Ash and Stardust, a monthly column by artist and writer DHIYANAH HASSAN, explores the intersections of tarot with healing and creativity. These are personal essays sharing experiences of growth as someone who has recently found a deep connection to tarot. You can read the first piece here.
On a night I was forced to lose a war to my father’s rage, I stopped myself from crying by carving the word ‘HATE’ into my leg. The conclusion of these encounters with either of my parents had never meant the end of physical abuse. Their anger grew inside me like an infection.
A huge part of my history is that I grew up with adults who couldn’t protect me from their own ugliness, who refused to remember what they did after the fact, who until today won’t say anything when decades of their choices landed me in hospitals and finally on the disability spectrum.
Since childhood, I was not given the tools necessary to know how to love myself. What I saw in my parents’ eyes as my body absorbed impact after impact was what I mirrored back to myself; hate. And that ruined so much of my life, as this still does to countless children all over the world, crying quietly in places they have to call home.
Children know things on a raw and intuitive frequency before they find the language for articulation, so I knew there was something wrong with it all. To cope with the terror no one else could see, I developed imaginary worlds I’d submerge myself in for hours – days, even. In this world, I was loved by a group of adults who’d co-parent me through the perils of daily life. In the external world, I couldn’t talk about what was happening to me without being pegged as too difficult or ‘too much.’
My imaginary family had no consistent names or faces but I’d recognize them when they appeared in dreams as faceless figures or hybrids (human-trees, human-beasts, etc). The more time I spent imagining their backstories or personalities – building them into a unit of unconditionally loving, imaginary family members that I could run to for advice, at least in my mind – the stronger their presence grew in my inner world. I was afraid of getting lost in there for good, but they helped me sleep. They helped me rest.
Immersing myself in this imaginary world before bed at night had eventually pulled me out of insomnia and night terrors.
Playing imaginary family all through my parents’ angry years taught me how to survive in their household, where I had to face the parts of themselves they refused to reconcile with. It couldn’t teach me how to love myself, though. On the flipside, it catalyzed my ravenous hunger for the love I was being kept away from – I wanted this imaginary family, like, for real.
Every time I woke up, the physical non-existence of this phantom family was so emotionally jarring that I often slipped back into the painfully familiar hatred. A hatred that, I’ve learned only recently, has never been mine.
The illusion of duality has a firm grip on how reality plays out on a cultural level. So much of our social, political and spiritual narratives has been blockbustered to cater to the good-and-evil dichotomy. We want one side to win to the utter defeat of the other. We’ve even conditioned ourselves to mirror this within our own psyches, splitting our ‘light’ and ‘shadow’ selves from each other – glorifying one to the utter negation of the other.
For the past few months, I’ve been referring to The Lovers to learn about shadow work.
I wasn’t even sure what that really meant until a few conversations with friends last year helped me figure out that shadow work isn’t about winning any battles between these split aspects of ourselves – there are just no battles. Shadow work has, to me, become the work of self-love. Of re-harmonizing the split aspects as one. A huge chunk of my creative process – especially with all the memoir-based work – is rooted in this act of reconciliation and becoming whole.
The two figures in The Lovers are often read as symbolic for a partnership of some sort. As a tarot noob I knew that the romantic reading was a popular one but it wasn’t a lens I could use while navigating the thick fogs of grief and trauma. And yet. For some reason I was drawn to this card. It would appear in daily readings, fall out while I shuffled. I would also pull it from the deck just to lay it next to me while I wrote or painted. Recently it appeared in my New Moon spread as Something to Receive.
The Lovers in the Sasuraibito deck by Stasia Burrington shows two faceless figures in light and shadow twirling in an intimate embrace. At first glance, they looked to me as if they were each trying to consume the other. The red thread tornado-ing around them seemed to have such a frantic yet finalizing energy. For a while I struggled to see this card as anything other than the act of two ghosts being erased by their own frenzy.
Identifying what your shadow aspects are isn’t an easy process. You hold a mirror up to yourself in the quietest room within you and you meet yourself in the eyes to name all the things you worked hard to destroy: failure, envy, depression, fear. Enter your pre-programmed responses: disgust, anger, contempt. In a space completely your own, the cycle of abuse carries you back to places you don’t want to be in in the first place. No one ever chooses to be a victim but history isn’t what changes – the past will always be filled with what has already taken place. We’ve been taught that the quickest way to cope with our worst qualities is to simulate battles with them, call them demons and try to banish them – the more we run away from them, the faster they come crashing into us.
A child who survives violence inherits it. I inherited my parents’ rage, perhaps more directly since they pummelled it into me for fifteen years. That’s not something you recover from overnight. In learning about shadow work, I came to understand that by bottling up the parts of yourself you find gross, you surrender your power to your fears – then you become what you fear.
I understand now that this is what kept happening to my parents.
Our family – South and Southeast Asians whose identities have been erased and mangled by the politics of migrations and globalisation – holds tight to a pattern of denial. No one will admit to suffering bouts of anxiety or depression. No one will admit treating your daughters differently than your sons creates separations that run deeper than societal roles. No one talks about the past, especially when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s not gossip. Especially when moving countries meant ‘upgrading’ paper identities and continuous silencing and punishing of truths for the sake of narrative control. Always, with the punishments.
In the years they failed me as parents, these two adults were following the rules of a toxic pattern set upon them before they were even born. A toxic pattern cast over my own life like a net made of barbed wires wrapped around my neck. A pattern that taught me how to hate myself because those that came before me couldn’t learn how to love themselves enough.
The Lovers brought this pattern to light for me. I’d pull the card out from the Sasuraibito deck just to study the image and use my own discomfort as prompts for queries – how, how are these figures lovers? What was it about this image that made it seem somewhat violent to me? What do I have to work on, in myself, to re-read this card, to see these two as lovers?
A big turning point for me was when a friend started signing off our chats with, “Be kind to you.” This was 2013 maybe, and I had never been told that before. I remember pausing and staring at the screen for minutes. It was a clear message, one I couldn’t argue with. I accepted the challenge but I hadn’t figured out how.
What if I started reading The Lovers as two parts of the same person – what if I saw them as me (my conscious self, my ego) and my shadow self (embodiment of shadow aspects, my hidden selves). I started reading The Lovers through this lens every time it’d pop up. And every time, the card would say, “You have a choice in how you treat yourself.”
Over the years, you watch your scars fade. Some scars don’t go away but, you – slowly, gently – give them narratives of love instead of loss.
There are no shortcuts to this work of healing. There might never be a way out of the memories, but there can be space for new patterns to emerge and bloom.
I acknowledge my childhood imagination working overtime as a prelude to these lessons on self-love and shadow work. How each imaginary figure I’d talk to at night was really a pathway to give myself the love I know I deserved. To break the patterns that held me trapped, I spent years (still on-going) accepting and forgiving every single part of myself, especially the parts that made up my ancestral guilt. Their helplessness, their sadness, their rage. I identified where these exist inside me and I now dedicate energy finding ways to love myself back to wholeness.
And it’s messy. I moved, and I keep working my ass off, I keep unlocking levels – all the while wondering if that imaginary family’s going to show up for real. I prune off parts of my dream, which is painful for me, but I do it to make space for growth. As with any kinds of intimacy, there are conflicts and compromises – constant learning and listening. Full-time strategizing. Sometimes a memory you never wanted to write about comes pouring out like rain. Sometimes it’s all internal with no obvious signs of improvement and, honestly, that can be the hardest part of all.
In The Next World Tarot, The Lovers are mirror aspects of the same person – the figure from the mirror emerges to hand her physical self extra spoons to get through the day. You can see they appreciate it. You can see the bliss in both their faces. This deck is still new to me so we’ve been slowly getting acquainted, but what I love most about this version of The Lovers is that every time I pull it, it reminds me how to see myself as someone I love, as someone who is loved.
There are no straight paths to fullness and becoming. There’s making the commitment to do the work and being brave enough to face the trial and errors every day. A lot of trusting, unlearning, and relearning. A lot of resting – a lot of us who developed our work habits as a way to cope with extraordinary stresses, resting is the biggest self-love challenge to unlock. I’ve learned that oftentimes, though, it’s in our restful states that new patterns take root more firmly in the present.
As The Lovers keep teaching us, it takes time and space to re-harmonize the layers and intersections of your selfhood. It also helps to remember that our ability to make decisions is one of our most powerful tools.
Choose to be kind to you.
Dhiyanah Hassan is an artist and writer whose works investigate the importance of personal narratives, particularly in the context of healing. She lives in Malaysia and is the Art Editor of Burning House Press. Find out more about her and her works on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.