Loki and Mental Health
A lot of people over the years have asked me how my devotional relationship with Loki manifests as working with the mentally ill.
There are many ‘faces’ of Loki. As we experience the Lore, we see him in many guises: sometimes he’s the carefree sly man, doing as he pleases rather than what is expected. Other times we see him as the person who thinks outside of the box, especially when it comes to solving the Aesir’s problems. We see him as the sacred observer/outsider. We see him as the leader of the forces of destruction at Ragnorok.
The Loki I deal with – the face I see most often – is the Loki after he’s been punished for the Lokasenna. He’s been forced to witness the death of Narvi and Vali, and been tied to a rock with the entrails. He’s been through enough torture that his grip on reality is thin at best. He’s angry, and hurt, and sad, and betrayed, and he can’t make sense of what has happened to him. And his torment doesn’t end; he gets to experience constant reminders that those he loved betrayed him every time Sigyn’s bowl runs full.
It’s the God-gone-insane that I see, that I love, that I serve. It’s the one who’s lost his sense of groundedness, and things that seem real to everyone else has come into question. Up sure feels like down, and in like out. It’s a reaction to his circumstances, but it’s also triggered from deep within. It may have always resided there, and it took something of this magnitude to make it manifest.
I’ve struggled with mental health issues my entire life. Both lineages I represent are riddled with people who have been institutionalized; and all of my parent’s children (including myself) have had our trip(s) to the locked wards. I started fairly young – I had some early childhood trauma that broke me, very similarly to the way Loki was broken by the Aesir. Things were done to me and around me that made my young mind feel as though the truth was all a lie – people you were supposed to trust would do bad things to you, people you were supposed to turn to for safety would, in fact, hurt you instead.
I have a lot of mental and emotional problems that remain to this day. I struggle with depression and anxiety often. I have a personality disorder, which I believe to be a direct result of my disordered and sometimes abusive upbringing. I suffer from extreme disassociation at times. In the right situation, I can fly into an unpredictable rage. I sometimes hallucinate (and I see this as being distinctly different than seeing/hearing Gods; they feel very different to me).
When I first thought about going into spiritual service to community, one of the issues I faced was my reputation of being mentally ill. It got thrown into my face a lot when I first got involved in the larger Pagan community. I started a small discussion group/munch for Pagans and somehow this made me the target for a lot of public insult and commentary, especially as my first marriage dissolved and I became much more symptomatic of my illnesses which lead to me being hospitalized.
It was in the hospital that time, in 2000, that I first encountered Loki. I didn’t know who he was; in a lot of ways, I assumed he was a hallucination. I was in a very restricted lockdown ward where I wasn’t allowed such things as shoelaces or real silverware. I also spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts, because I wasn’t allowed a cd player. (Basically, I could read, or I could journal while supervised, as pencils/pens were also on the ban list.) One night, as I lay in my bed trying to fall asleep, I had this waking vision.
A young redheaded man stood before me. He looked about my age at the time (26). He was thin but not waifish. He had a sense of ruggedness about him, as though he had been through some stuff. He had no shirt on, but a pair of tight red jeans and black boots. He leaned against the doorjamb of my room, smiling roguishly. He said, “I could make this all better, you know.”
“Uh huh.” I muttered. I figured he was a figment of my illness, and I just continued meditating he’d go away.
“Really. I’m here to make you a deal. Your life sucks, right?”
“And you feel powerless to fix it.”
“And you carry around a lot of brokenness from before.”
I took a deep breath and tried hard to focus on the present moment.
“I know what that’s like. I’ve been there.”
“Sure.” I snorted.
He reached at the roots of his hair just above his forehead. And the next part was very odd, and unlike any hallucination I had ever had. He pulled his face off, slowly, showing me what was underneath. There are no words to describe what I saw, really. It was Loki, a God, gone mad with grief. He had lost all hold on reality. The room itself felt slanted in that moment. This new visage was unable to do anything but scream, and scream, and scream – but not through his mouth, only in my mind. He went from being in color to being black and white. There was this large wound on his forehead, a festering, infected thing full of pus and worms, as though his very brain was rotting through his skull. His eyes were kalidoscopic, and I got physically sick from looking at this new face.
“This is the Breaker of Worlds,” the voice said calmly. “He wants to destroy everything because everything he cared about was taken from him.”
I knew, in that moment, how he felt. Over and over in my life, everything I knew to be true had come into question, and the core reality of my suicidal impulse was that I wanted to do something to show the people who cared about me how broken I was. It was why I cut, why I tried to kill myself, why I frequently went off my medication, why I was sitting in the hospital talking to a God.
He pulled his calmer, more rational face back on. “I’ve been with you since you were small,” he went on, “And I’ve watched you closely. I want you to say yes to me, [Del]. I want to show you the way to living, rather than counting the moments until death.”
I looked at him. I still felt ill and disoriented. “What do you want?”
“I want you. I want to use you. I want you to surrender. Tell me you’ll do this, and I’ll quiet your mind. I can’t take it all away, because so much of it is who you are, is why I want you. But I’ll make it so you’ll want to live, that you’ll see the goodness in it, that you’ll understand why she hasn’t just killed me.”
As I’ve said before, for years after this encounter I didn’t know who it was. This should have been a clue. And it is something I’ve thought a lot about – why doesn’t Sigyn just kill him? If he’s really suffering for all eternity, waiting for the end of days, wouldn’t the compassionate thing be to get a big rock and slam it into his head? But I digress…
“Okay.” I said, wearily. “I want it to stop. I want control over what I do. I want to be able to sit in the sun and feel good about it.”
I fell asleep after that. I had no idea what I had agreed to. But in two days, I was released from the hospital into a day program. In a year, I was off medication and my symptoms were manageable. In two years, I was pretty damn happy with life. Little did I know what my end of the bargain was going to be.
Anyway, so that’s the Loki I serve. Not the rakish fellow in the doorway, but the Loki underneath. The one that understands madness intimately, who feels the pain of melancholy and despair, the disorientation of voices and hallucinations, the frustration of compulsion, the fruitlessness of rumination. All the key behaviors and symptoms of human mental illness, he understands in a very personal way. And he knows how terrible it feels.
He feels very strongly that no human should have to suffer forever like that. That a little suffering is okay – it builds you up, gives you a sense of self, gives you something to overcome – but that living an entire life lost in your illness is too much to give. So he’s asked me to help people like that, and I try my best. Because I, too, know what it’s like.