Psychedelics are going through a serious revival right now. Clinical trials are taking place with LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), MDMA is already being used to treat PTSD, and ketamine is being prescribed for depression (you’ve probably heard all of this countless times). Now is most certainly a great time to explore the unusual and deeply expressive headspaces that these substances have to offer.
Additionally, the stigma around psychedelics is disappearing too. It is becoming easier to have a legitimate and open discussion about them with people from all walks of life, regardless of whether they have tried them or not. These drugs are getting a new-found respect.
As a highly experienced user of psychedelics, it excites me to see people share so many great stories about them, and it excites me even further to know that doctors and researchers are now listening too. But as someone who has had both glorious and down-right terrible experiences with these drugs, I feel there needs to be some balance to the discussion because they can do as much damage as they can good.
In particular, I want to talk about traumatic trips, or psychedelic trauma. These are the sorts of experiences that end up leaving a stain on your mind. They cause you not to shudder but to freeze, break down and close off. You could simply call them bad trips but that term diminishes their significance. Trauma is not bad; it is unimaginably worse than that.
While the psychedelic community (mostly) accepts that bad trips can happen, you’ll struggle to come across somebody who believes that psychedelic trauma exists unless they have experienced it for themselves. Try and tell somebody that you’ve experienced trauma from a trip and you’ll be met with responses like the following:
“You weren’t ready for psychedelics”.
“You didn’t consider your set and setting”.
“You should use this as a period for growth”.
What do all of these have in common? They squarely place the blame on the victim. I have heard all these responses before, because I have had psychedelic trauma myself. It is different from a classic bad trip, it is something that carries itself into your sober living. It haunts your thoughts and it causes you to change your lifestyle (and not for the better).
I’m not going to say I was blameless in my trauma as I knowingly took LSD on that day and I already knew how powerful of a chemical it was. But I was not unready, it was not caused by my set and setting, and it has most certainly not been a period for growth. When I developed my trauma I was already experienced with LSD, so I knew what to expect from a trip, and I knew how to prepare for one both mentally and environmentally. I had tested my tab and had taken a reasonable dose (I’m a lightweight so I never need much). By all accounts, it should have been a good time, and for the most part it actually was. I’d say that 95% of my trip was great, it was just one tiny thing that turned it into a nightmare.
Now, I’ve explained that I knew what I was doing with LSD and I still developed trauma, but really that shouldn’t matter. Whether it was my first time or my 1000th time, it wouldn’t have diminished my experience by any stretch of the imagination. Trauma is serious regardless of how it comes about.
Why is the psychedelic community in denial about trauma?
I believe it comes down to the types of relationships people think they have with these drugs. A lot of trippers believe that psychedelics are wholly a bastion of good, and that they only show you what you need to see. I can understand where these people are coming from, and considering the amount of positivity they have done for my life, I still have an affinity for them, but to say that psychedelics are wholly a source of good feels naive. Psychedelics are tools, meaning that by default they are neutral. Whether they have a good or bad impact on someone is dependant a plethora of factors, some that the tripper themselves can control, and a lot that nobody can control.
Is trauma from psychedelics different from other types of trauma?
A little. It’s more abstract. Developing trauma while in such a complex and messy headspace causes the event to get tangled up, making it at times unfathomable. This can be a problem because it can prevent you from being able to make sense of the situation, causing a rift between you and some much-needed closure. Of course, that makes recovery tough as well.
It can also put a damper on future trips. When you develop trauma from a trip, other trips can transport you back to your most vulnerable state. For some, that means they can never trip again without reigniting their trauma. For others, it means abstaining for a few months or even years.
For myself, I found that my trauma dissipated and became at least partially untangled in the months to come afterwards. However, it never fully left me, and I predict it never will. While nowadays I could take psychedelics again and be confident that it wouldn’t trigger anything in me, my experience has made me starkly aware of how complex and multifaceted psychedelics can really be, and how easy they can turn on a person for seemingly no preventable reason.