Exploring Trauma, Madness, Chronic Illness, & Disability with Tarot: Part One

(Read Part Two Here & read Part Three here!)

content note: self-harm & trauma feelings

Reading Tarot through a lens of madness, chronic illness and pain, trauma, and disability (and thus, poverty, too) comes naturally to me, as these are my daily life experiences, completely unavoidable and inseparable from my spirit, my creativity, and my values. I’m interested in the ways Tarot validates pain and teaches us how to explore our emotions and habitual patterns, how to communicate, how to make magic and art, and how to stay alive.


In this entry, I’m exploring some of my feelings and experiences through two cards (The Five of Pentacles/Bones and Three of Swords/Feathers) and three decks (Pixie’s Tarot, The Collective Tarot, and Thea’s Tarot). Initially, I was gonna write about a whole bunch of cards at once, but it turned out I had more to say than I thought. So, I’ve labeled this as Part One of I don’t know how many potential parts, and I’ll hopefully be sharing more in the near future.

These thoughts are just a beginning, and not fixed definitions, but a mere exploration, or rough draft. I hope it’ll be valuable for other folks experiencing trauma, madness, chronic illness, and disability, whether you’re new to Tarot, or have been reading since forever.


Five of Pentacles / Five of Bones

The Five of Pentacles may look like such a sad, grim card, but there’s so much in this image that resonates with me. For me, the image shows feelings associated with chronic illness & pain, fears and worries about needing/lacking support, feeling left behind, and the struggle to keep going. The person using crutches in this card has a friend with them, clearing a path to follow, but they’re both exposed to the elements, barefoot and mittenless in the snow. I can identify with both people in this card at different times; the ailing, disabled weirdo going fucking crazy in pain, and the barefoot pal who has become the other figure’s sole source of support. Both figures are burned out and in need of warmth, comfort, and nurturing – something they can no longer provide for one another on their own. (In another interpretation, the leading figure in the card might represent something more like a spirit, or hope, or perseverance, or a connection to the universe / divine / whatever that gives you meaning for your suffering, rather than a living, breathing human – it’s a crucial form of support, but no longer enough.)

This card can be a warning to re-think negative habits and thought patterns that keep you feeling separate from friends who might be able to support you, but it also offers validation for your fearful feelings, and your disability experience – yes, being traumatized and managing multiple chronic conditions at once can be incredibly frustrating, lonely, and scary. And for many of us, Winter aggravates these feelings as the city becomes even less accessible, and our apartments are old and cold and crumbling. Many of us, myself included, are not always able to access the support we need. At its worst, this card can denote severe isolation, psychosis, various levels of dissociation, and unbearable pain.

The Five of Bones in The Collective Tarot, showing a skeleton’s hand with grains of sand slipping between its fingers, makes me think of the way pain and distress gets us right down to the bones; it’s the sore wrist of typing for hours and not knowing if anyone’s gonna care about what you write anyway, it’s dropping utensils and pens and lighters, it’s needing help and not knowing where to go (and of being sick of oneself for still needing help after all this time); it’s the experience of being hungry but not being able to carry the weight of groceries anymore. The Five of Bones is being in an unwanted position of precariousness and vulnerability.

In Thea’s Tarot, the figure in the card appears to be protecting herself from being crushed. Everything is too much, and it seems like the best option is to hide, to protect our delicate body and fragile mind. Often, these are the kinds of feelings that can lead many of us to believe that we are at fault for being in this awful place yet again, for not getting our shit together and keeping it together, and we might find that we are blaming ourselves, using negative self-talk, and not trusting others to provide what we need.

The anxiety in this card seeps into all aspects of our day-to-day life and psyche; trying to access food and basic needs, surviving unstable and unreliable living situations, the discomfort and helplessness of being broke as fuck while rent rises and we’re evicted, or our friends are evicted, feeling trapped and forgotten, and wondering if our efforts to fight cynicism are worthwhile anymore. The Five of Pentacles is the point at which we wonder if we can keep going at all. It’s a feeling of being shut out with no more options left, when we feel we’ve exhausted the resources available to us through traditional health care as well as holistic alternatives and support through friendships. We see the light glowing through the stained glass windows and think, “Yeah, but that’s not for me.”

Some questions you may wish to explore when you draw the Five of Pentacles:

– How are other folks in similar situations taking care of themselves and staying alive? Can I connect with them?
– How do poverty and pain affect my mental health and my friendships?
– What can my feelings of resentment teach me, and how can I let go of them when I no longer need them?
– Can I name anything positive or meaningful in experiencing pain, anxiety, and madness?
– What am I grateful for today? (Think of simple things, like your morning coffee, access to meds, a weird dream you had last night, watching animals from your window, reading fiction, your library card, cheap lipstick, scent-free dollar store candles, whatever…)
– What’s behind the stained glass window? Can I access this space or create one of my own?


Three of Swords

The Three of Swords may represent our coping mechanisms, negative thought patterns and self-criticism, over-thinking, loss and heartbreak (not necessarily in romantic situations), grief, depression, rumination, memories of rough times and traumatic experiences, melancholy, distress, feeling either silenced, unlistened to, invalidated, or worn out, and our own individual, personal triggers. Instead of digging the knives (or Swords) in deeper and watching them bleed, we might imagine reaching in and pulling them out, finding a way to take control.

The Three of Swords can hold messages about cutting and other forms of self-injury or self-harm as well. Cutting is a coping mechanism that has kept many of us alive for much longer than we thought we would be. Cutting doesn’t mean we’re broken, and does not necessarily mean we want to die either – instead, it often feels like our last option to keep ourselves alive, and can even be re-energizing when experiencing fatigue and hopelessness. Cutting and other forms of self-injury or self-harm don’t need to be indicators or evidence of failure or giving up. Scars (old or new) aren’t a sign of weakness; scars are a sign of healing, and they require our care and attention.

Self-harm happens for different reasons, and cutting is never ever shameful – neither having visible marks on your body, nor hiding them is something to be embarrassed about. Many of us keep our scars hidden not because we’re ashamed, but because feeling obligated to talk about it can be burdensome and, frankly, boring, and it’s good to be able to have boundaries around that stuff. But if you do feel embarrassed and ashamed (as I often have), you may wish to unpack some of those feelings. My feelings of shame around self-injury are often about my age – like it’s something I should be “over” by now. But it’s okay to not be over it. (I’ve written about some of these feelings in the past – please click the “self-harm” tag if you’re interested.)

Although I don’t believe cutting is the first habit one must quit in recovery, nor do I believe that quitting once means quitting forever, and I definitely do not believe that we cannot have a meaningful spiritual practice if we’re still harming ourselves, I do think that The Three of Swords urges us to find new ways to articulate our pain. Like me, you might have a mantra of “Do the opposite,” but when you’re feeling an urge to cut yourself, an opposite action might not feel accessible to you, and the act of writing in a journal, or texting a friend, or making a cup of tea might sound totally fucking absurd, and waiting half an hour for your anxiety meds to kick in might be an impossibly long time. That’s okay! Finding other means of re-stabilizing emotional equilibrium takes practice, and sometimes we hurt ourselves and take care of ourselves simultaneously.

In The Collective Tarot, we’re navigating our pain through writing and creativity, and daring ourselves to share it. I often feel alone with my pain, and lately I’ve been reminding myself that everybody is suffering just as much as I am. In Thea’s Tarot, the image alone is enough to hurt my heart – one figurd curled up, once again trying to protect herself, another figure walking away, and a Sword dividing them. They look defeated, lonely, and cold. I think they’re both considering looking at one another and making amends, but each one is waiting for the other to speak first. What’ll happen?

Some questions you may wish to explore when you draw the Three of Swords:

– What can I learn from this experience?
– Have I been in this place before? What helped? What hindered?
– All emotions are valid; what are these particular ones attempting to teach me?
– Is it time to reach out?
– Is there a favourite book I often re-read for guidance and comfort?
– What feelings am I trying to avoid when I hurt myself, and what feelings am I trying to create? Are there different ways of doing so?
– What happens when I resist the urge to hurt myself?
– How do I feel when I see my own scars? When I see others’ scars?
– What questions do I wish others would ask me? What questions do I like asking?

If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to say that I’m grateful you took the time to read this entry, and I invite you to explore the cards with some of these ideas in mind and see what happens. Take good care of yourself, forgive yourself, and keep making magic.

Tarotingly Yours,

P.S. As you may already know, I offer Tarot readings at schoolformaps.etsy.com, and of course, I write zines, too!

P.P.S.: If you’ve benefited from my writing in any way – if my words have inspired you, helped you feel less alone, or sparked some weird feeling within you; if you’ve felt encouraged, or curious, or comforted – please consider compensating me by offering a donation of any amount. Whether you’ve been reading my writing for years, or just stumbled into me this afternoon, I invite you to help me sustain the process!

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