Underground psychedelic therapy
December 14, 2018 9:18 AM Subscribe
Welcome to the trip of your life: the rise of underground LSD guides. "Some Americans searching for alternative paths to healing have turned to psychedelics. But how does one forge a career as a guide when the substances are illegal?"
Steve has cops in his family, so he doesn’t tell many people about his work as an underground psychedelic guide. The work takes up a significant amount of his time – around once a week, he’ll meet a client in their home or in a rented home, dose them with MDMA or hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms, and sit with them while they trip for up to 10 hours – but he doesn’t tell his siblings, parents or roommates about it, nor his fellow psychology PhD students.Going Underground: The resurgence in clinical trials into the effectiveness of LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin in treating depression and trauma has received widespread publicity. But outside the labs, regular people are taking psychedelic therapy into their own hands.
They would probably never guess, either: Steve doesn’t display any signs of involvement with a stigmatized counterculture that many Americans still associate with its flamboyant 1960s figureheads. He’s a bespectacled, soft-spoken former business school student who plays in a brass band and works part-time as an over-the-phone mental health counselor. After one glass of wine, he says: “Whoa, I’m feeling a little drunk.”
But if you probe, he might tell you about the time he took psilocybin and a “snake god” entered his body and left him convulsing on the floor for an hour. (The snake god was benevolent, he says, and the convulsing was cathartic, “a tremendous discharge of anxious energy”.)
In early October, Steve attended a Manhattan conference called Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics, which bills itself as the world’s “largest and longest-running annual gathering of the psychedelic community”. I went with my 51-year-old cousin, Temple, a relatively mainstream psychotherapist. She had come to learn more about psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which underground guides like Steve facilitate illegally. She hopes to incorporate this type of therapy into her practice if and when substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and ayahuasca become legal.
Like many attendees, Temple had recently read How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, a bestselling 2018 book by Michael Pollan. [Previously] It convinced her that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy “might really be the way of the future”.
The benefit of using a professional therapist is that they can safely guide the client toward a particular traumatic event, responding to whatever the client brings up. The therapist provides minimal intervention during the trip, because the hard work comes afterward. In the follow-up integration sessions—which are conducted without psychedelics—the client and therapist process what came up during the trip.The Psychedelic Resistance: We live our lives increasingly locked into screen time, distanced from nature and each other by modern capitalism and divisive politics. It’s no surprise that illegal use of psychedelics is on the rise.
But there are downsides for a patient seeking to use underground therapists. First, an individual needs to be well connected to even find one in the first place. Secondly, there’s the expense—picture a therapist’s hourly rate and apply that to an eight-hour session. It is also frowned upon by institutions. When I contacted the British Psychological Society and the American Psychological Association for their stance on DIY psychedelic use, the former commented that “the use of psychedelic drugs in psychological therapy is illegal,” while a spokesperson for the latter told me they “do not have an official stance on this.”
Many people, then, choose to go it alone, or with a friend as a kind of trip-sitter. They might get their information on doses and substances (or just read first-person accounts) from forums like Reddit, Bluelight, and Erowid, or from books such as Julian Vayne’s Getting Higher, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, and Stanislav Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious.
That’s exactly what Cameron, a consultant in London, does when he suffers burnout or has some kind of emotional problem that won’t shift. The 30-year-old had read about clinical trials in the media; now he looks up doses on forums and sets an intention. Sometimes he goes solo, sometimes he drops a dose with a friend. He’s used LSD and mushrooms, but for a breakup that had been bothering him for 18 months, he took MDMA. “I don’t usually come to any conclusion during the trip, but it tends to crystallize afterwards,” he told me. “In this instance, I was able to understand why my ex-girlfriend did what she did, and to empathize. Afterwards, I went from having no contact with her to us being quite close friends.”
“There is this deep, fundamental alienation that is driving people to seek different ways to reconnect to the natural world and give them a sense of community,” the American author J.P. Harpignies, an eco-activist with a long-standing interest in psychedelics, told me. He believes young people’s sense of disengagement today is “exacerbated by living so much of their lives online, constantly prodded with push alerts and interacting with the world via social media platforms engineered to extract as much of their attention as possible.” He argues, like Amber, that people are using psychedelics as a response to modern life. “Psychedelics are one of the vectors that a certain subgroup of people experiment with… to try to achieve more of a sense of wholeness.”The Burgeoning Psychedelics Movement Still Excludes Women and People of Color
We may not want to admit it, but the human race is becoming detached from reality. Our digital social environments are closing us off from the truth, from each other, and from the natural world in which we have struck camp. We are a species trapped by a series of brightly lit screens. So it can be no surprise that a new kind of claustrophobic anxiety, particularly among the young, is on the rise, or that people are stepping into altered states in order to feel real.
According to Reed, only two principal investigators across all of the 14 Phase III MDMA trial sites throughout North America and overseas are women of color. She also shared data on the racial demographics of participants from the 2016/2017 trials. White participants were over-represented at 76 percent, while comprising only about 60 percent of the US population (Asian participants were also over-represented). Black and Latinx participants were under-represented, each comprising only about 3 percent of the study population.Related thread: FDA grants breakthrough therapy designation to psilocybin
Reed offered several explanations for these disparities. “Of course there is a terrible history of folks in clinical research using black, brown and yellow bodies to experiment with,” she said. “There is a war on black, brown and poor people disguised as a War on Drugs that does not have people of color lining up at the door to be screened for this study. And in communities of color there is still stigma for seeking help for mental health ailments.”
Oriana Mayorga, director of community engagement for Psymposia.com and a psychedelic activist, shared her thoughts on harmful attitudes within the field. “What I’ve learned on my journey in the psychedelic community is that it’s very privileged,” she said. Not everyone has access to these medicines or will when they become legalized. I’m motivated to stay vigilant to make sure that the folks with power will ensure access for all. It’s critical we also prioritize social justice work, and create safe spaces for marginalized people, women, and survivors of sexual abuse and violence.”
Mayorga described a series she helped create for her platform called Psychedelic Sisters in Arms. “My peers and I wanted to help create an avenue where other women could share their personal stories of sexual violence in this community,” she said, “to demonstrate that we are in fact many. Many of the women I reached out to are friends or close acquaintances because this is a tight-knit community. This series is very personal to me and I’m committed to bringing justice for these survivors, even if it means simply providing a space for them to publish their personal stories.”*
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