It may not be an easy conversation to start with your lover (or family). These insights and resources may help.
By Charlotte Nicholson
I’m a yoga teacher, freelance writer and documentary producer. I’ve been working with psychedelics for a couple of years now as a tool to heal emotionally and psychologically from ‘big’ traumas that have left their imprints on me, including divorce and professional burnout, but also more subtle phenomena that have been clinging to various layers of me, such as repetitive patterns in relationships, or a sense of not-enoughness that seems to persist independently of how hard I work, how much I achieve. I’m now taking yoga and breathwork into psychedelic retreats, having experienced first-hand their power both to help people open bodies and minds to the experience, and to re-embody, re-ground and stabilise afterwards.
Recently a friend approached me wanting to find out more about working with psychedelics, specifically wanting to do a large dose of psilocybin. But he didn’t want his wife to know. Equally, friends who work as facilitators of psychedelic healing sessions have spoken to many interested participants who’ve been looking into it without their partner’s knowledge. There are still so many negative perceptions around psychedelics, which are still illegal in many countries, that they have no idea how to broach the subject. So, the partner remains in the dark, while they prepare for a potentially life-changing intervention.
Yet you wouldn’t embark on psychotherapy without telling your partner, would you? Most of us do not exist in isolation but within relationships, family and/or community networks. And so undertaking therapy, which seeks to excavate and examine our belief and self-belief systems, our psychological and behavioural patterns, our emotional landscapes — ingrained in our personalities as a result of some inter-mixture of parenting, education and social conditioning — impacts not only ourselves but those to whom we are closely connected. That’s largely the point of embarking on therapy.
Moreover, just a single psilocybin, ayahuasca or MDMA session has the potential to deliver several months’ or years’ worth of therapeutic insight in just a few hours. You’ll leave the house earlier in the day as the you your partner knows, and return…. well, they’ll notice.
“Personally I also wouldn’t have wanted to introduce a lie into the relationship… and it cuts you off from an area of support…”
…says Russell from Washington D.C., in his sixties, who has been supported by his wife through psilocybin and ayahuasca therapy to address recurrent depression following his mother’s death.
So, consider applying the same logic to psychedelic therapy. Talk to your partner. Or, if you’re not in a relationship but are close to your family, consider opening up to one or more of them.
This article pulls together some ideas about why and how to do this from people who have worked with psychedelics, some of whom have involved partners and/or families on their journeys.
You will also find a separate Wholeness Resource Guide published on Inner Journeys, which contains a directory pulling together links to resources that I, along with friends, colleagues and teachers, have found the most valuable when working with, and introducing newcomers to, the idea of psychedelics (along with many other healing tools).
Why your partner will know something has happened
Regardless of whether or not you tell your partner, they will know that something significant has happened. And if you are in a committed relationship, which, by definition, you are both invested in — both emotionally and most likely financially — it will have an impact on the relationship. Not just the relationship, but many other aspects of your life. And that will affect their life, too, as they walk alongside you.
I’ve worked with ayahuasca, psilocybin and LSD. There is no way I could have crept back into my marital bed without my husband (now amicably my ex-husband, but regardless, it could be any long-term partner) wondering what was different about the person lying in bed next to him. I would have looked the same, had the same voice, the same laugh, the same sense of humour, the same mannerisms. My essence — the invisible, indescribable thing that drew him to me, with which he fell in love — would not have changed. But what would have changed is that I, perhaps for the first time, would have connected in with that true essence myself.
Soul, self, heart, personal divinity, whatever you want to call it. I would probably, in some way, have seen or felt the pure ‘me’ that is untouched by the environment in which I’ve grown up; the ‘me’ beneath my behavioural armour, beneath the self-image constructed through the eyes of others. And the result would, very likely, be a new and embodied sense of my innate uniqueness and worth and beauty; a wanting to love and give more, and be better, especially to those closest to me; and some sort of crucial realisation around a greater purpose in life.
This is how Jordan, 37, from California — after working with ayahuasca in Peru — puts it:
“December 10th of 2019 was the day when my life changed forever. It was the day that I saw who I AM for the first time in my life. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. To this day, the most profound day of my life.”
And this is Alex M., 36, from Germany:
“Going into my experience, I asked to understand my full potential as a man. What I was given was a fight with my ‘inner dragon’, which represented all the fears that kept me from doing what I’m truly capable of. I still get goosebumps every time I think about it. Defeating it opened my eyes to a way of living I was afraid to accept before. Now I see that it was always my responsibility to step up and decide to live life on my own terms and no-one else’s.”
This shifts your perspective on a few things and impacts the kind of person you want to be in this world. The kind of parent, sibling, child, friend or partner you want to show up as, the job you want to do — or suddenly not do — the lifestyle you desire, the legacy you want to leave behind. And you are likely to feel the urge to do something with these new insights.
I left the jungle after an ayahuasca retreat with a determination to steer my life onto a different course — one removed from the full-speed, big bucks, polluted scramble of corporate London, with more time spent living closer to nature, and contributing more to the communities of which I am a part.
These kinds of decisions cannot come as if out of nowhere, without explanation. It would be alarming and disorientating. The person who knows you most intimately has a right not to feel as though they are sleeping next to a stranger.
I invite you to consider trying to make the journey towards psychedelic therapy a collaboration.
Get your partner (or other loved one) involved at the research stage.
Why psychedelics, why not normal therapy?
Why don’t you just go and talk to someone, like most people do? This was one of the questions my family asked me.
In fact, I have had normal therapy. Over the years, I’ve had:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy
- Cognitive hypnotherapy
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) sessions, for trauma release
And I practice yoga and meditation daily. All of them have been incredibly valuable tools for managing my mental and emotional health, identifying harmful patterns of behaviour or beliefs about myself and for supporting my personal and spiritual development. Psychedelics do not replace these methods. And in fact, many of them can be extremely valuable when integrating powerful psychedelic experiences in the days, weeks and months afterwards (which I talk about more below).
What psychedelics uniquely offer is a kind of rocket booster to what it is you’re already feeling your way towards, whether with therapy or the sabbatical you’ve suddenly taken because some voice from within urged you to go and find, well, something else.
“After burning out in my 20s, which brought me to the edge of my mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, I made a promise to myself that I’d start looking for answers to my happiness elsewhere than in the material world. I read books, I started meditating, I listened to podcasts, I travelled, I had meditation-based coaching. But until I found psychedelics as a tool to connect deep within, these answers remained elusive. The wisdom and knowledge I was so desperately craving wasn’t found anywhere but INSIDE me, and psychedelics were the most powerful gateway to this truth…”
…says Alex F., 32, from Germany, who has worked in healing settings with LSD, MDMA, psilocybin and ayahuasca.
While yoga teacher training and the study of Eastern philosophies had over a period of years educated me about concepts like universal consciousness, the one-ness of us all and the illusion of self, and my meditation practice was beginning to lift these ideas off the page and edge them — in glimpses — into day-to-day moments, ayahuasca rolled its sleeves up and made me feel them, in an embodied way, as vivid lived sensations over a period of hours and days. It made me feel their truth. I arrived at depths — not just depths but other dimensions, a consciousness greater than my own little ego and the narrow world it constructs for me — that I’d begun to have an inkling about. And that awareness, that certainty that can only come from experiencing something myself, first-hand, with my own flesh and mind and heart, has become a solid anchor, a secure foundation from which to move forward in life with faith, as well as more conscious, clearer-sighted and more purposeful.
But — and this is a big ‘but’ — these kinds of stories of spiritual awakening can be hard to lead with if you’re trying to persuade someone to open their minds to the idea of psychedelic therapy, especially if neither you nor they have had any kind of strong spiritual leanings previously. This language has the power to unsettle in families and communities more used to the language of science and Western medicine. As does the idea of you having to disappear off into a jungle halfway across the world to receive ‘medicine’ from a shaman, or onto a retreat to in the Netherlands to eat magic ‘truffles’.
“My decision to work with psychedelics for my own development and emotional liberation was so profound and radical in itself that it automatically had a big impact on my relationship. My partner was critical. She had fears and prejudices against the work and was afraid I would change at the speed of light and she would not be able to keep up with me. But she kept an open mind and committed to learning more…”
…acknowledges Alex M.
It’s complex because it’s an alien way of thinking about healing to many in the West, with its infinite specialisms that splinter body and mind up into so many different parts, its emphasis on medications created in a lab and each designed to target one particular malfunctioning part, and on instruments and measurements and double-blind-placebo and peer review.
So, harnessing the Western science in this arena to make your case can be very helpful. It can break the ice.
The science of psychedelics
Here’s a taster of what’s out there.
There’s a rapidly expanding body of research to draw upon, carried out at some of the world’s most prestigious health institutions, from Imperial College London to Johns Hopkins University in the US and the University of Basel in Switzerland. Their government-sanctioned clinical trials with substances including MDMA, DMT (the psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca), psilocybin and LSD are producing such extraordinary results with conditions like treatment-resistant depression, PTSD and addiction that bodies like the FDA and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency are granting approval for these therapies to head into medical settings.
Of the results obtained by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies’ (MAPS) FDA-approved trials involving MDMA, founder Rick Doblin has said:
“In the pharmaceutical drug development community, this is what you dream about. The results of the interim analysis of MAPS’ pivotal first Phase 3 trial are the most powerful evidence yet that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could help transform the lives of people suffering from PTSD.”
How do psychedelics uniquely facilitate such fundamental shifts in our psyches in such short time frames, where other treatments have failed?
Research led by Robin Carhartt-Harris at Imperial College London, in which people’s brains were scanned whilst under the influence of psilocybin, seems to support the idea that it has the capacity to topple the cognitive architecture with which we painstakingly construct our sense of `I’ (similar effects have been observed with LSD and ayahuasca). This `I’ infrastructure, a group of interacting brain regions including the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex that has been called the Default Mode Network (DFM), is believed to help our unusually big brains filter the bewildering mass of sensory and cognitive input they are deluged with millisecond by millisecond through the prism of a constructed self, prioritising the information that is most relevant to that self’s individual survival and success. It instils order from disorder, creating the equivalent of algorithms that our brains use to shortcut our responses to whatever life throws at us, drawing on autobiographical memory (past experiences) and perceived wants and needs — the visions we’ve constructed of our desired futures – to make decisions faster and, in theory, more focused. But this efficiency comes at the expense of all sorts of other possible dimensions and directions of thought.
Neuroscientists, including Carhartt-Harris, have suggested that when we ingest psychedelics, those rigid neural circuits and junctions of ‘I’ soldered in the motherboards of our brains by the ways we’ve been raised and the norms and expectations we’ve absorbed from the environments around us — and that become more rigid as we age — short-circuit, in a sense.
“It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away.” — (Investigative journalist Michael Pollan, from his №1 New York Times best-selling book, How To Change Your Mind).
Why is this important?
When the ego recedes into the background (something often referred to slightly intimidatingly in the psychedelic healing world as ‘ego death’), disorder and entropy are re-introduced, returning our brain to a more primitive, childlike, ‘primary state’. New neural bridges are thrown up that suddenly connect previously distant parts of our brains, a phenomenon called neuro-plasticity, essentially ‘brain flexibility’.
Self-awareness, obsessive introspection, narrow-mindedness and fixed certainties about our self and its place in the world dissolve for a while, and we are freed of our habitual and sometimes blinkered ways of seeing, doing and thinking, un-clogged by the traffic of prejudice, expectation and judgement. The stage is set for the penetration of new ideas, insights, concepts and ways of perceiving our lives.
This unparalleled access to our unconscious also includes an ability to retrieve repressed memories from the corners into which they’ve been tucked away, including of traumatising events. The current gold standard treatments for PTSD — aside from SSRI anti-depressants, which address symptoms rather than cause and can have significant side effects — are cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and prolonged exposure (PE) therapy. These, too, involve recalling traumatic events so that their memories can be stripped of fearful associations by re-processing them in a new way. But re-living these events can prove too terrifying for a lot of people. Research has shown that psychedelics have the capacity not only to retrieve past traumas, but to simultaneously dampen an overactive emotional response when it is re-lived. MDMA, LSD and psilocybin have all been found to reduce activation of the amygdala, a region of our brains associated with emotional processing, particularly regulating our stress response to fearful stimuli, meaning the memory can be confronted without it being so severely triggering.
However, not everyone seeking to work with psychedelics will be struggling with PTSD, addiction, anxiety, depression or another diagnosed condition.
And if you’ve had a relatively ‘normal’ upbringing — and perhaps even have a hugely successful life, outwardly — then you may also need to explain to those closest to you that not all trauma is obvious.
‘Big’ trauma and ‘small’ trauma
There is a risk — especially if everything seems pretty OK from the outside — that announcing to your partner that you want to undertake psychedelic therapy may be taken as some kind of negative reflection of life in relationship with them.
“You think, ‘why? Am I falling short somehow that you would need to do something like this? Am I not the perfect spouse? Where’s the person I know? Where is all this coming from?’ “
… says Laura, from Washington D.C., who has supported her husband, Russell, through psychedelic healing work with psilocybin and ayahuasca.
“It’s all about ME and my insecurities, fear of being rejected. Fear of a wedge being driven between you. Needing to be reassured. All of a sudden the relationship doesn’t seem so solid….”
Because we tend to associate the word ‘trauma’ with exposure to something catastrophic— a war, physical, psychological or sexual abuse, a life-changing accident or natural disaster —so it’s little wonder loved ones may be quick to take offence.
But there is such a thing as ‘small’ trauma, eye-openingly described in the works of Dr Gabor Mate, Bessel Van Der Kolk and Mark Wolynn, inherited family trauma expert and author of It Didn’t Start With You. Removals of choice and agency that mould children to a perceived ideal not their own, by parents doing their best with what they’ve been handed by their parents. Expressions on faces, tones of voice, emotional manipulation, denials of youthful truths. Words unconsciously chosen to frighten or discourage, or to provoke guilt or shame. A daily language of put-downs and ‘must-try-harders’, which nibble away at a person’s sense of self-worth and ‘enoughness’, are a war too, simply of a different kind, waged on a different scale. These things also leave imprints, and our endlessly repeated reactions to them become ingrained behavioural adaptations that can perpetuate patterns of parenting, of self-image and of world view, with the potential to impact our own children in turn.
“I had become aware through years of personal development coaching that my endless search for approval and validation through performance and achievements stemmed from my relationship with my father, for whom nothing I did ever seemed enough to make him proud.
But I had been completely unaware that the relationship between my mother and me, which had close to no personal boundaries and was full of emotional enmeshment, had contributed to the failure of a string of previous relationships. Working with ayahuasca brought this to light, and I was able to finally free myself of love addiction and love avoidance cycles that had been repeating themselves over and over…”
…explains Alex F. (he goes into more detail in this article).
Laura offers this by way of advice to partners who may feel threatened by their loved ones’ intention to work with psychedelics:
“You should never take it personally. We’re all grappling with what we live for and what we want from our relationships, including with ourselves. For me it was a case of ‘am I going to examine this fear, or am I just going to project it outward?’
Fear comes from a lack of knowledge. Talk about it. Ask them to provide as much information as possible — articles, podcasts — whatever language resonates with you. Put a face on the unknown and make it human. I read as much as I could.
Beyond that, at some point I had to just take a leap of faith. But I think it’s brought us closer for the fact that I just trusted him.”
Although it may not necessarily be the partner of the person seeking to work with psychedelics that has the greatest concerns. Gregor from Germany explains:
“My wife was actually approving of my decision from the beginning because she has been in psychotherapy and it really helped her. She has also had a some experience with micro-dosing, so she is not completely unaware of the potential of these substances. I’m actually the one who’s had concerns about a gap being created between us, because I’m making real progress, recognising connections and becoming more aware of behaviours, whereas she does not want to — or is not ready to — do deeper work. So it requires a lot from us, but she is the mother of my children. We are family. For me, separation is not an option.”
The case made by ‘the science’ for the psycho-emotional healing potential of psychedelics is undeniably compelling.
But ultimately what my and others’ loved ones have wanted to know is: how safe is it?
Safety: Set, setting and integration
My mother said:
“I just want to know that it won’t damage you; that you’ll come back as you, just with more insight.”
And my sister — married to a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan living with the effects of PTSD, who would in theory be a prime candidate for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy — echoed her.
“If my husband decided he wanted to do it, I’d want to know the risks. Are there potential side effects? How do you make the experience as safe as possible? What are the safety protocols?”
Safety protocols in psychedelic-assisted therapeutic work are collectively described as ‘set and setting’, a phrase coined by Harvard psychologist and psychedelics advocate Timothy Leary in the Sixties, to describe the mindset with which you approach taking a psychedelic and the context in which you journey.
Describes how well-prepared you are personally, and with the guidance of your facilitator/s.
At the physical level, for example, not being on any other substances, including alcohol or contraindicated medications, and declaring any medical conditions, such as a history of heart problems, that could leave you vulnerable to potentially dangerous physiological side effects. Then there is the quality of your diet, indicating how well you resource your body nutritionally for what can be a physically demanding experience.
Mentally, it can include ensuring a lack of any history of psychosis, which can be badly triggered by psychedelics, and that you are well-informed about the substance you’ll be taking.
And emotionally, it means considering the support infrastructure you have around you — family, friends, community, therapist, grounding practices like yoga and meditation — to lean on in order to stabilise should difficult material arise.
The Temple of the Way of Light in Peru (where plant medicines are legal), the facilitation team – which includes highly regarded Amazonian shamans with decades of experience alongside psychiatrists, psychologists, naturopathic doctors and yoga therapists – makes applicants fill in a detailed and time-consuming medical questionnaire. It covers physical and mental wellbeing as well as asking for details of your social support network. I was also asked for the details of a therapist or other medical professional they could cross-reference my information with if they felt it necessary.
In The Netherlands (where magic ‘truffles’ are legal) Synthesis is a well-reputed psilocybin retreat headed up by mental health professionals, cognitive scientists, psychotherapists and psychologists. They use the same medical precautions for their screening process — which begins with a phone call, followed by a questionnaire — that are used in clinical studies with psilocybin taking place in the Netherlands, Europe, the UK and the US.
Describes where you’re doing it and who you will be with. Does it feel welcoming, safe and legally sanctioned, and will your needs be met? How experienced is your guide/s and do you trust him/her/them?
This is important, because the psychedelic retreats ‘business’ is growing exponentially and there is a highly exploitative dark side, for example the ‘ayahuasca tourism’ that exists in Peru and books people onto retreats just as they would a day out like a jungle trek. It is vital to do your research.
“I chose to do ayahuasca at The Temple of the Way of Light because it has been established for more than a decade and has an excellent reputation, being linked with some pretty impressive international research institutions. Personally, I also never do the first course in anything — meditation retreats or anything else — because I think a course needs to run a few times to learn from what is taking place. It gives me that reassurance that OK, people have run this before and they’ve learned from it, and that makes me feel safer…”
…explains Rob, 38, from the UK, a veteran of Iraq.
However, the health and safety infrastructure of the psychedelic healing world is becoming more and more robust. Organisations like MAPS – which is engaged not only in cutting edge clinical research but also in leading psychedelic retreats and accrediting psychedelic facilitators — publish protocols to guide safe practice throughout the psychedelic guiding community.
In The Netherlands, where hundreds of retreats are on offer every year, a number of high-profile facilitators recently co-founded the Guild of Guides. ‘A professional association of psychedelic practitioners with robust policy and rigorous requirements for members working with truffles’, it has openly published its code of conduct.
In the UK (where psychedelics are still illegal) the Institute of Psychedelic Therapy, led by a team of clinical psychiatrists, psychotherapists and yoga therapists, several of whom had long careers within NHS mental health services, offers training for psychedelic facilitators and develops guidelines for ethical practice.
If you are confident that you are in expert hands in comfortable surroundings, you’re more likely to be able to surrender to the experience and it is more likely to be rewarding, even if it is, at times, challenging.
And things can get challenging. People can encounter side effects in the form of psychological difficulties when confronted by the darker corners of their minds for the first time, sometimes retrieving memories of events of which they were not consciously aware. Or after having something akin to a spiritual awakening that challenges everything they had previously believed about themselves and the world.
Which is why it is vital to have a proper safety net in place to catch you — social and/or familial support, a body-mind-breath practice and access to a therapist — in order to safely ‘integrate’ what you have experienced.
I left the Temple of the Way of Light with a 12-page integration guide detailing what to expect in the coming weeks and months, how to nourish my body, practices that could help me ground and stabilise along with links to resources and contact details of integration therapists. Here are some extracts:
“Undergoing such a deep healing process is in essence like a surgery — of your energy body, mind, heart and soul. Therefore, after coming out of major ‘energetic surgery,’ you may experience ‘post-op’ difficulties; feeling disconnected, off-center, emotions surfacing that have been suppressed for many years, difficulty associating with day-to-day life and not relating with people who have not been through the same experience as you. This is still part of the healing process and will pass.
Commit to learning how to work with this new sensitivity, rather than struggling against it. This means learning and practicing new tools — like meditation, breathwork, bodywork or spending more time in nature — transforming your way of being from the inside.
Face any difficulties and discomforts, don’t try to suppress them — ‘true healing is about better feeling, not feeling better.’”
Something else, beyond my yoga and meditation practice and sessions with my psychotherapist, proved vital. Continued access to, and support from, the group of people from around the world who were ‘in ceremony’ beside me via our shared WhatsApp group. Being able to talk to people who’ve had similar experiences is important. There are increasing numbers of psychedelic integration networks springing up to connect people undergoing the process, like the Psychedelic Integration Group, which runs monthly meet-ups in London. They are co-hosted by clinical psychologist Rosalind Watts, who was Clinical Lead of the Imperial College Psilocybin for Depression trial. There are many more such networks advertised globally on platforms like Eventbrite, Meetup.com and by organisations such as The Psychedelic Society UK (which also runs its own retreats).
Russell’s wife, Laura, echoes this:
“The first thing I noticed straight away after he came back was these new connections he’d made with other people he’d done the ayahuasca retreat with, and how tight they’d all become because they’d lived it together. These new, deep, intimate friendships are opening up a side of him that I haven’t seen. I feel it’s important to have that part of yourself that’s nurtured by other relationships, so you don’t lean on your partner too much.”
The bottom line is, I would say, don’t try and do this work alone. Including your partner (and/or other loved ones) on your journey means that they can be prepared for what comes afterwards, too. They can have their own support system in place, as well as feeling they are hand-in-hand with you if you decide to effect changes in your life.
When I caught up again with Alex M., he had this to say about how his ongoing work with psychedelics has changed his relationship:
“Through deep connection with myself, it became possible to connect with my partner on a higher level. This gave us both a new confidence in the relationship, with the effect that we communicate more openly, more softly and benevolently and much more clearly, driven less by ego. Because of the huge effect the work had on me and my system, my partner has locked into this energy instead of resisting it. She has made the decision to do more inner work herself, independently of whether we stay together or not. This fills me with joy, confidence and a deep feeling of connection. It’s a new level…”
For a comprehensive list of all the resources I’ve mentioned in this article and more, including directories of integration therapists provided by MAPS and other organisations, please head over to the Inner Journeys Wholeness Resource Guide.