My Secret Shaman
by Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
As many of you who read Silver Sage Magazine know, last year I contracted COVID and lost my sense of taste (ageusia) and smell (anosmia), as well as my ability to detect hot, spicy foods (chemesthesis). This was quite debilitating. I connected with hundreds of other people throughout the pandemic, including chefs, restauranteurs, adults, and young people who had also experienced these unfortunate side effects. We all had bouts of depression, anger, frustration, and, obviously, the complete lack of desire to eat. Also, without taste and smell, you lose the ability to detect rotten or expired foods. For most of us, this is a minimal discomfort, but if you’re in the food business at all, food is your livelihood, so ageusia and anosmia can be devastating not just emotionally, but financially as well.
For me, a sort of bonus of having chemesthesis was that I became insensitive to hot chili peppers, super-hot Asian foods, and the like. One evening, my partner watched me pop chili peppers like cucumbers while dining at Torre, one of our favorite local Mexican restaurants. But it was disappointing, because I couldn’t taste a darn thing.
I was living air. That’s what I called it. I couldn’t smell any of the changing seasons—no fresh-cut grass, fall leaves gathering on the lawn, or the smell of dampness that precedes rain or snow showers. Food was air. Life was air. If I had eaten the meal or dish before, my brain was able to trick me into thinking I could taste it just a little tiny bit. But if I had never had the dish before, my brain couldn’t assimilate the flavors or smell with anything in my collective past, so the dish tasted like—air. And into the wastebasket it went. Before getting COVID, I was able to detect specific spices in any dish or tell my partner what flavors the meal was missing. Not anymore. I couldn’t even smell my partner when I woke up in the morning, or at any other time for that matter. My beloved dog, Sigmund Freud, was just a ball of allergic fur to me, since I couldn’t smell him either. My sister always said that smell was so important to me. She said during this year of air that “your favorite smells in life are leather, books, and sex. What are you going to do without smelling any of the three?” I became prone to crying jags in my desperation to taste and smell. Things were bad.
After a year of living air and feeling like my life was a tunnel of empty space, I had had enough. I called my sister-in-law (a retired physician) and asked her about Reiki. She was overjoyed at my interest and encouraged me to try this voodoo medicine.
I called four local Reiki specialists in my area to interview them. The first two seemed competent enough. The third one, though, a woman named Snow Star, brought me to tears. I had a visceral emotional response to our phone call and knew she was the one for me. Although in the back of my head, I was thinking, “Maybe I’m emotional because I’m simply frustrated, and this is the third interview.” I called the fourth Reiki person but didn’t feel the same emotional response I had with Snow Star.
I booked my first appointment with Snow Star for the following week feeling hopeful but skeptical. I also met up with my primary doctor, Clark Veet, M.D., to ask him his opinion about seeing a Reiki specialist before engaging in witchcraft. Dr. Veet was genuinely excited for me, and said, “Reiki specialists can do things that Western medicine doesn’t allow. She can work with you in ways we can’t. I wholeheartedly endorse this.” I was sold.
It turns out Snow Star wasn’t just a Reiki specialist but also a shaman. When I arrived at her private home, a ginormous Great Dane puppy named Phoenix greeted me at the door. Snow Star led me into her private Reiki room and asked me to undress to my comfort level (which is pretty much an open door to nakedness in my book). When I was ready, she returned with a gentle knock on the door. Phoenix joined us, too, at my request.
Snow Star asked what brought me in, and I explained. I also told her that I thought Reiki was bullshit but that I was desperate to get my taste and smell back and was willing to try anything. She was honest about her abilities and explained, “I’ve never had anyone come here before with this problem, but I’ll do my best.” She then asked, “Can I use my shamanistic work too? It may help.” I told her she could do anything she wanted. Literally. I was desperate.
The whole time she worked, I had two very opposing thoughts in my head. Half my brain was thinking, “This is complete bullshit, voodoo.” But the other half of my brain chanted a silent mantra: “Heal me.” Over and over again, I chanted this, trying to block out the negative thoughts of witchcraft. I desperately wanted to be whole again. As the two thoughts competed in my brain, I struggled to chant my mantra and remain focused on healing. (The conflict in my head would continue throughout my work with Snow Star, vacillating between “voodoo bullshit” and “heal me.”)
After an hour, during which Phoenix lay quietly under the table, Snow Star was done. I have no idea what she did. I had kept my eyes closed while she worked on me. The music played gently in the background, and I could hear her chant at times in some strange language. Her hands massaged me head to toe, and feathers or something flitted over me as well. The sound of ringing glass ended our session. Snow Star quietly told me to dress and left me in the room. I lay there thinking again how this was such bullshit, then got dressed and met her in the kitchen. Snow Star explained that I would be tired for the rest of the day. I was to drink plenty of water and should not expect anything for a few days. It was Friday. I Venmo’d her the $100 fee and drove to my office.
After about an hour or so at work, I felt exhausted. It was as if I had run a marathon. I went home and took the rest of the day off. Saturday came and went, and my life was still air. Yet again, I thought what nonsense Reiki was. On Sundays, we always have a nice big breakfast. It was something my Dad always did—a tradition I keep alive. That Sunday morning I came downstairs and smelled the bacon cooking on the griddle. Wait! I COULD SMELL THE BACON COOKING ON THE GRIDDLE! I couldn’t smell the eggs or anything else, but the bacon was a start! I was ecstatic.
I had agreed to see Snow Star once a week, and, over the next twelve weeks, my ageusia and anosmia subsided. There were more days filled with smell and taste than I had had in the entire previous year. I was overjoyed but skeptical. And I still had chemesthesis. I had done extensive research over the past year on the side effects of COVID that I was experiencing, going so far to register for a study being conducted at the University of Washington, though in the end I wasn’t chosen to participate. Many people who experience loss of taste or smell due to COVID typically get their senses back with a week or so. A larger group of people get their senses back after twelve weeks or so. Was this all a coincidence? Was it just a matter of me waiting the twelve months out?
I decided to test this out. I told Snow Star I was taking a few weeks off since I was traveling. This was true, but the bigger reason was I wanted to see if her voodoo was really what was helping me. My sister-in-law thought I was an idiot, which was mostly likely true, but I’m also a Hill and a social scientist. I had to verify this whole Reiki/Shaman thing.
Within a week, I had lost all my newly acquired taste and smell and was back to air. I was shocked. So, with my tail tucked between my legs, I returned to Snow Star. Over the course of the next three months, I continued my weekly sessions with her. I then scaled back to alternating weeks, and I’ve since reduced my visits to once a month, as my taste and smell have nearly fully returned. I can detect spices, savory, and distinct flavors in dishes, and my emotions have returned to my normal happy self. I feel that each day gets a little better. The last thing to return is hot/spicy foods. I would say I’m about 50 percent on detecting them but closer to 90 percent on taste and smell. I will continue to work with Snow Star and Phoenix until I’m at 100 percent.
I’ve learned that the power to heal comes from many places. Both within yourself and outside of yourself. I’ve learned that Eastern medicine has powerful healing powers, and if we allow ourselves to believe and trust, the power of healing is vast. I believe that Eastern medicine has a place alongside our traditional Western medicine and should never be overlooked. It may be voodoo, but it works.
About Snow Star: Snow Star is a licensed massage therapist, fitness instructor, Master Reiki teacher, and was previously a Meditation Facilitator with the Lehigh Valley Health Network. Snow Star has been practicing her superpowers since 1991. As a Native American shaman, Snow Star also conducts ceremonial healing throughout the Lehigh Valley and uses her shamanistic work to help people like me. You can find her at: https://www.facebook.com/SnowStarRavenHawk/. Tell her Tracy sent you.
Photo credit by Silver Sager James Kern (Claremont NC) @jamesrkern.