home of a crazy herbalist

What Is Unspelling?

Complex Trauma/PTSD is a set of bad spells cast during important developmental years. 


Some context:

As I have deepened my work with my own trauma, started applying a lens of trauma on social justice and had the privilege to do intimate work supporting folks showing up to the very unseen, under-valued labor of their own trauma and needs, it has become more and more clear to me how much of this work isn't about 'fixing,' but undoing. Undoing that which was done so that what wants to come forward, be it deep and pleasurable sleep, new identities, pleasure and restoration or intimacy, can do so. The lie that survival mode perpetuates is that 'fixing,' will eventually yield reward. 

But, there will always be more to fix. If the reward comes at the end of fixing, we are sure to be carrot chasing masters right into the grave. For folks with PTSD whose trauma occurred after the physiology and identity had already established some form of safety and ability to restore and rest, there is a a possibility of something that looks like fixing. The work can center around a central happening of trauma which may add new layers of self and identity, but there are already the building blocks to work with, the healing of this can flesh out, make bigger parts of the identity that already had some place in the world.

With complex trauma, a core feature is the sustained and repeated violations during developmental years which prevent those core building blocks. Instead, identity forms in the context of trauma, and we only really grow to know ourselves as reactions to what we survived. And often, we persist in these reactions without knowing how to access in our inner worlds or the outer world the depth of being which was necessarily suppressed in order to survive. Being unseen was safer than being seen. Feeling became dangerous and foreign. The inner critic learned that perfectionism and self-hate are effective fuels for carrot chasing.  Socio-political and cultural oppression are tools of complex trauma. If you have had to hide, change, make smaller your identities in order to avoid/lesson/withstand dominant cultural violence, the very same things apply: suppression for survival. 

I believe the work of liberation from trauma starts with unspelling it. The seeing, naming, knowing and casting out so that the gorgeous movement of the life force wanting to be expressed, known and connected with can emerge to its fullest. 

spells, charms and gospels......

A general framework to approach the very idea of a spell: The etymology of 'spell,' in various European languages relates to speaking, the use of breath and voice and intention. The meaning has varied over place and time period. Currently understood as 'the use of letters to form words' with older roots in 'speaking/telling/signifying in general.' For hundreds (a couple thousand?) of years along Northern European history, there has been an ongoing theft of both meaning and power away from women/gender non-conforming/empire-resisting folks who enchant things with their words, who invoke and heal through trance with incantations outside of the dominant power structures. This last point is important. breath, words and intention are a tool not used solely by community healers and people of spirit. They are used also by ruling classes, folks who wield spiritual and political power. Folks whose gods are those of empire, of domination, whose belief in the natural world incorporates as a testing ground for the 'real one' to come. As Northern Europe was colonized by these beliefs and the politco-religious leaders further centralized power in the state, in the king, in the church, we watch the eroding of close knit communal living. 

The demonizing of those sit first with the land in their relationship to knowing and as their source of power become the power to suppress. The attempted elimination of these practitioners and practices, most visibly during the burning times, started much, much earlier and continues to evolve. The transition of power to robed men of the cloth (clergy) who also represented state sanctioned religion and 'the truth,' has been a long one. if this kind of talk gets you excited I have links to authors and resources which, due to their work, I am able to know these things as and not just feel them.)

This transition began long before we come to the empire obsessed European era of Imperialism. I believe, it has continued to evolve along side the birth of structured institutions and city-states long, long ago and created structured systems which do not share the same rhythmic cycles of fertility and fallow that the Earth does....But no one quite perfected it like my collective European ancestors....long live the blood of the resistors....The ongoing spells of these transitions can be seen in the institutions which uphold white supremacy, colonization, cis-hetero-patriarchy, ableism and neurotypicality, environmental degradation and the continued traumas which mediate every aspect of our daily lives. May these forces be seen, known and undone. 

The Christian (patriarchal, capitalist, eugenicist) colonization of Europe was able to successfully shift respect and trust away from local healers, herbalists, midwifes and folks who worked in the realms of spirit by changing the very understanding of the tools they used. It was a shift out of the body. Power was shifted away from spellwork (the practice of using voice, breath intention and meaning) done by local women trusted within their communities to the clergy: (mostly) men in churches and in positions of power who spoke of devils and claimed the only source of truth came from the gospels of Christianity. 

Literally, the 'good spells.' The gospels. 

The shift of power from the living words and relationships offered by local healers moved to those words written and only accessible to literate, state-sanctioned religious leaders with ties to political power and interest. This was a very cruel spell: the speaking against local and community based, living traditions in favor of a static and externalized source of ultimate spiritual authority. The notion of casting spells became associated with evil in conflict with the gospels (the written good spells) and central authority of the church. 

This may seem like a long digression, but unresolved trauma does a similar thing in the mind-body: it recasts a multi-valent and sensual reality into something rigid, less flexible, less safe. It externalizes our truths and reduces our resources for liberation. It centralizes the self around survival. If you think of the modern story of capitalism, the myth of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, the mythology and constant devotion to sacrifice of the self for success, you can see the carrot dangling, its bright orange hue and soft green leaves. What you don't get to see in order for the system to stay working is how much we are forced to operate like horses circling a pole in circus. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a zoo animal and recognized its gaze? If we are to unspell personal and collective traumas, we must know what gospels are not in our interests. We must identify what has been cast upon us without our consent. We must also know what gospels we benefit from and perpetuate. 

And, we must know/affirm what our own good spells are.

The process of unspelling is not linear. It is spiraling. Big work can be done by just saying a word, in the space of one breath. Most happens over weeks and years. White supremacist-cis-hetero-neurotypical-capitalist-patriarchy is a kaleidoscope of bad spells that serve a select few and maintain structures of disempowerment. They have been evolving and shape-shifting for a long time but they have patterns, just like trauma does

Unresolved trauma is a bad spell on the body. It causes physiological resurrections of neuro-emotional dysregulation leaving us in the rigidity of survival mode. It strips away what we can and are allowed to know is possible. It externalizes our truths and forces separation from our body and senses. It is the projection of a false reality we are told we must be constrained to. It leaves the residue of perptual 'not enough-ness.'...these are stubborn spells. 

This understanding of trauma applies on the personal and political levels. Identifying these spells take so much damn WORK WORK WORK to undo. I think there are no set stages of healing in trauma, we instead become master unspellers and shifters between the various worlds presented to us, ways we are allowed to be, what we can know and feel. We unearth the bones of old monsters to verify their deaths and identify those monsters still living, we re-story what was once our gospel, we begin to re-center reality as something happening within us and we become lovers to our own embodied experience. We lose the grip on hyper-individuality and come back into desire and connection. This doesn't happen in a linear fashion, instead we wander between the worlds of present and past and learn to trust our own discernment of what is which. This is the unspelling. 

I think survivors of complex trauma (personal and socio-political), and folks who have a keen sense that they were born into a world that doesn't look anything like what they recognize as true are poised to be master unspellers: we crave deeper relationships to each other and earth, living systems built on justice and restoration, equitable distributions of resources and communities centered on consent and joy. I think we are in a unique position to help be the change we know we were put here to be.

The unspelling of personal and collective trauma is my life's work

  • Whiteness & White Supremacy perpetuates trauma
  • Cis-Hetero-Capitalist-Abelist-Patriarchy perpetuates trauma
  • Colonization perpetuates trauma
  • Reductivity perpetuates trauma

No personal traumas can be separated from their cultural origins completely. The work of unspelling then is

  • seeing and naming the spells
  • experiencing and embodying the grief
  • unraveling that which has bound us
  • casting out of that which no longer serves
  • turning away from reductivity
  • embracing the inherent worth of being
  • liberating the life force flowing through us
  • nourishing desire
  • actively calling in of intimacy, connection and restoration
  • seeking embodied experince 
  • the identification of our intersections
  • building systems and communities which embrace and nourish complexity

May it be so. 

I see this as ongoing work that will last the remainder of my life, both the work with my own trauma and my responsibilities to dismantle the systemic gospels which unjustly afford me greater safety, mobility and access. I do not claim to know what this looks like, however. As a white person, I am aggressively cautious about thinking I do, about investing in the 'right' way to be or think or do as 'rightness' and being above the messiness of deep, vulnerable interactions is a tool that actively perpetuates whiteness. There is no 'right' way to be an oppressor. I spent a long time in non-profits which often mimic the very oppression internally they seek to address in the larger society. I care very little for being right. I care about impact and connection. I care about resistance and relationship. I care about turning and facing multiple truths with a heart which refuses to accept the normalization of trauma. That's where the unspelling begins.