Meet Joey Garcia
SN&R’s advice columnist celebrates 20 years with the paper—and shares the heartaches and lessons that led her here
I was minding my own business when I was interrupted by a phone call inviting me to mind yours. It was autumn 1996. I was on a sabbatical, studying the healing practices and spiritual beliefs of my Mayan, African, Welsh-Scottish and Honduran ancestors when Melinda Welsh, then-editor of SN&R, called to say she wanted to add a new column to the paper.
“I could write about city politics,” I said. Melinda and I had met briefly nearly a decade earlier while working on a county supervisor’s campaign, although we hadn’t kept in touch.
“No, an advice column like Dear Abby,” she said.
Initially, I balked at the idea. I didn’t want to give anyone advice, especially not about relationships, and told her so. SN&R had recently published my essay about being raped while attending community college. The essay had been well-received, and inspired community conversations about the prevalence of sexual assault, but the next week when Melinda called again, I still said no to the column.
Eventually I would say yes and write Ask Joey—an endeavor that’s taken me on a decades-long journey (so far) of questions, answers and lessons learned. A journey I celebrate this month with a 20-year milestone.
But, a few weeks later when she called for a third time, I said no again and explained that I didn’t think I was very good at relationships. I didn’t say why—the reasons were deeply personal.
I was a bright and creative child, deeply connected to the natural world. The summer after second grade I attended an entomology course for high school students at a Catholic school in Oakland. And, yes, I thought I might grow up to be an entomologist. But by age 8, I also had a thriving neighborhood business, hiring myself out as a priestess.
Years earlier, when I was in kindergarten, my maternal grandmother visited from Belize. In the evening, she would lift me into a bathtub filled with Mr. Bubble and tell stories about women who came before her in our family, women who had been healers, herbalists, midwives and bush doctors in Belize.
“Recuerda, JoCarol,” she would say, calling me by my given name, “Remember you are a Mayan priestess.”
When I told my dad, he laughed and said, “She probably meant Mayan princess.” But I was smart and had read fairy tales. Princesses didn’t heal people or do rituals beneath a full moon. I trusted my grandmother.
I also knew from experience that a priest’s job was to serve the community. When we first arrived in the Bay Area from Belize, my parents worked at St. Bede Catholic Church in Hayward. My dad was the maintenance man, my mom cooked and cleaned for the priests. My dad soon found a job in construction and quit working at the parish. But my mother, a Catholic, continued, so I was able to observe how priests really lived, worked and prayed. I had no doubt I could also celebrate baptisms and weddings, and I liked the idea of following in the footsteps of my great-grandmothers. I knew priests earned income for their work and so did my grandmothers, so I posted fliers around the neighborhood advertising baptism parties for cats, dogs, rabbits and frogs.
For 75 cents per party, I provided one Polaroid photo, plus snacks: Kool-Aid and a Jiffy cake for kids and a small cake made from a can of cat food for our pets. My parties became so popular I hired an altar boy to help me.
One Saturday, my assistant left home wearing vestments. No Mass was scheduled. Suspicious, his mother, a Roman Catholic, followed him into my backyard and saw me baptizing a yowling kitten, surrounded by neighborhood kids.
“Witch! Blasphemer! You’re going to hell!” she yelled. Kids and pets spilled in every direction.
I didn’t know what a “blasphemer” was, but it sounded bad. I did know hell was for sinners because that’s what my religion teacher taught my second grade class the previous school year. She walked between our desks holding a picture depicting hell—people writhing helter-skelter, their eyes bulging, mouths sucking air and, in one corner, a blood-drenched Satan. The picture scared me, but I wasn’t scared of the altar boy’s mother because she was often annoyed about something in our neighborhood. Plus, my parents knew about my enterprise and didn’t care. They had seen much stranger things in Belize, where people still believed in shape-shifters, trolls, La Llorona and in blending Christianity with practices from Mayan or African religions. To my parents, a little girl blessing her friend’s pets was acceptable. But that evening a priest visited my parents to insist I stop performing the rituals.
“Your neighbor says Jo is a bad influence on the other children. Jo must stop. You never know where this kind of pagan thing might lead.”
“She’s not hurting anything by praying with the moon,” my dad said.
“Daddy, I’m not—“
“The moon?” The priest swiveled to stare at me. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said. My voice scraped against my throat like it was caught in a trap. “I don’t pray to the moon. I pray to God. I set a magical circle with pumpkin seeds. I dance and make wishes and say ’thank you.’”
“Who taught you to do this?”
I didn’t want to get my grandmother in trouble, so I took responsibility. “No one,” I said.
“You must promise to never perform a priest’s sacred rites again and never, never to worship the moon,” he said.
Devastated, I said nothing.The soul vs. the body
Over the following months, my body spoke my mind through a 2-inch growth spurt. Already tall for my age, I wondered whether my soul was trying to hurl me to adult height so I could literally stand up for myself. Instead, my spine curved: scoliosis. For the next six years, I wore a neck-to-thigh brace, 23 hours a day. The brace chafed and etched welts across my torso.
By my sophomore year of high school, I only had to wear the brace at night. On Thanksgiving Day, I was celebrating with family members when a relative asked why I hadn’t raked the front yard. “I forgot,” I said. It was true, but he didn’t believe me.
He punched me until my jaw, lips and tongue were so swollen, I couldn’t eat. No one stepped in to stop him. Blood streaking my face, I was sent outside to rake leaves. A neighbor who saw me turned away, saying she didn’t want to get involved.
It wasn’t the first time this person had lost his temper and hit someone. He had punched me previously, too. After Thanksgiving break, I reported the incident to a nun at my Catholic high school. She told me if I had raked the leaves, what happened to me would not have happened. In despair, longing for a rescue that appeared impossible, I swallowed an oversized bottle of generic aspirin. When I puked it out, I figured I was so screwed up I couldn’t even kill myself. I was 15 years old.
After high school graduation, I worked two jobs, trying to earn enough money to move out. No one in my immigrant family ever left home except to be married or to join the military, so my parents were against my plans. My dad started charging me for rent, utilities and car insurance, intent on giving me a taste of how expensive life on my own would be. I couldn’t save enough to leave or keep up with classes, work and the circle of friends I so desperately needed. When a boyfriend raped me, I only told my best friend because I knew my parents would blame me. I flamed out of community college.
That fall I was accepted into California State University, Hayward. I wanted to major in English literature. My parents insisted on nursing or business, practical majors that they believed assured me a steady income. They enlisted relatives from across the globe to talk sense into me. An aunt who had moved to Korea for work cajoled me long-distance. An uncle living in Martinez chastised me. A cousin in Belize called to tell me to obey my parents. But I loved books and wanted to spend my life in their pages. Inwardly, I imagined I might become a novelist but was too scared to admit to that dream. On the day of the deadline, I dropped my business classes and registered for the ones I wanted: the Negritude Poets, Dante’s Inferno, Milton and the American Short Story. I didn’t tell my parents.
Secretly, I took a third job and opened a second bank account. I hid cash in an old coat, ripping the lining open like a scab and re-sewing it closed every payday. When an internship at a radio station turned into a job offer, I dropped out of college. The day I left home, my father yelled, “You’ll come back on your hands and knees, begging for forgiveness.” Instead, I became a reporter and anchor at a radio station in Livermore. I was not quite 20.
Then, in 1984, I moved to Sacramento to complete my bachelor’s degree. There, I ran for office and was elected vice-president of Associated Students Inc. Financially, I was scraping by with barely enough money for living expenses. Most months I didn’t save enough from my various part-time jobs and freelance work to cover tuition and books, so I’d charge them on my credit cards. I couldn’t apply for loans because my parents didn’t like the idea and wouldn’t provide the necessary paperwork. I lived alone in Midtown and when there was more month left than money, I would throw a potluck, save the leftovers and eat well for at least another week.
Despite the financial challenges, I was having the kind of college experience I’d seen in movies and read about in novels: fraternity formals, dating the quarterback and enjoying all-night conversations with good friends. On campus I hung out with professor Joe Serna during his office hours, and organized anti-nuke rallies. But after serving my ASI term, I dropped out again, this time to run a community relations campaign for a client of the public relations firm where I worked part-time.
The campaign ended with a job offer to be the company’s general manager of public relations. I accepted and moved to their New Jersey headquarters. Successful by society’s standards, I struggled privately, convinced I would fail. At the time, I didn’t connect these fears to my childhood trauma or my father’s curse.
When I returned to Sacramento, I married and settled into a suburban life. Watching television with my husband, I would suddenly black out—inexplicably triggered by something I had seen or heard—and come to on the floor, sobbing. I was back at Sac State to finish my degree and one night in class, I blacked out. After that, I sought help from a therapist who recognized my nightmares, irritability, anger, blacking out and other symptoms, and diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was the early 1990s, and there was little public information about PTSD. Frightened, I told no one, not even my husband.
Perhaps not surprisingly, in my wounded state, I felt compelled to help people I believed were suffering. After volunteering for various homeless programs, I was drawn to the Women’s Wisdom Project, a unique program that offered homeless women free classes in art and women’s spirituality. I was soon hired as an associate director, responsible for editing grants, fundraising, managing in-kind donations and co-teaching classes.
One morning in 1993, a poem about a goddess awakening startled me from sleep. Still in bed, I reached for my journal and copied it down. Intrigued, I began writing poetry. Susan Kelly DeWitt, an accomplished poet, was assistant director at Women’s Wisdom. I asked her for guidance. She directed me to the Sacramento Poetry Center’s Tuesday night workshop where I heard about Sacramento State professor Dennis Schmitz. I had already graduated but I went to his office anyway, poems in hand. For the next few years, he critiqued my poems, recommended books and anointed me with the words every writer wishes to hear: “You have the gift.”
What I didn’t know then was where this writing would eventually lead me.An anointment
Many of my poems explored the complicated experience of being a biracial immigrant from Belize raised in violence but also with yoga, natural healing practices like herbal and energy medicine, and the creative arts. Poetry helped me piece together the tattered edges of my heart.
Schmitz found my family stories fascinating and urged me to learn more about my ancestors. I did attempt some genealogical research but Belize is such a tiny country, and my family’s immigration was so recent, there was no information at that time related to me. A radical idea followed: quit my job and begin a sabbatical to learn the spiritual traditions and healing practices of my ancestors.
My great-grandmother had been a well-known herbalist in Belize, so I decided to follow her and learn to use plants as medicine. After a nine-month apprenticeship at an herb farm in Auburn, my home medicine cabinet was filled with salves, teas, essential oils and extracts. I knew I was on the right path, even though I didn’t know where my path might lead. More than anything, I wanted to heal myself.
When I was first diagnosed with scoliosis and before a brace was prescribed, my father enrolled me in a hatha yoga class, hoping to reverse my spine’s curve. I renewed my yoga practice, eventually becoming one of three yoga teachers in the Sacramento area at the time. Then, another unexpected call to adventure—my great-uncle in Belize invited me to visit so he and his best friend, Mayan healer Don Elijio Panti, could pass on Mayan energy techniques. I returned to Sacramento, taught workshops and took classes in other forms of energy medicine, eventually becoming a certified Reiki master. I immersed myself in the West African religion of Ifa, spending weekends in East Oakland learning how to read a person’s ori (head) and how to sing and dance for the orishas (deities).
I studied with a druid, read runes and memorized ancient Celtic poems. Searching for more opportunities to heal, I drove to San Francisco to take women’s spirituality classes from Starhawk and Luisah Teish at the California Institute for Integral Studies and courses in shamanism from anthropologist Michael Harner. I studied Zen Buddhism in the Bay Area and sat in meditation for five hours a day. I also began to see a spiritual director for guidance so I could weave each strand of my new narrative into a holistic sense of myself.
My spiritual director introduced me to a mystic named Byron Katie who specialized in weekend retreats that cleansed the body and mind. There was an immediate connection and Katie invited me to work for her. I began driving from Sacramento to her home in Barstow each month to work in the retreat center kitchen juicing piles of veggies for the seemingly endless stream of retreat guests at her center.
In exchange for room and board, I sat in on the retreats for free and received one-to-one training. I also worked at her other retreats in the Bay Area and hosted her at my Sacramento home, watching as her small gatherings grew until she filled auditoriums.
When she appeared at the Crest Theatre on a book tour, I was invited to introduce her. During the question-and-answer period, a man in the audience asked her for assistance with his struggles.
“Work with Joey,” Katie said. “She’s a laser.” I was floored—another anointing by someone I admired.
In 1997, I completed my spiritual genealogy project. With my director’s encouragement, I began the three-year spiritual director training and began to accompany seekers on their paths. I opened a healing center in downtown Sacramento and taught others. Every path transformed my trauma, restoring my sense of wholeness, belonging, individuality and clarity. Whatever I gained, I offered to others.
I was still writing poetry, had received some awards and publication as well as fellowships in Paris and Spoleto, Italy. Traveling solo suited me. So two years later, in 1999, I completed my marriage. My husband missed the woman he proposed to—an ambitious corporate executive. My desire was just as simple: I wanted to continue to follow my call into spirituality, healing and poetry. We filed for separation, sold our El Dorado Hills home and moved back to Sacramento. My soon-to-be ex suggested we rent homes around the corner from one another. We did. He borrowed my car, came by for herbal remedies and frequently requested dating advice. I tried, and failed, to convince him to let me have more of the art I had collected during our marriage,
A year or so later, his residence, and then mine, were sold. We moved on and are no longer in touch. I never found the right time to talk about my PTSD during our marriage, although I had confided in plenty of friends, therapists and healers. By the time I could explain it all to the man I had married, I was divorced, and it no longer mattered.
The fourth time Melinda Welsh called, she invited me to lunch. When she pitched the column, I accepted.
“I had a dream you were the person to write it,” she told me later.
I realized then she had unknowingly answered my childhood prayer for rescue. Prayers, once spoken, exist outside of human time, so are not always answered in the order received. By saying yes to Melinda, I ended up with more than a weekly column. Her invitation allowed my suffering and healing to serve a higher purpose: to ensure you know you are not alone. And because of the column, I know I am not alone. I have you.