You pass them on the street without thinking: neon signs that shout “PSYCHIC READINGS.” But there is nothing special about the $10 Special Palm Reading, other than you’ll be shocked at how quick it is, and how bright your future looks.
That is the kind of reading my mother constantly craved, probably from watching too much “Medium,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Ghost Hunters.” Not to mention the piles of Sylvia Brown books she would check out from the library and study like textbooks.
“Ten dollars! Don’t you think that’s a little high?” It was a rhetorical question that she asked as we drove, on our way to the Wal-Mart in Kemah, Texas, past the strip malls where palm readers were wedged between Supercuts and Dollar General. What she meant was, “We’re not going, this time.” I was willing, but something always held her back, and it wasn’t the price. Some people don’t want to hear what the stars have in store for them.
As it turns out, the stars were not in her favor. Zena the Clairvoyant later pointed out that my tarot cards indicated long life lines, lucky me. My mother’s cards would have revealed the opposite, had they ever been read. When she was 51, just beginning to write her memoir about nursing on the adult psychiatry unit-a comedy if you can imagine that-she drowned in her newly renovated pool in our backyard in a suburb of Houston, Texas. The same place that she made her sanctuary on her days off from work. When my father found her, I was taking a summer course at NYU, and had not been home since winter break. I didn’t get to see the beautiful blue Mexican tiles until I came home for the funeral. That week was a blur. I returned to New York to finish my class, in which I learned as much French as Inspector Clouseau. It wasn’t until a month later, in the midst of my final semester, that my family received her death certificate, which deemed it “accidental death.” It drove me crazy that something so tragic was called an accident, a term I place on par with a child who wets his pants.
In times of loss, some seek guidance from therapists and psychiatrists, some turn to religion, some read “War and Peace” in bed very slowly, and some go to psychics. There is no proven method for grieving. A study in 2000 by psychologist Robert Neimeyer found that grief therapy is only effective when the patient attends willingly and is experiencing “traumatic bereavement,” meaning an unexpected death. Whereas therapy for normal bereavement has proved inconclusive and even harmful if the patient is forced to attend therapy and has to re-experience the death.
Although I fall into the category of “traumatically bereaved” I had never been to counseling and wasn’t keen on the idea. I was raised Roman Catholic but religion never gave me any solace and I’ve all but denounced it as an adult. So church was out, a hefty, paperback Tolstoy was unappetizing, and I didn’t feel ready to sob in front of a circle of strangers. Instead, I went to a psychic.
Climbing stairs: My first reading
It’s not easy to assert that psychic or astrological counseling is an alternative to traditional therapy. The science community considers it a pseudoscience. But there is a Parapsychological Association that investigates psychic abilities and the paranormal with a scientific approach-controlled experiments and reports in the Journal of Parapsychology. Results, some successful, some not, are debated to the point of uncertainty. Maybe this uncertainty is why three out of four Americans believe in some kind of paranormal activity, from ghosts to psychic ability. As counselors, psychics have a different approach than a licensed therapist; instead of asking “How does that make you feel?” they first analyze your natal astrological chart (the alignment of the stars at your birth), some also read your tarot cards, your palm, your aura, or your dreams. These may reveal potential successes or challenging phases-due to planets shifting-and the psychic or astrologer then poses possible actions to take during these periods, such as don’t sign any contracts, look out for certain types of potentially destructive people, spend more time alone, or go on a vacation. While psychics do not have the academic or scientific credentials of psychiatrists, they build their careers on helping people understand their identity and behavioral patterns based on astrology.
Evidently my planetary alignment is about to go through a transitional phase, and I need to spend the next few months ignoring the pressures of the real world (career hunting) and focus on my inner self, according to Joshua the Psychic. I found Joshua in an article in Time Out New York about local psychics, and he had the highest rating-five crystal balls. Short and muscular, with a buzz cut and rectangular glasses, Joshua looks at first glance like a graduate student, which he was, at Emerson College, where he earned an MFA in writing. Though Joshua denounces his last name and prefers a title, “like Bono,” -more like Madonna, I thought-he is incredibly knowledgeable about astrology, card readings, and even psychology, which he minored in as an undergraduate at Emerson. His fourth-floor walk-up smells more like the ghosts of cigarettes past than incense. In lieu of a crystal ball, he sets up his laptop on a TV tray as we sit on his two-person sofa and he opens the file of my astrological chart. He is energetic, thorough, and his analysis of my birth chart is surprisingly accurate. I am a Pisces, which is a sign distinguished for its mutability, meaning I adapt to the situation at hand, and I’m an expert empathizer. But “everything is an illusion,” says Joshua, with a hint of theatricality. I am very good at being fake nice-he’s right-and my Sagittarius rising means I come off as a very “happy-go-lucky” person; no one would suspect I’m an emotional Pisces. My sun sign is in the third house, a placement that means, Joshua says, “You shine in the areas of communication, which is perfect because you’re a journalist, you’re a writer.” I was unimpressed. He already knew I was going to write about the reading, so where was the insight? But then he added, “Sun in the third house, in Pisces however, I’d be much more apt to peg you as a fiction writer, or a poet.” Bingo. He was more than right. I am a journalism student who hates reading the news.
The skeptic in me woke up when I heard his roommate flush a toilet in a nearby room. Would Carl Jung call this synchronicity? Meaningful coincidence? Are Joshua’s words you-know-what that I should flush? I was wavering between skeptic and believer when Joshua drew the Swiftness card.
“Are you going on a plane soon?” He asks me. All I had were plans to take a train to visit family in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving.
“This is not a train,” he insists. Then he quickly asks, as if it were an afterthought, “Have you ever been to London?”
“Where?” I had heard every word, but I was in disbelief. London? My sister was spending the semester there and the night before I had my reading with Joshua, the family I babysit for invited me to go to London with them for Thanksgiving, but I declined because I already made plans. This was more than synchronicity.
The $90 reading lasted 45 minutes without notable inaccuracies, other than that Joshua thought the first Tarot card-Disappointment-meant I was disappointed in love. When I left his tiny apartment I felt a strange sense of contentment mixed with excitement. The astrological analysis was the most interesting; it was more calculated than the complete chance of drawing cards. I felt like I knew myself a little better, but at the same time I also felt like a stranger-I saw myself from the outside looking in. Although I didn’t ask Joshua to specifically address the death of my mother, the first card he drew was disappointment, which may be an understatement for my feelings about her death, but it certainly wasn’t the Happiness card. Because the reading was focused on the present and future, it’s difficult to say whether it made my grieving process easier. Instead it was more beneficial for my own sense of identity. Since I’m someone who is adept at disguising my real emotions, I ignore my sadness and pretend it isn’t consuming me at every moment. A Pisces has to express these feelings through art, Joshua advised, so I need to write as an outlet. I wonder if this countsâ€¦
Digging Deeper: A professional astrologer and the grief counselor
My second reading was with astrologer John Marchesella, whose number I received from my great aunt, who also lives in the city. She used to see him about once a year (“I need to make an appointment soon,” she said when I told her about mine). I had to schedule three weeks in advance. The reading was almost two hours, and Marchesella records it on a CD for his clients. Ten hours of babysitting. A pair of designer jeans. Forty-three half gallons of vanilla soy milk. It cost $175, but it was worth every wrinkled twenty I handed over.
His apartment in Chelsea is modest, but less dorm-chic than Joshua’s. It is the ground floor of a brownstone. There are shelves filled with astrology books and, on the wall in the entryway, painted masks stared down at me, knowingly. Marchesella has a grey moustache-goatee combination that the Internet could not find a name for. He was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. I’ve probably stood behind him at Whole Foods and never knew it. All he knows about me is my name, the date, location, and hour of my birth.
We sit in his living room across from each other and the tarot cards are dealt and spread on the glass coffee table. His small dog is asleep on the couch, and would let out a periodic snore. Unlike Joshua, Marchesella doesn’t base his reading on the cards. He is an astrologer, and the cards aid his reading but they do not play a major role. Marchesella explains astrology as if it’s a theatre, “Every planet is a voice in our head.”
“Your chart is the story of your life,” he begins. “For another year or two, chill out and relax and don’t worry about anything.” I liked where this was going.
My life has been a tornado lately, with more jobs than I can handle and of course, school. “Go experience your life,” he tells me with arms opened, then clapped together. Couldn’t this advice apply to all college age almost-adults? Sure. “But if you really have to leave here with some kind of focus on career, I’ll tell you, even though I think you should go live your life and don’t worry about your goals,” then he dropped the magic word, “Go write. Just go write.”
I felt a surge of energy but I kept my face Botox-tight, neutral and unreadable. I learned this look the day before, when I went to my first session of grief counseling. I researched professional bereavement therapists and since there are only a few grief-specific centers in Manhattan I called them all and I went to the first doctor who had a time I could make. I had to squeeze it in between my internship and babysitting. My insurance would cover 90 percent, so each session would cost me around ten dollars, after, that is, a $150 deductible, and I have a maximum of 25 sessions per year. Dr. B’s office on the Upper West Side is hidden next to a building with a doorman who redirects so many lost souls-literally and figuratively-that he knows the combination to her door.
Inside it seems more like an apartment than an office, which was probably intentional. The only evidence of a doctor’s presence is a basket of magazines and a jumbo-size Purell in the empty waiting room. I had to choose between two couches, so I chose the one closest to Dr. B, a woman around my mother’s age. Her New York City accent is as thick as her eyeliner. This was my first time attending any sort of counseling or therapy and I wasn’t sure what to do. In New Yorker cartoons the patient lies on the couch and says something ironic. That didn’t seem appropriate. She waited for me to begin, and the second I had to say the words out loud, the words my father had to tell me over the phone that late Tuesday night in July when I was thousands of miles away from home, I started to cry.
I dreaded not wearing waterproof mascara that day. The two jumbo boxes of CVS tissues might as well have had my name on them. She sat, legs crossed as I stared at her stocking-feet in peep-toe heels. I told her I despise crying, and of course her response was, “Why?”
“Look at me,” I said, “This is not a good look for me, all red and splotchy.” She didn’t laugh. We talked about the relief of crying, how it makes some people feel better. But not me, I asserted. “I have a headache, I can’t breathe, my makeup is running a marathon all over my face, and I feel terrible.” My eyes leaked steadily like my dorm faucet for the entire 45 minutes-no matter how you jiggle the handle it just keeps going.
I had so much to say, but it was impossible to express much when I was constantly trying to make myself presentable and not build a mountain of white tissues.
“It’s okay,” she said, “This can be the place for you to cry, even though you hate it.” I told her that I live with seven apartment-mates and I never get to be alone. I realized that the reason therapy would be beneficial is because my friends can’t empathize with me, I don’t know anyone who feels what I feel. It also makes people uneasy when I bring it up, because they’re not sure what to say either. After a few glasses of wine sometimes I’ll tell people about my weird dreams of my mother. Once we were shopping and she wanted to get dinner groceries but I told her, “Mom, you’re dead. Ghosts can’t eat!” This offended her and she crossed her arms, scowling at me. I don’t usually go much deeper than those anecdotes, because people are more comfortable with laughter than tears.
I tried explaining this to Dr. B when I realized that yes, I can tell her the crazy things I think about, but then again, has she ever felt what I have felt? I can’t receive empathy from her either. I don’t know anything about her. That is why group therapy might be more effective, but it didn’t fit in with my work schedule. I took the slow, local 1 train downtown to baby-sit. I tried to hide my tear-stained complexion behind a magazine but my eyes were burning and I couldn’t read. I dreaded returning a week later.
But on the train I realized that there’s something about the multitude of New York that makes anonymity perfect, which is actually a point John Marchesella made in my reading. He told me I’m an introvert; I’d rather stay in and read than go out with friends. He had no idea how right he was-on second thought, he probably did. Then he hesitated. For the past two years, he told me, Pluto has been cycling through my major planets.
“To be a little dramatic,” he says, “Pluto is about death. Obviously not literally, but a figurative death: the end of an era, the loss of innocence, a very strong sense of mortality. Usually when Pluto goes over planets like these, and it went over three, not just one but three, there’s some sort of feeling that your universe has fallen apart. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s forced upon you. The end of your life as you know it is just thrust upon you.”
There was a dramatic pause. Was he waiting for me to say Eureka!? I held back. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, there was a literal death, but I didn’t want to tell him just yet. He continued:
“If you would have come to a reading in the past two years, I would have given you all kinds of images of death, and grieving and mourning. I would have said, ‘don’t worry about your life, go do some volunteer work in a hospice, work with the dying, go make this figurative death, literal.’”
But that cycle is coming to an end in the next six weeks, he said. I felt relief. He discussed the coming cycles in my chart: I’m going to have a few rebellious months, thanks to the troublemaker Uranus. Then the level-headed Saturn will reign me in and my life will get back on track. My love life will be thrilling and adventurous (about time!). I will gain spirituality through something ancient, like the study of mythology, art, or yoga. I will get a master’s degree. Marriage and children? No thanks, let’s worry about that later, he told me. Let’s not worry about that at all, were my thoughts. When I left the reading, I was elated. I would have skipped down Eighth Avenue-which would doubtfully shock the locals-but I was impeded by my heeled boots. Why didn’t I feel this way about therapy? In therapy, I was wallowing in the past, in problems and anxieties. With astrology, you look inward, and then you look forward.
But there I was again, time to hit the couch, punching the code that I didn’t have to memorize since the numbers are so worn down on the keypad it only takes a few guesses. At my second session of counseling, I continued to unleash the floodwaters from my eyes, but not as heavily this time. I didn’t have to retell the story. Dr. B probed a little more, which I preferred to the original open forum. She gave me advice about school, how to tell professors that my work might be turned it late. I couldn’t take the advice though, it was too awkward and out of character. I don’t feel comfortable enough with my professors and something in me wanted to prove I don’t need extensions on papers. I was very wrong. I had to ask two of my four professors for extra time, the rest I turned in on schedule. I told Dr. B. I felt like I was using my mother’s death as an excuse, to which she responded, “If this isn’t an excuse, what is?”
“I guess so,” I said. I needed someone to tell me it was alright.
The Doctor’s Orders
I asked Dr. Neimeyer, one of the leading psychologists researching the effectiveness of grief counseling, if he thought psychics may be just as valid counselors as therapists:
“I have seen psychics, as well as therapists, who are both very comforting and personal, and others who are generic, superficial and pushy. Especially if your belief system includes some version of an afterlife, you might find such consultation comforting.”
He also advised that I try another therapist, because the effectiveness of therapy often depends on the patient’s relationship to the therapist. In his research, he addresses specifically bereaved college students and the “silent epidemic” of death on campus, because a quarter of freshman students are within the first year following a significant loss. The study discusses the symptoms of “complicated grief,” which I read as an eerie checklist: “Insomnia, and a dependence on alcohol or drugs as sleep aids.” I may have one or two glasses of red wine before bed, but I don’t think it is detrimental. I’ll ask Dr. B about that this week. “Impaired abilities to concentrate.” Check plus. I have never been so distracted in class before, writing notes to my mother among my bullet points about modernist poetry. Great: “Having inner conversations with the [deceased].” Another check.
The conclusion of the study is that different types of grief have to be addressed in different ways, the counselor has to make sure to aid the student “redefining the relationship [to the deceased]” rather than breaking the bond and moving on.
Dr. B actually told me, “Grieving isn’t about getting over someone; it’s about living with that loss for the rest of your life.” She must have been taking notes. When I saw her after Thanksgiving I told her about my father and I visited some of his family, but no one acknowledged my mother’s death the entire week. Evidently this is bad, because then “it becomes an elephant in room,” she said. “They were taking cues from you to see how to behave, and since you didn’t bring it up, they didn’t bring it up.”
Why didn’t you tell me this before! I thought. But it was beneficial advice and I’ll keep it in mind for Christmas.
As opposed to psychics and astrologers, therapists have the advantage of immediately and directly addressing the concept of grieving. In counseling, I deal with my current emotions, and with psychics, I examine larger picture goals beyond my mother’s death. According to Neimeyer, the most challenging obstacle that the bereaved must face is having to “reassess and revise their sense of how the world works.” As John Marchesella sat across from me, I realized that this was where I finally felt that my life was moving forward and I would soon grasp control of a world that, for the past five months, was drowning me in sorrow.
My mother used to email me what she was writing, and the last story she sent me was about a boy who drowned on the beach when she was in elementary school. The title was “Angels Watching Over Me?”
“Few of us went into the water beyond our ankles,” she wrote, “because the water was usually too brown to see through and we were afraid of sea creatures. None of us could swim a stroke, and that’s what caused the drowning.”
But about five years ago my mother taught herself how to swim, and it became her obsession. My father, who swims every day, gave her advice and she practiced devotedly. I used to swim laps with her and when we shared a lane we would constantly bump heads because I never wore contacts. She’d pop her head out of the water and lovingly