In the course of her unusual memoir, STARK RAVING ZEN, Kristy Sweetland describes what was once a profoundly conflicted existence. A successful veterinary doctor and toxicologist, she was a workaholic with obsessive compulsive disorder with a history of bulimia and a shopping addiction. Though the voice narrating the book seems the epitome of the spiritually tuned-in earth child, Sweetland assures us that for years her life was rigidly controlled, her personality a high-strung Type A. But at the same time, and stretching back as early as she can remember, Sweetland had unusual spiritual experiences. As a toddler in her crib she was visited by three female spirits; she listened to them talk about her and tell her they’d be back again someday. (They were.) Later, she developed the ability to project her consciousness outside of her body to witness things in her own and other people’s lives. She also had frequent prophetic dreams and ones narrated by a masculine voice that acted as a kind of director of her dream self’s actions. Sweetland’s childhood was chaotic: She was one of five children of an alcoholic father and a depressed mother, whose own father had been savagely abusive. But if trauma was handed down the generations, so was a solid belief in the supernatural. Her grandmother, an “odd German medicine woman” who Kristy adored, gave her early advice on how to cope with visiting demons.
For years Sweetland lived “a life directed by the constant warnings of ‘what if’ and the siren calls of ‘if only,’ as she poetically puts it. (Elsewhere she describes herself less kindly, as a “stressed-out, maniacal freak of anxiety related illness.”) Though her psychic experiences, which were often beautiful and thrilling, were important to her, she told no one about them. Haunted by the memory of a beloved aunt who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, she didn’t know if her newfound clairaudience (hearing voices) were a sign of mental illness or of a deepening intuition. Eventually Sweetland could no longer ignore her psychic pain, so she quit her stressful job to embark on a road trip from Minnesota to California, where she would spend a month learning to read tarot. She packed up her car and one of her beloved dogs, said goodbye to her husband, and set off “on a journey to reconnect with my intuitive feminine self, leaving the structure and analysis and day-to-day order behind.”
But she never got to California: The road trip itself turned out to be the destination. Beginning when she enters the state of New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment,” Sweetland’s psychic intrusions become much stronger. Her mind feels “foreign”—she has visions of people and mythical animals that sometimes even her dog appears to sense. She frequently loses her way on the road, ending up in places she believes she was meant to find. Most alarming, she begins sharing her consciousness—and sometimes even her mirror’s reflection—with the spirit of Mangas Coloradas, a 19th-century Apache chief who she believes was the voice from her dreams. (A white woman herself, Sweetland feels a strong connection to a small amount of Cherokee ancestry in her background.) By this time Sweetland had begun keeping her blog, Stark Raving Zen, sharing some of the ideas she’d previously kept secret. She blogged about much of her road trip too, inadvertently worrying her husband and some of her friends. But though the experiences are frequently frightening, the author stays steady in her belief that “… in order to fully see our world’s reality, in order to reach an absolute state of sanity, one must experience for themselves a period of perceived insanity.” To be sure, much of what Sweetland describes might be hard to understand or believe, and the book sometimes suffers from an overabundance of descriptions of her emotions. But her incredible spiritual life will likely fascinate readers, and her story of healing and recovery will resonate with many—despite the fact that it often meanders down some very unconventional paths.
Kristy Sweetland’s memoir STARK RAVING ZEN–a vivid account of her “vision quest” through the American Southwest and her growing psychic abilities–is relayed through strong storytelling, self-awareness, and sense of humor that keeps the pages turning.
~Katie Haegele for IndieReader