They Called Themselves Healers

By Lee James

Illustration by Doug Davis

They seem to appear out of nowhere. From the cracks they crawl like so many tenacious and resolute cockroaches, hidden behind one hell of a convincing facade of manufactured confidence, genuineness and benevolence. They say they have the power to heal you, my friend, and a spinal cord injury–or many an ailment for that fact–can put you so far down on the floor that you’ll grab at any opportunity that rolls by. After all, “What can it hurt?”

I’m a quad who considers himself one of the ultimate human lab rats for “alternative therapies.” There’s little I haven’t been exposed to, most of it post-1988, when I humbly received my C5-6 SCI via a competitive diving accident. Acupuncturists, homeopaths, cranio-sacral therapists, masseuses and herbalists are just a few of the denominations I’ve experienced during my 15 post-injury years. And I’m a believer that the “holistic community” generates far more manifest humanity, heart and support than much of the American Medical Association could possibly muster on its best day–save for the fields of psychology and psychiatry. To this day I consider acupuncture my best secret weapon in my SCI fight, both supportively and physiologically.

Oh, but friends, there is a dark side of the alternative community, a seedy underbelly wrought with some of the most pathological personality disorders I’ve experienced this side of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–Fourth Edition. Oh, how I often ponder the wild-eyed eccentrics who I allowed to lay hands on me, sometimes in me.

They called themselves healers, and they float through my mind almost as flighty and surreal as when I was subject to their presence: Chief Two-Trees, a local Native American wise man who had no qualifications/degrees other than being Native American, an easy target for stereotypical “healer” projection in my small North Carolina town. “Chiefy-Weefy” (as I sarcastically referred to him at age 17) was famous in my small town for offering blasphemous, arguably socially driven passive-aggressive remedies to local white-collar, emotionally obliterated trophy wives lost in a sea of pills and gaudy jewelry. One woman was told to follow a horse or mule around for a week and consume newly dropped dung.

On my first visit–three years out from my SCI–Chief announced he had a miracle cure. He stood in front of me with wild Manson-eyes and intoned, “Lie on that table and let me pop your neck.”

Here we go again. Every flim-flam man I’d met to this point had a vague theory that there was “blocked energy” trapped in my neck, and if it could be removed by divine hands, I would walk away a free man. I passed, giving Chief what I called “the big freeze,” even though many a loved one desperately wanted me to try anything. To this day I believe there was a chance of further damage to my neck.

Chief’s follow-up remedy was what he called “oxygen therapy”–infusing many liters of pure oxygen through my keister to aid my scarred, pneumonia-vulnerable lungs. It’s always the ass with these guys. I have a running theory that they are all devout butt-freaks whose closets are packed with every tube, jelly and probe-shaped device known to man. I would later experience a waify, hippie, drugged-out cranio-sacral therapist dude–I believe he was shtupping every female cranio-gal in the joint–who stated in bold, egocentric terms while holding up Gray’s Anatomy, “This is the asshole. Get to know your asshole. Everything boils down to the asshole.” What an asshole.

The universe continued to rain “healers” down on me, and the lines between the truly concerned and honest, the wild-eyed fanatics, the narcissistic needy, the wounded need-to-be-or-else saviors and the religious zealots all blurred together, as did the line between faith and physicality. Perhaps at my alternative zenith, the cosmos sent me one incident that to this day stands as one of those truly bizarre existential experiences that can never be erased from memory.

From the Philippines he came, grandiose master of faith healing dressed in plain white Nikes and T-shirt reading “Jesus es su amigo.” There I was–immobile, offered up on a slab by the wildest bunch of loving, concerned, needy, unstable, well-intentioned, talented, empathetic persons I had ever experienced at my young age (many were key figures in the local alternative medicine community). I was an object for healing being passed around a crowd whose members ranged from ultimate stranger to closest relative. I’ve never felt so simultaneously afraid/endangered/protected/loved/used/ exploited/cared for at one time.

The final plea for submittal to the Filipino “Jesus” came from a practitioner who had helped and loved me very much; she stood over me–fresh from a healing visit of her own to the same man–covered in various newly-applied oils, trembling, grasping my hands and crying hysterically, pleading, “Please go, he’s real, he’s incredible, we’ll all be there with you.” I agreed. I was 15.

My crew tricked the local ambulance service into transporting me; I arrived atop my stretcher/slab, attracting hopeful, wild stares from the buzzing crowd outside the holistic church chosen as ground zero for the Filipino Messiah to do his thing. The crowd was electric, feeding on sensationalistic vibes. Everyone smelled like pot. So in I go, past the newly healed covered in oils and the waiting fellow lambs, none of whom were nearly as deep into the physical health crapper as I was.

Now trembling in an autonomic pile of nerves, I was rolled in and placed on a table surrounded by burning candles and incense, colorful veils, subtle yellow and brownish flophouse lighting and human buzzards, lots of human buzzards craning over me alongside my protectors who held my hands as they, too, trembled.

Here comes Filipino Jesus to do his thing; I feel his strong hands probing my stomach, and within minutes he produces what so many a “patient” had described–a bloody handful of internal tissue-like stuff, which he explained–through his clingy gal-pal/translator–was a type of “blockage” that was causing my condition. During a five-minute period, he slopped several of these bloody masses into a plastic bucket on the floor, then pronounced to the court that I may very well be healed.

In they came, hearing those words, the needy masses to witness; they picked me up and propped up my lengthy frame, anticipating some sort of total reanimation. There I was, Christ on the cross, dangling naked in the hands of some 15 grinning giddy strangers, losing blood pressure by the second. Thank God the darkness of failing orthostasis consumed me, protecting me from sight and sound. However, nothing could diminish the ringing sense of humiliation and degradation in my heart, accompanied by a strange sense of mourning for the lost, needy, clueless individuals around me, at whom I was also furious–an emotion my obliterated post-injury-ego felt no right to indulge.

I felt as though I’d been bludgeoned with my own lifeless body.

Years later, I saw a PBS special that demonstrated the method I had observed–an intricate process involving chicken guts and sleight-of-hand. As if I needed to be told.

Lee James is a recent graduate with an MS in rehab psychology and counseling from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he hopes to practice as a therapist.

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