Are You Experienced?
In my senior year at a high school dance in our boarding school gymnasium I was happily slow dancing with a lovely girl named Heather when my friend Pete approached and drew close to my ear. “Big trouble man, you need to help. Edwin’s tripped out in a toilet stall downstairs. He took some Orange Sunshine and he also drank a bunch of wine.” Edwin was not only a friend, but also a superstar athlete. If he got busted tripping and drunk, he’d be summarily thrown out of school, blowing his chances of an almost assured athletic scholarship to college. That just couldn’t happen.
“Holy crap.” I shook my head in disbelief and pried myself from Heather. “Okay, we have to get him out of here. If we don’t he’s completely screwed.”
“How are you going to do that? Look around.” In the gym about two dozen faculty members stood vigil as the students danced and drank sodas and a local band played predictable hits. To make matters worse, teachers periodically checked the bathrooms to see if any students were smoking cigarettes, an expellable offense.
“Gimme a sec.” I pondered the situation. It was no surprise that Pete had come to me, as I already had a reputation for helping the tripping wounded. With about ten acid trips under my belt at the time, I knew well just how intense it could get. “Okay, we need lookouts. Can you and Alan get near the top of the stairs and watch? You know, casually. We’ll also need somebody on the landing by the exit door halfway downstairs. Why not get Jared for that. If any teachers start to head toward the stairs, I need to know right away.” I glanced across the gym and pointed my chin in the direction of the dean of students.
Pete looked too. “The Sheriff.” Dean Morland was the law, and he seemed to enjoy throwing out rule breakers and those he perceived as miscreants. He could be a big problem.
“Yeah. We need somebody who can keep him occupied for ten or twelve minutes. If he catches wind of any of this it’s over.”
Heather piped in. “I can do that.”
I broke into a wide grin. “You sure can. Morland’s a total horndog. He’ll stand there all night if you’re in front of him. Go knock him out of the game.” She gave a sly smile and slinked off in the direction of the Sheriff, hips swaying.
Pete looked at me. “What the hell are you going to do?”
“I’m going to try to get him out of the bathroom, out of the building, across campus to his dorm and up to his room.”
“All without getting caught.”
“Right. That’s my plan anyway. You have this covered?” Pete gave a nod and I headed downstairs.
Edwin possibly getting expelled was only one problem. The other was that he was like chiseled granite, a muscular freak of nature with a Jim Thorpe physique and supernatural strength. If he reacted poorly to my help he could break me in two with ease. I wouldn’t stand a chance. I got inside the bathroom and heard low moans from the second stall. Cautiously opening the door I found Edwin leaning against a side wall. “Hey Edwin, it’s Chris.” He replied with a low moan.
I knew what had to be done. First I had to make him feel safe and comfortable with my presence. After that I’d help him to understand what we needed to do, and allow me to take the lead. He had to trust me. Otherwise we were blown. It was hard enough with the acid, but with booze on top of it the job was much more difficult. He was in the twilight zone. I stood there for a minute or so, speaking to him in soothing tones, reminding him who I was and letting him know that I was there to help. He nodded his head as I spoke. “Edwin, can I put my hand on your shoulder?”
“Will you let me help you out of here?”
I gently pulled him out of the stall, carrying on light conversation to give him no time to get confused about what was happening. Opening the door I called out to Jared. “How we doing there?”
“It’s clear right now.”
“Alright. We’re coming out.” For all his athletic prowess, the drunk and tripping Edwin moved like a stumblebum, unsteady on his feet and swaying side to side. I needed him to rally a bit more, and hooked my arm tightly into his, guiding him toward the stairs and the exit door, speaking to him softly. I felt like I was arm in arm with a drunken tiger.
When we got outside the chill fall night air seemed to sharpen Edwin’s wits a bit. I kept reminding him what was happening, how he was safe with me but we still needed to be careful. He understood. Remarkably we made our way across campus to his dorm, got inside without incident, climbed the stairs and made it to his room without being seen by dorm faculty. I guided him to his bed and helped him to remove his shoes. “Look man, you’re safe here, okay? You’ll be alright. You’re just crazy high right now. Don’t leave the room unless it’s for the bathroom. And then come right back. Agreed?”
He looked up at me and nodded. I was assured that he understood. “Thanks man.”
Teenage Trip Guide
The point to this high school tale is that I knew what to do with Edwin because I had solid personal experience with acid, and I had previously helped a few other students and understood how to build trust and move things along. Boarding school was a hotbed of drug experimentation, and many of us tripped regularly. In those days the popular acids – White Lightning, Monterey Purple, Blue Cheer, Speckled Barrel, Windowpane and Orange Sunshine all weighed in at a mighty 270 micrograms. We never even heard of microdosing. Often I acted as a trip guide and stayed vigilant for the welfare of others. At other times we all just ran about and laughed and did what teenagers do on acid, with nobody falling through the cracks.
Two years later in college and with about 150 acid trips behind me I worked in a counseling center where I occasionally assisted tripsters. Not everyone who came in was in distress. Some were just unexpectedly higher than they had planned and some were genuinely distraught and flipping out. Some just needed an oasis and someone who understood what they were going through. I knew what it felt like when the acid got extreme, and understood the body sensations, the sometimes alarming sense of one’s self dissolving, the rapid unbounded expansion, the weird synesthesia.
At college concerts I worked the trip tent assisting psychedelic drop-ins. The spaced out wounded or the just plain way too high would wander in searching for help or a quieter space than in a loud crowd and Joe Perry’s guitar. I’d sit with them, helping them to feel more secure and safe. At times they needed to be brought back from the screaming edge. I never lost anybody, and nobody in my care had to be taken away to get shot down with Thorazine. At other times they simply needed the company of someone who cared and knew from personal experience what they were going through. I’d happily spend time with them and be a steady ally. Sometimes they’d ask how long it would last. Calculating from when they had dropped, I could let them know that they were peaking and had about four more hours of hurtling at high velocity on the electric acid speedway before it eased up a bit. My psychedelic experience helped enormously.
You’re Either on the Bus or You’re Not
Following my college years I’ve been an aid in numerous ayahuasca ceremonies, an ally to those who simply want comfort in the face of that medicines’ often very rugged ride, and helping to retrieve those who’ve wandered off into the forest, were clinging to trees or stuck in the toilet vortex. My experience with a broad range of psychedelics and a very large number of ayahuasca ceremonies specifically has made all the difference in the world.
In assisting people who are tripping, whether on LSD, magic mushrooms, psilocybin, mescaline or ayahuasca, personal experience with psychedelics seems absolutely essential. As Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters used to say, you’re either on the bus or you’re not. Either you have dived into the deep end of the psychedelic pool and traveled far out into the wilderness of the mind, or you haven’t done so. Yet today you can take a course in psychedelic assisted therapy, ostensibly to guide others on psychedelics, never having done any yourself. This bizarre circumstance is due to legal issues and it’s the strangest damn thing, like becoming a sex therapist without ever having had sex. Whether you go through the CIIS training or the ones at Naropa or Compass or the many others springing up like weeds in the cracks of the psychedelic sidewalk, the situation is the same, no experience required.
A couple of years ago I gave a talk to a class of bright students going through the Naropa psychedelic assisted therapist training and asked at the end how many times they had to trip to qualify to do what they were being trained for. After a somewhat awkward silence the answer was none at all. Compass, a mercenary company I can’t criticize enough, tries to put lipstick on a pig as though utter lack of experience is inconsequential, a possible advantage instead of a blinding handicap. “We don’t recruit therapists based on their willingness or desire to take a psychedelic substance themselves, or any previous personal psychedelic experience. We believe that emotional maturity, coupled with compassion and clinical experience of supporting patients, are the best predictors of safety and improved clinical outcomes.” It’s a steaming pile, an attempt to reframe a stark deficiency.
Should Psychedelic Therapists Be Experienced?
Many therapists will argue that you don’t have to personally experience the same psychological problem for which you assist others. That is largely true. Therapists who are not depressed can sometimes help those who are. Those who do not suffer low self-esteem can often be of value to those who do, and so on. But with psychedelics I argue that the situation is radically different. Those who have not enjoyed or endured some scorching psychedelic trips just can’t know what it’s like. Those who have never faced the dweller on the threshold of psychedelic annihilation cannot know that experience. And those who have not found themselves suffused in absolute bliss at one with all existence cannot possibly know anything about that. Words are not the thing, descriptions are not the experience and the map is not the territory. Throw out your Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s only toilet paper with psychedelics.
A YouTube video entitled 1950’s Housewife in LSD Experiment shows a woman whose husband worked at the Veterans Administration in Los Angeles, who agreed to take LSD as part of a research experiment. The test was conducted in 1956 in a rather drab and featureless room at the VA but for some floral drapes on the windows. The woman is poised and bright, and as she’s peaking on the acid she describes seeing the molecules of the air in the room. Dr Sidney Cohen, the man interviewing the woman, while friendly enough, is clearly out of his depth, asking questions that barely nibble at the edges of her experience.
“Well tell me,” he says.
“Well I just couldn’t. I couldn’t possibly tell you,” she replies. “It’s here, can’t you feel it?”
I’m part of it. Can’t you see it?”
“I’m trying,” replies Cohen. He follows up a moment later asking how she feels inside. “Is it all one?”
“It would be all one if you weren’t here…. Yes, everything is one. You have nothing to do with it.” She describes prisms and rays in the air, while she is soaring high and beautifully composed. It’s remarkably touching to watch.
“What does all this mean to you?
“I’ve never seen such infinite beauty in my life.” A bit later on she asks him if he can see it.
“Do you say you can see it?”
“No,” he replies. “I can’t quite see it. Tell me about it.”
“I can’t tell you about it. If you can’t see it then you never know it.” She shakes her head with a wistful look. “I feel sorry for you.”
Despite the drab setting the woman is in the throes of a luminous and revelatory experience, enjoying beautiful visions and a full-on mystical experience. Dr Sidney Cohen only has his nose pressed against the glass of a window to her experience and has no actual clue. He’s bright and genuinely interested, but that is where his talents end.
Two things come to mind watching the video. One is that the people who designed the LSD experiment knew absolutely nothing about setting. The second thing is that they knew nothing at all about tripping and its soul-rocking dimensions.
The Emerging Psychedelic Industry
If it isn’t already abundantly clear exactly where I stand on the matter, let me plant a flag here. While I’m not suggesting that you can’t be kind and caring with someone tripping regardless of your experience, I am saying that if you haven’t tripped then at best you just have your nose pressed against the glass. It behooves anybody who intends to work as a psychedelic minder or guide to have real substantive tripping experience. Even though you can’t be legally obliged to do so, it’s essential.
In the current topsy-turvy world of psychedelics we see nascent pharma companies yearning to corner the market with patents, some people with meager experience but good media connections posing as experts and a small but growing army of would-be psychedelic assistants, many of whom have absolutely zero experience at all. Some clinicians are now conducting guided sessions with the dissociative anesthetic ketamine, which isn’t a psychedelic, or the old Merck methamphetamine MDMA, which isn’t a psychedelic either. While I’m not in any way impugning their clinical benefits for depression and PTSD respectively, they still are not psychedelics. A psychedelic is an agent that can promote a mystical experience. It is, as the saying goes, a whole other animal. We’ve strayed very far afield from the essence of the thing.
So now here’s the advice part of the program. If you’re going to sit with and assist people who are tripping, whether on acid, mushrooms, ayahuasca or any other actual psychedelic, get at least a dozen solid trips under your belt. I’m not talking about little nibbles at the edge of the psychedelic cookie, but real solid high dose trips. Either go big or go home. Otherwise looking at the obvious, you’ll never know what it’s really about. Are you experienced?
Featured Image: Nicki Adams with adapted photo by Matthew Paul Argall