Back in January 2020, an acquaintance mentioned that she went to see a witch for a ritual meant to boost her confidence. Dealing with my own spate of ennui about turning 50, which was hard enough, I’d also been sharing an apartment with my convalescing mother-in-law who fretted about imagined catastrophes 24/7. Needless to say, these were stressful times, so I googled the witch’s name for more info.
Some people might snort at the idea of witches casting spells for self-improvement. Not me. I’m open to most unexplained phenomena and to pseudosciences like astrology and feng shui. If my computer freezes, Mercury’s probably in retrograde again. If a check arrives in the mail, I water the lucky bamboo in the “prosperity corner” of my house.
When I was growing up in the ’70s, my single mom kept a collection of woo-woo books on the shelf including Linda Goodman’s Love Signs and Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones. She believed in numerology and she says that she named me Hilary because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. Eight, you see, is a power number, and a sideways eight is the symbol for infinity, which means my initials—HH—equal double infinity, and therefore my name will go on and on forever. Or something. (Just to be clear, we’re Jews, so it’s very unfortunate that Nazis have claimed ownership of HH and 88, but I doubt Ma’s aware of the irony.)
A superstitious woman, Ma cautioned us kids to never put “negative thoughts out into the ether, or they would come true.” Pops, my often-absent father, wore an Italian gold horn pendant to ward off evil spirits, attended voodoo ceremonies in Haiti, and once, while high, hypnotized himself in front of a mirror. He couldn’t snap out of his trance until Ma banged some pots next to his ear.
Given my parents’ interest in the supernatural, it was only a matter of time before I embarked on my own mystical quest. As a teenager, I visited a psychic who predicted I’d meet someone called “Renwick.” I remember thinking, that’s not even a real name. The next day, at a party, I met a Renwick. Granted, I never saw her again, but still. In my twenties, I stayed at a friend’s empty apartment in San Francisco and heard an invisible bouncing ball in the living room all night. Freaked out, I phoned my friend to ask if her apartment might be haunted.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I’ve seen two very dead teenagers in my closet. Sorry, I forgot to mention it.”
And last year, I attended a séance in Hollywood and watched three older women push the Ouija board planchette from letter to letter until it spelled out N.W.A, ostensibly guided by an attendee’s 19-year-old dead brother who’d loved the hip-hop group.
I’d assumed my magic-curious nature was unique to my gene pool, but according to the studies of English anthropologist Robin Horton, people tend to turn to the occult in greater numbers during times of upheaval and uncertainty. Hello, 2020. He also found that these practices seemed to aid in anxiety relief, which could lead to physical health benefits.
Hoping to vanquish stress from my life, I logged onto the witch’s website. The sleek homepage featured a photo of Amanda, an attractive woman, maybe mid-thirties, wearing a white frock and a laurel crown. In one hand, she held stalks of wheat and in the other, a rustic broom. Links to her memoir and podcast appeared below the photo with the message, “The Oracle of Los Angeles Will Help You Fall in Love with Your Life.” A tall order, I thought, but she had a lot of testimonials from satisfied customers saying things like, “Since working with Amanda, job recruiters have started responding to my inquiries,” and “Think of her as an intuitive, sensitive, mystical shrink.”
Between the client raves and Kirkus book review, plus interviews in the L.A. Times and the London Times, I felt confident that, as far as witches go, Amanda was the real deal.
I scanned the short list of offerings including ceremonies, rituals, and spells and had no idea where to start—a quandary the oracle must have divined because she included the word recommended in all caps next to two of the “sessions.”
The “Healing Session,” covered a lot of bases—an energetic clearing with Reiki, breathwork, shamanic practices, and chakra balancing to help remove energy blocks. Priced at $200, if this session resulted in a shot of vitality to lift me out of my funk, it would be worth it.
I grabbed the earliest available appointment, six weeks away, and received a confirmation email from Amanda suggesting I avoid heavy meals pre-session to prevent the energy from going towards digestion, and to let me know that “from the moment you contemplate booking a session, you will start to notice shifts taking place.”
Two weeks later, I found out a magazine wanted to publish one of my essays. I didn’t know whether to credit magic or chalk it up to coincidence. Either way, things were looking up.
That is, until my mother-in-law warned me several times that I’d surely get sued for using real names in said essay. Plagued with anxiety about a potential lawsuit, all I could think about was my mom’s cautionary mantra: “If you put it out into the ether, it’ll come true.”
The day of my appointment, I skipped breakfast and drove to the hipster enclave of Highland Park, past boutiques, restaurants, and artsy shops. On a residential side street, I pulled up in front of a sweet ranch-style cottage overlooking a wild yard surrounded by a picket fence. Two shady camphor trees lined the path to the house and clusters of bushes hugged the porch.
Per Amanda’s emailed instructions, I sat in a chair on the porch until the exact time of my appointment so as not to disturb an in-progress session. An enormous glass eye affixed to the door stared me down as I listened for signs of activity on the other side. I didn’t hear a thing.
At 11:35 on the dot, I knocked. The door opened and the witch, who’d been blessed with perfect bone structure, flawless skin, and big green eyes, flashed a warm smile and said, “Welcome. I’m Amanda.”
She didn’t don a pointy hat, nor dress all in black, but rather opted for a boho-chic look in a brown T-shirt and cotton pants. Only her iridescent green nail polish gave off a stereotypically witchy vibe.
“I’m going to perform an energy clearing before you step inside,” she said. “Close your eyes.”
Bells clanged as she swung a chime around and the smell of burning sage wafted up my nostrils. She had me turn around and repeated the ritual. For the last step, I was allowed to open my eyes while she brushed me off with a mini hand-held broom.
“There’s probably some dog hair on this jacket,” I said.
She laughed. “And maybe some cat hair from that porch chair.”
Once free from all the bad energy, pet hair, and lint, I stepped into the entryway of a cozy space. A round wooden table near the front door crowded the right side of the room. To my left, I spied a massage table, a shelf filled with books and bric-a-brac, and a bench under a picture window with the sheer curtains drawn. A plethora of plant life hung in pots and brightened up corners. She clearly had a green thumb (that matched her nails).
At the table with candles, crystals, rocks, and a deck of tarot cards, Amanda poured tea from a pot into cups. I told her about the milestone birthday, the good news about getting an essay published, and the strain of living with a chronic worrier.
“I yelled at my mother-in-law,” I said. “The other day she asked if my husband and I had drawn up wills because we’re getting on a plane to travel in a week. I know she’s trying be protective in her way, but it’s hard to deal with all the negativity.” I took a sip of tea, which tasted like boiled grass and tree bark.
Amanda nodded sympathetically. “It sounds like you’re doing the right things. People project their fears and anxieties onto others, but you don’t have to take that on. Let’s do a quick tarot card reading to see what the cards say.”
She shuffled the deck and spread out the cards face down on the table in front of me. “This deck can be grouchy, but don’t take it personally if you see something that looks bad.”
I picked five cards from the pile.
“Do you garden?” she asked studying the cards.
“I grow tomatoes with varying degrees of success,” I said.
“Think of this card as a gardener.” She pointed to the Justice card, a woman holding a sword and bookended by weighing scales. “When you tend garden, you pull weeds, deal with bugs, add water, and over time, you bring things into balance.”
Together,the five tarot cards prognosticated a big project in my future, and if I worked hard and stayed focused, I’d be successful. “You won’t get sued,” she added with all the certainty of a soothsayer.
Amanda’s definitive and reassuring words dictated by the power of the tarot must’ve kept clients coming back for more. I already felt less stressed, and I hadn’t even undergone the healing session yet. I should note that my husband, Jared, had been telling me the same thing for weeks, but he wasn’t a certified witch, nor could he tap into the power of mystical arts to augur my future like Amanda.
Then it was time for the healing session. Amanda sat across from me and demonstrated the ceremonial breathwork—two short breaths in and one breath out—that I would need to repeat throughout the session and mentioned that I might experience some intense sensations at first. I practiced a couple of times, then climbed onto a massage table and lay down on my back. She covered me with a blanket and placed a sleep mask over my eyes.
“I’m putting some eucalyptus oil on my hands,” she said and held her palms over my nose to breath it in. Loud tribal music blasted from the speakers as she recited words that I can’t recall, though I do remember something about “spirits.” She stamped her feet, rang the bells, and possibly smacked a broom around. I wasn’t sure what was going on, and, to be honest, I was a little scared.
Maybe this was a bad idea.
Stretched out on a massage table, I tried to focus on the breathwork and ignored the cramp creeping up my lower back.
What if I have to lie here for the next hour in agony?
“Are you doing OK?” she asked. “How does your body feel?”
Gah! Could she read my mind?
“I feel a little ache in my back and my hands are starting to tingle,” I said.
“That’s totally normal,” she said. “Stay with your breath and it will pass.”
The ache did subside, but almost immediately, the tingle in my hands intensified and felt similar to the sensation that occurs when a hand or foot falls asleep. That tingle turned into a vibration to the point where my hands shook violently. I balled my palms into fists to try to wake them up. That’s when something truly terrifying happened: I couldn’t unclench my fists. They were fused shut.
“My hands won’t open,” I said, the panic rising in my voice.
“OK. Don’t worry. It will return to normal soon,” she said, her voice calm. “I’m going to have you sit up.” She pushed the mask up to my forehead and supported my back.
Once semi-erect, my balled fists rose to my chest like an arthritic old woman clutching a shopping cart. I couldn’t lower my arms or open my hands; that whole part of my body was paralyzed. “I can’t move my hands or arms,” I said, practically in tears. I wondered if an evil spirit had cursed me, or if I was having a medical emergency. Neither possibility seemed great.
To Amanda’s credit, she remained calm, and her voice had a soothing quality when she said, “It’s OK. Let me get you some water.” She returned with a glass and held the water to my lips. “It’s OK, this is totally normal.”
I sipped water with my fists glued to my chest and thought this is not normal. My mind raced, cycling through worst-case scenarios and explanations. What if my hands are permanently stuck like this? Did I have a stroke? Is this like when my dad couldn’t wake up from his hypnotized stupor? Maybe she should bang some pots and pans. Will I be the first person rushed to a hospital for attending a healing session? How embarrassing. At the same time, I worried about upsetting Amanda and being “that person”—the high-maintenance healing session person. But why was this happening to me?
“Is it OK if I put my arm around you?” Amanda asked.
I thought about it for a second. Under different circumstances, I wouldn’t cuddle up to a stranger, but this situation constituted emergency protocol. I nodded, grateful for her care and concern.
She stood beside me, smelling of something earthy like frankincense, and placed her arm around my back. I leaned into her, silently urging her to not let me go through life without the use of my arms or hands. I tried to fill my head with positive thoughts like, “You’re OK. She does this kind of thing all the time.”
“You’re breathing really quickly,” Amanda said. “Try to slow your breath.”
I’d stopped paying attention to my breath since paralysis had set in. Slumped against Amanda’s shoulder, I wondered if I’d have to learn how to hold a fork with my foot.
“Let’s breathe together,” she said.
I mimicked her breath pattern and tried to relax as time moved at a glacial pace.
It could have been five minutes or ten before my arms slowly lowered to my sides. Soon after, the tension released from hands, and I could finally wiggle my fingers. A huge wave of relief washed over me.
Amanda had me lay back down, arms at my sides, and placed two energy-absorbing obsidian stones under my open palms. The rocks felt smooth and cool under my formerly gnarled claws. She completed the ritual by putting on mellow music and burned incense. I stayed on my back for a bit longer.
“How are you feeling now?” Amanda asked, smiling down at me.
“Better,” I said. “But what happened?”
“You really went there. I’m impressed.”
“What do you mean? Why did my hands seize up?”
“My trainings says that we feel intensity in our hands when we’re releasing blocks and trauma from our heart. A lot of the time it’s from childhood stuff we didn’t know how to deal with when we were kids. That can include feelings of burden, rejection, heartbreak, longing, and grief. But you brought yourself back from a scary place. Whenever you’re feeling anxious or worried, remember what happened here and that you have the power to get through.”
I’m sure my mom would have credited the power of HH, though I didn’t feel particularly powerful, just worn out.
“Does that happen to everyone?”
She shook her head. “Some people have no physical sensations. And next time, you might not feel it as intensely.”
Next time? In that moment, it was hard to fathom partaking in another healing session.
Amanda advised me to take it easy for the rest of the day, eat fruits and leafy green veggies, and maybe walk around the block before getting behind the wheel. I said goodbye and strolled through the neighborhood in a daze, curious if any passerby would notice I’d just been spellbound. No one looked my way, but I felt certain that only magic could explain my paralysis. What else could it have been?
Later, I googled “energy healing,” something I probably should’ve done prior to my appointment, and found an article where a woman said her legs jumped uncontrollably during her Reiki session. Another article about Reiki breathwork mentioned a medical term—“tetany,” which is a convulsive tension or cramps triggered by shallow, rapid breathing that creates a deficiency of carbon dioxide in the blood. Did tetany explain what happened to me? If so, why did some people make it through their sessions without any discomfort? Further research suggested a calcium deficiency could also trigger this reaction. Did I need to eat more cheese? Or was it magic?
Since meeting Amanda, a lot has transpired. Our plane didn’t crash, I didn’t get sued, and my mother-in-law moved into a nice building nearby. I do believe Amanda’s magic managed to quell my anxiety and, ultimately, many aspects of my life improved—the global pandemic and heartbreaking headlines notwithstanding.
I used to worry about being labeled a crackpot for visiting psychics and witches, but the truth is, like my parents before me, these experiences have helped me through uncertain times. And now that quarantine restrictions have lifted and I’m vaccinated, I’m feeling more hopeful about the future. That said, if things start to go south again, I’ll be heading back to see Amanda for another dose of helpful magic.