W is for Waterboarding: The Gifts of Facing Your Fears at Book Club


With time, we become grateful for absolutely everything because we realize it has set us free.  

~message from a spider 🕷 friend.

It sounded harmless.  It was a book club, a group of women that had been getting together for upwards of 27 years. They had a  phD psychologist,  a social worker and a therapist among them. 

The day before said book club, I’d been listening to David Sedaris’s Masterclass on writing. He said, “You’re never going to have experiences you can write about if you spend your days scrolling on your phone or glued to zoom or Netflix all day and night: Get out of the house and observe people.”  I nodded with recognition and I realized just how isolated I’d been feeling this pandemic winter with work.  Lucky for me, I had an invitation to book club lined up. 

I doubt David Sedaris has ever participated in an Ayahuasca ceremony, and I’m sure he’d have a field day writing about one if he ever does. When you attend an Ayahuasca ceremony, it’s best if you can show up humbly, be prepared to breathe, sit up tall and surrender….be ready for whatever this incredibly, brilliant, grandmother spirit has to teach you.  In my experience, the medicine is a master teacher and your only choice is to buckle up and surrender to her wisdom.  

Ceremony like this is a place where you can face your biggest fears and stucknesses and then let go- -often through violent purges which can include tears, vomiting, diarrhea or, unfortunately, as my friend reminds me, sometimes all three at once.  This medicinal grandma can make you hurl all night, writhe in physical pain or swoon in celestial and ecstatic gratitude but, one thing is for sure, it’s not up to you.  But breathing and relaxing can make the experience easier.

I’ve learned through hard won experience with this grandmother spirit that resistance, on my part, can lead to a lot of suffering. Sitting in these ceremonies dozens and dozens of times has helped me see difficult encounters in my day to day life as mini-Ayahuasca ceremonies without all the messy purging. It’s best to sit up, breathe and surrender. And, I’ve learned that a metaphoric Ayahuasca ceremony can be metaphorically sprung on me when I least expect it.

 A woman I didn’t know had booked and paid for an appointment for a divination with me and in the notes she said she’d like to invite me to her book club. They were planning to read my memoir “Swimming with Elephants”, the story of leaving my medical practice to pursue the path of spiritual healing + shamanism.  She said she knew my mother from working as a therapist with her years ago. My mom had died very recently and it felt like I definitely should say yes even though I didn’t really know her.  

In her note, she also confessed that she wasn’t really up to doing a divination and, if it wasn’t required, maybe I could just refund her money and come to her book club instead.  “Sure.”  I said, feeling a bit of a red flag flap in my subconscious. I refunded her payment and put the date on the calendar. I have always enjoyed going to local book clubs and answering questions about my books or writing process. 

The day before book club, I got an email from her asking me if I was vaccinated. This also felt a bit prickly, but, in fact,  I had been vaccinated and reported this to her.  They were just anxious I told myself.  

On book club night,  I was exhausted at the end of a busy week but I took a fifteen minute power nap and played some ukulele to relax before heading down to a little peninsula of land on Lake Superior where the house was.  As we got out of our cars in the darkness, I ran into the women who had invited me right away.  We made small talk as we made our way down the driveway towards the beach house.  

I had brought a gift wrapped oracle cards decks (ones I had created) for her and for the hostess. The woman who’d invited me received hers and then when I tried to offer my gift to the hostess, she seemed distracted and would barely look at me.  She was just shy, I told myself.  I set the gift on her dining room table as we entered the living room to sit. 

As we waited for everyone to arrive, I asked them about the group and was told, “When we love a book we usually don’t talk about it much!” I inferred from her comment that if the book was controversial,  conversation was more lively.  I was not prepared for what happened next.

The last person to arrive was a woman in her mid sixties, she was coughing and huffing as she came up the stairs and seemed to have an odd reaction to seeing me sitting there.  Had she been vaccinated? Then the hostess reentered the living room with the deck of cards I had gifted her, now unwrapped, in her hands. She placed it on the coffee table in front of the group and said with an air of disdain “If anybody would like this card deck please take it, I don’t have any use for it”.  I was kind of confused as I had never seen a hostess gift get rejected before.  Out of reverence for my card deck, I had an urge to sweep it into my bag so it didn’t have to endure such indignitites.  

Then the huffing and puffing lady said, “Are we ready then?” She spoke to the group, looking right and left, as if she were in charge. A murmur of yeses responded to her. She turned and looked directly at me.

“So, your oldest son, he’s black, do I have that right?”  She asked staring at me with an odd smile on her face.  I was confused by her statement.  My oldest son who is adopted was born in Colombia, so maybe she was confused, but I also immediately felt protective. I wasn’t sure what she was getting at.

“Umm, no he’s not.” I said tentatively. She continued,

“Oh so is he biracial them? Or is that your youngest who’s biracial?”  She continued.

Calmly, I responded, “My two oldest children were adopted from Colombia…?”  Seeing if that was what she was referring to. 

“Oh yes and your youngest was from where?”  she asked.

“Guatemala…” I responded, wondering where all of this was going. She continued, 

 “So I don’t know exactly how to say this but what bothered me about the book”…..she hesitates…and then she raises her voice louder as if to make a point, 

”I mean when did you just decide to forget about logic and about science?”  she blurts out in an exasperated tone as if she’s shocked I could be such an idiot. She’s looking left and right again after looking at me.

At this point I realize, this is not going to be a warm fuzzy experience.  

I calmly tried to explain that it was a slow process of learning to trust in this invisible world of spirit and in my intuition,  but that I found eventually that I trusted more, ultimately,  in that than I did to any current human scientific understanding.  

In my book,”Swimming with Elephants”,  I thought I made it pretty clear that I still honor traditional medicine/science,  but now realize that spirit too is critical…and, ultimately,  what I now believe is most enduring and important.  

Next question.  Apparently this lady is the one who will be doing the questioning-  everybody else is remaining silent. 

 “I couldn’t believe that you swam in the Ganges river…all that E.coli-  how awful!….I just could never…she just shook her head in disbelief and continued on. 

“And I couldn’t believe it when you said that the shamans spit that Florida water on people.  You really let him spit on you?”  she said again shaking her head in confusion and even mild disgust?.

I tried to explain that it felt very sacred having that water “spit” on me and that she might have a hard time understanding it because she isn’t from a culture where this practice originates from.

Then her neighbor jumped in, “I had trouble with the book too…but for different reasons…”  It turns out that this woman is Native American and she began to school me on the fact that the work that I was doing (my spiritual work) was terribly dangerous.  She confronted me asking me if I had supervision from anybody in the work I was doing with clients.  I was confused by her question and offered, 

“I do have colleagues that I trust and can get support from…if that’s what you mean…” She was then dismissive and stated that what I was doing basically was not legitimate in any way and stated, in no uncertain terms, that what I was doing was dangerous and naive.  She went on, 

“You have NO LINEAGE. I’m not worried for me- I’m worried for you.  What you’re doing…you will have no protection from spirits.” she said half-laughing as if it were funny…the idea that I was spiritually in danger.

I gently informed her that since that time I have had several indigenous teachers, but even as I did that I knew it was pointless….I represented everything she feared. 

The the firing squad lady interjected with an oddly sweet smile, 

 “Is this a problem for you that we are asking all these questions?”  I let them know that I wasn’t there to convince them of my beliefs and added, “It was you who invited me here?” I said, lamely hoping that they would remember their civility.  

Then the lady who invited me added, “I think as long as we do it in a loving way it should be ok.”

 Apparently this was their loving way.

Then the woman with Native America roots immediately said something about the fact that we all have to make mistakes on our path to learn and then folded her arms firmly across her chest. 

By this time … I realized that this was a waterboarding. 

Next question was already fired from the general, we’re moving on.  

 “So now how many miscarriages did you have and were those before you adopted or did you keep having them?……Oh, and I’m so, so sorry for your losses, she aded at the end.” She says all this with a strange sweet smile on her face…..but, then she doesn’t let me answer but pushes on….

“So now you never did infertility treatments? Is that right?” 

“No, we did pursue infertility treatments….?” I respond.  (clearly stated in book) She nodded and then continued: 

“So, then were you still doing those infertility treatments while you were adopting- did you continue them?” she prodded. 

I tried to answer the questions, but was feeling less inclined to try. This wasn’t a conversation.  She was just getting started, 

”And when we went to your website we couldn’t believe how much you charge (apparently they had been perusing my website and discovered I charge the cost of a kid’s Nintendo Switch for a shamanic healing session) ……We all work with the poor, do you ever offer a sliding scale or anything?” 

Yes I said, people who are experiencing financial difficulties are always invited to pay what they are able (as was clearly stated on my website at that time).  

She seemed unmoved by this new discovery that I did offer my services to people regardless of ability to pay and in exasperations she threw up her hands and says in total exasperation, 

“But at some point….I mean….. didn’t you just say you yourself, Why am I having all these kids and why are we purchasing this huge house to remodel??” She seemed to be asking me WHY, if I knew how stupid and irresponsible I was being all along, why didn’t I stop?

I didn’t even know what to say. I mean this was a memoir…the point of the book was confessing,  vulnerably and honestly, my life lessons.  She then quickly changed gears, 

“So, in the scene in the book where you visit your sister Maria in the mental hospital, you did something with her chakras and do you really believe you healed her?  She says it with such disdain, shaking her head and sort of laughs looking side to side at her other book club friends.  (which makes me wonder- by now ….do they waterboard all local authors–  and is there a support group for those who survived it?)

 By now, I am vaguely (finally!)  aware that we are in a ceremony.  It’s ON. I need to sit up tall and breathe. Surrender.

This ceremony, I will realize later tonight, was brilliantly touching on all of my greatest fears (so that I could purge them). 

  1. People will say I charge too much and think I’m evil (even though, at the time I was  offering a pay what you are able option).  
  2. People will say that I’m a horrible person and accuse me of cultural appropriation for practicing my earth-based-spirituality.
  3. People will write off my book/writing/personal creations and say I’m a new age kook.

 I come to my senses and silently call upon Alice, my pachydermal spirit helper, and a beautiful plant spirit that has helped me many times and I begin to see this lovely plant growing and blooming all over the room. I feel Alice’s presence and I feel slightly better. I don’t have to continue to endure this evening because I’m getting to the breaking point.

I responded to her, “In the book I didn’t say that I healed my sister Maria but just that I felt something shift ….and that it was not me but the Great Mystery that seemed to intervene. I never meant to imply that I healed my sister.” She nodded impatiently an continued, 

“And then I googled your sister Maria and on her website it says “I come from a dysfunctional family….is that TRUE? Was your family dysfunctional?”, she looks at me intensely, waiting to see my response.

By this point I am not sure what is happening.  These women are allegedly social workers, psychologists and a phD in psychology…surely they understand that all families are dysfunctional. But, I try to continue answering the questions as honestly as I can, but half way through I realized they don’t really want my answer and I ended my response with, “You should really invite my sister Maria over for book club and ask her that question yourself.”  (Sorry Maria!) 

By now it ‘s 9:30 PM.  This has gone on for two hours and I decide to exercise my personal freedom,  I finally interrupt somewhat abruptly,  “Thank you all so much for having me” , I’m going to head home now, I have an early meeting tomorrow.  

The lady who had treated my cards like they were the Devil’s handiwork protests a little , “But now is usually the time when we have dessert and some coffee.”  Are you kidding me?

“I don’t eat dessert.” (true fact), I reply with quiet dignity.  Hearing myself say that out loud was part of the ceremony too.  I have been working on my food addiction and claiming this identity with these women as witnesses felt oddly holy.  

Then as I stand to walk out, I see that deck of cards the hostess has discarded and I grab them as I leave the room saying, “If nobody would like these, I think I’ll just bring them home.”

I threw on my coat on and hurriedly try to make it to the stairwell but not before the quietest lady in the room who had barely said a peep sheepishly whispers to me, “I’d really like that card deck…..”.  “Of course!” I say and gladly toss them into her open hands as I keep moving. MUST ESCAPE.  She then tries to offer me  a handful of chocolates in exchange for the deck and, once again, I’m given the sacred opportunity to claim my status- my new identity:  I DON’T EAT SUGAR.  Damn that felt good.  

As I move down the long icy driveway in the dark to my car my head is so full of thoughts. Back at home, as I retell the story to my husband Mark  I sob. Though I knew that they were just opinions of my work my spiritual beliefs, it still hurt a lot to have my life assailed.  What author would knowingly have dinner with their one star reviewers?  

And as I looked deeply I was filled with gratitude for my waterboarding. Just like an Ayahuasaca ceremony, this experience allowed me to revisit and let go (or you might even say “purge” again) several recurring themes in my life:  The fear that people would attack me for cultural appropration (CHECK!), the fear that poeple would say I was greedy and charge too much (CHECK!) and the fear that others think I am missguided, annoying and horrible person (CHECK!).  I had yet another chance to feel it all and let it all go.

The next morning As I regaled my friend Paula with the tale during our six am daily constitutional and my friend Inger over zoom, we laughed so hard that the waterboarding began to feel like an amazing blessing.   And all I was left with was gratitude. For the life experience, For the letting go. For the waterboarding…for it was what set me free. 

And I saw again, more deeply,  why we are so afraid to paint our paintings and to write our books and record our albums because if we do, they might be savagely torn apart by a reviewer or a book club.  

Or worse yet, they might be ignored.  

The day after it happened I got a text from the woman who had invited me thanking me for coming and sayin that she was “saddened by t[her friends] lack of acceptance” and hoped that, “I had built up a thick skin.”

But, as a creative person, I don’t want a thick skin. I want to stay openhearted. Vulnerable. I want to die with my heart broken and smashed to smithereens because I think that’s what I’m here for.  

So, beware of dangerous book clubs and try not to read your one star reviews, but then again,  Maybe go anyway and don’t forget to breathe, sit up tall and see if you can ride the waves without puking…if you do you’ll be glad you did!  

I also remember Mr. Sedaris’s wise words:  “You’re so priviledged to be a [writer]. Normal people, something bad happens to them and there’s nothing they can do with it except complain or press charges…you can write about it.”


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  1. Brianna on July 14, 2023 at 1:46 pm

    Wow, what a beautiful essay, and just what I needed to hear. Thank you.

    • Sarah Seidelmann on July 15, 2023 at 3:05 pm

      Brianna- I am so happy to hear it! Thank you so much.

  2. Michelle Sedgwick on July 14, 2023 at 4:46 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this story!!
    I have read Swimming with Elephants and love your creative work.
    I do spiritual reflexology and struggle with the same thoughts at times.

    You bounced back so quickly! Amazing! Your work in the world is appreciated and
    Much love,

    • Sarah Seidelmann on July 15, 2023 at 3:05 pm

      Thank you so much Michelle! its not easy being vulnerable out there is it? But, its what we must do if we are in this business:) Grateful for you!!

  3. Dawn Eve on July 15, 2023 at 9:20 am

    Oh, dear Sarah, as tears of heartfelt understanding and sadness roll down my cheek, I also feel deep gratitude for your awareness and fortitude to breathe, sit up straight, and speak your truths to the unaware sheeple. The seeds are planted, it is up to them whether they choose to grow or stay stagnant within their fear. They probably got into their professions because they needed healing, yet their fear ego keeps them in their box. Divine love, Dawn

    • Sarah Seidelmann on July 15, 2023 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks so much for responding Dawn! Yes it was ironic that we were all in the same profession- healpers- right? I’m sure that they have their own stories to tell too:: But I am grateful for the deeper understanding I received.

  4. Teresa Arthur on July 15, 2023 at 3:04 pm

    OMG Sarah! This was so freaking funny at some spots. I never would have imagined how horrifying this experience climaxed to. As you say too, how wonderful. Only truth seekers could unearth the beauty that was there for your taking.
    Keep being your magical you♥️thank you for always showing up authentically.

    • Sarah Seidelmann on October 25, 2023 at 12:14 pm

      Thank you so much Teresa! Gah! Grateful for you!

  5. Janice Bell on November 7, 2023 at 8:44 am

    Sarah, I love how you transformed this experience into an opportunity to laugh with friends. Some of my most humiliating and painful encounters in life have resulted in hilarious, gasping for breath guffaws with others. Thank you for sharing. You are so brave!

    • Sarah Seidelmann on November 15, 2023 at 11:45 am

      Thank you so much Janice! SO GRATEFUL FOR ALICE AND my other spirit helpers who reminded me that I could get out of there any old time….:):):)

  6. Angela Miranda on November 10, 2023 at 8:51 am

    I am so happy you shared this link again in today’s email. I’ve been under water—as you know—and I missed it this summer.

    What a testimony this is Sarah! I was gasping aloud at the audacity of these alleged professionals! I felt your hurt as your beloved card deck was rejected. You has me there with you!

    And then—as so often happens when you do the work we do (and I mean really do it!)—you turn toward the pain and welcome it. Gosh this resonates.

    What a gift to end with laughter as you recounted it to your friends. What a gift!

    All the love to you—this helped me today!

    Angela Miranda in Texas!

    • Sarah Seidelmann on November 15, 2023 at 11:44 am

      Thank you so much friend!! Yes the LAUGHTER- God’s carbonation I think Anne Lamott says? Such a gift after heart break! Much love to you!

  7. Sophie on November 13, 2023 at 3:36 pm

    How gracefully and wisely you navigated this, Sarah. What an amazing story.

    • Sarah Seidelmann on November 15, 2023 at 11:43 am

      Thanks so much Sophie. I appreciate you reading it!

  8. Laura on December 16, 2023 at 7:21 am

    I’m late to this but will echo what others have said. You handled it amazingly (not sure I could have) and of course it needs to be said…it wasn’t about you. It was about them and their issues. I’m baffled that they were blind to the inappropriateness of it all considering their backgrounds!

    • Sarah Seidelmann on February 7, 2024 at 8:22 am

      Thank you so much Laura!! I feel like it was some sort of initiation for me- and also I found myself aghast at how long I stayed at the event…hoping something would shift- sheesh. Glad its behind me and now I am prepared for all sort of crtitiques!

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