Confessions of an Obligate Psychonaut

I’m a psychedelic survivor.

No, wait. I said that incorrectly.

I have survived because of psychedelics.

There, that’s better.

Now, people have varying opinions about this class of drug…and all drugs which are used by some for fun and recreation.

This is a big subject, and I hope to unpack it, but let me disclose my bias at the outset: Illegal psychedelic drugs saved my life.

True story. I’ll get into that in a minute. Settle in: it’s a long one.

The backstory of all of this, of course is Calvinism: the deep, inchoate Protestant fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Pleasure phobia is deeply baked into Western culture. It is hypocritical, of course, in countries awash in alcohol and caffeine, but there it is. We have demonized mind-altering substances, with only a couple of exceptions.

Fear mongering and indoctrination from an early age have frightened whole generations of people into a childish, reflexive fear of such substances which results in a number of dysfunctional responses, including an authority-flouting tendency among many young adults not only to use them, but to use them to excess and under dangerous circumstances.

Not to mention the criminalization of such usage and the wholesale railroading of millions of people–overwhelmingly people of color–into the criminal justice pipeline simply because they enjoy altering their perceptions in a manner not sanctioned by their societies. Mostly completely harmlessly.

The result of all this puritanical nonsense has in the end been complete and utter disaster, suffering and ignorance. Countless have been imprisoned, their lives ruined. Research into the beneficial uses of these substances has been choked to a tiny trickle for decades. Without study, there are only anecdotal reports and amateur research, little of which has any traction with the established canons of academia.

It has literally taken the aging of an entire generation of people who experienced psychedelics in their youth into “respectability” as doctors and scientists and litigators and legislators to mature our culture even to the point of considering that they might have some legitimate usages.

But that generational shift has happened, and now we have solid scientific evidence that drugs such as psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA have extraordinary potential for treating such conditions as PTSD and depression.

I have lived with crippling depression since elementary school, and the miserable, alternately abusive and indifferent household I grew up in—and the utter disconnect of the Baptist/Mormon foster homes thereafter—ensured that when I emerged on my own at 17 to move away and start working my way through college, I was a thorough psychological mess.

Ask anyone who knew me in my 20s. I was just…well. An offputting mix of screamingly insecure and too smart for his own good and absolutely unfamiliar with how to deal with others and flailing—flailing—to somehow come to a place of centeredness and calm. Manic, pompous, histrionic…a psychological disaster.

With a sweet heart down in there, somewhere. But under a lot of layers of pain, anger, reactivity, and bullshit. I was intermittently suicidal. I smoked like a chimney. I stepped suddenly into traffic, daring it to kill me.

I hated myself. I was on my way to dying young.

And then came MDMA.

It’s a long story, and a more personal one than I care to go into in detail. But the synopsis is what matters: a deep, loving relationship coupled with several experiences with Ecstasy over the period of two years completely changed me and my view of the world.

She was older than me by 11 years, and wise for her age. A grounded person, and deeply familiar with the emotional landscapes I floundered in. She was kind, and forgiving; creative and loving. There were things I offered (somehow) that she needed or wanted, and certainly who she was and what she offered were a desperately needed tonic to me.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. But it changed me forever.

Central to that change were the brief windows, six hours at a time, when the world was an exquisitely beautiful place, and I—like all of us—was a luminous, extraordinary being.

When I was on MDMA.

The marvelous thing about that experience is that after you come down, you don’t forget what you have seen. For a depressive, the ability to see the world and myself in this way was healing in a way I cannot possibly describe.

And this is the power of psychedelics. Once you have seen it, you cannot unsee it.

Now, many years later, a more whole and healthy person, I have very few opportunities and not much inclination to experiment with psychedelics. I may have done them three times in the past ten years.

But I remain permanently changed by them, and by the antidepressants I finally acquiesced to taking in the early 2000s. They, too, are psychoactive drugs, though not psychedelics. And so I call myself an obligate psychonaut: a person who depends on—indeed, cannot survive without— psychologically impactful drugs.

I do not make a moral distinction between these two classes of drugs. Indeed, I think it would be hypocrisy to do so. One was an acute intervention; the other is an ongoing support.

The result is that I am happy, functional, and the person my current friends know today.

Now.

When I created the Atheopagan Principles, there were a lot of reasons for #10: Pleasure Positivity. I believe that joy and happiness and pleasure are our birthrights: physical pleasure, emotional pleasure, intellectual pleasure, sexual pleasure. But specifically, I wanted to refuse the puritanical, joy-hating convention of the Overculture which rejects the value and legitimacy of experiences such as those we have on psychedelics.

I write all this to lay my cards on the table. I was saved by psychedelics, and I believe many others could be, too. I believe there is a deep kindness and a moral obligation for us to learn what we can about how best to deliver our fellow humans from the hells that our minds can create, and our abusers can arrange.

I support the legalization of psychedelic drugs. Yes, some will abuse them, but probably not any more than abuse them now, under the shadow of law enforcement.

And I wish—truly, I truly wish, so much—that every human on Earth could have the experience of MDMA in a loving setting. Just once.

It would change everything.


Image is “Shaman”, by Manzel

7 thoughts on “Confessions of an Obligate Psychonaut

  1. I’m glad you raised this subject. It’s still something of a taboo even in many Pagan circles. Speaking for myself, I didn’t find MDMA to be all that impressive or even agreeable. I remember sweating like a hog and being in a very spaced out dissociative state more akin to dementia than anything else. It actually snuffed out the empathy and personal connection its reputed to have. Of course the experiment was tainted by the fact that you never know for sure exactly what it is your consuming in a black market environment. It could have been some totally unrelated amphetamine analog.

    It could also just be the idiosyncracies of individual biology. Not everyone clicks the same way with every compount. I think Shulgin’s 2-C molecules would probably be a better fit for me. Psilocybin was certainly much more agreeable and useful, but my real breakthrough work came with Ayahuasca.

    I find psychedelics, as tools, are not simply mood elevators or pleasure enhancers. They can be, but they can also bring you to some very difficult places, and I think that is actually where some of the most transformative and healing experiences take place. What they can do is shatter the tunnel vision perspective of normal consciousness and the 10,000 little distractions and evasion techniques we use to get through life each day to avoid the quiet and difficult places within ourselves. Aya in particular is a teacher. She will bring you face to face with your own shadows and demons and traumas you stuffed deep down over the years, and you will deal with them that night whether you thought you were ready or not. She will not take you past your breaking point, but much closer to it than you ever imagined or wanted to go.

    This is where we have to lay aside binary notions of a “good” or “bad” trip. It’s simply the trip you needed to take. There will be moments of euphoria and frivolity. There will be many others of a far more difficult turn. Ayahuasca is death experience. There are parts of you that will be torn from your psyche as tumors from a body. They are the shadows of yourself. The dirty little entities of nihilism, self hatred and doubt, resentment etc. They do not go quietly. To an observer, it can look very much like an exorcism. It involves purging on many levels, including the most obvious. In 90% of cases, there will be vomit.

    This stuff ain’t recreational kids. It’s also not something which lends itself to abuse and it’s also not something a person should take by themselves. A trained shaman is worth every penny. I think of it almost as 10 years of psychotherapy in one night. It’s not a shortcut and it doesn’t do the work for you. You will continue to have insights for days and months and even years after the experience. Only you can do the work of accepting and integrating them.

    I think these drugs have enormous potential for depression and PTSD. I would be more wary of them in settings of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but it should all be subjected to proper study.

    As much as I think the science should be done, I also worry that we will lose much of their value in that process if we are not careful. These drugs and the healing rituals around them evolved for many centuries in indigenous cultures. The tendency in Western medicine is to isolate what we suppose is the one “active ingredient” and throw the rest away.

    I have very mixed feelings about that. We will see expanded access to potentially life saving therapies, but it foresee it becoming $5,000 treatment which your insurance company fights you on and which is administered by injection in some cold suburban outpatient clinic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think groups like MAPS are finding that set and setting–which can include ritual–are essential to the healing process with psychedelics. I agree that ritual is the best place, certainly for ayahuasca but for many others as well.

      It sounds to me as though you didn’t get real MDMA. I’ve never heard of an experience like yours, but again, neurobiology is as unique as a fingerprint.

      Have you had a change to try any of Shulgin’s 2-C drugs? I have had 2-CB and it was quite wonderful: it felt like a merger of MDMA (for the emotional opening) and LSD (for the visuals).

      Like

      • I also found 2-CB to be very positive. It was nicely energetic and uplifting, but not at all in an overbearing or speed like way. It just made for a really good upbeat evening of fireworks and a full moon. I don’t know that I consider even hallucinatory as much as an experience enhancer. It was not like OMFG I’m in a CGI universe or cartoon land. It was more the case of being able to deeply appreciate the patterns and movement and structures of my actual surroundings. It’s almost like being able to see through the eyes of a child again. The compound isn’t creating (or worse, falsifying) any data for me. It’s reopening the sensory channels we learn to shut down with age in order to survive a very linear and task oriented way of life.

        Liked by 1 person

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