How I Learned To Let Go Of Trauma With Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy

Trigger warning: drug use
person's hang reaching out sunlight
Aarón Blanco Tejedor / Unsplash

It was in my undergraduate studies that I began to unfreeze, to find my voice. A relationship had ended again, and this time I had been cheated upon. I was a mess. I was depressed and I was anxious and I could not hold it all in any longer. Thinking I might fail out of university, two close friends introduced me to a woman, a kind of therapist, who would change my life.

I had never done a psychedelic drug in my life. I was frightened of losing control, of becoming ill. I was frightened of having what they called a “bad trip.” But I was also at my wit’s end, and so I met with this shaman-esque person, this underground therapist.

On a bright, sunny winter day, we met at her home to discuss why I wanted to embark on such a journey. I sat there, so cold and frozen, unable to speak much louder than the ten-year-old boy in me, only able to cry while staring at the floor, as I could not yet look her — or anyone — in the eyes. Through the tears, I tried to describe my life up to this point. How scared I felt. How sad and lonely.

We made plans for our first session together a week later.

I had no idea what to expect but arrived early on that day, as per her request. We sat together on her couch with warm tea as she told me that our session would last most of the day and night. She gave me a small amount of the drug to make sure I would not have some adverse reaction to it. We talked for a bit. I was nervous. She was all smiles, inviting me to be vulnerable.

She then rolled out a small foam mattress on the floor, gave me the full dose with a glass of water, and asked me to lie down. I acquiesced.

Nothing happened for about twenty minutes. She asked if I wanted anything, knowing full well I was too frozen inside to even know what it was I wanted. She rubbed my feet and it was wonderfully painful. I asked if I was doing it right. She told me that there was no way I could not be doing it right. She asked me to close my eyes and try to relax.

I tried.

Then, placing her hand on my chest, she told me to scream.

I tried.

Not much came out.

“Really scream,” she said more forcefully.

That was when it hit me. I began letting out noises I had never heard before. First it was deep and low, but that subsided into a high-pitched wail. This sound was just coming out of me, as if of its own accord. And there seemed to be no end in sight.

I have since experienced a number of psychedelic journeys. I have taken mushrooms, sat in ayahuasca and ibogaine ceremonies, but nothing I have ever experienced has been quite like this first journey into the reaches of my own self with her.

As this screaming cry finally began to subside, I began to notice the pain I often felt in my jaw. My mouth slowly opened wide, wider. I could not close it; my lips curled over my teeth, my eyes closed tight, my body rolled to the right and, just as another kind of infantile moan slipped through my lips, I noticed I was pressing my face as hard as I could into her carpeted floor. I was still somewhat cognizant — realising I had somehow regressed to a sort of pre-verbal state — and was now self-regulating my system with the sensation of the carpet on my face. This went on for god only knows how long. Eventually, she moved me carefully back to the mattress. I opened my eyes and stared into her otherworldly face as she rubbed my temples and jaw more ferociously, I thought, than anyone could ever have done. The pain was immense. I could not take it. She told me to use my voice again. And so, again, I started to scream. This was the scream of a child abandoned, left to fend for himself, left all alone with no one to care for him. And when the screaming ended, I began to shake.

In the wild, when an animal experiences trauma, they are often able to “restart” their nervous system shortly afterward. They might shake violently for a time, and then they will go about their day. Some believe these animals are actually, naturally, releasing the trauma that had gotten stuck in their bodies.

Imagine, now, if the same were true for us. If we had this same ability to release trauma but had forgotten how to do it. Imagine, if you will, that we had developed parts of our brains that could justify such experiences, getting us caught in a mind game of trying to cogitate every experience of ours, rather than allow ourselves to let go of it, all on its own. Imagine, instead, the trauma being stuck there, in our bodies, for years.

Well, one very interesting phenomenon often occurring with certain psychedelic drugs is that it, in effect, shuts off the part of our brains that came along and decided to start thinking about everything over and over and over and over and…

So I shook. It felt like I was having a grand mal seizure. For hours. My body shook violently, contorting into various strange and exotic positions. And yet, with this therapist shaman sitting beside me, I felt utterly safe. This first leg of our session lasted nearly six hours.

Finally, my body calmed itself down. I lay back down on the mattress like a normal human being as she gave me water with minerals to supplement all the sweating I had just done. “Wow,” she said, “You did such good work.” And then we talked.

There is, in psychology, an ideal state of arousal for us to process trauma with another person — not in terms of sexuality, but in terms of awareness. Yet, when we are traumatised, as with the case of those suffering from traumatic stress disorders, it is nearly impossible to stay in this state. We are too easily triggered, and so either too highly aroused or not aroused enough. Fascinatingly, there are drugs which can put us into this optimal state. In effect, it becomes simply the easiest thing in the world to discuss our trauma. We may feel no shame or fear about it, whilst our brains are actually producing an excess of chemicals that will help us with processing the trauma differently down the road. So we talked.

I talked about my family, about my mother and father. About the pain I felt time and again.

And now, here is my disclaimer. I am not necessarily advocating the use of psychedelics or any other illicit drug. The ensuing months from that first day were the lowest and hardest I had ever gone through. Yes, things got a whole lot worse well before they would ever get better. I became even more anxious and depressed (only now I had the added benefit of the drugs I had just taken depleting my system of vital chemicals).

Although many of these ceremonies and experiences have since been fruitful for me, many have not.

After this first experience I became somewhat enamored with the psycho-spiritual idea of dying before I really died. I was trying to reach a place that I thought only the drugs could now take me to. A place where I no longer feared death, because I would have already experienced it. In hindsight, I see now that I had once again gotten caught in a beautiful web, looking for something, some place I could get to. Some place better than where I was.

I do not regret going through these experiences, but I am comfortable now knowing that I do not need them. If there is such a place we can reach, I am not so sure I even want to find it anymore.

If this sort of path speaks to you, I would never tell you not to follow it. I will only say to be wary of looking for anything you think you do not already have, even when it is a place inside yourself. TC mark

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