What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?
My name is Bridget. I am an herbalist, a queer person of color, a femme, an Iranian-American, and a lot of other things.
How are you doing?
I’m doing a lot better than I was a year ago. Like many others, I was in a dark place post-election. This year has included challenges, deep sadnesses, and frustrations, but it’s also been tempered with hope, community, and feeling more held. I’m doing better.
Are there material shifts in your life you can trace to that change?
I am in healthier relationships now than I was in the past. I’ve come out more to my family and to the world. I’ve been ‘out’ to friends since I moved here five years ago, but it’s been a slow coming out process to other people in my family and to the public. That’s felt good. I also got a well-paying, nice job at a bakery, Sweet Adeline’s, two blocks down the street where I show up, do my easy job with nice people, and make good money. That made a huge difference for me. I was struggling to thrive on herbalism stuff and not making enough money.
How has coming out as a queer person been for you?
I’ve known I was queer for a long time. My dad’s family is in Iran, so I grew up with my mom’s family. Most of them are liberal-leaning democrat-types, but the patriarch and matriarch — my mom’s parents — are Trump-supporting assholes who love their family but no one outside of it. It’s strange to be a racially mixed person in that family, and also queer, and nobody knows it. I hear both homophobic things as well as blatantly racist and Islamophobic things people say while knowing I’m middle-eastern and my dad is Muslim. Because of that and because of my identity as a femme it was easy to pretend to be straight. I was in a relationship with a cis guy and people would leave me alone. But more and more I want to be authentic to myself and care less about what other people are gonna think, say, and do. I’m not going to be someone else for your benefit. It’s taken a long time to arrive at and to be honest with my family about how painful it’s been being a mixed Middle Eastern person in a group where everybody else was white and christian. It’s been hard and super devastating, but being on the other side of it, it was a good idea. Ultimately I want to have more authentic connections with people including family members. If they can get to a place where they understand who I am and want to still engage with me, great. If not, it’s not a worthwhile connection for me anymore.
How did you come to herbalism and what does that work look like in your life today?
I came to herbalism from a health crisis. A decade ago I developed Graves Disease, an overactive thyroid immune disorder. The ‘normal’ treatment is to get your thyroid irradiated. I was 20, getting stressed out with heart palpitations and other weird symptoms. I went to a specialist’s office and waited an hour and a half for my appointment. I got in and the doctor was looking down at her chart when she walked in the door and didn’t even make eye contact with me. She was like, okay you have Grave’s Disease, when would you like to schedule your radiation? I was like, whoa — step one is to destroy this organ that isn’t working with radioactivity — so badly I can’t touch people for three days? I was like, is there nothing else I could possibly do? She said no. I decided to go home and do some research, and started trying some plants instead. After a year of taking a formula with lemon balm, I have totally normal lab work and I have ever since. My other option would have been to destroy this organ that’s basically the conductor of your entire system. I would have had to take a pill to replace it for the rest of my life and if I didn’t, I would die.
After that I was student teaching and it was really challenging. I was 22, teaching 17 year-olds U.S. history at 7:30 in the morning their last semester of high school. There were 35 kids in my classes; there were kids in the class who couldn’t read in the same class with kids applying to Ivy League schools. I wanted to be a history teacher so I could change the world by making people think differently and showing them the truth. But all the kids I was taking care of were so ill all the time. They were getting coughs, colds, sore throats, stomach aches, and they were stressed and depressed. I realized I wanted to work at a different point in the line, and focus on more bodily and mind healing as opposed to political considerations.
I came out here with the plan of going to school at the California School of Herbal Studies. When I moved out here I was just like, oh I’ll just save up money for a little bit and then be able to pay for it. Then I got to the Bay Area and realized that’s a joke, no one saves money out here. So, I have a deathly pine nut allergy. I ate something from Berkeley Bowl with pine nuts in it that was improperly labeled and ended up almost dying. I was blue and practically unconscious and having seizures when I got to the hospital. I ended up suing Berkeley Bowl, which I was torn about at first because I didn’t want to fuck up a local company. Then I realized their insurance company in Kentucky was going to give me money, not them, and was like, okay. They gave me just enough money to pay to go to school immediately.
While I learned a lot about plants and met some of the most important people in my life at CSHS, the school itself sucked. It’s a bunch of white hippies appropriating indigenous, Asian, and other cultures, and not addressing it. It was horrible. It was hard being one of only two people of color in the whole class. When I was done I told myself I wouldn’t do a second year herbalism program unless it was in Oakland, in my price range, and taught by queer women of color. A year later, Ancestral Apothecary opened. I just finished my second year with them. It was the exact opposite of California School of Herbal Studies. Everything came from a place of — figure out what your ancestors did and cultivate that. Everybody has indigenous medicine in their line. You can share in that respectfully and not act like it’s yours.
These days I go out into the hills to harvest things, and have a little garden going here. I’m learning more about the plants my ancestors used. In terms of having it as a business, that’s been challenging. Since herbalists aren’t covered by insurance, all the successful herbalists I know charge around $200 to see them for the first time. That is way too much for the population I’m interested in serving. Instead I’ve been charging people sliding scale to $0, which I feel privileged to be able to do. I respect my teachers and other folks who are charging that much money because they deserve to be able to survive on what they make. For me, my partner makes a good amount of money and I don’t think it’s necessary for me to make that much. I would prefer to be able to serve people who are broke and need attention in that way and not make too much money off of it and work at a bakery three days a week.
The transition from teaching to herbalism is an interesting one, especially in the context of you always seeking to do political work. What do you think is important about supporting people in healing their minds and bodies, especially in a political context?
I want to assist my extended community in feeling the way they want to feel. That’s different than being healthy or ‘well’. There’s this big idea about wellness in the health community. Being ‘well’ is not reasonable for everyone; that’s a normative social construct. There are mad people, there are disabled people, and there are chronically ill people who are never going to fit into what other people determine to be well or healthy. That’s okay. Maybe I can help someone who is manic — they don’t want to stop being manic entirely, but maybe they want to feel less exhausted after a manic episode, or have their episodes to be more manageable, or feel less pain during that time. Whatever their personal goals are, I want to help people to achieve that without people needing to strive for some ridiculous idea of perfection. The more our community feels the way they want to feel, the more they’ll be able to do their work, whatever that is. If they feel better about getting out of bed if they want to, or working from bed if they want to do that. I want to be able to help people to feel more comfortable in themselves.
If there was an inverse of that doctor walking in the room staring at your chart, telling you what to do, then looking at you, that’s it. You’re coming in the room, looking at the person, and helping write that chart together.
Yeah. The first time I had a health practitioner sit with me for an hour was transformative. I’d never experienced that kind of care before. So much of the healing was just in somebody sitting with me and being like, the floor is yours. Letting people conduct and craft the path that we’re gonna go down, not hounding them for answers, not forcing certain things, but just being like okay, what do you need? A lot of it’s talk therapy, honestly. It’s holding space for people while they talk about their lives and what’s hard, what works and what doesn’t, what’s been hurting, and why they’re tired and how sick they are and how frustrating that is. I’ve considered going to school to be a therapist or social worker but in this country you can’t actually combine herbalism with either of those. I couldn’t see someone as a therapist and then prescribe herbs. I’d have to have two separate practices.
Wait, herbalism is regulated even though it’s not covered by insurance?
Yes. It sucks. So I recently decided I’m going to go to school for acupuncture, for a few reasons; one of them being acupuncture is the most covered by insurance of any alternative medicine in this country because there are the most western studies proving its efficacy. As an acupuncturist you can do whatever you want with a patient and bill it as acupuncture — talk therapy, herbs, massage, all kinds of modalities. You don’t have to stick people at all if they don’t want that. I see becoming an acupuncturist as a way to become more accessible. I also like acupuncture because the needling itself is a way to bring someone immediate pain relief, which can be important for people who are experiencing pain right now, as opposed to herbs which often take time.
As someone who moves through the world with a myriad of identities which I assume requires a lot of emotional labor and emotional self-protection all the time, what is it like for emotional labor to also be a huge element of your herbalism work?
There’s certain grounding techniques and practices I’ll do to protect myself from people’s energies who I’m working with. Sometimes I’ll wear certain plants or stones on my body or use flower essences like yarrow to make sure that I have a boundary but not a wall between myself and other people. The population I work with is often people who have been pierced with all these swords — who have been abused, broke, homeless. Hearing these stories can be heavy and I do have that inclination of wanting to fall into it and give them everything. Thankfully, since I was raised in a family of nurses including my mom, I tend to get calmer the more escalated something or someone tends to be. I can just be like, okay, you just gave me a long list of terrible things that have happened to you — let’s see what we can do.
What is the world you want to live in?
I think a lot about my family members who live in Iran. I started going there when I was 22 and it changed my life and perspective a hell of a lot. A lot in that culture is beautiful and I wish we had more of it here; and there’s certain things that are really restrictive because of the political and government situation. I know I already live in the world a lot of my ancestors wanted to live in. Even though there’s war and death, my little piece of the world is already what my ancestors wish they could have lived in and even what a lot of my family members would also want to live in if they had the space to think about it. I want the kind of world where more people could enjoy and appreciate the joy, freedom, and expansiveness I’ve been able to experience. Happiness, freedom, and expansiveness is everyone’s birthright. I want a world where I don’t have to get nervous about flying back and forth between Iran and the US and I can bring my partners with me, and that world doesn’t exist yet.
My dad’s country has been through so much war in his lifetime. Millions of people were gassed in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s; they lost so much of their population. Over here, we have a certain flavor of anxiety and depression — we feel like the world might end, but we’ve never actually seen it happen. Over there, the world has already ended, many times, and then it starts again. People keep going, people start over. I know there are folks for whom the world is ending or the world has ended already. The resilience that people have is incredible. I would love to see a world where the only kind of deaths and world-endings that we’re dealing with are the kind that are just about the life-death-life cycle that nature has, that people also deserve to have.
What do you see as your role in helping to build that world?
Being a healer is a part of that role — helping people who are in pain and being able to mitigate suffering. Bring down the pain, bring some grounding in. Another element of my role is expression, which is slowly coming along — writing, making art, and making music that expresses my perspective. Trying to reach out and connect with people in that way. One of my roles in this world is to honor my ancestors and do good by them. Like, hey, I’m alive, none of you are, so I should be doing good work, enjoying this, and honoring what you have done for me.
What are the things in your life that support you on the path you’re on to making that sustainable, and what are the things that feel like barriers?
There’s so many things that are necessary and helpful for that. Connecting with nature and water especially is really important. I grew up right on the water and it’s one of the most cleansing things for me. When I engage with it I feel renewed, like it helps to wash off other energies. Music, dancing, and being able to get out of my head and into my body is helpful. Engaging with other people with shared goals and experiences — carving out time to spend with other femmes of color because it’s uplifting and supportive to be together in that way.
This part is hard for me — but being okay with when I’m not actively doing anything, and trying not to guilt trip. Spending a day where I don’t do anything except play guitar and make myself some dinner, and being okay with that. That’s not me being lazy or not contributing to the cause, I do think there’s a mentality about having to be ‘on’ every day. That really doesn’t work for me. I get super burnt out. Then I really can’t do anything for a while.
I believe and identify as a witch and I believe in magic. And it’s all magic. Taking care of yourself is magic, taking care of other people is magic. Hanging out with plants is magic. We all deserve to have authentic experiences, and we don’t have to give that up to push forward politically. That is the end goal, that we can all just have authentic experiences with ourselves and others and not have to worry about it. We should get a taste of that now.
Are there people, books, plants, works, art, etc that are inspiring you and helping guide the path you’re on?
Rosemary has been my big star for the past couple years. Rosemary is about energetic protection and connecting, especially with feminine ancestors. I’ve called upon rosemary to protect myself from energies that are intrusive false authorities like cops, the law, all of that. She comes through from multiple of my ancestral lines — Italian and the Iranian side — so I feel her strongly. I love her a lot.
I believe in the dream world as a real place where a lot of my magic comes through. I want us all to be able to pay more attention to our dreams, which is a luxury a lot of people don’t have. When you wake up you cant just lay there and think about your dreams and consider them and take in their messages, you have to run to work. But dreams are important. I’ve had some of my most profound experiences in my life in that world. We all deserve to engage with that because a lot of messages from our ancestors, from earth, and from ourselves come through there — but we have to be able to listen. I’m inspired by the messages that come through in dreams and I like to listen to, hold space for, and honor that. I’m inspired by my grandma on my dad’s side who is a dream healer. I want to be just like her when I grow up.
Are there any other thoughts or feelings coming up in the course of this conversation that you want to share?
This is important work. This is my second interview in two weeks; prior to that I don’t think I’ve ever been interviewed before. The other interview was someone doing her thesis on queer American Iranians. It was empowering to talk about my experience and to hear about others’. We need to tell our stories to each other more. It’s easy to get bogged down by all the hard, sad things, and to get too tired and stressed out to engage, hear people’s stories, or to be vulnerable enough to share yours. But it feels good to do this. Every time I read someone else’s story on The World We Want to Live In or in general, it’s like wow, they’re doing such amazing things! But I’m sure when they’re alone they have the same kind of process as me, like they’re depressed and anxious and freaked out and don’t know if they’re doing anything right. Then they talk about what they’re doing, and it’s like, wow, that’s amazing actually. I hope we can all keep validating each other in that way.
Bridget Afsonna is a queer SWANA femme dream witch living on unceded Ohlone land. As an herbalist she is particularly focused on supporting queer, POC, formerly incarcerated, trans and gender-nonconforming, sex worker, indigenous, fat, neurodivergent, and low-income individuals. She does not believe in blaming people for their health statuses or circumstances, but acknowledges that our culture denies many kinds of people access to health and healthcare. She is interested in lifting queer people up with plants and magic so they can experience whatever they fancy. You can find her at bluewillowherbals.com. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.