Psychedelic Therapy…Is A Trip

My fate was sealed, my dad would soon be using his belt to give me a spanking. But why? I didn’t understand why. We didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong. We were playing with our toys and they broke. We weren’t doing anything stupid, we were just playing with them. What am I being punished for? It didn’t make any sense to me. To my angry dad, however, this is how he would teach us a lesson about taking better care of our things.

While my brother was getting spanked first, I slipped away and hid underneath my bed. It’s such a classic, child-like response. But I’m a small boy, about to be a victim of injustice, (or should I call it abuse…?). At six, I had no adult options. So I hid.

I can hear them calling my name, all of them. Yep, including my brother Bill. After he got it with the belt, he was happy to join the search party. At one point early in the hunt, I see Bill enter the bedroom we shared, the bedroom where I’m hidden. His feet walk over to the closet. I see it swing open. It’s quiet for a moment while he looks. Then it closes. I’m right here underneath my own bed. Surely he will look here next. But he doesn’t. He leaves the room and I am still unfound. Even at that age I had the presence of mind to think, How absurd is it that nobody has thought to look under the bed?!

Because of how our house was situated, I could hear some of their conversations from my hiding spot, “Where do you think he is?” My mom asks, “Do you think he could be hiding in the garage?” My brother says he’ll check and I hear the back door open and shut.  

Underneath the bed I wait and worry. I’m confused about what I did and what to do now. I don’t want to get a spanking. It’s gonna hurt. I start thinking, Seems like I’ve been under here a long time. Should I try to make a break for the front door? But then what would I do? Where would I go? Maybe if enough time passes, they’ll kinda forget about it. Or maybe once I’m found again they’ll be so happy I’m safe…I won’t get spanked. But I also consider that maybe I will get it double. 

I hear my brother come back from the garage. “He’s not there.” More conversation. “Look in the bedroom again,” she tells him. The scariest real-life game of hide ‘n seek is coming to an end. My brother enters the bedroom a second time. I see his feet stop in front of my bed, he crouches down and sees me. He lifts and turns his head to aim his voice down the hall and shouts, “Mom! Found him!.” He turns back to me, smiling, and says, “You’re gonna get it now.”   

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Why All the “Voodoo?”

When referring to somatic therapy, both in the subtitle immediate above and in previous posts, I include the word “voodoo.” I even titled one entire post “Freaky-Ass Voodoo.” (which you might want to read before this one). Why such a seemingly derogatory / potentially offensive word choice? Am I trying to delegitimize this type of therapy from the get-go? Actually, not at all. The most obvious reason for calling it voodoo is… because it sounds funny and gets your attention. More interesting is the second reason. There will be aspects of this type of therapy that, when you hear about them, will seem borderline supernatural…like voodoo. 

somatic – Here’s what Webster’s says is the definition:  

1. of, relating to, or affecting the body; 2. of, or relating to, the wall of the body

To keep it simple, when you hear “somatic therapy,” just think “body therapy” and you’ll be fine. 

Somatic therapy works from the premise that unresolved emotional injury (trauma) is “stored” in the physical body. One quick example of the general mind-body link that should be relatable for many is the “nervous stomach.” I once heard the stomach referred to as our “second brain.” This certainly resonates with me. When I’m stressed out, my stomach will surely let me know. External stresses can turn a normal stomach into a storeroom for anxiety. But it doesn’t stop there. Back problems, neck pain, and even less obvious body parts of the body like a knee or shoulder, can house emotional pain which sometimes manifests itself as physical pain. And there is no statute of limitations on unresolved emotional injuries, either. Childhood trauma doesn’t magically go away. It stays buried in your body and agitates to be resolved. 

No Bells No Whistles

Despite feeling pretty sure this whole psychedelic-assisted somatic therapy thing I committed to is on the level, a part of me reserved suspicion. Before being introduced to my therapist, I thought… if he pulls out a bell and starts ringing it in a circular motion around my head in order to ‘harmonize my chakras,’ I’m out. No hate for harmonized chakras here, I’m just saying that’s not the type of therapy I signed up for. 

I met Gabe for the first time in-person on May 20th. Our first several appointments were via Zoom (thanks to Covid), and all were what they call “dry” sessions, meaning without any drug-assistance. On that Wednesday, it was my first time at the brick ‘m morter Innate Path Clinic on Holland Street, and my first time in the lounge chair. I can assure you that no bells touched my chakras, and I found Gabe to be just as firmly grounded in the rational world as I am. 

In a typical session, what is it that I’m actually trying to do? That’s my question. Immediately, I have found it gets tricky. As I understand it, I’m trying to mentally navigate my way into a state of mind where I can see/feel the connections between emotional-memories and specific sensations in my body. No, not an easy thing to do. First, you have to get your mind hyper-tuned-in to your body and, just like with meditation, that takes some practice. The second factor is that somatic therapy will have you burrowing into some rather uncomfortable emotional-memories, which can be extremely daunting for many. 

Yes, I’m saying “emotional-memories” because for somatic therapy to be effective, you have to do more than simply recall a moment in time. Unfortunately, you may have to emotionally revisit times in your life that really, really sucked. 

But don’t worry, you will have two allies in your corner- your therapist, and the wonders of chemistry. 

Step Aside, Self

Whoa! Altered states of mind can be super cool and I will take you inside my head in a few minutes. Just a couple more things need to be said first. 

As we all know, the human mind has some truly incredible capabilities. Add psychedelic compounds to your brain and you’ll be absolutely astounded at how incredibly expansive your mental capabilities become.  

Along those lines, I want to re-emphasize a point I made in a previous post, one that I regret not calling out more forcefully at the time. You should remember me talking about how hard its been for me to make a decision about what to do with my house in Austin (now that I’m living in Colorado). Keep it or sell it was the simple question, but my emotional/sentimental ties to that house I’d owned for over 30 years made it anything but simple. One evening back in April I ate a square of dark chocolate with 10 mg of cannabis. By the time I was ready for bed, its effects were diminished, however…. As I was falling asleep I continued thinking about the question, keep it or sell it? Keep it…or…sell it? With surprising clarity (in at least the thinking part of my brain), the right answer emerged from the deep: Suddenly, I knew I should sell it. Here’s how the cannabis effect was key. When in my “elevated” state of mind, I still had all the same sentimental concerns towards the house, but now those emotions sat down next to my rational thinking self, and did not stand in front of it.

That’s one of the special little powers of cannabis, ketamine and other psychedelics, and why these compounds have become useful therapeutic tools. Asking your emotions to stand on the far side of the room for a few minutes allows your rational mind to think through difficult subjects more clearly. 

It can also work in reverse. For someone like me, someone who protects himself by thinking his emotions away, it may be my rational mind that is asked to “take five,” so that my emotional self can find its way to the front of the room. 

Why You Be Trippin’

I went through the checkout line at the Sprouts the other day and took notice of something we’ve all had both direct and indirect experience with in many different situations. The cashier rang up my items and sent them down to the end of the station where I stood ready to bag them. As I placed the arugula, fruits, cereal, chopped pecans and another half-dozen items into my [Virtue-signalling alert!] environmentally-friendly, brought-from-home shopping bags, I took notice of the cashier. In that small window of time between her scanning my items and me completing payment at the card reader machine, I noticed that the cashier’s eyes were fixed to some non-location half-way between me and who knows where. She was gone, taken by her mind. I kepted bagging, but also watched to see how long she would hold this spacey stare before returning to her place behind the register in lane 3 of the Sprouts on Arapahoe in Boulder, Colorado. 

And………… she’s back, ladies and gentlemen. I was tempted to ask her, “Where’d you go?” But I resisted, thinking she might feel embarrassed at being busted for her daydreaming. The point of all this is to give you a sense of what it’s like to “trip.” She was at work, stone cold sober, but still mentally transported to some other time and place, even if only for half a minute. Daydreaming is tripping. Meditation is tripping. Sleeping is tripping. Getting into the zone…. is tripping. These sober categories of tripping vary in their flavor and intensity but they all demonstrate your brain’s natural ability to transport you away from the here and now.

When certain chemical compounds are introduced into the brain, they do an awesome job of accentuating this everyday ability we already possess. Add a therapist, a blindfold, and a comfortable lounge chair, and there you have it. Welcome to psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Good Enough for Me

Last thing before we take a little trip ourselves. I started doing the somatic therapy in April. It’s now August. You’d think I should be able to confirm to you whether it “works” or not, right? Agreed, but sorry… I still cannot say. Not because I’m being secretive or cagey, I can’t say because I don’t know. The course of somatic therapy is a bit of a process. Among other things, it involves some degree of trial and error. Patience is unfortunately required.

In talking about psychedelic-assisted somatic therapy, I want to be super clear that I know almost nothing about it, really. And it’s better this way, right? What you’ll hear is solely my experience, siloed away from outside influences. You see, before committing myself to this method of therapy, I did about 2% research. [It’s how I roll, yo.] I got the gist of what it is, it made intuitive sense to me, plus my friend said the clinical research studies behind it are legit. That’s good enough for me.     

As this post goes live, my course of therapy is still ongoing. So, wherever I’m headed…I’m not there yet.

Canada, Going Rogue

The therapy clinic where I’ve been going makes use of just two types of psychedelics, both legally available- ketamine and cannabis. Yes, cannabis…the same substance that is legal in Colorado but still counts as a crime federally and in a bunch of states I wouldn’t want to live in.

If you thought psychedelic-assisted therapy meant tripping-out on LSD or mushrooms, you were wrong. Just as I was wrong, too, when I made that same assumption in the beginning. LSD and magic mushroom therapy does exist but only in certain radical, rogue nations such as….Canada. But it’s okay. If it’s been found that cannabis is effective in this treatment, no shade needed. 

Ketamine, the other psychedelic used in my therapy, is one of those drugs that already had 18 different medical uses before they figured out its potential in this context. Ketamine affects the mind by distancing it from the body in a way that’s helpful to this therapeutic work. It causes you to mentally drift away from your body, the chair, the room. Even so, you remain perfectly lucid. It’s strange but nice feeling.

Ketamine Tastes Yucky

Here goes! I take a tablet of ketamine out of the prescription bottle and place it underneath my tongue. It tastes quite yucky, something like an aspirin were you to let it dissolve in your mouth instead of swallowing it with a gulp of water. Gabe tells me it’s best to just let it sit there, to not suck on it and move it around like you might do with a cough drop. I resist swallowing even my saliva, letting the nasty taste build up in my mouth. If the ketamine enters the stomach, it’s useless to the brain. But when absorbed into your bloodstream through the tissues of the mouth, in about 15 minutes, it will begin to take you away. 

“I think I’m starting to feel it,” I tell Gabe. The ketamine tablet has dissolved completely at that point and I luckily have a mint with me to replace its taste with something more pleasant. I place the blindfold over my eyes, pull the little ringed cord on the side of the Lazy-Boy lounge chair, and recline myself back as far as it goes. 

“What are you feeling? Describe it for me.”

“I feel kind of a tingling sensation in my arms and legs.” 

Gabe asks me to turn inwards and see what else I notice. Pretty soon I feel like I’m floating around in my own mind. My attention comes to my body and I give it a slow mental scan. My right shoulder feels cool on top. I wonder if that means anything. Should I tell Gabe it feels cool? Wait, what was that? My left foot feels like it’s buzzing? Is that something…or is that nothing? What I am supposed to be noticing? Honestly, these are the thoughts I’m having. The whole experience is shrouded in mystery. 

Gabe asks me to “zoom in” on whatever part of my body is calling my attention. I do this as best I can. In a short time, my mind ends up surfing around my childhood home on Creekwood. I am very willing to let myself go there because I figure that’s kind of the point. In theory, the person I was supposed to be got left behind in that house a half-century ago. 

That’s one thing I experienced with the ketamine. Childhood memories became more than just stories I’ve told and retold throughout my life. With the assistance of this drug, I am able to put my mind back in the house on Creekwood with little Gary and visualize in greater detail what each scene was like. I want to be clear that we are still talking about fragmented memories and visualizations. It’s not like watching a movie. 

It’s my first time ever doing ketamine so today’s session isn’t about seeking breakthroughs. The body and brain must first be comfortable with ketamine’s effects. It’s a foreign state of mind so trying to rush into the hard core therapy work doesn’t typically bear fruit the first time you do it. It’s a step-by-step process, not a one trip and done type of deal. Even so, my first time on ketamine I visited the memory of that is the scene described in the opening to this post. The hiding beneath the bed, my brother finding me, the spanking, the injustice…this was not a lost memory that the ketamine helped me recover. But what the ketamine did was bring the whole scene closer to the forefront. I was much more able to mentally crawl beneath that bed with my six year old self and be a present-day witness to his confusion. 

I feel this story of the unjust spanking must be significant, meaningful. But whether revisiting it in the Lazy-Boy or as a scene in my blog, I’m not able to feel it. I cannot find the emotion of it, the fear, the injury. The protective shell I have placed around my emotions is strong. More work is needed. 

The Dam

My first two sessions with Gabe were dry, the next three were aided by cannabis (edible). Now I’m working with ketamine. But regardless of the chemistry, every session is 90% me lying still and going into what is essentially a deep meditative state. Gabe mostly just sits there and observes me, occasionally checking-in to see where I am.

Much of my personal challenge is tapping into hard-core emotions. This is true of me in the everyday world and within the context of therapy, too. I am all dammed-up. Seven weeks into my therapy and I haven’t shed a tear. The small waste basket, partially-filled with used tissues, that I always see waiting there to the left of the lounge chair as never had an addition from me. Maybe I got a little misty-eyed once or twice, but I have not been able to “crack the nut,” as it were, in order to let it go.

There was one particular session with the ketamine where the feeling of being dammed-up became more prominent than ever. I was frustrated. Why can’t I do this? Every week I lie back in this lounge chair and “nothing happens.” Gabe hears my impatience. He summarizes in words what I’m feeling and offers them back to me. “Why isn’t this working?” “Why can’t I get it.” I nod my agreement.

I am so used to meditating that when I feel my eyebrows are furrowed or my jaw is tensed, I consciously exhale to relax them. But Gabe has told me it’s more useful to lean in towards those feelings and not try to breathe them away. So I furrow my brow and let it be. I tell him I’m having flashes of angry thoughts and feel like I’d like to hit something. He asks me if I’d like to try punching a cushion. “I don’t know what that would do.” I say to him, “That seems gimmicky.” I pause for another beat, before saying, “I mean, I’m open to trying it.”

I hear Gabe leave the room and return seconds later. He brings over a large sofa cushion and holds it in front of me. Still with my blindfold on, I sit up in the chair. My right hand makes a fist and I stick my arm out forward until I can feel the fabric of the cushion on my knuckles. He adjusts it so it’s a little closer. “Okay, you ready?” I ask him. He tells me to go for it. 

I cock-back my arm and punch. Something moves within me. I reel back my arm and punch a second time, even harder. A wave of something within pushes me to a cliff. I feel my anger! Pressure builds at my face, behind my eyes, and I clench my teeth. I punch the cushion a third time with all the rage I can find….

That’s when the dam breaks. It breaks, and I gush. For the first time since childhood I cry from my core. Waves of raw emotion are released and I feel them tumble out of me like warm water has been poured over my neck and shoulders. Throwing those punches has unlocked a storehouse of anger and I am finally able to let a chunk of it go. 

For maybe a minute I sob heavily and relish in the feeling. Tears drip from beneath my mask and my sinuses clog. I reached blind for the box of kleenex I’d always seen on the small table next to the lounge chair but never needed until today. Gabe assists me and places a couple of tissues in my hand. I go through them immediately and ask for a few more. 

“Wow!” I exhale. “Just wow.”

After the deluge has subsided, we talk softly about what happened. Minutes pass, some in silence, then Gabe asks me if I would like to go for another round. I accept the invitation. Once again he brings the cushion up to my fist and I release upon it another 4 or 5 times. The tears come again, not as intensely as before, but I am still very happy to see them. Gabe helps me find more tissue. 

I am now aware of being balled-up in the lounge chair, my back arched forward and my knees up close to my elbows, the blindfold still covering my eyes. I am drained. In this pose, I sit. Gabe waits patiently. 

After a time, I lower my feet back to the floor. A smile comes to my face. A bit of joy has entered the room. I did it. With my head still bowed forward and my blindfold on, I slowly raise my arms above my head in triumph. I have the feeling of…victory. 

It’s a Process

Indeed, it feels good to finally see a crack in my hardened shell. But I also know this “breakthrough” does not mean I’m at the end, not by a longshot. However, for someone like me, someone who’s heart-range is severely limited, anything that expands my emotional capacity is a step in the right direction. I am happy for the “progress.”

I will continue to blog about my experiences in therapy and do what I can to bring you along for the ride. Where exactly we are headed remains unclear to me. However, as I continue to peer further and deeper behind the scenes of the forces that molded me, my suspicion is that love, or the lack thereof may somehow lie at the core of it all. Stay tuned.

——-

Next up, the 1 More World blog finally arrives to the night of the avalanche. Now you will see how every previous post fits together like pieces of a puzzle.

Published by

UltimateGaryB

Gary is a Solar Technician and writer living in Boulder, CO, who loves to play Ultimate frisbee!!

6 thoughts on “Psychedelic Therapy…Is A Trip”

  1. Another great and very relatable blog! Thanks for sharing your experience with SE. Had I not trusted a very good and respected friend of mine I would have given up on the process from the start. When she told me SE had “changed her life” I believed her from what I saw about her and decided to continue with it. Childhood trauma can be a beast to access with all the elaborate coping skills I developed throughout the years to avoid the pain of it. For me, most of the frustration in the process of SE was trying to NOT MANAGE the experience. It just simply took time for me to grasp that I didn’t need to. I think SE is very effective, but I had to have the commitment to stick with it and the hope that it would eventually provide not only insight about how I was affected by childhood trauma but some RELIEF from it. Thanks for bringing up this topic and sharing your very intimate experience, Gary. I’m grateful for your keen insight and ability to articulate so well. Very good work.

    Like

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