“I feel like my whole life is a question,” I declared dramatically to a group of strangers one night in early June, as I balanced awkwardly on a fat millennial pink pillow. Around me was a group of mostly women who’d paid $108 to participate in a “medicine reading ceremony” in SoHo, a neighborhood I don’t typically associate with relaxation or healing. The ceremony, explained on the website as “a bespoke blend of ancient healing traditions crafted for our modern life,” was hosted by Mama Medicine, also known as Deborah Hanekamp, whom Vogue has described, with its usual lack of irony, as “one of fashion’s favorite healers.”
When we entered the bright Instagram-ready room, the stunningly beautiful Hanekamp and her stunningly beautiful apprentice, Luciana Naclerio, were meditating (reading our collective energy, we later learned). Naclerio’s eyelids flickered delicately. Crystals lined the shelves, and a candle, surrounded by flower petals, was burning in a white bowl in the center of the white floor. We were seated in a circle on pillows placed atop heated amethyst biomats—I am unable to authoritatively describe what these exactly are or do, but can provide you with this link—and were each given a labradorite crystal, a small bottle of body oil, a blanket, and an eye mask. I sniffed my spicy “root chakra” essential oil blend. It smelled good.
I’d be lying if I said this was my first dance with high-end spirituality. My decision to attend was born less of a desire to reveal some crucial truth or incongruity—the over-the-top indulgent signals of Mama Medicine’s packaging have already attracted enough sneering reporters to her circle—than to test my own reaction. A certain level of necessary skepticism has been beaten into me over the course of my writing career, but when it comes to my personal wellbeing, I remain radically suggestible. After a Vanderpump Rules cast member’s publicist told me about her positive experience with ayahuasca, I briefly but seriously considered going off antidepressants so that I, too, could absorb the wisdom of the plants. I am still vaguely open to the idea that the rose quartz crystal I bought after the election has the power to bring me lasting love and happiness. I once had my energy field rehabilitated by a radiant woman who I am certain was a benevolent witch (“It’s covered in soot and a little bit ripped,” she told me grimly) and spent the next 48 hours floating around the city in a horny golden orb, convinced I’d been fixed for good.
There are reasons for this desperate optimism, even if they are not particularly groundbreaking ones. I’ve struggled with clinical depression and anxiety for a long time. Since a startling brush with violent suicidal ideation at age 12, the isolating and sadly crucial science of preventing myself from lying on the floor in a fetal position and never getting back up has been my life’s most invisible work. As a result, I think about myself more often than is comfortable to admit in a time of intensifying national crisis—correcting thought patterns, wondering if my therapist thinks I’m awful, musing over which brand of Siberian herbs to purchase on Amazon, obsessing over social interactions, searching unendingly for the hobby or adventure or haircut that will finally dissolve the gray fog that’s stalked me for 15 years. It gets boring. I’d always expected to be interesting. But for the growing number who are prone to feeling bad, the pursuit of feeling better can become its own religion.
The Mama Medicine ceremony began with a talking portion, something I had not anticipated, my main reference had been a photo of five poreless women lying peacefully on the floor with their eyes closed. We went around the room and said our names, what our names mean (I did not know the answer to this), how many hours a day we worked, and whether we had any questions for Hanekamp (hence my panicked but heartfelt declaration of existential confusion). I learned that my fellow seekers were struggling with failed relationships, starting businesses, and suffering from chronic illness. Hanekamp reassured a woman who had just moved back to the U.S. that she was on the right path, which seemed like the correct—and possibly only—thing to say to a nervous-looking person who has just turned their life upside down. Our group energy, Hanekamp declared, was blue, indicating a need for balance. That, too, felt right, if obvious for a group of New Yorkers who worked an average of 11 hours a day. But we can’t force growth, she told us. We have to be patient with ourselves. You wouldn’t yell at a flower to grow, would you? She’d said the same thing to a different group last month, according to Page Six, but maybe it still applied.
We laid down on our warm mats, heads toward the center of the room, eye masks resting gently on our faces. Soothing smells wafted over our heads. We were instructed to embark on a rapid breathing pattern: two sharp breaths in through the nose, one out through the mouth. “Hmm hmm HA! hmm hmm HA!” we heaved. Would hyperventilating reveal my truth? At that moment, yes, I thought so. Hanekamp began to sing a medicine song, or “icaro,” her earnest, slightly off-key voice meandering around a collection of words and phrases that, in their seeming randomness, reminded me of the love songs I used to prance around singing for my parents when I was four.
The singing ended with a vocalized “WHOOOSH,” and Hanekamp began playing crystal bowls. The hypnotic sound seemed to zing directly into my tailbone—my root chakra if you prefer—and the inside of my forehead started to feel like it was rushing back and forth. A drum began to play. At some point, I was smacked in the chest with a bundle of dried sage. Someone held my right foot. I didn’t want her to let go.
Depression and anxiety are very good at convincing a person to not publicly discuss their depression and anxiety. A colleague recently revealed at drinks that she’d been reluctant to talk about her struggles with depression because the rest of us had seemed so normal and high-functioning. This came as a surprise, considering the size of our combined therapy bills, but it’s really very easy to believe that one’s emotional makeup is uniquely horrible, and that to reveal it would result in raised eyebrows and pity from the better-adjusted tribe of Everyone Else.
It can be equally tempting to minimize the situation. I’ve always felt reluctant to write about my mental health, not because I am so tenaciously focused on the plight of others, or because I don’t like writing about myself—I definitely do—but because we live in a time of severe and pervasive stress, and I, in particular, work in media, where we witness appalling injustice on a constant basis, and where conversations often turn to, “Well, with my depression…” I never believed my experience to be unique or potentially edifying. Nothing all that terrible has happened to me. I happened to me. This has always seemed insufficient and mildly embarrassing. Also, sometimes I’m fine.
My fine self and my not-fine self have a hard time reconciling with each other, even though they can both surface within the same week or even the same day. When I feel good, I look back smugly on the bad times, as though my body was simply subject to a succession of brief, ultimately unsuccessful takeovers over by a whiny and miserably self-critical alien with hypochondriacal tendencies. During these forays, life lurches forward; I feel excited about things and make plans and listen carefully to people instead of zoning out in a spasm of self-consciousness.
When I feel bad, I am absolutely certain I will never feel good again, and I subsequently do things that are not particularly helpful, like lying face down on my bed for hours practicing conversations that will never happen, or drunkenly telling acquaintances about my personal life in extraordinary detail, or obsessing over what I will look like when I’m old, or musing darkly about the destruction of the planet to whoever will listen, or, as one relationship fizzled towards a demoralizing end, obsessive-compulsively convincing myself that I had forgotten how to make out and therefore needed to rotate my mouth in carefully calibrated and definitely wrong movements. “I! Feel! Bad!” I will recite in my head, over and over again, as I glide around with my expensive jeans and my health insurance. “How dare I feel bad!” I will berate myself.
Should the situation escalate, I will procrastinate at work, potentially forever, unable to conceive of a universe in which something I write could be worth reading. I will start working on a story, discover nine thousand flaws in my premise, tear it up, start on a new story, and do the same thing, until I realize, in an explosion of self-loathing and panic, that I haven’t written anything in kind of a long time. I will assure myself that everything worth writing has already been written, anyway. I will then spend some time wondering if the life of a writer compels me to be inside my own brain more than is pleasant or healthy.
The unfortunate tendency toward self-absorption that’s resulted from my lifelong feud with myself has gelled nicely with our national moment of anxiety-fueled “self-care,” with its myriad products and regimens and treatments and apps all overwhelmingly promising, for a price, to give back the facade of control. On the internet, a well-populated ecosystem of wellness critique has popped up around the industry itself, ready to tease out the gleaming, easy hypocrisies of the inward-looking, ayahuasca-guzzling elite. Self-care can be a crucial political tool, as Audre Lorde originally asserted, but there’s a sizable distance between Lorde’s radicalism and the lure of late capitalism. Where the line is, no one seems to know, though I am fairly sure I passed it a couple hundred miles and a curated vitamin subscription ago.
When you’re living firmly inside of this complex, it’s hard to look at it from a consistent angle. I walked out of my Mama Medicine ceremony feeling different, peaceful, armed with my root chakra oil and my crystal and a recipe for a pink rose petal-strewn healing bath I was supposed to take for energetic protection. The sun was setting over Spring Street. Something, at least momentarily, had shifted, though whether it was fundamentally different from the shift that comes from working out or meditating or having a nice dinner with a friend is unclear. A few days later, it shifted back.