When Frank Russell was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1996, he went through fruitless years of hospitals and different medications. It was a West African shaman that healed and grounded Russell, teaching him how to engage with his unique mind.
His father, Dick Russell, recounts the story on Washington Post:
A profound ignorance still exists as to the molecular mechanisms behind schizophrenia. Despite theories ranging from genetic inheritance to environmental exposure, scientists cannot specify why 2.2 million Americans suffer from the mental illness. Some have suggested that there is more to this puzzle than Western medicine realizes. In 2012, Canadian evolutionary psychiatrist Joseph Polimeni published a book called “Shamans Among Us,” postulating that schizophrenics are a “modern manifestation of prehistoric tribal shamans.” The South African healerColin Campbell has been quoted as saying: “People hearing voices for instance or feeling certain things are in touch with other realities, especially the whole mythic realm, that Western society does not have a time or place for.”
This spoke to me because, amid what appeared to be delusional ramblings, Frank had an uncanny ability to tune in to what I was thinking. On the advice of a psychologist friend, I’d stopped trying to correct his often bizarre ideas. This had led us to a much less antagonistic and more trusting relationship. Still, I had little hope that Frank would ever lead anything close to a “normal” life.
Then, early in 2012, I took a chance. Our family pediatrician — who had grown up in East Africa in the 1940s — invited Frank and me to come along on his annual return trip to witness the wildlife migration across the Serengeti Plain. Frank is biracial, and this seemed a unique opportunity for him to see the continent his mother’s ancestors came from — and for us to forge a stronger father-son bond.
Our trip was not without its difficulties. One night, Frank temporarily disappeared at a campground deep in the bush. But ultimately the journey proved a breakthrough not only between us, but also for my son’s self-confidence, which had been slowly but surely shattered over the years of struggling with illness.
Part of the trip’s impact was surely that we were spending days and nights amidst the wonder of the East African wildlife and landscape. It also helped that our guide, a Maasai the same age as Frank, related to him without any sense of his being “different.”
Nine months after our return to the U.S., I sought out Malidoma Somé, a renowned West African shaman. In the culture of his Dagara people, schizophrenics are not viewed pathologically, but often as mediums bringing messages to the community from the spirit world. As an Anglo-American male in my mid-60s, I never expected to be conducting spiritual water rituals at the ocean and invoking the assistance of my ancestors on my son’s behalf. But that’s just what I did before taking Frank to see Malidoma in Jamaica, for a divination about his future using cowrie shells, beads, stones and other objects. Frank also made drawings for the shaman during their hour together, which Malidoma described as like “being with a colleague.”