Using psychedelics in recovery, part 2
My experience with ayahuasca and mushrooms
Trigger warning. I describe drug taking (and a bad experience doing so), and I recommend if that makes you feel queasy or unsure at all that you skip this series.
This is the second installment in a series about psychedelics in recovery that I’m writing because I used them. The first installment is here, and the third and fourth will be published over the next month or so. I solicited your thoughts on using psychedelics in recovery and your resources (you can still contribute if you haven’t here). I wrote the following essay before reading any of your input so I didn’t alter my opinion or experience based on what everyone else thinks.
This essay is about my experience using mushrooms in 2020-2022, and ayahuasca this year. There’s no value judgment or analysis in here about psychedelics in recovery or psychedelics in general or even much analysis of my experience. The next two essays will be about (1) everyone else’s thoughts/experiences with psychedelics and shared resources and (2) my own sense-making of using psychedelics in recovery (i.e., analysis: how it’s impacted my sobriety and recovery, how my ideas around what sobriety is have changed because of it) w/ some answers to the questions you submitted via the survey.
I am not an expert on psychedelics or on the use of psychedelics in and for recovery. This piece is not meant to fully capture the complexities of psychedelic medicine, the psychedelic renaissance, or any of the many different issues and tangents that could be explored at the intersection of addiction recovery and drug taking (ceremonial, therapeutic, recreational). I am writing only about how I came to use these compounds, and what that experience was like as a person in recovery.
This is very long. 6,000 words.
I wrote extensively in 2017 about how I considered psychedelics in the first five years of my recovery in this piece, and it’s a pretty good snapshot of that whole process — there were times (in early recovery) when I struggled deeply (with depression, trauma, other addictions) and could have benefited from the use of psychedelics, but I didn’t, and by the time I decided to try them in 2017 it wasn’t in order to feel better or heal, it was so I could experience an altered state. (Or, as I put it in that essay, so I could get fucked up). I stopped considering taking psychedelics in 2017 because it felt dangerous and slippery-sloped, compromised my career, and — most importantly — felt like it compromised my recovery.
I started to reconsider using psychedelics in late 2019, around the time I was finishing Quit Like a Woman, and only because I was so miserable during that whole process — sleeping less than 4 hours a night and almost constantly working and under an extreme amount of (increasing, unrelenting) pressure, living in a place I didn’t like (NYC), with no real community or personal support structure, with no release valve in sight. There was a heaviness I couldn’t get out from under, none of my coping or healing strategies were working, and psychopharmaceuticals (anti-depressants) were off the table for me (I used them in my early twenties, and found them destabilizing over long periods of use). My options were to keep on doing what I was doing and hope for it to pass (which is actually a fine approach that’s worked plenty for me), or consider some more intense interventions. The only thing I did at this point was discuss it with therapist friends, recovery friends, and an MD who referred patients to similar underground treatments (ketamine, MDMA, psilocybin, and ayahuasca). I didn’t get serious about trying psychedelics (specifically psychedelic-assisted therapy) until early 2020, and only because the experience of publishing my book (as in, the exposure and cruelty I experienced) destroyed my mental health.
It’s also important to mention that just like everyone else, reading How To Change Your Mind had an influence on me and made me far more likely to try psychedelics.
In early 2020, during my book tour, I had a consult in the Upper East Side of New York City with an older white man we’ll call Dan whom I’d been referred to by a psychiatrist. He was a self-identified ‘medicine man’ who had inherited an altar1. He also had a lot of official-looking paraphernalia like bird wings, beads, drums, and wooden sculptures of deities, and owned many queer books. Sitting on the floor on zafus atop a tapestry that looked like my college dorm wall-hanging, facing each other, he explained to me that for $800 he would procure a large dose of psilocybin, pulverize it into apple sauce, feed it to me, and sit with me for the 8 to 10 hours I’d be tripping, acting as my guide and also performing different types of ceremonial rite to influence my process.
Honestly, people like him weren’t easy to come by back then, so I wasn’t that discriminating, but also no significant red flags came up for me2. We planned the session for March 21st, 2020, or the spring equinox, or the day I learned to bake an apple pie from scratch instead because of covid.
We ended up rescheduling my session for September 25th, 2020, or the fall equinox.
It was still, obviously, the pandemic when I went to this asshat’s psychedelic pied-à-terre in the UES that September, though when I got there he wasn’t an asshat yet, just a slightly problematic old gay man who seemed safe enough to trust my brain with.
It was a Saturday. I drove down to the city in my car, checked into a hotel in Brooklyn, and then cabbed over to his place in grey sweatpants and a t-shirt that said Aquarius. We went over a few details, and he asked me what my intention was (“To purge the toxic black snake of energy inside of me that has its teeth sunk into my diaphragm”, I’d said), I laid down on a mat, I ate 2 grams of the apple sauce concoction, put on some eye shades, and he did his shaman stuff (chanted, made music, moved feathers over my body).
Thirty minutes in, feeling I’m not sure what but definitely not great, he stirred me to give me the second dose, 2 grams more. I want to say I didn’t really feel that I needed to take it — that there was a moment of hesitation — but I’d committed to go all the way so I did. It was some duration of time after, maybe a few minutes, maybe more, that I started to freak out.
Not that you need to be reminded, but this is the recounting of a deeply altered (and troubled) state from years later, and I couldn’t have told you much right after it let alone 1,000 days later, so take this all with a grain of salt: But what happened then was that the elevator inside of me that corporeally plummets in depression didn’t just plummet to my nethers, but free-fell into some kind of bleak eternal abyss, taking with it all of my faith, meaning, and reason for existing, and I experienced the coldest and loneliest dread I’d ever experienced. To say this was the worst feeling I have ever felt could be accurate.
When I told him that something was very wrong and what it felt like and that I couldn’t imagine surviving the next few hours, and asked to hold his hand, he said something disinterested people say and then he sighed the kind of sigh that indicated he did not want to be dealing with this shit and let me hold his passive hand and that’s when I knew for sure I was going to absolutely lose my mind and never regain my sanity and be stuck in a perpetual self-contained hell for all eternity.
From there it didn’t get much better. Over the next six or so hours I mostly rocked back and forth on my hands and knees vomiting in a metal mixing bowl, groaning and animal, while curtains of molten lava ran down the front of my vision. I thought I’d at least get a glimpse of god or infinity or even something cool like a demon but instead I got the sense that there was nothing there at all — no afterlife, no greater consciousness, no unity, no love, no god, no magic. Just a vast empty flatland with no meaning or purpose, that we’re all trapped in.
At one point I told him I thought I’d find god but instead I was losing my mind and he said something about how that was a good sign, how seeing god should melt your mind, which was the only reassuring thing he said the entire time. At another point, I asked him if I’d be able to sleep ever again and he said yes undoubtedly because I was an “exhausting” person, which he said in a way that made clear I was the most tiresome and tedious person he had ever met and betrayed his general dislike of me and our situation and his eagerness to escape it.
We’d started at 10 a.m. that morning, and he’d confirmed multiple times that he’d be with me to the bitter end. But at 4 p.m. — when I was still vomiting and very much out of my goddamn fucking mind — he asked how I was getting home. “Uber”, I’d said between spitting bile in the little metal bowl, and it was clear as I said it he was done with the whole thing, and that I’d soon be cast out into the larger world tripping balls.
I vaguely remember that around five p.m. he performed some closing ceremony, that I then went to the bathroom, and that when I came out the curtains were drawn and my shaman was changed into street clothes: trainers, slacks, an oxford shirt, all very crisp. He told me he had to go to dinner and I told him I was still too on drugs to go anywhere and he told me I’d be fine. I changed my clothes, called an Uber, and realized that I was about to be running around New York City on very much drugs holding a plastic bag for my throw-up which gave me a feeling akin to having twenty panic attacks at once. He walked me downstairs and helped me get into the car, and then I watched him walk to dinner. I know this part didn’t happen but in my memory of this moment I see him whistling like Steamboat Willie as he goes.