Toad and Me, or: Smoking Amphibian Venom for Psycho-Spiritual Health

Yes, this is a generic and stereotypical “My brain on drugs” image.

Moving with unhurried precision, the woman handed me a small wooden pipe and a lighter. Pressing myself more upright on the couch, I spared a nervous glance into the bowl, where a pinch of glassy crystals rested on a bed of dried herbs. I took a breath, slowly exhaled, and raised the pipe to my lips.

As the flame licked down into the bowl, the crystals flared for a moment, then emitted a slight crackle as they released a thick and slightly ominous smoke into the throat of the pipe. The whoosh of sensation into my eardrums was frighteningly swift, the first indication that I was heading someplace very, very far away. I was falling — fast — into a blackness shocking in its totality. In my last moment of hereness I set down the pipe with as much care as I could muster and leaned back into the couch’s embrace.

I wasn’t in a tapestry-lined dorm room or a dealer’s shabby apartment. Where I was was in the clean, functional and intentionally bland confines of a Central Eastside therapist’s office. The woman was an experienced and highly skilled therapist, and the crystals I’d just inhaled were 5-MeO-DMT, better known as “toad” for their source, the venom glands of the Sonora Desert toad. (It’s my understanding that harvesting the toxin doesn’t hurt the toad, but as with many of their ilk, worldwide populations are in serious decline.) On its face it was a patently ridiculous notion, the idea that I could find salvation by exposing myself to amphibian poison. And yet here I was.

This psychedelic journey began — or rather, resumed — a couple of years ago, when I was in my mid-40s. Forever unable to yank myself into the present, I had spent much of my life in painful alienation. Psychedelics, I hoped, would help me find a way into life, an ironic quest given the received wisdom that they were a way out of reality, not in.

I’m not sure if I’m “cured” or not, but these experiences have had lasting and profound effects. I would eventually write about Portland’s psychedelic practitioners — or as they inevitably prefer, medicine-assisted therapists — for an article in Portland Monthly magazine.

The article was satisfying to research and craft, but it was an entry-level piece by design. There was much more to say about this therapy, and some of the ways it has impacted my life. And so here we are.

Psychedelics: Business or Pleasure?

When I first smoked toad, I wasn’t new to psychedelics. As a teenager I had gravitated to them with near-magnetic attraction, desperate for a way out of the grinding sense of separation and aloneness that always seemed to keep the world at arm’s length. LSD spoke to me then; the clean, clear delineations it imposed over my perception carried an essential logic and rightness. If the teeth-grinding aftereffects were an occasional impediment to logical discourse, so be it. I had found an escape hatch from this underwhelming version of life, and I was damned if I was coming back any time soon.

But despite my insistence that these psychedelic journeys were strictly recreational, I found that, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help but derive useful insights from my experiences. What I saw in these potentiated realms gave me a fresh perspective and, just as important, the certitude to act upon what I had been shown. It was the morning after one such trip that I sat my parents down and explained that the physical abuse I had suffered at my stepmother’s hands — perfectly on par with what many, if not most children in the 1970s experienced, but traumatizing all the same — had had a major effect on my self-image. For their part, they sat in stony silence, perplexed as to exactly why their otherwise sullen and distant son had chosen this moment to come forward. But the work was done. I didn’t require any apology; just the act of sharing my feelings was catharsis enough.

One reason I insisted on the purely recreational nature of these experiences was that because in the ’80s, it was generally understood that the age of psychedelic information-gathering had come and gone. Back then, the mass ingestion of hallucinogens that had defined the latter half of the 1960s was widely judged to have been a failure. Where I grew up, in Washington, D.C., one could see the human evidence seemingly everywhere in the grey, hollow-eyed “street people” so at odds with the professional class and the crisp, angular cut of their tailored suits and shoulder-padded blazers. All that LSD seemed to have given us was some groovy tunes, a few unfortunate roof-jumpers, and a collective hangover.

But in the ’50s, long before these drugs had swept in a consciousness-raising tsunami through the culture, our conception of them was very different. As LSD’s creator, Dr. Albert Hoffman, recognized almost immediately upon taking the world’s first intentional LSD trip on April 19, 1943, the drug — originally developed to stimulate the body’s respiratory and circulatory systems — held enormous potential as a therapeutic tool.

Over the course of the next 25 years or so, researchers would produce roughly 1,000 scholarly papers on LSD and other hallucinogens. Before it was reclassified as a controlled substance under the FDA’s Schedule I, therapists used LSD to successfully treat alcoholism, neuroses, depression and a host of other maladies familiar to any casual reader of the modern self-help genre. After legal prohibition, the flood of research — much of it promising and validated by clinical trials — slowed to a trickle, then dried up completely.

A New Way of Doing Drugs

I returned to psychedelics at the gentle suggestion of my therapist. It was in some regards an odd choice: I was largely free of the chronic depression that had clouded most of my life, I was ensconced in a loving family, and I had many creative outlets. But I could not shake the old sense of separation, the feeling that I was merely watching life happen to others. Psychedelics, I hoped, might be a way to “shake up the snow globe,” to observe the stories I told about myself with a fresh perspective.

This wasn’t merely a poetic-sounding shot in the dark. One of the things hallucinogens like LSD do is to foster neural connections between parts of our brains that don’t typically communicate. For those stuck in negative feedback loops, this subtle rerouting of our “normal” thought patterns can engender the fresh perspective necessary to enact personal growth.

That’s not to say I wasn’t nervous. As a teenaged psychonaut, there was always one overriding concern before each journey: Do not have a bad trip. My fellow-travelers and I were determined to avoid the echo chamber of fear, self-doubt and negativity this ominous phrase connoted. The precautionary advice, such as it was, was to avoid deep self-reflection, to avoid dwelling on upsetting images or experiences, and if worse came to worst, to remember it would all be over soon.

Of course, for those taking psychedelics explicitly for therapeutic purposes, as I was about to do, I had the opposite intention. Very crudely speaking, my goal was to induce a “bad trip,” insofar as it involved getting up close and personal with the difficult feelings I typically work so hard to suppress and ignore. And for this, it turns out, having a trusted guide was essential.

In this case, that was a woman roughly my age who’s been a practicing therapist here in Portland for roughly 20 years. Her first brushes with psychedelics came early, growing up with “progressive hippie“ parents whom she sometimes observed in “non-ordinary states” as a youngster. Perhaps that’s why the yawning chasm of those psychedelic realms didn’t feel threatening to her, as they do for so many of us. “Before I became a therapist I was exploring these things;” she told me. “I just happen to love exploring consciousness, that heart and mind-expanding place. And I always had my eye on it from a clinical perspective.”

That opportunity first presented itself in 2012, when a patient participating in a social-anxiety disorder study asked her to facilitate a session using MDMA (he supplied the drug himself). That study was sponsored by MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which serves as both a hub of research into the use of psychedelics and an advocacy and educational organization, creating “medical, legal and cultural contexts” for people to integrate psychedelics and cannabis into their care.

The session was momentous for both patient and therapist. Some circuit — the one connecting her with the places her heart and natural curiosity told her to venture, and with her mission as a therapist, a careful listener and a healer of psychic wounds — had been closed. “After that, there was no way to go back,” she told me. Despite the threat of legal jeopardy — potentially including the loss of her therapist’s license, fines, and even jail time — she began to cautiously suggest medicine-assisted therapy to certain clients. And what she found only strengthened her conviction that, as opposed to the mediocre results obtained through psych meds, here was a way to effect real and lasting change.

Crucially, these “alternative” medicines, including MDMA, psilocybin, toad and DMT, did not replace the talk and other therapies she practiced. Rather, they leveraged it, helping engender in patients a state of neutral receptivity, even compassion and love towards the traumas, tragic tropes and painful stories we tell about ourselves. As so many of us alienated from our emotions learn, there is a vast gulf between thinking about our feelings and feeling our feelings. Medicine-assisted therapy promised a gentle — and sometimes not-so-gentle — boost into the realm of our emotions.

Encountering our darkest voices — our shadow, in Jungian terms — can be frightening, even terrifying. But in the safety of a clinician’s neutral office, and in the company of a guide careful not to interject their own directions or interpretations, a patient — in this case, I — could pop my head above the clouds and recognize that those endlessly regenerating negative stories and patterns were just that: Stories we told, or had been told, about ourselves.

Nor is a therapist’s work done once you return. While it’s natural to focus on the emotional fireworks of the psychedelic experience itself, it turns out this isn’t really where the rubber hit the road. For all the psychic (and sensory) vibrancy of, say, a psilocybin trip, it’s the days, weeks and months after the experience — what therapists called integration — that are most crucial in absorbing the perspectives and takeaways of such a journey.

Choose Your Adventure

That hit of toad I inhaled wasn’t my initial reintroduction to psychedelics. This, as I was about to discover, would have been a challenging place to begin. Instead, I had worked my way up to it, so to speak, undergoing sessions with MDMA, DMT, and changa — essentially a smokable version of ayahuasca. (I had by then also joined a circle of Portlanders who sit semi-regularly to drink ayahuasca, but that’s another story — or book — in and of itself.)

All of these experiences were hugely meaningful, in very different ways. But MDMA was the logical starting point: A warm, gentle (but hardly lulling) self-examination. MDMA isn’t hallucinogenic, strictly speaking, but rather empathogenic, fostering a deep sense of kinship and emotional connection. It did not solve my problems for me — if I’m honest, this was an outcome I yearned for — but it helped suggest a new, more accepting orientation towards them. And like those psychedelic excursions of my youth, it reminded me that there were other ways of perceiving the world around me and my relationship to it. For a firm rationalist and skeptic such as myself, it was an invitation into magic, one I surprised myself by accepting with increasing ardor.

But then came toad. Even as a reasonably seasoned experimenter, the experience of that medicine was very different from all the others I had ever worked with. This is what it felt like:

As I set down the pipe and felt myself dropping into blackness, I became afraid. Like, break out in a sweat afraid, which is not something that had happened even in the darkest and most challenging byways and eddies of my ayahuasca journeys. My guide was still close by, and — though she now seemed to be several galaxies away — her quiet presence reminded me that what I was feeling was okay, was normal, that I had come here not to be punished but to learn. I relaxed into the mystery enveloping me, and I began to look around.

The problem was that there was nothing to see. If a psychedelic trip often suggests that there are more dimensions than the three or four we commonly acknowledge — perhaps even an infinite number — toad did the opposite, collapsing them all into one, or possibly none. Even in the dark, there are usually gradations of shadow to help orient us, to remind us that we are still tethered to this world, the world of light and shapes and floors and ceilings and walls. Now there were not only not any familiar guideposts, but even my own internal guidepost — the silent Watcher who had observed my every move in this world; my ego, the part of me who told me who I am — had vanished.

If you’re interested at all in the world of sound and audio, you may know what an anechoic chamber is. In the strictest sense, it’s a room specially designed for testing microphones and speakers. Typically covered in absorbent foam stalactites (or is it stalagmites?) engineered to break up and absorb sound waves, they are unnervingly silent inside. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that about the longest a person can stay inside one is about 45 minutes. After that — and usually long before — the disorientation engendered by the lack of usual sonic signatures and reflections we use to place ourselves in space becomes literally maddening.

That’s a rough approximation of what my experience now felt like. For someone who thinks himself to distraction about his place in the world, keenly attuned to the silent and overt reflections and messages from those around me, it was profoundly unsettling. But if it was strange, it was not uncomfortable; far from it. If there were no dimensions to this pitch-black realm, there were also no dimensions inside me. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was free of that interior voice telling me something was amiss, that I should feel anxious here, that I was doing it wrong.

As a writer, it’s my job to tell you what happened in place X during time Y. So it’s a challenge to describe that brief time — perhaps 15 minutes at most — in toad. Nothing “happened” here; I didn’t progress from points A to B. But if this experience lacked the hallmarks of a “regular” psychedelic trip — if such a thing exists — it was without much doubt the most profound of my life (and I say this as a grateful and committed ayahuasca devotee).

If I struggle to describe the void in which I floated those few minutes, I’ll never forget what happened upon reemerging. As the familiar landmarks began to reappear around me, my senses gently coming back online, I told my guide: “I know this sounds crazy, but I feel like I’ve been given my life back.”

Trippy or trite though this may sound, it was true. Something very elemental had shifted inside me, a quiet fracture appearing in what had always seemed like an eternal and implacable rock face. In the following weeks and months, those cracks would grow and spread. I worried less about others’ perceptions of me, whether I was in the “right place” or doing the “right things” with my life. My impulse to be open-hearted without needing a particular response or reflection from others deepened. I could see in other people’s faces that this was often uncomfortable to witness. That was okay too.

Most of all, I felt a subtle but unmistakable rightness in myself. My struggles still came — I should be earning more money; I should have started this process decades ago — but there was a distinct remove to them now. I could observe them, touch on their dull ache of discomfort and threat, without being consumed by them.

We’re all traumatized, to greater or lesser degrees. As the recent book The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and All Can Thrive suggests, some of us are predisposed to handle it with greater ease than others. This notion resonated with me. What if, instead of understanding my early trauma as having defined me, I could recognize that it had merely kicked my instinct for self-preservation into high gear? Rather than living the “wrong” life, what if I had always been destined to be a creative and a questioner, built to see the discontinuities where others see only accord? Once I adopted this deeper perspective on my own story, my experiences with psychedelic medicines began to feel less like an excursion into the unknown than merely a return to myself.

My therapist, of course, had plenty of perspective on this phenomenon. “From the clinical perspective, trauma is a disconnect from your essential self,” she explained; “That’s what it does, it pulls you away from your core.” In the few weeks before we spoke, she continued, she had facilitated three psilocybin-assisted sessions with unrelated patients. And coincidentally — or not — during their sessions they had each uttered the exact same sentence: “I’m being asked to come on home.”