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

So, I’m pretty enthusiastic about reading Tarot as crazy people, and Tarot as a reliable*, spiritual, and fun source for self-exploration, coping, and (re-)imagining. As I mentioned in Part One, where I wrote about Five of Pentacles/Bones & Three of Swords/Feathers, 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, and it’s important to me to work toward ensuring that Tarot is as accessible as possible to folks with similar experiences.

You can also read Part Three here.

(* “Reliable” as in, it might be easier to sit down and pick up a pack of cards, than to call a friend, or go out, or write, or tweet, or all the other things we do to stay alive… “Reliable” as in feeling seen by the images in the cards, feeling heard, feeling encouraged… “Reliable” as in being a physical object you can hold in your hands…)

I think Tarot can give us different options for coping, for creating, and for understanding, as well as encourage us to ask questions, develop self-awareness, and dare us to unlearn our multiple internalized isms, as well as self-hate & self-loathing, and lack of trust in ourselves (among other things!).

The Tarot invites us to (re-)write out stories, again and again.


As I watch my disabilities change, witness the spaces/places and activities I have access to change, and surrender to my illnesses in some way, it’s becoming more crucial for me to practice my own weirdo spirituality, to be connected to something beyond the material world and ableist capitalist culture that injures my soul everyday, to trust in the strangeness of the universe and my own capacity to make meaning despite-and-because-of the damage done. This is part of that process, and I offer my thoughts to you in the hopes that you’ll find something meaningful to you here, some kind of affirmation or encouragement, some kind of connection or revelation.

In this entry, I’ll be writing about the Two of Pentacles/Bones, and the Eight of Cups/Bottles, using Pixie’s Tarot, The Collective Tarot, and Thea’s Tarot.

content note: brief mention of chronic suicidal ideation


Two of Pentacles / Two of Bones

The Two of Pentacles shows the delicate balance of clock-time and memory-time, and the struggle to stay present with our bodies and the space around us day-to-day. I’m not sure I believe there’s a perfect balance to be found, nor do I believe that I’ll reach a certain point in recovery where I am genuinely, fully present. Also, I feel like “being present” is often portrayed as inherently joyful or calm, but I think being present also means staying here when I’m feeling sick, when I’m feeling afraid, when I’m feeling rage.

I used to not be able to cry without feeling suicidal. I turned thirty last Fall, and the first time I remember crying without wanting to die was a few months before that. I’ve still been struggling with chronic suicidal ideation since then, of course (and since childhood), but I’ve also had times when I could cry, and be okay with it, and not think that crying meant I needed to make any decisions in that moment, or to move toward an action that might hurt myself or somebody else.

The Two of Pentacles is the feeling of having so much to say and not knowing where to begin. It’s being caught between trying to translate your physical and emotional pain to the people around you, versus staying with yourself, and knowing that despite the impossibility of getting them to “get it,” your pain is real, and you’re doing your best in each moment, regardless if anyone else can see it. The Two of Pentacles feels like a kind of performance to me as well. Like, when you appear to others to be keeping your shit together pretty impressively, but inside, you feel like you’re falling apart again. And you’re sick of falling apart, but it seems inevitable. It’s your current material reality and physicality, versus the other spaces and places your mind and memory are wandering.

One thing I love about the Two of Pentacles in Pixie’s Tarot is the two ships in the background, somehow staying afloat through tremendous waves. We all know the element of water represents emotions, and the suit of Pentacles represents earth, but somehow this card has always felt a little airy to me. The figure in this card seems to be dancing around so many possibilities, yet stuck in one place. Managing, coping… maybe even having a bit of fun as they do so.

If you, like me, are a borderline, and have become familiar (whether gratefully or begrudgingly – maybe both) with DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, a form of treatment often used with folks who’ve been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, complex-trauma, chronic suicidal ideation, etc…), this card might be a visual representation of the necessity – and difficulty – of holding two seemingly opposing ideas / thoughts / feelings at once, of embracing complexities and dualities, of re-imagining binaries and opposites. Of being okay with not knowing everything.

It’s hard! It’s an excruciating daily process! Sometimes, when I’m having paranoid thoughts, or just plain old worried thoughts, or fears about the future, or regrets about the past, it feels so much easier to curl up in a ball on the floor (which is totally allowed!) than to think an opposite thought, than to admit that I don’t have a whole lot of evidence for my paranoid thoughts except for my crazy brain, which I am frankly bored of, and it’s hard to devote myself to change, yet I do it again and again, everyday, because there is no other option, really.

In more simple terms, it can represent indecisiveness, stress, and worry. It can be the moment before a breakdown or a breakthrough. Change is inevitable – and while we might not be able to control the less-than-ideal structures we are operating within, we can adapt to our circumstances and choose to be guided by hope and magic rather than cynicism and despondency – as alluring as those feelings can be. We can also choose to have a sense of humour about our pain, and to redirect our focus to imagination, creativity, and play. (Tarot can be very playful & fun!)

The Collective Tarot illustrates this hope and luck with a wishbone in the sky, and all the trepidation before breaking it in half. A two-headed snake insists upon change, death, rebirth, but is unsure which direction to choose. For me, it serves as a reminder that not knowing the future is better than assuming it’s gonna be awful. And in Thea’s Tarot, the figure balances upon Pentacles like wheels, as though performing in a circus act or burlesque, a reminder of perseverance through discomfort and challenges.

Some questions you may wish to explore when you draw the Two of Pentacles/Bones:

– What’s holding me back from making a decision?
– What stories of my past continue to draw me back? Is it time to re-write / re-examine them? Let them go? Make art out of them?
– What dualities or conflicts are at play in this situation, and how can I work toward understanding them?
– Am I getting stuck in black-&-white, all-or-nothing thinking? Can I take another path?
– How can I take care of myself and practice staying present during difficult situations?
– Is it time to re-evaluate some of my priorities?
– What can I learn from the things that make me uncomfortable?
– How can I practice being more curious?
– How can I make the best of my current living situation?
– Can I have a sense of humour about where I’m at?


Eight of Cups / Eight of Bottles

First off, one thing I love about the Eight of Cups is that the figure in this card is using a cane! Although sick and disabled queers may not have been of foremost priority when designing this particular deck, Pixie (Pamela Colman Smith, who illustrated the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which is often referred to as Pixie’s Tarot – if you don’t know her story, look her up) has inadvertently drawn us in, and offered us new ways of seeing ourselves (I like to believe she did this intentionally). A fun thing about this card is that it reminds me of the value of non-productivity.

In daily life, the Eight of Cups can be that feeling of leaving the party early because you’re tired and sick and are no longer invested in the myth that every event or party or gathering is gonna give you some kind of life-transforming insight, or once in a lifetime opportunity, or the true kindred spirit connection you’ve been dreaming of. It’s feeling the fear of missing out and leaving anyway.

As folks with chronic illnesses, crazy brains, and disabilities, we know what it’s like to miss out. We know what it’s like to contort ourselves in an attempt to fit in within inaccessible spaces, to have only the most convenient or cute parts of us seen while the messiness is ignored, and to stay home and wonder if we’re being forgotten. We also know what it’s like to balance our desire to go to a show or a conference vs. the reality that we’ll be stuck in bed for a few days (or weeks) afterward, recuperating with rest, meds, the joy of what we’ve learned, and the resentment of the tradeoffs made to access connection.

If we continue to imagine this figure as a sick and disabled queer, the story continues in Thea’s Tarot, as we climb a staircase, holding our cane for support, and accompanied by a cat – perhaps even being guided by our familiar, not knowing if we’ll make it to the top, or what we’ll find there. The Eight of Cups is all about the unknowns, of spending some serious time with your whole self, all by yourself, of allowing yourself to name some of the magic and joy that can be found in your experiences of madness and disability, and of leaving certain places, spaces, and situations behind when they are no longer enough, when they no longer nurture or inspire you.

(As for that staircase, it can be re-imagined as something internal, obviously – or as a representation of what we don’t have access to, or what we’re fighting. Maybe you can’t use stairs, or maybe they scare you, or maybe they piss you off. For the most part, I can still use stairs, but I hate them, and I’m terrified of falling on them and injuring myself further.)

There’s a sense of quiet and calm. It’s an introspective card, a withdrawal from your usual activities, an attempt to re-establish what your priorities are, what kind of art you want to make and why, what kinds of people you want to surround yourself with, to trust and to care for and to be vulnerable with. Although the figure is walking away, it’s not with resignation, but determination. It’s recognizing a need for change in your life and your psyche before disaster happens, before another breakdown, before feelings of alienation and confusion take up too much space in your mind. It’s the deep necessity of self-care, no matter how sick you are of that word, and of doing the things you need to do to survive in a world that was not created for you, your sore, crooked, fatigued body, your strange brain with all its visions and daydreams and stories and hopes.

In The Collective Tarot, the heavy anchor is on the move, and the boat that once resided in these waters is out of view, gone, onto something new. What remains are empty bottles floating in stagnant water. Something is missing here, and the folks in the boat, dragging their heavy anchor, are off to find it.

Some questions you may wish to explore when you draw the Eight of Cups / Bottles:

– What do I love about being disabled and sick and crazy?
– What modifications & adjustments can I make to my self-care strategies, as well as my friendships?
– How will I know when it’s time to leave a certain situation behind?
– What might courage look like in this particular situation?
– How can I love and value myself and my pals as we struggle to survive impossible circumstances?
– How can I mourn what I’ve never had, or no longer have access to?
– How can my pals & I support one another when we cannot be physically present?
– Can I find pleasure in loneliness, not just aloneness?
– What insights have come to me through my experiences with mental illnesses, chronic illnesses, and trauma recovery that I could not have discovered otherwise?
– In what ways can I re-organize my days around the spoons available to me?

As always, these are only glimpses into potential interpretations, based on my own experiences of madness and chronic illness – the story remains incomplete until you write your own visions, and see what fits for you, discard what does not. Your feelings of madness, pain, trauma, and illness, are valid whether or not they are aligned with mine, and your own interpretations of the cards are equally valid, too. Make your own meanings!

Tarotingly Yours,

P.S.: As you may or may not know, as well as writing zines, I offer Tarot readings, too, at schoolformaps.etsy.com.

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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