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Reality-TV Mediums Healed Me After a Breakup

How Hollywood Medium and Long Island Medium taught me about connecting with the dead — and the living.

a medium colored in pinks and purples with her hands grasping the sides of her face a tarot card in each corner
Illustration by Chau Luong

“You’re emotionally damaged,” Cher tells me. I nod, and a nervous smile runs across my face. Cher is a psychic. She’s not vetted by anyone I know, but I’ve passed her storefront, just a few blocks from my apartment, hundreds of times. I went in blind, looking for a way to write this essay. I had been thinking a lot about spiritualism — specifically the kind that I’d seen on reality TV — and I thought that once I left her tiny shop, I would know exactly what to say about why we seek answers from clairvoyants.

Cher’s tarot reading rips me apart. My root chakra is blocked, she says. I have no emotions, no way to let people in. My love chakra is split in two. I have no luck in love (she says this a few times). I had a troubled childhood.

“Right or wrong?” she asks me over and over again.

“I’m not sure,” I tell her each time, wanting to find some meaning in the brutal statements she’s throwing at me. Despite my reluctance and my feeling that most of her reading is generic, Cher finds plenty of reasons why I should enlist her help.

***

About a year before my visit with Cher, I lost a relationship.

“He’s dead to me,” I told my friend and repeated to myself probably every day for at least a month.

My boyfriend had broken up with me. I wasn’t sad. I was actually kind of relieved. I had been thinking a lot about what it means to be in a relationship when you’re 25, and then 26. One that you feel reluctant to label as “serious.” One that you can’t really see that far into the future. Despite knowing this and feeling this, I had settled into him.

I didn’t miss him, but I missed having company. I was angry because I recognized a certain kind of loneliness that feels impossible to remedy on your own. It was late June, and I saw the whole summer in front of me — endless, empty, restless days.

I began filling my nights with the show Hollywood Medium, in which clairvoyant Tyler Henry visits celebrities to give them messages from their dead loved ones.

In one of the first episodes I watch, he visits Bobby Brown. Tyler doesn’t recognize him. (The whole premise of the show is that he doesn’t know who he’s reading until he arrives at their door — “I didn’t even have a clue,” Tyler says about Bobby, which makes it all the more fun when Whitney Houston comes through just like any other soul.) He brings through Bobby’s father, who wants to acknowledge that he wishes he’d done things differently in life.

“Your dad’s way of showing his love was working,” Tyler explains, relaying Bobby’s father’s message. “I need my son to know how much I loved him because I wish I would have said that more in life.”

Tyler’s readings often go this way — someone who has passed offers a resolution to something they regret or sends a message of approval of the life you are living now. In the same episode, Eva Longoria’s Aunt Elsa comes through, showing appreciation that the family is still using her recipes (even though Elsa knows they lost the tamale recipe because nobody wrote it down). “For her, it represents that she’s still remembered,” Tyler says.

Watching these celebrities feel connected to their loved ones numbed my breakup rage. The feelings and experiences they had with those who have passed were powerful. I’d lost someone, too, but I went about my days as if he’d never existed at all.

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***

Cher tells me that I have three spirits blocking my third eye. They are taking energy from me. I have so much potential in life, she says, but I can’t reach it in my current state. For $600, she can light three candles and find out the names of these spirits and what they want.

I hesitate. “Money passes through, but we only have one life,” she says. I nod at this, shrug. I won’t buy into her candle-lighting, but she’s made me feel as if I’ll waste away if I don’t do something. So I let her talk me into a three-day spiritual cleansing. If anything, it sounds like something I can write about.

She sends me home with crystals and oil to meditate over the weekend. I need to unblock my root chakra; the blockage is holding me back.

Sitting every night with oil on my third eye and crystals in my palms, I really try to believe as I participate in the ritual. But what had seemed like necessary research when I left her on Friday became a chore. The magic of Hollywood Medium is that it allows you to feel without even thinking about yourself. Meditating forces you inward; you have to be willing to go there on your own.

“You need to go deeper,” Cher tells me when I come back to see her on Monday. She has nothing new to share with me. “You need to do the work,” she says. “Keep meditating.”

I go home and throw out the oil.

***

As my breakup angst faded and my obsession with Hollywood Medium grew, I became equally enamored with Long Island Medium. Theresa Caputo, the medium at the show’s center, starts every reading with some variation of this statement: “This is about you knowing that there truly is more to life than just here in the physical world, and, more importantly, that your loved ones are still with you, just in a different way.” A message so common that anyone can relate, yet deeply resonant to the person receiving it.

In one episode, Theresa reads a woman who lost her older brother when he was a child and a gun he was playing with accidentally went off. “Do you have an issue with things being turned on in the house and funky things happening with your television?” Theresa asks. The woman confirms that the TV volume goes up every night while she and her family are asleep. Sometimes it gets so loud that it wakes her up. “Know that that’s your brother,” Theresa says.

“My brother was a prankster,” the woman says in a later interview. “There’s no way she could’ve known that.”

At this point in my reality-TV-medium obsession, I’m watching Long Island Medium every night. The catharsis I get from it becomes less about the specific readings and more about the power of human connection that comes through for each person. Everyone wants peace from the pain of loss, answers to unresolved questions.

“She wanted you to know …” Theresa will often start off her sentences like this. You can pretty much fill in the blank from there — whether this “she” wanted you to know how much she loved you, that she didn’t feel pain in her tragic death, that it’s OK that you weren’t by her side when she passed. What I learn from Theresa is that being a medium is about healing those same needs in all of us. “We cannot change what happened,” Theresa says at the end of one group reading, “But we can change tomorrow.”

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I feel this especially looking back on the Bobby Brown episode of Hollywood Medium.

“You’re amazing,” Bobby says to Tyler after he unknowingly brings through Whitney Houston and Bobbi Kristina Brown. When Bobby turns around a photo of his daughter, Tyler is taken aback, recognizing the girl in the image. “I’m in complete shock,” he says after the reading.

When I watch Bobby find harmony with the shortcomings of his life and relationships, his catharsis is my catharsis. After Tyler leaves, you can see the weight that’s lifted from Bobby. “He made me feel comfortable with going on with my life.” he says. “I’ve gotten some peace in my heart today.”

***

On our phone call, I don’t have a lot of questions for Theresa, but I talk with her anyway. I didn’t set up the call to ask about how she connects with the dead, or what she really feels when a spirit comes through. I’m not interested in debunking the work of mediums. But I’ve lost the direction of my essay, and am knowingly wasting time by researching the fake hands used in séances and the questionable beginnings of spiritualism; I feel strongly that Theresa will provide some guidance in figuring out what it is that I’m looking for.

I start by telling her about what I’m writing — how I started watching her show after a breakup and was moved by the power of others’ relationships. She tells me about soul bonds, and how even when we lose someone, we’re still connected. We talk about how people blame themselves and how messages from spirits can help you see things differently. It’s more about peace than closure, she explains.

I take in what she says, but it’s still not exactly what I’m looking for. What prompted me to watch her show wasn’t that someone had died. I tell her about the spirits that are supposedly blocking my energy. (I might just be sensitive to spirits, and that’s not necessarily a negative thing, Theresa explains.) I describe the meditations, how I had tried to connect within myself but had been distracted. Theresa tells me I’m being too hard on myself.

“What you are experiencing is, you’re losing something and, also in the same breath for you, searching for something that was missing,” she says. “By spirit rejuvenating our faith — and what I’m talking about is faith in yourself — for you, it’s witnessing [these messages and connections] and saying, ‘I deserve that. I wish I had that. How do I find that?’ That's all part of spiritual growth.”

Even though I didn’t need to grieve the end of my relationship, I knew what it represented for me. I had been single for much of my twenties, independent, and happy that way. But somewhere in that last relationship, I found meaning from creating a life with someone beyond myself. Watching people on Long Island Medium who already understood that, who had that and lost it, brought me a strange kind of comfort.

Theresa asks me if my grandmother has departed. I tell her both my grandmothers are still alive.

“Typically, when I see gardenias, that’s my symbol for a grandmother,” she explains.

I tell her that my grandfather had a landscaping business, that gardenias were the flowers he would always give to my grandmother. I have a feeling Theresa is trying to demonstrate something to me: that the power of the reading comes from you, and your connection to the spirit.

She asks me if I write poetry. I tell her I don’t, but I am a writer.

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“There was a poem,” she insists. “I just asked for validation from your grandfather. I said, ‘If there is something you can validate for her that you are watching over her. She’s just putting so much pressure on herself.”

I remember that I had written a poem for my grandfather’s funeral on behalf of all his grandchildren, and because I couldn’t be there.

“Sometimes you don’t connect it right away,” she laughs. “But just so you understand, when someone receives a message like that, there’s so much more to it. What your grandfather did was acknowledge not wanting you to feel bad about not being able to attend the service. He thanks you for what you did in memory of him.”

I’m sitting in a glass phone booth at my office; my nose is runny and my face is wet, but my voice is mostly steady. I thank her and end the call — we’ve already gone over our allotted twenty minutes, and she’s explained that she doesn’t do readings on press calls.

We hang up, and I take a minute before I stand. I’m not sure what I just experienced, but I feel calm and a little crazed at the same time. And perhaps that’s just what it is to find meaning in our connections.

Molly Elizalde is Lenny’s editorial and creative director. She’s still not sure if she believes in mediums.