Discover more from The Isolation Journals with Suleika Jaouad
Prompt 264. Psychics, Prophesies, & the Power of Words
& the writer Brooke Siem on twists of fate
Once, while in Detroit, I went to see a psychic. It was in the fall of 2015. I was on my 15,000-mile cross-country road trip, and my host, Nitasha, suggested it, saying he was the real deal. As skeptical as I was of the paranormal, I agreed. Though I was cancer-free, I was overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty. The specter of relapse haunted me, and I craved assurance.
So we went. We pulled up at an unassuming storefront and entered to find a small shop fogged with incense, with shelves lined with crystals, oils, and herbs. The psychic was a young man who led me behind a heavy curtain, held my hands in his hands, and as candlelight flickered across his face, began to shake. His eyes rolled back in his head, and when he reopened them, he told me he’d been visited by an ancestor on my father’s side, maybe an aunt, and that she’d been sick before she died. Then he asked if I’d been sick.
At that point, my inner skeptic reared its head. I wondered if he somehow got my name and looked me up, or if he noticed my short hair and thought “cancer.” But that wasn’t likely—and also my father had had a sister named Gmar who had died of a mysterious illness when she was very young. My suspicions began to abate, and he continued. “You’re on an odyssey,” he said, “and you’ll venture deep into the unknown before you find clarity.” He spread a deck of tarot cards on the table. “You will write a book,” he said, “that will take you all over the world.” He also said that after a spell of uncertainty, I’d commit to a relationship and have two children.
Was I fully bought in? No, not entirely. Part of me thought he was saying what he thought I wanted to hear. But with every prediction, I felt something shift inside of me. I saw doors opening onto an expansive future that, until then, I had been too afraid to envision.
Finally, at the end of the session, I gathered the nerve to ask him the question I was desperate but also terrified to hear the answer to: “Is my illness going to come back?”
He paused, then asked, “Do you really want to know?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“It will,” he said. “But not for a long time.”
Although I wrote about this visit in Between Two Kingdoms, that last part didn’t make it into the book. At the eleventh hour, I cut it, not out of fear of how readers would respond, but because it felt unsettling to me. As much of a skeptic as I was—as I still am—some part of me felt that prophesy shouldn’t be committed to ink.
And yet, counterintuitive as it may seem, in the moment his words actually brought me a measure of peace. Some people might focus on the first half: “It will come back.” I found myself soothed by the latter half: “Not for a long time.” I was already hyper-vigilant about relapse, feeling as if the odds were stacked against me, and I’d asked so many doctors and specialists and the google search bar that same question. Of course, medical professionals are bound by particular ethical codes, and they can’t always give you the certainty you crave. It was strangely comforting to have someone answer the question so clearly.
It was also comforting to think, “I have time.” I felt so fragile then, I was holding on by a very, very flimsy thread, and I couldn’t handle the idea of starting to rebuild, only to have everything collapse. And so I began to fully live again, and as time passed, the fear of relapse lessened—not only because it became statistically less likely year by year, but also because I began to trust that I could handle whatever came my way.
I don’t have strong beliefs about mediums and prophecies. There are things the psychic said that day—like the fact that I would have two children—that have yet to come true. But when my leukemia did return, my mind flashed to that incense-filled room and his words, troubling the waters of my agnosticism. And whether it was a lucky guess or true clairvoyance, the message I received that day, that I still hold fast to, is this: the ceiling may cave in and life can continue.
In the end, I believe it’s a testament to the power of words, as is today’s powerful essay from the writer and speaker Brooke Siem. Called “Prophesy,” it’s about the stories we’re told and what we do with them. May it help you see your “fate” in a new way.
Some Items of Note—
We’ve scheduled our next meeting of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers (a.k.a. the best thing all month). It’s next Sunday, October 15, from 1-2 pm ET. Mark your calendar and join us!
Need a mood boost? Every Friday in the Isolation Journals Chat, we share our small joys in a chorus of collective gratitude, which never fails to lift the spirits! Mine this week was the joy of seeing a piece I wrote for Architectural Digest come out—about how conjuring a creative sanctuary was a way of not just surviving, but living as fully, colorfully, and expansively as I can. I’d love to hear yours—you can add it here!
Please Note: The following essay mentions depression and suicidal ideation. If you think engaging with such material could be triggering, please feel free to jump straight to the prompt. If you’re in need of support and connection, please see below for crisis lines:
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
National Suicide Prevention Life-Line: 988
Prompt 264. Prophesy by Brooke Siem
At my birth, an astrologist declared I had the soul of a wordsmith. Something about half the solar system taking up residence in my Third House. As a kid, possibly in an effort of unconscious fulfillment, I collected journals. But each one only ever earned a few scribbles. The words never seemed to flow. I would start, stop, and come back again. Over and over until one day, in the aftermath of my father’s sudden death when I was fifteen, I simply stopped bothering at all.
Perhaps there is more to the story: after my father died, I was taken to a child psychiatrist who prescribed a cocktail of antidepressants. The immediate effects of the drugs remain unknown to me, the line between pharmaceutical intervention and puberty so intertwined that I still don’t know where I ended and Pfizer began. What I do know is that for the next decade and a half, I didn’t write a word unless it was part of a job description. And at the turn of my 30th birthday, still on the same drugs I was given as a teenager, I pushed my body halfway out the window of my Manhattan high rise apartment and calculated the time it would take to hit the ground.
It is rare, I find, to experience moments where we truly face our fate. Where a pivotal choice is not a matter of influence or circumstance, but of a fundamental knowing that the life we created can no longer be. In that instant between emotion and response, between perception and reality, there is a prophecy. An is-ness. A glimmer of who we really are behind everything we thought we’d never be.
I chose to pull myself back in from the window. Saw a doctor. Fought to be given the chance to experience the world without powerful psychiatric drugs—for the first time as an adult. The decision plunged me into a year of terrifying and dangerous antidepressant withdrawal that was far worse than the depression had ever been. I shed my entire life, leaving my business, my apartment, and my country in favor of existing without an address at the edges of the earth, where no one could find me if I needed to be found.
And I wrote. Five hundred words a day, of the most mindless, self-involved drivel you’ve ever encountered. The kind of kvetching that could make even Dostoevsky say, “My god woman, get a grip.”
I didn’t write to make my way back to myself. Or to find answers. Or heal some perpetual wound. The practice just was. Is. When the haze of antidepressant withdrawal lifted and I began to craft what would become my debut memoir, May Cause Side Effects, writing wasn’t like therapy. Still isn’t. I do not crave it. I do not worship it. In truth, I do not understand it at all.
Perhaps that’s the power of prophecy. It is never really yours to begin with. It simply appears in the place it has always been, boundless energy forever humming, indistinguishable and as inseparable as life from breath.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about a prophecy you were given, whether a prediction from a psychic or something that a parent, a teacher, or a friend told you about yourself. How has it shaped your life?
Brooke Siem is a writer, chef, and speaker whose work on antidepressant withdrawal has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Post, Psychology Today, and more. Her memoir, May Cause Side Effects, was named as one of Good Morning America’s most anticipated reads and has received national attention. She is also a Food Network “Chopped” Champion, founder of the newsletter Happiness Is A Skill, and creator of the Fuckit Bucket™.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
Read Me, See Me, Like Me, an installment of my advice column Dear Susu, where I respond to a community member who feels the urge to write but isn’t sure how to share her words with the world
Letters from Love, a video replay of our workshop with the beloved author and speaker Elizabeth Gilbert, where she shares her decades-long spiritual practice for combating self-criticism and tapping into an ocean of unconditional love
On Right-Sizing Our Fears, a video replay of my Studio Visit with the writer and theologian Kate Bowler, where we talked about avoiding aggressive futurism and seeking out joy in the midst of hard things