This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 28, January 2017. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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How do we reconcile experiences that sit outside the usual parameters with which we understand the world?

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Image: Guy Shield

As an atheist, or something like it, it is bewildering to say the least to look back at the period in which I was exorcised.

I visited Diane, a semi-retired hypnotherapist, on my mother’s recommendation. I’d spent the summer in bed and the autumn walking half the night wired with insomnia, letting my mind swing in its own many directions. I moved from Alpha Woman to kidult in a few months – quickly incapable of perfectly normal tasks like shopping, figuring out bus routes and deciding what to eat.

As to what prompted this shift, I couldn’t say specifically. I was burnt out by a long-term constellation of work and stress and quarter-life crisis and disappointment and the usual type-A bullshit, and rather than fading back to functionality, the feeling only deepened.

That confusion obscured a solution. I was sending crazy essay-length emails late at night threatening to quit my PhD and over-sharing with colleagues early in the day – the kind of family-related jokes that sound funny on a sitcom but land terribly as soon as they leave your mouth.

Shortly after realising I had been in bed for six weeks and lost five kilos from food-related forgetfulness, I burst into tears in my supervisor’s office and took sick leave, which stretched on for three months.

My sister started coming over in the afternoons to check on me and bring snacks. We’d watch The Bold and the Beautiful. It was nice to have some quiet company. She says that she would ask me how I was going and I would reply, ‘I don’t know?’ That is exactly how I felt.

In that massive attack of groundlessness, hypnotherapy seemed harmless and maybe even as dumbly comforting as my mum’s amethyst quartzes and aromatherapy burners. I saw it not as supernatural but a different form of meditation. I can’t pinpoint exactly why I did it, but I genuinely thought it wouldn’t hurt and I was desperate. Despite the gap between my atheist schemas and hypnotherapy’s black magic vibes, I took the support on offer.

Despite my atheist schemas and hypnotherapy’s black magic vibes, I took the support on offer.

On the list of failed cures I tried for this particular crisis were Pilates, deep breathing, yin yoga, aromatherapy, Western medicine/big time sedatives, hiking, downloaded meditations, sensory deprivation float tanks and cycling. In the past I’d done kinesiology, acupuncture and experimental therapies.

This litany is a real stereotype of the Self-help/Disastrous Personal Essay genre and I’m loath to itemise it. My point is that throughout these efforts, about enough time had passed that I was open and desperate enough to do something atypical. My old basis for living didn’t work anymore; it was time to try things from a new one. Although, when you willingly do enough kinds of desperate things frequently over the years it becomes plain that this is part of a pattern of behaviour. That’s where I was at.

So I ditched science, ditched pseudoscience and went directly to the unorthodox. Yes, it was a pretty objectively weird thing to do. But I wanted something less invasive than the psyche-burrowing of conventional counselling. I wanted to be taken care of. In my mind at the time, hypnotherapy was as valid as all the Western psychological and medical dead-ends I’d pursued.

*

The trip to Diane’s required what’s basically a cross-country trek across the harbour from Sydney’s inner west to Mosman in the northern suburbs. My sister and her boyfriend picked me up, ferried me across and dutifully waited in their Kombi for my session to finish.

We were in the serious part of Mosman – fuck-off multimillion-dollar mansions, Aegean Sea-like views, three steps away from the vibe of a gated community. Who the hell is this rich elderly hypnotherapist?

Rather than an office, Diane’s practice was in her home. It looked like a real estate advertisement, glass-fronted onto west-facing views of Balmoral bay and the Pacific. The first thing Diane did when I buzzed was to give me a big hug. The second thing she did was chat. Just chat. Like a normal human. Small and animated, blue eyes sparkling and toenails pedicured, she fixed me a cup of tea in her open-plan kitchen and dining area.

First rule of counselling – a professional detachment: violated. But of course, she wasn’t an ordinary counsellor. That client-therapist distance has always struck me as incongruous: you’re expected to share the most vulnerable parts of yourself, to let a stranger rummage around your psyche, but you must not engage in the most basic social skills our society usually demands – a kiss on the cheek, a hug, a ‘how was your weekend’. There is a part of the therapy process that is positively socially autistic – not even Jerry Seinfeld would stand for these kinds of standoff-ish interactions.

As I told Diane my issues, this notion of two humans having a conversation became more real. To actually relate to a therapist as you would a person was, frankly, revolutionary, and enough to make me suspicious, if not for the fact that Diane was clearly one of the most sweet, genuine, caring people I’d ever met. She would actually farewell me by crying out ‘Lots of love!’ at the door. Not an ounce of malice in her, not a trace of a hidden agenda.

I had always sensed that the other therapists I’d seen were holding back some information – or perceived information – about me, quietly prodding and assuming. Not Diane. No insinuations. No ‘and how did that make you feel?’ There was a transparency, a level relationship between us.

Finally she took me back to her therapy room and our session proper commenced. She started by telling me about herself. Another rule of counselling: violated.

She had trained in the Western method as a psychologist, but found the profession lacking in a certain human element, and moved into a more holistic practice. This background, of legitimate scientific practice, was reassuring. ­Her goal was to treat not just the symptoms of unhappiness but the base trauma in the psyche that leads to surface disturbances like grief, addiction, resentment and obsession. Again, this buoyed me, as my experience of regular therapy was that it tends to reduce complex problems to surface concepts like ‘negative thought patterns’.

Her theory was that hurt must be healed, rather than merely buried or covered, and that once the deeper psychic wound had been healed, it could not tear itself open again, and you would find a peace not chaptered by war. To me, this seemed logical, and not a quick fix, rather than trying to, say, jog or positive-think your problems away. Her core idea was that ‘I don’t hypnotise you, you hypnotise yourself.’

Now retired and widowed, her grownup children living their own lives, she took on only a few clients at a time because she loved it. She asked me to tell my story, and actually listened, and then explained how the hypnosis would work.

With my eyes closed and my feet up, she verbally guided me into a deep state of relaxation. Like a guided meditation, she led me through a series of visualisations that were familiar to me from the mindfulness techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – I was floating in outer space, I was seeing the people who had hurt me the most, I was feeling the ropey cords of their hurt wrapping their way around my legs and torso and neck and arms, I felt the cords sever and fall away, and I told my people that I forgave them.

At the moment of falling away, Diane’s intonation shifted, assuming a deeper, more melodious and commanding intensity, and she would order those feelings of fear and pain to depart my body and go on their way. And they did.

I think it worked by visualising emotional pain as a physical, visible form and then imagining that pain disappearing. I was fully awake and alert during each session, just very relaxed and pliable. Afterwards, walking back to my sister’s car, I would feel serene and spacey, in a nice way. The feeling sometimes lingered for a day or two – I lived alive again.

After the first couple of sessions, she gave me some free literature on spiritual matters ­– a paperback with a rainbow on the front. I think I just compartmentalised that and set it aside, reassured as I was by the normalcy of the rest of her practice, which I interpreted as a type of meditation facilitated by a sweet, old, retired psychologist. It was hypnotherapy, not hypnosis, I reasoned. A few New Age oddities aside, I could see what Diane was doing: creating a space where her clients could feel the way they wanted to feel, a small internal world to find rest in. If our minds have everything in them, this was surely the space I’d been looking for.

Still I can recall a black blanket sky, dark on dark in a warm and spacious way, a little like the universes beyond universes that Jodi Foster finds in the philosophical sci-fi film Contact. It’s a strange, horizon-less place beyond imagining – really it just popped into my head without consideration – but it was mine.

There is no way to describe it; it must be felt rather than understood, just as coming to terms with grief or loneliness or loss must be felt rather than intellectualised. Yes, it was dream-strange, but it made its own sense.

Yes, it was dream-strange, but it made its own sense.

On perhaps the third or fourth session, during hypnosis, Diane asked me a question: can you sense any foreign presences in your body, perhaps a smudge or a cloud of a different colour? With those words, my body reclining and my eyes closed, I became aware of a series of grey, edgeless blobs, dotted along the left-hand side of my body. I could feel them, tangibly. One cloud hovering over and outside the left side of my head, some further stains spread along the left of the spine and on the inside of my thigh and calf. Those parts of my body, felt and visualised, went dark.

Her voice dropped authoritatively again: ‘I command you to leave this body.’

I recall no other sound. The daubs subsided from both my vision and my feeling. They weren’t there, and then they were, and then they weren’t again.

Diane asked me if the spots were visible to me, and asked me to move my index finger if the answer was in the affirmative. We carried on and finished the session as usual. I came out of the hypnosis, a little dazed but calm, and ventured a question: what was that about?

*

Diane theorised that when a person is very vulnerable and their mind empty and frozen by drugs and alcohol, a lonely local spirit, one that died unhappily and has not yet resolved to leave earth, can opportunistically latch onto the open body. The spirit is not an enemy out to hurt, but an ex-person to be treated with compassion.

There was an odd element of truth to this. I was pretty checked out at that time. A friend I stayed with at the time said I was so motionless at night she would sometimes check I was breathing. In those night hours anything could surround me – an earthquake, a party, a commotion (a spirit?!) – and I would have been unable to rouse myself.

Diane’s theory was an uncomfortable disjunction to my atheist cosmology and I was deeply ambivalent about it, but I didn’t have an alternative explanation. Who was I to say what happened to me between midnight and eight AM? My remaining daytime hours were pretty much a write-off, too.

In my bewildered, stupefied state, Diane’s explanation made half sense to me. After our talk, we said goodbye for another week, my sister’s Kombi waiting for me outside and the friendly sea beneath.

I’d never been ghostbusted before, so this was fresh terrain for me. As they say in the film Ghostbusters, I love Jesus’ style but I’ve never met God, nor am I one for UFOs, conspiracy theories, clairvoyance, tarot cards, aura readings, telekinesis, the eye of Isis, the Loch Ness or the City of Atlantis. Still, I wanted answers.

The atheist in me can’t deny it: in the days following the exorcism, I felt lighter, almost, dare I say, a little freer, and uncharacteristically strong. The materialist in me noticed a physical effect: I attended a Pilates class and held a forearm plank for three whole minutes, something I had never done before, nor have I since. For a few days following that hypnotherapy session, nothing could affect me: that pillar of self-sustaining contentment was stronger than before. It didn’t last. Three days of feeling weirdly awesome. Brief relief, then back down as badly as before.

*

What happens when an atheist experiences a clearly un-atheist event? What do you reach for when an experience occurs way outside your frame of reference, the usual parameters with which you understand the world? It is comforting to find patterns in the wild, to invest cause in correlation and to look for meaning in coincidences.

We do these things for the same reason we make and appreciate art – to satiate an instinct to seek order in chaos. Psychologists have found a term for this: pareidolia. It is the way we reach for order, the imagined pattern, the reason we see Jesus Christ’s face in a toasted cheese sandwich.

I always wonder what people do after the before-and-after calamities of their lives. Tony Abbott on the evening of his political decapitation by his own colleagues; a would-be suicide returning to work the next day, workmates unaware.

We do these things for the same reason we make and appreciate art – to seek order in chaos.

This is the thematic stuff of great stories. Most of my favourite films unfurl after a premise in which the protagonist’s former life becomes impossible – when something new comes up against their worldview and renders it defunct.

Think of how many films begin with a character meeting their denial head-on: the realisation that a relationship is empty (your partner is in love with someone else), or a death upturns the familial order of things, or a natural calamity makes a society’s previous way of organising itself obsolete. Either renovation or self-destruction follows – bloom or bust, denial or revision – depending on the tragicness of the character and the pessimism of the filmmaker.

But with my ghost, there was really nothing to it. Without the ability to explain how the ghostbusting happened, the experience must remain undefined, in the realm of experience rather than empiricism. The only thing of which I’m certain is that the ghost was there and its departure occurred.

Despite the supreme anomaly of this turn of events, it felt decidedly unparanormal: there was nothing supernatural or demonic about it. I wasn’t torn by some poltergeist war, my eyes sprung open and my body convulsing. No Old Testament stuff – ‘fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from their graves!’ as they say in Ghostbusters.

The whole experience was as unremarkable as it was remarkable. You can blend a superfood smoothie in the morning and expel a wild spirit from your spine in the afternoon. All the world’s people going about their days, bussing to work, choosing yogurt in Coles, carrying their traumas and their inexplicables.

I never saw those colourless smears along the left of my body again. And I stopped the hypnotherapy. It was too much, this through-the-looking-glass glimpse, and I closed the floodgates. If I’m really honest, I chickened out – as something that I could feel but not intellectualise, it was beyond my understanding and my powers of explication. It terrified me, madly.

But the gut-level impact has never left me. An exorcism, a ghost busting, a delusion? Unhappy, unresolved spirits leaching onto my body? If something was there, into whose thin air did it disappear? What was its guiding intelligence? What door did I open? There are no answers in my existing way of thinking.

After the good feeling faded, I completely failed to convert my possible exorcism into a definite spiritual epiphany. All it did was reinforce the shrugging horror of almost-atheism. The hypnosis now exists in those collections of moments that sit outside the realm of explanation that my worldview affords – all the coincidences and just-missed chances beyond rational explanation.

At my most down and out, I still wonder about that uncanny hour in the unattainable wealth of Sydney’s North Shore. It was as real as anything, as real as any thought or feeling. It felt as palpable as the sentiment that lingers after waking in fright from a nightmare. All those thoughts and feelings and sentiments have always been as tangible to me as any object, as real as the presence that left my body that day, and as real as the absence of an explanation I have for it all.

Since then, I’ve embraced the principle of non-definition: to be both a realist and an atheist, to get lost in one world without finding oneself in another, and to have a worldview that can come unglued instantaneously.

My ghostbusting feels like the start of something, not the end. And that something will be around for a long time, even if it is beyond the reach of understanding, or just lying dormant.