Psychedelic therapy for addictive processes

In response to some of your requests, this guest-post portrays the context, experience, and potential value of psychedelic therapy for those struggling with addiction (and other stuff). By someone who’s been there and can talk about it with precision and depth.

 

…By Eric Nada…

I was very nervous the first time I drank ayahuasca. I had been traditionally abstinent for 20 years. Though I suspected that I would stick with my recovery afterward, 12-step philosophy insisted that all mind-altering substances would lead me to the same desperate and re-addicted end. I had recently ended my involvement with that fellowship, trading its emphasis on disease/abstinence for a more intuitive explanation of addiction as a reaction to personal trauma. I had been working on emotional healing from this perspective for a few years and found myself drawn to the stories of others who had used psychedelic medicines for healing and exploration. Still, this path rasied long-held concerns about the pitfalls of drug use.

Far from triggering addictive patterns, my ayahuasca experience was profound, life-altering, and rich in insight. During that first journey, for instance, I saw very clearly how abstinence had “cleared the space” for healing the patterns underlying my addictive drives, but did not provide the healing itself. I also began to see a lifelong pattern of fear that had developed alongside burgeoning feelings of love for significant others in my life. In sharp contrast to “relapse,” it provided a homecoming to my long-standing beliefs about the potential benefits of psychedelics. I have subsequently committed myself to regular work with psychedelics, ever deepening the understanding of my addictive patterns.

Healing addiction through a mind-altering process may sound counterintuitive, since we have come to emphasize abstinence as evidence of recovery. However, psychedelics, especially when taken for therapeutic purposes, don’t seem to be habit forming. The psychedelic experience is arguably, in fact, the opposite of addiction. Substances or behaviors that are traditionally habit-forming seem to please or anesthetize the very parts of the psyche that psychedelics directly challenge. Ingesting a psychedelic remains a discipline for me rather than an indulgence. Psychedelics produce not a high but an experience—a journey through consciousness.

But how can psychedelics help  someone with an active addiction? How can these wild rides into consciousness be directed to challenge the rigid bonds that our addictions represent? There is more than one way to approach psychedelic-assisted addiction therapy, and recreational psychedelic use can also be “therapeutic.” But there is a general format that seems best suited to optimize the therapeutic experience.

The process can be discussed as falling into three stages—preparation, journey, and integration. During the preparation stage, the participant addresses their mind-set. Obviously no one knows exactly how a journey’s content will be experienced, but a participant should be familiar with the process in general, and the nature of the compound they will ingest in particular. The second important aspect of the preparation stage is to establish intention. This is where the participant might formulate specific questions about their addiction. “Why did I develop this pattern? Why am I having trouble changing it? How might I need to change to become a person who doesn’t rely on the mechanics of addiction to function?” This is also the time to highlight any significant history of abuse or trauma that may also be explored during the journey. The idea is that the participant has some understanding of what to expect and what to explore.

Next comes the journey itself. Whoever guides the psychedelic journey should be experienced. They should have extensive knowledge about the compound they administer. They should be able to vet the participant to make sure that they don’t have any psychological or medical issues likely to cause real trouble. And they should be experienced with containing the setting of the experience, able to help the participant navigate any difficult emotional or physiological states encountered along the way. The psychedelic journey, itself, produces a radical shift in consciousness. Initial distortions in the visual field soon transform into vast cognitive and emotional reorientation. These shifts drastically alter the way we process our “self”—as if the egoic layers that create the story of who we are become loosened. And as they loosen, we see through them more easily, and rigid patterns that may have escaped conscious detection can become clear. As the journey deepens, the experience often transforms into a dreamlike flow of images, emotions, and physical sensations. During this stage, as the intensity peaks, insights can seem more intuitive than explicit. Eventually the journey concludes, usually bringing the participant gently back  down to the familiar. By the journey’s end, even if parts of it were difficult, the participant is usually left feeling open, unguarded, vulnerable, sated, and shrouded in a feeling of deep resolution.

Finally, there is integration. Invariably, there will be a lot of information to unpack after the journey itself, and it is important to make sense of what has been learned. The impact of the psychedelic journey often leaves the participant with the feeling that they are irrevocably changed, that parts of them have been rearranged permanently. And while certain lessons may indeed remain intact, the conditioned layers that may have seemed so translucent during the psychedelic journey will inevitably reform over the days or weeks following. Automatic thought patterns that had been largely unconscious until they were illuminated by the psychedelic beam may regain their automaticity once more. And so it is through integration that we make sense of our experience, that we take the images, impressions, and insights and create a narrative. This narrative can be woven into a treatment plan in an effort to ensure that the process leads to lasting changes after the afterglow has faded. Through integration, epiphany is transformed into practical therapeutic direction aimed at sustained change.

Psychedelic therapy is deep and profound. It can be discussed as a mind-body technique, along with other modalities that have the capacity to bypass the more conscious layers of the mind—think EFT, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and therapeutic hypnosis. It dovetails easily with depth psychology and Jungian archetype work. It also aligns with parts work such as IFS and Inner Child Work. Therapists will frame integration according to their training. This is why, when doing this work to heal addictive patterns, it is important to structure the experience according to a therapeutic framework relevant to addiction. Again, the healing benefits of psychedelics are not just produced by the compound itself but through the whole of the experience they inspire.

It has often been said that a psychedelic journey is akin to ten years of therapy in a single evening. I find this to be an imperfect comparison, but I get the sentiment. It does seem to deepen and accelerate the therapeutic process. Sometimes, if I journey deeply enough, I break through the egoic layers altogether and experience the transpersonal—and it’s divine. Oneness. No separation. And while I am always relieved to be reunited with myself as the precious layers that make up “Eric” reform themselves, they seem to reform less rigidly, thus I come back less attached to them and closer to the purity that lies beneath. Of course we need some of these layers so that we can navigate the world. But if we can use the psychedelic journey to help illuminate the parts of ourselves that invoke addictive patterns, if we can listen to these parts and soothe them, then we can more easily heal. Approached from this perspective, therapeutic work using psychedelics can be very, very effective.

 

 

 

 

29 thoughts on “Psychedelic therapy for addictive processes

  1. Nicolas Ruf July 9, 2021 at 7:33 am #

    Nice

  2. Tim Greenwood July 9, 2021 at 8:53 am #

    Hey Marc. Been reading your pieces and not responding but always appreciate your sharing and the other voices you share. This is really great stuff. Very clear and hopeful. It is so great to see that psychedelics are really beginning to be more widely used. Keep up the great work. Me – I keep busy storytelling and am working on some writing I a call “Drugs without Drugs” – meaning all the other tools and modalities that take us to similar places and open similar doors. Have a great day. Tim G

    • Eric Nada July 9, 2021 at 5:14 pm #

      Tim, yes, there are ways to breathe ourselves into a similar experience and these methods could easily be added to this discussion. If it were a longer post I might even have discussed it.

    • Marc July 10, 2021 at 11:31 am #

      Hi Tim. Nice to hear from you. I remember your Wim Hoff stuff, holotropic breathing and such. Really valuable avenues to offer to people who (like me and I assume you) aren’t quite satisfied with ordinary consciousness.

      Did I mention I’m back in Toronto? We should meet up some time. Let me know next time you’ve got a couple of free hours “downtown.”

  3. Joanne Gill July 9, 2021 at 11:16 am #

    Thanks for another insightful article on possible healing for addiction. I live within 1.5 hours of Johns Hopkins, where I know they are performing numerous trials for psychedelic therapies. However, these trials, along with many others, have sometimes stringent criteria and are not available to the general population. Would love to know if you, Marc Lewis, or anyone else out there is aware of any therapist practices that are yet engaging in this therapy. I have a Veteran son who has been battling PTSD and subsequent depression/anxiety/addiction issues for 9 years. We are desperate for any access to these types of therapies.

  4. morgan machen July 9, 2021 at 12:08 pm #

    https://beyond.institute

  5. morgan machen July 9, 2021 at 12:22 pm #

    The concept of ‘narrative’ seems like a really important piece of the puzzle. I have been driven by the narrative or story I embraced about myself at an early age that I’m not ok and that I need to be fixed. I realize that until I manage to change that story to one that affirms my essential ok-ness I’m going to feel at odds with myself.

    Since receiving a few guided psychedelic sessions I have come to realize that I’ve been driven by a need to hear praise from my dad. Even my psychedelic journeys were motivated by a need to hear my dad tell me how brave I am for risking everything in order to heal. It took me a while to realize that I actually transferred that onto my guide. Luckily he didn’t take the bait.

    • Larissa July 9, 2021 at 1:20 pm #

      This sounds exactly like me. My Dad passed in January 2000 but I still desire praise and approval from male figures in my life and I’m now 70. It’s a push pull of attraction/repulsion. I hope that your therapy journey will be successful for you – if you’re in the thick of transference, then that shows that you’re really dealing with it and there’s hope of real change.

    • Eric Nada July 9, 2021 at 5:20 pm #

      Morgan, what a beautiful and poignant example of just how useful these modalities are. It also brings new meaning to the concept of pathology as coming from the stories we accidentally claim as truth. As we change the stories, the way we feel about ourselves and life changes. Kudos on your work.

  6. morgan machen July 9, 2021 at 12:30 pm #

    I meant to share a book, for bibliotherapy. It’s The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. From what I’ve read so far he basically says that to be alive is to be insecure and that to strive for security is a vicious cycle. The trick to embracing insecurity is through ‘reverse effort’.

  7. morgan machen July 9, 2021 at 3:05 pm #

    Thank you for the positive affirmation Larissa.

  8. Amber July 9, 2021 at 9:55 pm #

    What a wonderful article – I particularly appreciate the thoughtfulness around 12 Step. As a clinician (and person!), I am always in the process of moving away from the rigidity of 12 Step and helping people understand the nuances of addiction outside of this model. I also appreciate the terminology ‘clearing the space’ with abstinence to make way for richer, more complex understanding. Thank you.

    • Eric Nada July 10, 2021 at 10:50 am #

      Amber, Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. I agree that it is important to understand that while a certain amount of dysfunction will be dealt with simply through becoming abstinent from the substance or behavior that is manifesting as an addiction, the healing process requires much more. Once we remove the distraction (addiction), we are left with the underlying hunger that we can address if we find the right process. Again, I’m glad you enjoyed.

  9. morgan machen July 11, 2021 at 5:21 pm #

    I’m glad I could contribute something to the conversation Eric. I’d like to add that I did a couple big sessions in 2020, and so had to resort to Zoom for my integration coaching. In retrospect I realize that was probably far from ideal. There have been a few times when I questioned whether I ‘did it’ right. Initially after my sessions I did some art therapy and journaling but then the old patterns of laziness and distraction set back in. It seems like integration an ongoing process and there will probably never be a time when I decide I’m ‘done’.

    I’d like to share one more thing. It’s sort of like we’re in the Wild West of psychedelic therapy. I had only talked to my guide a few times on the phone before I did my first session. Afterward I was pretty excited thinking maybe I had finally found my community of fellow healers and that I would be supported in my process, and would in turn support others in their processes. What I quickly learned was that my guide didn’t have the time or interest in helping me interpret and make meaning out if some of my confusing or difficult experiences.

    I joined in on a virtual psychedelic integration circle meeting maybe a month after my most recent session and was dismayed to find myself having extreme social anxiety. People were sharing how they’d done like ten or twenty ayahuasca sessions and were planning to do maybe a ten gram mushroom trip in the near future. I couldn’t relate to the spirit of wanting to push further and further out, (in?). Anyway, so now I don’t really have an interest in being part of a psychedelic community. Who knows, maybe that’s a sign the medicine ‘worked’. I’m pretty sure I’m not meant to be a ‘psychonaut’. I do think I would like to receive some mdma session with MAPS trained therapists when, if, it becomes legal in a few years.

    • Joanne Gill July 12, 2021 at 5:25 pm #

      Morgan, thanks for posting the info about Beyond Institute – but just wanted to check in with you if this was where this happened: “Afterward I was pretty excited thinking maybe I had finally found my community of fellow healers and that I would be supported in my process, and would in turn support others in their processes. What I quickly learned was that my guide didn’t have the time or interest in helping me interpret and make meaning out if some of my confusing or difficult experiences.”
      Thanks

    • Eric Nada July 13, 2021 at 11:34 am #

      Morgan, It has certainly been my experience that it is a good idea to find a therapist with whom to integrate. Often, the guides are more trained to guide and don’t have the space for a proper integration process. Admittedly, I hope it stays the wild west for a while, I can’t see anything improving if it has to merge with the mainstream health industry. The paradigm doesn’t fit with the reductionist/medical paradigm that is prevalent in the mental health field. That said, there is a big push within the psychotherapy field (I’m a psychotherapist) for mindfulness, trauma informed therapy, etc. Hopefully psychedelic therapy will be applied through this perspective.

  10. morgan machen July 12, 2021 at 7:09 pm #

    That’s right Joanne, I had two guided psilocybin journeys with them. I was put in contact with an integration therapist beforehand who I developed a good rapport with. I was naive to expect my guide to have the time help me make sense of the experiences since he’s guiding sessions 5 and 6 days week.

    • Eric Nada July 13, 2021 at 11:36 am #

      Morgan, that’s a lot of guiding to do. It takes a lot out of a person to guide these experiences. Most guides only do a few a month.

  11. morgan machen July 13, 2021 at 3:06 pm #

    I thought seemed excessive too Eric. Thanks for the feedback. I had been meeting with a Somatic Experiencing coach for a couple years before and I started orking with an Alexander practitioner in addition after my second medicine journey. I feel like I’ve managed to be about as well ‘resourced’ as anyone could hope to be. My intentions for the journeys were to heal developmental trauma/c-ptsd, both of which I self-diagnosed. I was also hoping to get a better sense of agency or acceptance of climate change, to heal my so called climate grief.

    During my second session I had a vision of a globe sprouting lush green growth and I felt a conviction that the beautiful human ‘story’ would continue far into the future. I don’t know if it was wishful thinking but I want to keep that image alive nonetheless.

    • Eric Nada July 15, 2021 at 10:31 am #

      Morgan, it sounds as if you have found a great circle or support for your integration. Since we are discussing psychedelic medicines, here, allow me to be a bit esoteric for a minute. I have a personal belief that one of the reasons (and only one of the reasons) there is no much mental/emotional trouble throughout the modern world (this is especially true in the US) is that we don’t honor the connection we have to the planet, itself. I think it’s possible that optimal emotional health can only be established in the individual if we observe the relationship we have to the planet. While on one hand discussing this sounds very anti-intellectual to many (parts of me feel this way even as I am typing this), on the other hand honoring our place within the context of our ecological whole seems like an essential aspect of the human experience. And it is exactly this type of information that people come out of psychedelic experiences in possession of. And it is also one of the reasons that it will be difficult to explain psychedelic therapy using the current medical paradigm. We are holistic animals then our healing might need to be holistic as well to be of maximum effect. OK, I’m done. I’ll get back to basics again now.

  12. morgan machen July 15, 2021 at 12:06 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more Eric. I have no doubt that my attraction to psychedelics in high school, in the Reagan 80’s, gave me a deep empathy for Mother Nature. I guess I’m a recovering wannabe ‘intellectual’ myself. Ever since I came into posession of my older brother’s Last Whole Earth catalog I have I have come acrossed alot of the seminal books of the 60’s. I was drawn to psychedelics without much influence from my peers, I basically dragged them along on my trips, and had no guides other than my books and music.

    By the time I went to college I basically wanted to become a Leary or a Ram Dass. My freshman year dorm mate found a copy of Be Here Now in the laundry room and said “this looks like it’s right up your alley’. I took it as a good omen that I was on the right path. I never dreamed I’d live to see a psychedelic renaissance but later that year my dorm buddies took me to a Grateful Dead concert and the rest was history. I always doggedly clung to the fantasy of living in a psychedelic society but now I realize it was mostly a hedonistic vision. I didn’t realize it was more about waking up to the fact of climate change. I had heard about it maybe 30 years ago, at a Dead show probably, but figured I wouldn’t live long enough to suffer from it’s effects.

    I don’t know if this link will work but it’s a video of Joanna Macy titled ‘Befriending Our Despair’.

  13. morgan machen July 15, 2021 at 12:09 pm #

    Hmm, I guess I can’t paste a link here.

  14. morgan machen July 15, 2021 at 12:57 pm #

    I don’t mean keep this thread going ad nauseum but I realized I didn’t really respond to what you shared. So, in the late 90’s I met a guy who lead sweat lodges. I was involved with that community for awhile and did a vision quest as well. I’ve had an affinity for Native American spirituality since about the time I found a nice little arrowhead while on an Outward Bound course in Joshua Tree National Park. I took that to be maybe a message from the Elders that I had paid off some of my white man karma by losing an eye to a toy arrow when I was 5.

    In 1998 I attended two peyote meetings. At the time I had a strong fantasy of dropping out and finding my ‘tribe’. If I could just find the ‘right’ people to go on a healing journey with everything would be great, I thought. One of the biggest things the peyote taught was that it didn’t matter if I found a tribe that would love me and accept me for who I am. If I couldn’t love myself it was all pretty pointless. Now I’m trying to let go of the notion that I can or should love myself, based on what I’ve read by Alan Watts that there is no separate self to love. A Vedanta concept.

    So fast forward to the present. I still don’t really belong to a tribe but I do have a girlfriend and a Siamese cat, and own a home in South Lake Tahoe. I live a mile from the orthopedic clinic where I take x-rays. I consciously my living situation so I could ride my bike to work, except for most the Winter, and try to have a smallish carbon footprint. There have actually been plenty of Winter days that I could have ridden if I was more motivated to layer up, in the ten years I’ve lived. There have probably been more days when the roads were clear of snow than covered and I’m told Winters aren’t what they used to be here. I’m sad to admit that I harbor ill will toward the drivers during the highly congested tourist seasons, which have basically become year around.

    Ok, that’s it for my rant. I appreciate the opportunity to share my story. It feels sort of cathartic. Many blessings.

    • Eric Nada July 19, 2021 at 10:39 am #

      Morgan, I’m glad that you are inspired to keep the conversation going. It is important to tell your story. I used to be involved in sweat lodge ceremony myself. There is certainly a connection between certain traditional spiritual practices and psychedelic therapy. If you haven’t heard of it, I thoroughly recommend the book, Consciousness Medicine by Francois Bourzat. In it, she discusses the therapeutic use of many different consciousness altering therapies. She focuses her discussion on psychedelic medicines, especially mushrooms, but also discusses sweat lodge, dance, and others. It’s really great.

  15. Morgan Machen July 19, 2021 at 11:21 am #

    Thank you Eric, I’ll check it out. I actually had the most profound altered state of my life catalyzed by a sweat lodge ceremony. I was completely sober so was definitely not expecting it.

  16. Morgan Machen July 19, 2021 at 11:36 am #

    Well, more like the most profound, sudden shift in consciousness I’ve ever experienced. The shift back to ordinary consciousness was nearly as quick. I never would have believed that a non-drug experience could be so powerful, and so terrifying.

  17. Kevi August 9, 2021 at 2:49 pm #

    “…abstinence had “cleared the space” for healing the patterns underlying my addictive drives, but did not provide the healing itself.” After 180 days alcohol free, this is exactly how I’m feeling. It’s not a bad place to be, but I was wondering why I felt the process was incomplete.

    • Eric Nada September 4, 2021 at 4:02 pm #

      Kevi,

      I’m sorry about the delay in response. (I recently moved and it kept me very busy). I’m glad that you relate to that statement, I think it is important. Because my experience tells me that I formulated addictions for a reason, then it is this reason and not the addiction that is fundamentally problematic. Of course I had a legitimate attachment to the additions themselves, and they did warrant focus in the beginning. But after abstinence became familiar, the more important work was with the underlying reasons that I developed them. And for me, “reason” doesn’t equate to a particular situation as much as it does a general feeling of discomfort that accompanied my every conscious moment. So my “recovery” has been to address this discomfort. Again, I’m glad you relate. Be well.

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