Many of us live with limited resources. Many of our insurance plans (if we even have insurance) do not cover therapy. And therapy doesn’t always work (yes, I said it – it’s fucking true). If your trauma means that you have a hard time verbally communicating your thoughts and feelings, talk therapy’s going to be an uphill fight for you. If your trauma means that you have intense trust issues that keep you from sharing authentically with people you’ve known for years, much less strangers in offices, talk therapy might not work. If you are a performer, perfectionist or people-pleaser, your tendency to seek approval from rather than tell the truth to the authority figure in the room might mean you don’t get as much out of talk therapy as you could. If your therapist has you vent but doesn’t give you ‘homework’ to begin reshaping the situation that brought you into therapy in the first place, you might find yourself treading the same damn water. Therapy is not a perfect fit for everyone and not all therapists are created equal.
To get those flood waters to fundamentally change course requires structure. The good news is there are some supplements to therapy that can be incredibly helpful.
Trigger tracking. This first one is vital simply because it can show you where you need to ‘dig’ your new waterway. Start a note in your phone or, if you carry a journal, begin an entry for tracking. When you experience emotional upheaval, notice yourself displaying toxic behaviors, or experience an emotional response to something that is out of proportion to the stimulus, write it down. Remember the W’s – who, what, when, why. Even if you don’t have the answer to every single W, you’ll begin to accumulate some very useful information.
Deep trauma identification. This is easy for some of us but harder for others. Look for your deep trauma. The collection of recorded triggers will generally point to one particular root. Maybe it’s an abusive parent or a shattering loss during in childhood. Maybe it’s a neglectful upbringing or a high-pressured one that demanded perfection. Maybe it’s PTSD from a toxic work environment. Maybe it’s an abusive partner. Many of us have more than one deep trauma – pick the one that sends up the most red flags and toxic behaviors first.
Choose your tool. Although therapy can be a mixed bag, it’s still my first go-to if it’s an option. Working through restructuring our flood plans is safer to do with guidance and observation. However, Pagans are some pretty epic DIY-ers. If therapy is not an option for you, remember that there are other tools at your disposal. There are a host of inexpensive workbooks available for integrating all sorts of trauma. Grief recovery, abuse recovery, PTSD management, anxiety, relationship support…there are workbooks for all of these. Do some comparison shopping – look at the reviews and then choose your book.
Start digging. The best plans in the world aren’t much good if they stay in blueprint form. Do the homework your therapist assigns you. Do the exercises and observations the workbooks suggest. Get in there and dig. Shadow Work is WORK. Looking at areas of pain that we’ve shoved under the carpet is hard. It’s painful. It might mean you cry or get angry or cut some people out of your life. The thing is, it’s also worth it. It’s worth it not to have the floods destroy you. It’s worth it to learn to withstand heavy rains without disaster striking. It’s worth it to experience temporary discomfort (protip – ALL emotions are temporary) for a long-term gain.
Add magick. One of the great strengths of a magickal lifestyle is that we can support deep emotional work on a spiritual level. Dedicate your altar space to your healing. Create a mourning altar if you need one. Add affirmations and intention work to your daily practice. Build a vision board for the life you’re creating. Identify Deities whose natures best serve the transformation you’re shaping and begin making offerings to Them. Start a monthly full or dark moon practice that specifically supports your emotional work. Use the spiritual powers you have access to and give your emotional work some more juice. Witch up. Enchanting ourselves is much easier than trying to reshape the fabric of reality or alter the past.
Do the time. Change doesn’t come overnight. Remember that for the most part, maladaptive coping mechanisms are many years old. It took time for those thoughts and behaviors to establish themselves, it will take time to build and then use the new pathways we create. The flood that changed everything for Frederick occurred in 1976. Construction on the floodwater management system didn’t begin until 1985 and wasn’t completed until 1993. Change takes exploration, investment, work and time.
What if 2020 becomes the year you really work on your shadows? What if the seed you plant at Ostara is your own healing? What if, this year, your home practice is entirely focused on supporting your emotional work? Imagine where we’ll be next Ostara. Imagine a spring where the water flows smoothly. Imagine what your world could be without those raging waters.
As always, I wish you lighter shadows and greater joy. If you’ve found some good tools to support your Shadow Work, please share them in the comments. You never know when your idea might be someone else’s rescue.
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