Psychics Aren’t Therapy — But They Can be Therapeutic

Fortune-tellers are an essential service for many, especially in troubled times.

Astrologer Joyce Van Horn might have predicted the novel coronavirus pandemic — in vague terms, at least. “First it will cause a massive separation, but then it will cause a co-joining,” Van Horn says, explaining that she and others in her field saw that a major global event was on the horizon.

But forecasting global catastrophes isn’t necessarily in Van Horn’s wheelhouse. She’s an evolutionary astrologer, someone who reads birth charts for individual souls. And she’s one of many “psychics” in San Francisco, a blanket term used by a 2003 city law to categorize astrologers, along with numerologists, tarot card readers, fortune-tellers, seers, and other such metaphysical practitioners.

In San Francisco, psychics are revered by young startup CEOs seeking their spiritual business acumen, or sought out by believers needing advice about love, family, or their personal crossroads. In troubling times, such as a global pandemic, they can offer comfort in the form of  mystic wisdom, or provide tools to help their clients cope with the chaos. Some recognize how the relationship between psychics and their clients can mimic that of therapists and their patients — though they aren’t the same. 

That’s what Chris Branson realized when he spoke to Van Horn for the first time. Six years ago, Branson found out his girlfriend, who lived in San Diego, was pregnant.

“She planned on moving to San Francisco,” Branson says. The promise of a child conjured a vision of their shared future, and motivated his girlfriend to make the move so they could be together. 

But just a few weeks before she was set to arrive, the couple found out some troubling news. “She wasn’t able to keep the baby,” Branson says.

Confused, Branson went to Van Horn looking for hope — a reason to why things were happening. Van Horn read Branson’s birth chart and used a deck of cards to provide some clues. “From what I’m seeing,” Van Horn told him, “this is setting you up for the life you really want.” 

And that was true, as far as Branson is concerned.

“We got married, and we had a family,” he says. But it wasn’t just the prediction that reassured Branson. The conversation itself helped him walk away from the session feeling more confident in his and his partner’s future together. “I didn’t see it at the time that it was part of a bigger picture.” Years later, while raising a family in Maui with his wife, he would see it as a turning point.

Happy, Safe, Secure

Nicki Bonfilio, a clairvoyant and clairaudient intuitive counselor, hasn’t bought into the Zoom frenzy.

“There’s that barrier of electricity,” says Bonfilio. She’d rather her clients look into themselves, rather than their mirrored image on a laptop screen. That’s why all her pandemic sessions have been conducted over the phone, where she teaches her clients an internal calming monologue.

“What I’ve been guiding clients through is just to ask some simple questions within themselves, and to create an internal practice,” Bonfilio says, “which is about telling themselves, ‘I am happy, I am safe, I am secure.’” 

It’s particularly useful as she’s seen a “spike in anxiety and fear” in her clients, especially from those who are concerned about the health of their loved ones. Bonfilio says she can see or hear things the average human eye might not. For example, she might be able to tell that you’ve been eating too much sugar, or that you need to reduce your screen-time, or that you’re in need of some fresh air. Once, she saw that her friend had a brain tumor after he fainted. That prediction was what encouraged her to abandon her previous profession — accounting — to become a full-time psychic. 

But Bonfilio’s gift is most useful when combined with the techniques she’s learned from other jobs. “I was very much in the birthing community at one point,” Bonfilio says. “I’m actually a certified labor and birth coach, or a certified doula.”

One of her long-time clients, Courtney Wilson, believes that Bonfilio’s breathwork (along with meditation classes and a holistic chiropractor) helped her survive April. 

“After I do it for ten minutes, I’m way more grounded,” Wilson says. “And I just don’t have that anxiety.”

Wilson started seeking out psychics after she moved to San Francisco from the Midwest, in Des Moines, Iowa. “I grew up Catholic, so it was always super strict, and there were all these rules,” Wilson says. “And I just knew in my gut that there was more out there — a bigger universe, a bigger spiritual realm.” 

She went to an astrologer and a medium, but none of them were as good, or as accurate, as Bonfilio, who she found on Yelp. That was ten years ago, and she’s been seeing Bonfilio four times a year ever since.

“She’s like this big sister. She makes you feel that way,” Wilson says. “Going to her, I ask her questions, she tells me where her intuition lies, how she feels about things, and then I feel better.”

Wanugee Kanagaki of Golden Dragon Fortunes has experienced a similar relationship with his 600 clients. Wanugee, who prefers to be addressed by his first name, is a fortune teller who uses mahjong tiles to discern energies. 

For Wanugee, it’s more about appearing as a friend or a trusted confidant — perhaps that’s the therapeutic aspect people pick up on: You can share your worries and hopes with a person, and they’ll listen, and try to offer some guidance. 

He emphasizes that he isn’t a licensed therapist. His clients are rarely ever deciding between seeing him or a trained mental health provider. 

“I try to help my clients when I can,” Wanugee says. “Some people are adapting with the shelter-in-place. Some people deal with it well. Some people don’t.”

Recently, one of Wanugee’s clients struggled with social isolation. “All her roommates went back home and she was all by herself,” Wanugee says. “She was in a bad place. I gave her a reading, and offered her some tools.”

These tools are available for free on his YouTube channel, where Wanugee sits in front of a green screen upon which he superimposes a looping video of a sunset-painted lake. On his right is a pillow stitched with the words “I Love You.”

“Welcome seekers,” he says, raising his hands as geese float in the recorded water behind him.

Therapeutic, Not Therapy

“There’s no reason why you can’t continue seeing your astrologer or fortune-teller,” Dr. Davina Kotulski, a clinical psychologist — and former client of Van Horn’s — says. “But if you have a mental health concern, you should go see a therapist.”

Dr. Kotulski herself is a believer in astrology and numerology, and Van Horn’s services have been life-changing for her. But there is still a necessary disclaimer to be made. If you’re struggling with mental health and addiction, Dr. Kotulski says you should see a licensed therapist — a mental health provider who’s trained specifically for this purpose.

“Something can be helpful, but it doesn’t mean it’s curative,” Kotulski says. Massages can be rejunative, but they’re not the same as physical therapy.

Psychics and therapists may have similar goals — to improve the well-being of their clients. But they serve different functions, and psychics won’t be covered by your health insurance. (And they can get pretty pricey: Wanugee’s individual readings range from $77 to $149; Bonfilio charges $210 an hour; and Van Horn is currently working on a sliding scale during the pandemic, though her rate is normally $200 an hour.)

However, there are people who blend the practices. Berkeley-based Dr. Greg Bogart is one of them.

“I became an astrologer at age 23, and did that for a number of years, but realized I needed more training to be able to do more emotional process work, to understand family issues, to understand development stages,” Dr. Bogart says. “Becoming a therapist gave me a whole new set of tools to make astrology beneficial.” Sometimes he practices therapy and astrology as separate entities, other times, he blends the practices, depending on what the client wants.

He rejects the term “psychic” for astrologers, despite San Francisco’s umbrella categorization. Astrology, specifically, is about finding life patterns on birth charts to “identify present and current issues, recurring themes and relationship and career challenges.”

That might offer reassurance and guidance — explanations to why transformative events are happening, or illuminations on pivotal pathways. 

But Dr. Kotulski wants everyone to know to be on guard when seeking answers.

“If you work with healers of any kind — be they therapists, psychics, or astrologists — make sure that they have your best interests in mind. There are predators out there,” Dr. Kotulski says. She cites an example from a client, who had $6,000 extorted from them after they saw a “psychic” who told them they had been a horrible person in a past life, and now had to pay the price. 

“If someone’s trying to scare you into working with them,” Dr. Kotulski says. “that’s a predator.” 

Wanugee also warns against those who try to frighten emotionally vulnerable people. “There’s a neon sign in every neighborhood,” Wanugee says. But if the psychics behind them are asking for large sums of money to break a curse, they might not have your best interest in mind.

A Pandemic Prediction

“Aquarius is a wild card,” Van Horn says. That’s the sign that Saturn is currently in.

“Saturn is saying it’s time to mature into a new — this is the Aquarius part — a new way of collectively building something together that will support us as a worldwide community,” Van Horn continues. 

And if Aquarius is the sign of technology, and Saturn is the planet of innovation, then perhaps this means it’s time to get creative with connecting while social distancing. 

“Aquarius is saying this is a collective. We’re in a pandemic, we’re in this together. What is the truth?” Van Horn says. “How do we liberate ourselves from saying other cultures are wrong?” She warns against ethnic or religious discrimination.

That’s what Van Horn has seen in the stars. At ground level, she’s noticed that the pandemic might have forced everyone into a mental reset. “People are starting to recognize it’s more about family, and more about connection, and it’s less about stuff, it’s less about impressing people,” Van Horn says. 

Bonfilio, on the other hand, has noticed an environmental reset. Two years ago, she remembered feeling like the city was getting more and more congested. There were more buildings, more traffic, and more tech companies.

“I remember recalling back then, that things were going to need to change drastically in San Francisco in order for there to be more harmony and balance and more ease, more peace,” Bonfilio says. “because things were getting way too aggressive.” 

But just recently, Bonfilio’s friend spotted a whale in the Bay, a sign that Bonfilio interpreted as nature returning to spaces where humans use to windsurf or travel.

“We’re all just little specks here on the earth. We’re just one person on the earth with billions of people and so many other natural animals, fish, birds, bees, trees, everything,” Bonfilio says. “With humans mostly inside and sheltered in place, it’s given a chance for the earth to come back into balance.” 

Now the challenge is to keep it that way, even after the shelter-in-place is lifted.

“Be afraid,” Van Horn says. “But don’t get paralyzed by the fear.”

Freedom of Choice

Astrology is a practice that a lot of people don’t believe in, Van Horn says. The same can be said of fortunetelling or clairvoyance. Skeptics like to poke holes in their practices, citing vague predictions or personality measures as tricks psychics use to fool naive participants. 

But believers have found solace in looking for celestial or otherworldly guidance. “I think what a lot of psychics and fortune-tellers can do [is] help you see things that are coming up and possibilities,” Dr. Kotulski says. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have free choice and you can’t change some of the things that can happen. You always have free choice.”

The goal of a psychic’s prediction isn’t to prescribe, it’s to guide. They may not be able to help their clients work through cognitive distortions or substance abuse disorders — that is work for trained mental health providers. But they can certainly provide some comfort in times of trouble.

“It’s like ‘Hey, there’s a divine plan going on,’” says Branson, who was raised in a religious household and finds some similarities between the way one feels walking out of a session with a psychic and heading home after church. “It’s not saying this is going to happen or that’s going to happen. It’s about getting better insight and clarity, so you can make decisions.”

For some, it’s about finding hope. For others, it’s about talking to a friend. 

“She knows so much about my family. She knows so much about the things I’ve been through. No one’s seen my growth like her,” Wilson says of Bonfilio. “Going to a therapist, I would have to start all over.”

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter at @gracezhali.

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