Bleeding in the brain. With holes. That’s what psilocybin would do. Marijuana would make you accidentally shoot your friends. LSD would make you jump from light poles to run on broken legs until cops popped 19 bullets in your chest.
Scare tactics like these comprised my childhood introduction to psychedelics. Thank the War-On-Drugs “education” programs like D.A.R.E. and Just Say No for this rhetoric.
Yessir, drugs would kill you dead. Unless they didn’t. Instead, you might join the ranks of iconic artists like Jim Morrison, successful entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, famous scientists like Carl Sagan or spiritual guides from traditions the world over.
Destroy or enlighten. No in-between. That’s the mixed messaging I, and many others, received while growing up.
Nothing begs question more than a mixed messages.
And so, I first experimented with psychedelics when I was 18.
But why should you give a damn about some teenager’s trips? Because psychedelics are coming to your backyard. On May 7, Colorado will vote on an initiative to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies expects it will achieve FDA approval for medical MDMA by 2021. Oh, and, natural-occurring psychoactive plants have grown in the Southwest for millennia, perhaps even literally in your backyard.
Point is, the cultural and legal stigma surrounding psychedelics is on its way out. It’s time we started checking in.
What follows represents part one of a series that will explore the present and near future state of psychedelics in Arizona. As your guide, I feel it is important that you are privy to the context of my interest.
Night and Day
My first experience with psychedelics involved three close friends, a secluded desert campfire, music, stars and psilocybin mushrooms. This resulted in an evening of tear-stained elation followed by a lasting sense of general fulfillment.
Less than six months later, the same friends, expecting a night to rival the first, again mixed with psilocybin. However, we traded out desert for house, stars for a TV screen and music for a jacuzzi. This resulted in a wildfire of anxiety that nearly drove two of us to suicide before sunrise.
You could say I investigated mixed messages and found mixed feelings.
Though my second experience was far from fun, I was surprised to find I felt really good afterward. It was as if I had been up against a tidal wave of my most negative emotions and, having survived, could look out over placid waters once more. I felt healthier and lighter than the young man who nearly died the night before.
I was baffled. There seemed no explanation. All I knew was that suddenly, at 18, the two most polar and impactful experiences of my life shared the common denominator of psychedelics. I couldn’t understand how the same substance could elicit such wildly opposite psychic effects. Intrigued just slightly more than I was intimidated, I proceeded beyond fear for my health and reputation and continued to experiment with caution.
That was nearly a decade ago. In those years I had no community with which I could thoughtfully share my experience. Times have changed.
On the weekend of Feb. 8, the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe hosted Arizona’s first psychedelics conference. Advertised as a three-day “series of presentations, workshops and panel discussions” seeking to “examine the therapeutic potential of psychedelics…[and] the role of psychedelic drugs and plant medicines in science, medicine, culture and spirituality,” the conference hosted speakers ranging from therapists, medical practitioners and indigenous healers, to economists, artists and attorneys.
The Arizona Psychedelics Conference was a whirlwind of perspectives and motives. For every speaker’s thesis, there was an antithetical conclusion aired in the next room over. Unanimous was the agreement that psychedelics faced impending acceptance into the mainstream. Contentious was every other detail about how why, and by whose hand they should be ushered.
In order to organize what is otherwise a massively intersectional subject, we’ll approach it piece by piece. First, let’s talk about medicine.
Trauma and Psychotherapy
Most likely, the first legal psychedelics will ride in on the horse of medicine. Of the proposed medical uses of psychedelics, the most common is in treatment of psychological trauma, in particular post-traumatic stress disorder. Though most commonly associated with soldiers returning from war, PTSD can affect anyone. It is a disease defined not by its cause, but by its symptoms.
The National Institute of Mental Health has a rather odd laundry-list definition of PTSD. In order to receive a diagnosis, patients must display “at least one re-experiencing symptom [flashbacks, nightmares], at least one avoidance symptom [staying away from reminders of the traumatic event], at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms [being on edge, anger outbursts], and at least two cognition and mood symptoms [troubles with memory, distorted feelings]” over the course of one month.
Leading research on the efficacy of psychedelics in treatment of PTSD is the aforementioned Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. Operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research and education organization, MAPS is dedicated to supporting science, training therapists, and “educating the public honestly about the risks and benefits of psychedelics and marijuana.”
Currently, its highest priority is funding clinical trials of MDMA, the primary ingredient in street drugs like ecstasy and molly, as a tool to assist psychotherapists. Results from their recent clinical trials have shown “MDMA can reduce fear and defensiveness, enhance communication and introspection, and increase empathy and compassion, enhancing the therapeutic process for people suffering from PTSD.” MAPS is in the third and final phase of required testing before the FDA passes a decision on whether to legalize MDMA as a prescription medicine.
To understand a little more about how psychedelics like MDMA can assist in psychotherapy, I spoke with Saj Razvi, a clinical investigator in MAPS’ MDMA trials and Director of Education at Innate Path Psychedelic Psychotherapy.
“One of the key points to understand about stress and trauma is that they are fundamentally non-cognitive phenomena,” Razvi shares. “This is somewhat of a controversial statement because most models in psychotherapy are cognitive in nature, but what we’re learning from the field of neuroscience is that stressful, and traumatic experiences in particular, and their symptoms, are primarily housed in the more primitive, non-conscious, non-cognitive, and especially the non-verbal area of the mind, mainly in the autonomic nervous system.”
The autonomic nervous system is the part of every animal’s nervous system that controls the things they don’t think about. The ANS regulates your heartbeat, balances your body temperate, digests your food and even adjusts your eyes to the light. Anything automatic, below the level of thought, is governed by the ANS.
Normally, when an animal is threatened, the ANS activates the nervous system to respond properly. When the threat subsides, the animal can relax again. But researchers like Razvi are finding the ANS can remain activated in certain situatinos even after the threat has passed.
He uses the example of a zebra grazing. If a zebra catches a glimpse of a lion, it will immediately become more nervous. However, as the zebra realizes the lion is far away, stalking, but not an immediate threat, the zebra will relax slightly, while still staying on-guard. Being “on-guard” is an ANS trough.
“There’s a really good, adaptive, survival-based reason these troughs exist in the nervous system in the first place,” Razvi says. “When something happens, it’s much easier to react to a life or death situation. Calmness is a great state to be in, but it won’t serve you if you’re about to be attacked.”
However, it’s possible for the ANS to get stuck in an activated, on-guard state.
“These troughs are adaptive, and they are the source of the problem,” Razvi explains. When the ANS settles in an on-guard state, it can only leave the trough via “a rise in anxiety symptoms. This is the key point. There is going to be a rise in anxiety before there’s a much deeper calming that takes place. Things get worse before they get better. Keep this pattern in mind—it’s the key to how and why stress and trauma patterns can get locked inside of us for years.”
Trauma makes its entrance at the point of nervous system activation where fight or flight just won’t cut it.
“We hit an overwhelm point, we have a sense that we’re not going to make it [and] your body begins to shut down,” Razvi says. “In a traumatic experience, the ANS plummets into a kind of negative activation, and if the hopelessness is severe enough, into complete disassociation. Figure one maps the ANS as it moves through these various states, where zero is calm, one is being “on-guard,” two is flying or fighting, three is moderate trauma and four is complete, blank disassociation.”
Symptoms of PTSD can be understood as one’s nervous system stuck in one of these states. Thus, psychotherapists like Razvi aim to help people work backwards to zero.
“This is an organic process, but we tend to interrupt it because it can be uncomfortable,” he says. “If you’re starting from state four it means going to state three which is a movement out of blankness into feelings of hopelessness…its counter-intuitive, but moving from blankness to depression is actually a positive movement.”
Psychedelics apparently have the capacity to stir up the nervous system so that it can get unstuck. Razvi has worked extensively with MDMA and cannabis to this end, but he says it doesn’t make that much difference what you use.
“MDMA has its own chemical profile, its own experience. Psilocybin, same thing,” Razvi explains. “All these medicines have their unique things they do, and then there’s some overlap in what they do, which is to say that they all generate non-ordinary states in consciousness, and we think that that is the key thing we are making use of in mental health.”
Kate Hawke lives on acreage among the volcanic fields east of Sunset Crater. She has named the land Gateway Ranch. When the wind calms its whip from the west, one can hear the distant crash of the Little Colorado tumbling snowmelt over Grand Falls. To the north, Roden Crater makes a near neighbor while the Hopi mesas loom on the horizon. Further east stretches painted bands of Diné land. It’s a peaceful, clean landscape made smooth and stainless by black cinders.
It was among this beautiful landscape that Hawke had one of her formative experiences with trauma.
“I was hitchhiking out here on the interstate a long time ago,” Hawke says, “and ended up in the middle of nowhere with a guy lying on top of me with knife to my throat…”
“I was really scared but then…something shifted,” Hawke recalls. Despite her assailant’s threats of rape and murder, she remained calm.
“I just saw, there’s two people here. One of them is really in trouble.” Hawke decided it was the knife wielder. “I put my arms around his shoulders and patted him and said, ‘It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay,’ and that changed everything.”
Everything stopped. Where once there had been a man wild-eyed “talking crazy” was now a confused, hurt human.
“Then this whole story…he had been a POW in Vietnam for two and a half years, and the woman he loved had just run off and blah, blah, blah, blah—his whole story poured out,” Hawke says. “It was like he was back.”
Despite facing someone else’s trauma, and what easily could have been her own, at the time Hawke didn’t have a vocabulary for the experience.
“They didn’t have PTSD as a label back then; it was just one of those things. He told me his story, drove me to the truck stop between Winslow and Holbrook, bought me dinner, we talked about life,” she says with a laugh. “Then I got out, crossed the road and stuck my thumb out. I wasn’t upset. I never was. There was nothing stuck in the system.”
Unexpected and atypical, Hawke’s resilience against trauma fits into Razvi’s model.
At the conference, Razvi explained his model of trauma is solution-based: “The presence or absence of a solution determines what nervous state we go into during an actual event. Think about how something that is traumatic for a little baby is not at all going to be traumatic as an adult. As adults, we have far more resources; the only defensive response a baby has is its parents.”
In Hawke’s case, embracing her attacker was a method of defense that not only removed the immediate physical threat, but also humanized the villain so she could go on trusting strangers and hitchhiking. She wasn’t traumatized. Intentional or not, nothing got stuck because Hawke found a solution that functioned for both her body and her psyche.
Like Razvi, Hawke has also been involved with MAPS. In fact, she prides herself on being “the only original member living in Arizona.” Hawke’s relationship to psychedelics took a different trajectory.
After recreational experimentation with psychedelics in her early adult years, Hawke started her education in physics. As she progressed further into the science, she found the quirks of sub-atomic physics challenged her faith in the discipline.
“There’s no ‘things’ there anymore,” she recalls thinking to herself.
“If you look at it this way it’s a wave, if you look at it this way it’s a particle,” she says, alluding to the wave-particle duality of light as demonstrated in Thomas Young’s double-slit experiments. “But we can’t actually measure these things anyway…we’re just telling stories about them.”
Dissatisfied, Hawke decided to change focus.
“It got very mysterious all of sudden,” she says. “That’s where I jumped from physics to psychology. I was like. ‘Whoa, all of the sudden we’re in the picture, and I know nothing about it.’”
This interest in psychology led her to counseling, where Hawke became the first certified trauma specialist in Arizona.
“By the mid-‘90s I knew all the effective trauma techniques at the time,” she says. “A lot of these techniques are still in use, like EMDR.”
EMDR, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, can take on several forms, such as through lights flashing from either side of the head, but you’ve probably seen it parodied in movies. You know the famous trick from cartoons where the magician hypnotizes a subject by swinging a pocket watch in front of their face? That’s a riff on EMDR techniques. The idea is that such techniques generate bi-lateral stimulation of the brain, and once both sides of the brain are active, more complete emotional and psychological processing can occur. However, exact reasoning is still vague.
“[EMDR] is the most effective technique that I know of,” Hawke explains, but “it’s been a technique in search of a theory for a long time.”
Ultimately, when dealing with trauma, Hawke believes anything that allows people to be present with their experience, while not overwhelming the system, will allow natural healing to occur. As a therapist, she says the key is “setting up the conditions where a person can stay in contact, stay present with their traumatic material that was too much at the time it happened.”
Smiling, she adds, “It’s even biblical…the truth will set you free.”
Hawke’s perspective on psychedelics in psychotherapy mirrors Razvi’s assertion that anything inducing a “non-ordinary state” can aid in trauma healing; it’s less about the substance or technique and more about creating the conditions for self-healing.
Hawke is not shy to admit that psychedelics, in the wrong conditions, can also be a source of trauma. As a Burning Man veteran, she has many stories of people taking drugs “to get messed up.”. She has seen people threaten thin air, harm themselves and even drive cars at full speed through crowds, narrowly missing bystanders.
In order to help cull such incidents, for five years Hawke put her talent for therapy to use through the Zendo Project, a harm reduction organization that frequently posts itself at festivals and other places where psychedelics may be ingested.
Above all, for Hawke, the key to helping people make good use of psychedelics is safety.
“If there’s safety, there’s going to be more of a willingness and ability to be aware,” she says. “And even more than just plain safety, a feeling of, ‘It feels good here, it smells good, there’s food and music…it’s okay to be here.’’”
Currently, Hawke is working to apply these principles by creating a trauma treatment and training center down the road from Gateway Ranch. This center will apply to the FDA’s Expanded Access program in order to administer psychedelics like MDMA as a therapeutic aid, but that is ancillary to Hawke’s primary goals.
“I am focused on healing trauma on a wide enough scale to make a difference in this world,” she says. “I am particularly interested in things that can be used by community people working together. While I am exhilarated by the option to do legal psychedelic therapy in our community, I also want to make sure we have something for everybody.”
Once again, common between Razvi and Hawke is the notion that psychedelics may effectively assist therapy, but they are not the only path available.
“I see psychedelics as a tool,” Hawke says. “Not necessary for most people, but maybe the greatest thing for others.”
Then, she flashes a glance, and adds, “Beyond that, I really look forward to the day where we can use these as tools for our own exploration. [Psychedelics] are good for healing trauma…what else can they do?”
The Mind’s Horizon will continue with Part Two, next month in Flag Live!