As folks who practice Pagan, Polytheistic, Animistic, and/or Shamanistic religions, many of us already know the cold touch of discrimination and “otherness” in the workplace, in the legal system, in social and familial affairs, and in houses of education. The “otherness” we can feel in healing spaces, though, can affect us when we are at our most vulnerable — those times when we or a loved one are sick, injured, recovering, or in the midst of a birth/death transition.
Since the end of 2020, I have been on my own healing journey, and I want to start writing about pieces of my own experience in order to accomplish the following goals:
- to create space and community around the need for Pagan health resources — including sharing materials, talking about our experiences, and offering education to the medical field so we can be treated and cared for in ways that are in alignment with our values;
- to embody our collective, holistic understanding of the imbalances and dis-eases of our minds, bodies, and spirits as wholly normal reactions to the imbalances and maladjustments of mainstream culture and lifestyle (of which we are a part); and
- to normalize open discussions of women’s pelvic and reproductive health in order to destigmatize commonly-experienced (but uncommonly-discussed) conditions and eliminate the taboos around them.
Honestly, those are some big goals, so this essay may only serve as a gateway to future discussions on these matters. (That’s cool. We gotta start somewhere.)
My Health & Wellness Perspective (A History)
My involvement with medicine, health, and healing is … “complicated” but possibly familiar-looking to many Pagan folks. My parents and grandparents have always relied heavily on traditional Western (or “allopathic”) medicine and have taken the approach to health and wellness that we see in our larger society. “Eat what you eat (which is largely determined by access and conditioning). Go on diets and do exercise programs to lose weight, when your weight creeps up. Go to the doctor when you’re sick. Treat symptoms with meds. Fight infections with antibiotics. Have surgery if something is really out of whack.”
Holistic, whole-health attitudes about nutrition, movement, mind-body-spirit integration, mental and emotional health, etc didn’t enter my worldview until I was pretty deeply involved in Paganism and living in California in the early 2000’s (in my early- to mid-20’s). By then, I had more than two decades of eating for comfort, couch potato, “anxiety as a lifestyle” habits to try to unlearn.
I’m in my mid-40’s now, and I am still working on embodying the values that I hold about food and movement as the foundations of a physically healthy life. Like many Pagans, I appreciate that physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are deeply co-integrated aspects of the same overall concept: Wellness. I love and value my physical body and being as a manifestation of my Self as well as my vehicle through and interface with this plane of existence.
As a person with a uterus, I had a lot of negative conditioning to overcome regarding menstruation, the sometimes painful/uncomfortable reality of my cycles, and learning to listen to the messages of my body and its hormones when it said “Slow down. Pay attention to this emotional hurt. Or, look at how strong you are!”
Over the years, I became very dissatisfied with allopathic medicine. There was a time when I both couldn’t afford it (because I was uninsured and/or under-employed), and I felt like it was failing to address my needs. I’ve had chronic migraines since I was 19, as well as depression and anxiety. I studied herbalism in some depth, earning a certification as a “Master Herbalist,” and my training included some forays into other types of alternative medicine, as well. Bodywork, aromatherapy, flower essences, and mindful movement are always great adjuncts to herbal medicine — although for myself, I have been grateful to reintegrate some allopathic approaches, courtesy of insurance being a factor in my life again. (My migraines require an “all-hands-on-deck” approach.)
TLDR: Like many Pagans, my worldview includes a holistic view of health and wellness. That wasn’t always the case, though, and I still have some habits that undermine my concept of wellness. Those habits often feel enabled because I live in a society that (mostly) doesn’t share the same holistic view as me and the majority of my Pagan cohorts.
Because I am so fortunate to belong to a strong community of Pagan folks offline, and our online worlds are so sculpted and catered to fit our interests and proclivities, it is very easy for me to forget that some of my foundational worldviews (like the integrated nature of the Self, the Spiritual experiences and expressions of our flesh, etc) aren’t views that are shared by most. Not even by those in the medical field. Or, if they are, those views don’t necessarily extend to female reproductive organs.
In late 2020, I experienced a series of medical issues that resulted in my having a total hysterectomy (cervix, fallopian tubes, and uterus) but not oophorectomy (ovaries were fine) and pelvic floor repair (bladder in a sling, as well as several ligaments and rectocele/enterocele repaired). I spent about six and half hours in surgery, eight weeks in recovery, and another eight in physical therapy.
Yes, that would be physical therapy for my vagina. If this is the first you’ve ever heard of such a thing, don’t worry. You are not alone. Nobody talks about pelvic floor physical therapy. Or they haven’t until now. Most Baby Boomers and generations prior either didn’t have access to these treatments or were too ashamed about what was happening with their bodies to discuss these “private problems.” Gen X women, though, are about to blow the lid off this. We are not the silent types. Once we realize we aren’t alone in experiencing things like pelvic organ prolapse in our 40’s, and that “not doing enough Kegels” isn’t the cause, we as a group are going to be talking loudly about this.
My “big shock” through this healing journey wasn’t about the physical therapy, though. It was about how often I was congratulated by nurses and doctors regarding the loss of my uterus.
Yep. You read that right. I had multiple doctors and nurses congratulate me and tell me how much happier I was going to be without my uterus.
I never knew how to respond. I was grateful for my pandemic-necessitated face covering so they couldn’t see my expression (because I’m terrible at hiding my disdain). They had no concept that from the moment my surgeon (who was a very kind woman who shared many of my values) explained that my condition was beyond the help of therapy or devices and that surgery was pretty much my only choice, I had been in a grieving process. I valued my uterus, cervix, and tubes. I valued and honored my bleeding. I didn’t always enjoy it, but I cherished it. It held power — a power that I very much understand in the context of my Witchcraft and Paganism.
From that moment in her office, I never got another menstrual cycle. My surgery happened two days before my next menses would have come. I’ve been thrown rather aggressively into menopause, which was a transition that I anticipated in much the same way I had anticipated my initiations in my Craft Trad and in the OTO. With hope and excitement, but also trepidation and not a little fear of both the process and the Me that I would meet on the other side. The menopause experience I was anticipating felt “stolen” from me, and I was angry and sad about the unknown and unexpected trauma ahead of me. I felt like I was sacrificing a friend, one who had lovingly cradled both of my babies and kept them safe and healthy until they were ready to meet me in the world.
I didn’t want congratulations. I needed condolences.
An Unexpected Balm
Not all people who have a hysterectomy have to stay in the hospital overnight for observation and recovery. However, I had a very intensive surgery, and I was in a great deal of pain afterwards. I was warned to anticipate at least 24 hours in the hospital. What I wasn’t warned about was which department I would be recuperating in.
It turns out that it is fairly common to put all the people who have just had “something major happen to their uterus” in the maternity department.
Friends, I had a screaming gulf where my womb had been hours before (which I now affectionately call my “uterine void”), and I could hear the wails of at least three newborns in the rooms that surrounded me in the first few moments while I was alone with my pain and grief.
I let myself cry, and I also let myself smile. My belief in the cycles of death and rebirth, loss and renewal was very present and tangible. They had no way of knowing how spiritually healing that would be for me, but it was. (In fact, the nurses kept apologizing. From their conditioning, they assumed the baby’s cries and family’s joys would have been like an insult to my injury.)
The Impact of Religion/Belief on Healthcare
Our religions and beliefs are huge factors in shaping our worldviews, which impact our thinking about health and wellness, politics, education, family dynamics, community responsibilities, and more.
Pagans (and similar religious identities like Polytheists, Witches, Druids, Shamans, etc) don’t all share one worldview. Even within most traditions or groups, strict orthodoxy (“right belief”) and orthopraxy (“right practice”) are rare. We tend to value integration and connection to either Deities or natural Powers, but we also tend to value freedom and a certain amount of non-conformity. So any discussion of “our beliefs” could only be drawn with the broadest of brush strokes.
It might be more fruitful to suggest areas of thought for the individual or the small community of practice (ie, hearth, coven, kindred, grove) to consider when providing guidance to healthcare professionals in their care of us (as that individual or community member). After all, most hospitals and many doctors offices offer a place for you to note your religion on their intake paperwork. That isn’t meant to be an intrusive data-gathering point, but rather it is an opportunity for them to be considerate of your beliefs and needs when/if an occasion arises.
Here are some of the areas that your beliefs/practices/religion might impact in a healthcare setting:
- beginning/end of life rituals and prayers (and chaplaincy, in general)
- clothing and modesty
- food and beverage choices
- pain management (and pharmaceutical usage, in general)
- magical worldview in a counseling setting
- sex/gender of medical providers
I’ve assembled some articles and websites below for folks who want to dive deeper into the available research and resources. As a minority religion (or cluster of related religions) there is predictably scant research and staggeringly few resources. But what we do have is a good start and provides a nice foundation for building a stronger support system in the future.
Pagan Healthcare Resources — https://sites.google.com/site/paganhealthcareresources/home
Staff of Asclepius blog: Pagans with Disabilities — https://www.patheos.com/blogs/paganswithdisabilities/
Articles/Books re: Pagans and Healthcare
Hedrick, Kimberly. (2010). Pagan Health Survey: The worldviews and health care choices of Wiccans, Druids, and Witches. — https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266901101_Pagan_Health_Survey_The_worldviews_and_health_care_choices_of_Wiccans_Druids_and_Witches
Masery. Interview with Kimberly Hedrick, PhD about the Groundbreaking Pagan Health Survey. — https://www.patheos.com/blogs/paganswithdisabilities/2011/01/interview-with-kimberly-hendrick-phd-about-the-groundbreaking-pagan-health-survey/
Department of Health (UK). (2009). Religion or Belief: A Practical Guide for the NHS. — https://www.clatterbridgecc.nhs.uk/application/files/7214/3445/0178/ReligionorbeliefApracticalguidefortheNHS.pdf
Harris, Kevin & Panzica, Kate & Crocker, Ruth. (2016). Paganism and Counseling: The Development of a Clinical Resource. Open Theology. 2. 10.1515/opth-2016-0065. — https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308864719_Paganism_and_Counseling_The_Development_of_a_Clinical_Resource
Dees, S. (2015). A Different Medicine: Postcolonial Healing in the Native American Church [Review of A Different Medicine: Postcolonial Healing in the Native American Church, by Joseph D. Calabrese]. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 19(1), 114–116. https://doi.org/10.1525/nr.2015.19.1.114
Sonnex, C., Roe, C. A., & Roxburgh, E. C. (2020). Flow, Liminality, and Eudaimonia: Pagan Ritual Practice as a Gateway to a Life With Meaning. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167820927577
Lüddeckens, D. & Schrimpf, M. (2018). Medicine – Religion – Spirituality: Global Perspectives on Traditional, Complementary, and Alternative Healing. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783839445822
(Forthcoming — call for abstracts — one to watch) https://networks.h-net.org/node/114427/discussions/6950843/call-abstracts-pagan-responses-health-disease-and-healing-special
Articles re: Pagans and Discrimination/Law (General)
Hoadley, Elizabeth. (2016). Discrimination and Modern Paganism: A study of religion and contemporary social climate. — https://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/28559/1/Hoadley_BPhil_Thesis_Final.pdf
Stewart, BS. Opening the Broom Closet: Recognizing the Rights of Witches, Wiccans, and Other Neo-Pagans. Northern Illinois University Law Review. http://commons.lib.niu.edu/bitstream/handle/10843/19251/32-1-135-Stewart-pdfA.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[Laurelei Black is an American folkloric Witch, Aphrodite woman, and author. Look for her here: www.linktr.ee/laureleiblack]