Harm Reduction

Transcript: Rethinking Mental Health With Psychedelics

The Third Wave · April 16th, 2020

Please enjoy this transcript of Rethinking Mental Health With Psychedelics podcast episode.

Our guest for this episode is Anthony David Adams, entrepreneur and life coach, who shares his remarkable journey through childhood trauma, mental health issues, and psychedelics. Anthony describes how psychedelics helped him face his traumas more starkly than ever before, allowing him to heal and embark on a new story of self-discovery.

In this episode we talk about:

00:25 Paul Austin: Hey listeners and welcome back to the Third Wave podcast, your host Paul Austin coming at you with another episode with a good friend of mine, Anthony Adams, who I met when I visited New York City last June. Anthony is the creator of The Love Game: 36 Questions for Falling in Love and he also has done some personal work with MDMA and psilocybin. So basically in this conversation we dug into what that personal work was, how it relates to him being diagnosed as schizo when he was, I think, 19 or 20 and what led then him to a path of seeking alternative treatments outside of the typical pharmaceutical model, including how to work with certain substances in that way. Now, the disclaimer, this is one person’s experience as we know about psychedelics, for those who are predisposed to some sort of psychosis, the rule by and large don’t do psychedelics. So let that be a warning. However, this is the N Equals One for a friend of mine, Anthony Adams. So let’s get right to it.

01:46 Anthony David Adams: I’d been diagnosed with bipolar and was like suicidal on Golden Gate Bridge and my particular, I guess, variety of… Things were very psychedelic for me for my entire decade in my 20s, there was… I had visions and I’d be in kind of alternate realities. I think that the reality that many… I had a friend who’s a psychotherapist in San Francisco and he said to me, “Anthony, the mental state that you’re sort of just in all the time or can easily go into by looking at someone in the right way or breathing in a certain way… ” He’s like, “guys like me spend like five grand to go in the woods and like do all the drugs to feel that way for like a weekend.” He’s like, “So, it’s not there’s anything wrong with you, it’s just that like learning how to work with that space is gonna be useful.”

02:40 AA: So that guy, Peter Carinocha, mispronounced his last name, this guy Peter, a friend of mine, Peter, his advice kind of helped me to deal with some of that stuff before I was even, before I was healed but or before I understood how to reorient myself around this stuff. Yeah? But that first experience, I remember consciously choosing to feel emotion, this was very clear to me that there was a bunch of anger, there was a bunch of stuff inside, a lot of pain inside of me that I had refused to look at and had been blaming an ex-girlfriend for, and just had a lot of projecting on a pain on to other people in a lot ways. And there was one night when I made this conscious, it was like a decision or an insight. And literally, there was a woman at my bedside who had her arms out like this. “This is your pain, this pain is your medicine you need to drink this.” She was like shimmering green. I didn’t even know that that was an Ayahuasca thing, later on an Ayahuasca shaman told me that that was, apparently Ayahuasca can visit you when you don’t, without the medicine or something so to speak?

03:48 PA: Okay.

03:48 AA: So this image comes to me at my bedside, arms out, “You need to drink your pain, this is your medicine” so I did and I went inside myself and it was a four hour ordeal that was a visual of going into this writhing ball of black eels and just this like cold and kinda like in almost The Matrix sort of like thing. And I think I just passed out after hours of laying in my bed, thinking I was gonna die. And I came out of that and there were a couple of things that were noticeable. One was that there was this deep sense of peace. There was a voice in my mind that said, “compassion goes a long way” as sort of like a directive, like increase compassion and just increased kind of sense of what the next steps were I had to take and there was this kind of re-alignment with synchronicity. The ex-girlfriend that I had been triggering into all this pain from was her being reluctant to…

04:48 AA: She’d say “I wanna talk to you” and then she said, “I don’t” and it was kind of just this recurrent pattern and I was really pissed at her, and before the ordeal I was about to send a kind of, you know, launch a text message offensive just “Fuck you” or something and I’d refrained from doing that. And when I awoke from this ordeal, I recalled there’s this voice like I mentioned, saying like, “Kindness goes a long way”. And then I looked at my phone and it was like the three dots of her about to text me. And so then I was able to bring that into the interaction and kind of guided us through the next phase of our relationship. It wasn’t the end of it but that was the first time that I feel like I had a conscious ego death in a way, that I chose to go into something challenging and emerged from it with conscious psychosis in a way. And then that kind of began to shift how I started to approach relationship and different things, and ultimately it was that orientation that led me back to or that led me to MDMA in a way, kind of as a tool that might facilitate me being able to access some things inside that I hadn’t been able to previously.

05:52 PA: Okay.

05:53 AA: But, yeah, that first experience, I mean it really was… And then later on, when I shared that with someone who was like, an Ayahuasca, I forget the name, Ayahuasquero. She… I was talking to her about Ayahuasca, etcetera. And when we spoke of that, she just said, “Oh that was Ayahuasca.” She comes to you like when you’re ready and when you need her. And I was like, “But I didn’t take any medicine.” She’s like, “Oh, often people drink the medicine,” but sometimes she comes anyway. So I was like not… I’m not making any claim of what that is one way or the other. But that was her interpretation of that experience, you know. And when I thought about it, it was literally a shimmering green woman with her arms out like, “Drink this medicine.” Yeah. So that was kind of the first initiation point and then…

06:38 PA: So, what happened prior to that?

06:40 AA: It’s interesting because I think that I’ve had sort of this kind of non-normative so to speak, experience my entire life. Where I didn’t really understand that not everyone was kind of in this world of metaphor, and synchronicity. That for me, I was always just checking people like, “Oh is that what your realities are” I kinda assumed everyone’s reality was like that, but it turns out it really, maybe wasn’t. Some people have never had a mystical experience, which always blows me away, ’cause I have one every couple hours or something, every day or something. [chuckle] You know what I mean? Which I always thought was par for the course. But when I was a kid, I remember things like being very interested in psychedelics, just like the archetypes of the mushroom and sort of the hero’s journey. And when I was like 10, I made a stop motion animation of clay of like a bear going into the woods and eating a mushroom and sort of having a transcendent experience. I wasn’t taking mushrooms when I was 10 years old, I don’t even know where that comes from, but there was something that I was just drawn towards these types of archetypes. When I was a teenager, I discovered psychedelics kind of by… Not by accident. I think there was something with the music, I was listening to Phish and a part of that community, but I wasn’t taking psychedelics.

08:04 AA: A couple of marines at my high school, dosed my Powerade at lunch. It was sort of like, quite synchronistic in a way. I mean, marines, are like kids that were enrolled in the Marines, that were like seniors you know, sort of like Marines in training. Which was so interesting, ’cause at the time I was reading Acid Dreams, which was talking about the history of LSD and the CIA, and the military dosing the American Culture in the 60s. And then I have this microcosm of that in my high school, these two marine kids throwing blotter in my Powerade. And that was my initiation into psychedelics when I was 16. And it was intense and terrifying and thank God I had a best friend who was with me and said, “Okay, well, I’ll take some too.” He just grabbed somebody’s… “I’ll be here with you in this moment.” My friend, Cory, who’s still one of my best friends today. And then I got into psychedelics, kind of recreationally.

09:00 AA: I was using them on the weekends and Phish shows and this kind of thing. It felt like there was something going on spiritually but it wasn’t grounded in any kind of… The tradition that it was grounded in was just going and getting blasted at a show. Which maybe has some… There’s something there, there’s some celebratory thing happening. But it was in no way… There was no integration, there was no way to talk about the experience other than, “Oh wow, it was crazy what happened this weekend,” or whatever. And I recalled trying to talk to my parents about some psychedelic experiences that I had, and they just didn’t understand what it was like to lose your ego with your girlfriend. “What are you talking about?” They kind of got freaked out by it. So I was having this experience with psychedelics, and you kinda wanna know the mental health stuff, like when did that click in?

09:50 PA: Yeah.

09:50 AA: Yeah. So I think I was probably super depressed all the time when I was a kid. It was just a lot of rage, I had an alcoholic stepdad who was emotionally very abusive, with a sprinkling of physical abuse here and there. I was really kind of shooting towards my mom. My parents had split up when I was younger. I was a really smart kid, but also started getting into a lot of trouble in school, and this kind of thing. It was a very adventurous teenage year. I look back, at the time it felt like it was just this kind of dopamine high all the time, of like car chases, and semiautomatic weapons and crazy shit, break-ins and running from the cops and all this stuff. Luckily, everyone survived, no one ended up in jail. And at the time I thought it was a lot of fun, looking back I can see that the undercurrent was like a really hurt terrified kid who didn’t have any place to really express and be himself, in that way, and to feel safe. So when I was like 18 or so, I had an experience… Psychedelics are so intertwined. I decided that I wanted to study psychology while I was at the peak of an LSD trip. I was at a Phish show and I was 18, my girlfriend’s father had just passed away, like a week prior, while we were at another Phish show on psychedelics. It was like there was just psychedelics around all the time.

11:15 AA: Decided that I had to go to this local community college and study psychology, while I was at the peak of this LSD trip. And pretty much just came home and canceled plans to go to this school in Vermont, that I had a scholarship to, et cetera. Said, “No, I need to go here.” And just was really clear about that. Maybe that was sort of helping me brace for what was gonna happen otherwise. And while I was at that college, I had a non-psychedelic kind of induced state… I also sort of started studying the Chiang, so I was surrounded with this very interesting philosophy of kind of like, what is the nature of reality, very matrixy kind of stuff. Everything is your thought, you are creating the universe. People talk about that now, but I think that there’s a certain way to actually step into that, live from that, that I tried out when I was 18. And that was this sort of perception that… This is crazy. When I say it’s crazy, I can laugh about it but it was terrifying at the time. I felt that I could drive… I felt I could teleport to visit my girlfriend in North Carolina, by driving my car into a semi, sort of like into the back of this semi. I thought I was gonna enter a video game warp zone, and just be transported to North Carolina. And I tried it out on I-79.

12:02 PA: Oh, my god.

12:02 AA: Yeah, it was crazy.

12:02 PA: Woah, what happened?

12:02 AA: Well, the memory I have is of hitting the back of the truck at 75 miles an hour. And then just being like, “What the fuck, this is not how the universe works.” And pulling over, I think I tried to give the truck driver like a big hug on the side of the road and he just like, threw me off of him. Called the police, and the police showed up, and I just told them the truth, this was the thing. I just said, “I thought I could teleport.” And they just… I don’t think they knew what to do with me.

13:03 AA: You know what I mean? I said, “I’m not on any drugs” and they just sent me home. I think they called my parents I ended up, I think I actually stopped off at another motel or something on… I mean I was fully in some other metaphoric archetypal space. Jesus, Mary, I like stopped at a motel, I thought maybe this was similar to like…

13:24 PA: Bethlehem or…

13:25 AA: Bethlehem, yeah, Bethlehem. And it was just this intertwining of religion and romance and just like its archetypal shit that was just there. And so somehow I just… Like I said, they let me go home and drove my little Volkswagen back home and I told my parents, and then they sent me to a psychiatrist you know and they said “Go talk to this shrink.” And I did and he said, “Oh you’re schizophrenic basically and here’s some prescriptions” you know. And I don’t remember much from that first meeting, but I just, I didn’t trust the guys shoes? And so I just didn’t trust whatever he had to say, I was like, I don’t… I’m just not gonna talk about this anymore. So I just stopped talking about it. I didn’t take the medication, I stopped doing anything that I thought was remotely connected to making me go crazy like psychedelics, or marijuana, or cigarettes, the shit that I was doing as a kid, sort of running a lot and I just stopped talking about it and that’s really the… Cause like I’d talk to my parents, they didn’t really… They freaked out and so, yeah, that’s kinda what went down but nothing necessarily got better.

14:27 AA: I was still in this very high definition reality that felt like it was very saturated with metaphor, like being in a parable in a way. It’s interesting ’cause when I met Rick Doblin for the first time and I kind of mentioned to him what was going on, he sniffed out this un-integrated thing and he’s like, “What was happening when you were 18?” I’m like, “Oh I had done a bunch of psychedelics in the summer.” And he’s like “No, like what was happening in your life?” And I was like, “Oh, well I was in love with my girl, I was falling in love with my girlfriend at the time and we were having these crazy telepathic experiences, like being in love.” And he was like, “Yeah, right, ’cause you kinda of can teleport to see your girlfriend when you’re in love, there is a way that you can kind of just think about each other and there is something beyond physics in a way,” that was the way he put it. And it like resolved something inside me, like within 30 seconds of talking to Rick he helped me resolve that he’s like, “You were falling in love with someone, you didn’t understand how to deal with that and you were trying to work it out”. Of course coming from a childhood, where there was like, where love was not in my house.

15:35 AA: I came from a… My entire childhood there was no love between my parents, there was no love between my, you know, love in any kind of healthy way, right? So there was no conversation. Like the idea of love as a value or mystic value or something, you know, was nowhere near like that. So it kinda made sense in a way, there was this… But you know, it would be like 20 years before I got to that realization. So, the ultimate frisbee helped me start to get embodied in a certain way, and it helped me start, you know, it did a lot of things. My teammates, I was given a leadership position, I was able to burn off a lot of energy, it kinda gave me something to focus that I was good at and getting feedback for and this kinda thing and it let me kinda let go of my identity. I think in high school, I had this identity that was, I ran this underground newspaper, very controversial, my principal sued me for defamation of character unsuccessfully, I mean it was like this crazy, edgy, thing, you know? Dating like the Pep Club president, but also like railing against the culture of my high school.

16:37 PA: My intelligence was highly weaponized in high school and actually at another Phish show on mushrooms, that summer after high school, there was like three trips. The first trip was I realized that I didn’t need to be so weaponized, I could just talk to people. Radically re-edited my entire personality I was like, “Fuck, I can just go talk to people at a party I don’t need to dominate them intellectually or dominate them or be on the defensive?” so that was incredible. And the second trip that summer was, and this was over in like two weeks, the second trip that summer was my girlfriend’s father died unexpectedly while we were both at a show on mushrooms and then the following week was I took LSD and said, “You gotta go study psychology”.

17:15 AA: But then I think freshman year I was like, I didn’t know who to be if I didn’t have an underground newspaper and I wasn’t fighting against everybody. So, maybe ultimate frisbee kind of let me go from one person fighting against the world to like a tribe fighting again other teams and shit or something. So, gave me a new identity. I think the exercise piece was incredible and it also… And I was like not an athlete I was smoking cigarettes in high school and I didn’t really, like hated athletics, I thought they were sort of lame, you know, when I was, in my paper I’d make fun of high school athletes all the time and then in college I was playing ultimate every single day I got invited to the World Games to compete with the US men’s team five years later, started teams and this kind of thing and I’m still experiencing what would probably, you know, you might call psychosis or I’m having these experiences but I was so thrown into frisbee that I think that it just absorbed me in that world in some way. I talk to my team mates now, I say, “You guys probably don’t realize this but when I was in freshman you know, I was like schizophrenic” and they’re like, “Of course we fucking knew it. [laughter] Like what are you stupid, you think we’re stupid?” Like they were like yes, so it was…

18:19 PA: They totally picked up on it, yeah.

18:20 AA: Yeah, right, it wasn’t like, like I thought that it was this hidden thing and people were like, “Yeah dude you were really strange”.

18:25 PA: Yeah.

18:25 AA: Um, so, that was like going on and I think frisbee helped in some way and I was creating stuff, you know I started like a frisbee clothing company, I started this big league, I taught 300 people to play frisbee in like a summer but it was, I think it was kind of maturing in a way, it was becoming more of this introverted, I’ve read this theory on schizophrenia bipolar actually, that like schizophrenia is like a more introverted expression of the same thing and bipolar is like more of an extroverted expression of it. Made sense, I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it made sense to me when I think about that because I did kind of go from this very more isolated schizophrenic mindset, into a much more accomplishment, big things, kind of really pushing for bigger stuff and winning team, this kind of thing.

19:18 AA: Went to grad school in Madison, Wisconsin to play ultimate frisbee. I wanted to go play at their squad, and didn’t make the team when I was there, which shifted my identity again. I was setting on playing for grad school and had sort of a psychotic experience there. It was really hard to me to be focused in grad school. I would get stuff down, but that was mostly just ’cause I was really smart and I could, in the same way in high school, I didn’t really do homework, bullshitting my way through stuff, that was college. That was grad school, was still challenging in grad school, but I basically was able to bullshit my way through that stuff, like As and Bs or something, you know? Which is for grad school, quite terrible to get a B in grad school as they would tell us, but I was still in a strange mindset around that stuff.

20:04 PA: Did you ever analyze or try to reflect on this relationship between psychedelic use and some sort of psychotic break?

20:11 AA: Yeah.

20:12 PA: And just because obviously, we know from research with psychedelics, that by and large, they’re very safe for depression, PTSD, addiction, alcoholism. As long as there’s usually some sort of space created, but we also know that the current narrative is that anyone who’s predisposed to psychosis should obviously avoid this. And this is a matter of discussion that I think when more nuance starts to develop around psychedelic research, we’ll start to understand ways that we can actually help to facilitate a reorientation with people who have psychosis. So I guess I’d love to just take that lineage in line from your perspective in terms of what were your reflections on that when you set out to learn more about psychedelics. And then why was it that you decided to choose to go back into psychedelics to help you reorient or whatever you wanted?

21:00 AA: Well, yeah, so I think that for my 20s, I sort of thought that psychedelics were the cause of it or something, or at the very least, catalyzed something coming out. And so, I avoided them. I didn’t touch psychedelics for over a decade, and was really opposed to them and thought it’s the cause of stuff. Or at least, on some part of me, I was opposed to them, thought that they were causing these things in some way. Never once considered that I had this emotionally tumultuous childhood and this abusive dynamic. That wasn’t on my radar. I thought, “Oh, it’s psychedelics.” And I think that’s an easy narrative with all your family systems or whatever. It’s like, “Oh, no, this drug caused all this stuff.” However, after being in these repeated patterns of really intense relationship, falling in love, going through break-ups, etcetera, not being able to handle intimate relationship, that was something that I knew wasn’t caused by psychedelics because that was going on in my family system before I was born and my childhood, in a way.

22:09 AA: And so, I knew there was something deeper, and I was also not able to… I tried everything else, basically. I had gone through this process of, as I mentioned earlier, it always was on my mind that there was a possibility that psychedelics catalyzed something that was coming out. I think the way that I view it now is that that’s kind of what they do, they catalyze the thing inside of you that is gonna come out. And if you don’t have a context to hold that, you can be stuck in that, you’ll be stuck with it for quite some time. You’ll be stuck with it maybe for your lifetime, in some way, for me, in that sense. But if you can take responsibility for working with what emerges in that space, very much in the Stan Grof idea that the symptom is a half exposed cure, I had to embrace that totally. There was no going back.

23:06 PA: Spiritual emergence, I think that is another phrase that he uses.

23:07 AA: Spiritual emergence, yes, that’s right, yeah. That there’s a part of you that’s dying to come forth that is almost required for your next phase of your growth as a human or in your role in the tribe, etcetera. So I think that really was the way that I reoriented around all of this stuff, was… And I still feel afraid to… And there’s a part of me that’s afraid to talk about this stuff because they’re, on one hand… In the same way when I decided not to do bipolar without medication several years ago, it was a very lonely road. My psychiatrist…

23:48 AA: I had a psychiatrist in San Francisco, I’d see her for a few months. I’ve been suicidal on the Golden Gate Bridge and this whole ordeal, went to see her. This was before the Ayahuasca vision thing. And she was like, “You’re probably gonna need medication… You’ll need medication for the rest of your life. There’s this thing called bipolar.” And I had a sense that they were on to something, that I certainly was not normal, so to speak, that I was doing a dance that the tribe of psychiatry called bipolar, but I was not convinced that the way they wanted to deal with it was gonna be useful or optimal, in a way.

24:25 AA: And it cost me a lot of relationships. I had a woman that I was in love with who was a psychiatrist-in-training, actually; psychiatrist-in-training in San Francisco. We’ve talked about this before, I think. And I was a quirky person, but the one thing we did have was a very safe and loving dynamic. But she said that she was told by her advisors at her program that, “Psychiatrists at this particular big school don’t date men that have bipolar because it never gets better and it’s like being with an alcoholic the rest of your life. You need to end that relationship.” That was the stigma in that whole place. And then also, her terror was that if her colleagues found out she was with someone that was… Thought you could handle this without… Do this without medication, that she’d be viewed unprofessionally, that they wouldn’t send her referrals, and that her half million dollar investment in this big program would be… She’d be ruined.

25:15 AA: And so, I felt that. It was interesting to be right up against the edge of that. To me, it feels like there’s no coincidence that I was dating a psychiatrist at a big named school and also dealing with this stuff. It seems like it’s part of a bigger narrative in my life, in a way. That this was to help me understand and have compassion for the challenging place that psychiatrists are in, that go into medicine, wanting to help people, etcetera. And their hands are often tied by the legal tools available to them and the stigma, etcetera. And then also the folks like myself that are in these positions that have folks around them that just say, “You’re gonna… This is how you’re gonna be the rest of your life.”

26:00 AA: So I lost that relationship, and it feels like it was important to be able to let go of that and to step into something, to just trust that there was something that was possible, maybe not even probable that was to heal and unwind from whatever this thing was that was being called schizophrenia or bipolar by the mainstream. And then if I could do it, that my life would be significantly better and may create a path for other people that are interested in the same kind of thing, make other people’s lives better too. And also, it felt like it was very risky. It’s sort of like you see Mount Everest and you think, “Oh, I think I can climb that.” And then you climb it and then there’s a trail of foot marks behind you in the snow. And some kid is like… “I think I can do that too.” Well, maybe you die on the way up there.

26:48 PA: Right.

26:49 AA: People do go off their medications and they do commit suicide and they end up in ERs and all these kinds of things. So I think that, on one hand, I’m an N of one, so to speak. Although I found other people that have had very similar stories, different perspectives, but there’s an emerging theme. But it seems important to be able to just share the truth of my experience and the vulnerabilities and the fears I have with it because it was PDFs I read of other people on the internet that had tried to do things and had…

27:21 PA: So what did you do? I mean, what was it that you did once you made that commitment?

27:26 AA: I think the first piece was this kind of just… I went on a research binge and I started to investigate everything I possibly could about bipolar and schizophrenia and psychosis. I read dozens and dozens of books and I looked at studies. And at the time that I was diagnosed I was also in the Bay helping a startup that Peter Thiel was funding that was on private medical research. So if you got diagnosed with some illness and you went to the hospital and they said, “Here’s the prescription” and maybe you don’t quite trust it, you would go to this company and they would research it and they’d say, “Oh we found in a lab that they actually were able to cure that 20 years ago, it just wasn’t profitable or something, whatever.” They’re having really good results in helping people solve major issues that were not in the mainstream medical standard of care. So I was blessed that I had that kind of mindset, I think, going into it, that maybe the mainstream narrative isn’t like absolute truth, in a way. That it’s an emerging thing, that people are still iterating on. And in fact, I came to realize how nascent, how fledgling the whole mental health industry really was. So I started with things like gratitude. I discovered that if you just wrote 15 gratitude letters that you would be… There were studies that showed that practicing writing gratitude was as effective as Prozac in a head-to-head trial, yeah.

28:42 AA: So I started with things like that. I started just trying to experiment with other things that would enhance my mental health without medication. And I don’t exactly know… Well, it’s hard to put a finger on where I had… Where I realized… Well, I think the realization was like this vision that I told you about, right? Which is strange to think. I didn’t read it in a book. I don’t actually recall reading in a book “Like, you need to go into your emotions and these kinds of things.” It literally was a vision that I had on my bedside, of a shimmering green woman with her arms or hands cupped with my pain, and it saying, “Drink this pain, feel this shit you’ve been trying to avoid your whole life.” And when I did that, I recovered something from myself that had been long lost. And it wasn’t, as I say, it wasn’t… That was a state, I entered a kind of peak state in that moment, but it reoriented me so radically that when I came out of it, I was looking for ways and experiences to just, to go in and feel things more deeply. And that would… That idea would evolve and would mature over time. It took me maybe 30 some years. So the first time I consciously felt an emotion that was challenging. The next time it took me six months. Then maybe it was a month. Maybe it was in the midst of a conversation, I could stop and say, “Well, I’m feeling afraid.”

30:11 AA: So there was this radical reorientation to being embodied and trying to pull together practices and things that would support that experience. And kind of along the way, mentors had suggested, “Maybe you try MDMA. This might be something that can help you.” And I was resistant for years because of the stigma, because of all these other things. And I had kinda gone through another break-up and was like in a similar place and I was like, “Shit”. I had this awareness, but I was like, “There’s something going on inside me that just isn’t… I can’t fully get access to.

30:49 AA: The gratitude letters, all these things are just not fully getting me there. Don’t mind if I go running or positive thinking or whatever, just trying to feel stuff.” It was really difficult for me to be able to experience that. And so, I kind of reluctantly at first, but then just out of a place of almost desperation, I said, “Okay I’ll… I’ll give this a try.” And of course, I researched it then came to find out that it felt like it was fairly safe. And I chose MDMA specifically because it seemed like… And this isn’t like medical advice or anything. I don’t even know if this is medical opinion. It just seemed to me as if you were going to experiment with a substance. And you were worried about maybe going crazy, which I was terrified of going crazy. MDMA felt like it had the lowest risk profile, does that make sense in some way?

31:39 PA: Well I think that’s a minor city. That’s why MAPS chose to work with MDMA, ’cause of that very reason, that it doesn’t have the highs and the lows.

31:48 AA: Right.

31:48 PA: That it’s largely just, you know… It’s an empathogen, which is…

31:51 AA: It’s an empathogen.

31:52 PA: Opens you up, but there’s no sort of… I mean, it’s not a classic psychedelic.

31:56 AA: Exactly.

31:57 PA: It has a much different effect and impact on the brain and body than LSD and psilocybin, for example. So no, I totally get what you mean, in that way.

32:04 AA: Yeah. So it felt like it was a safe experience. I mean, of course I came into it with so many different fears and anxieties and this whole psychospiritual mess that was going on. I thought I was gonna go to hell, thought that I was gonna be crazy, thought that I’d break my relationship to synchronicity. It was like every possible thing was just, This is what’s gonna happen, yeah? And so then, it was the exact opposite of everything I was afraid of, is the best way I could describe that experience. I was able to look at my childhood traumas, look at my parents’ divorce, look at my… The death of my girlfriend’s father when I was a kid, look at a breakup. That was really challenging and I was able to turn those events over in my mind. I mean this is the story that many people have said about MDMA, the ability to kind of just to be with these experiences and to really feel the emotion, to really feel what was going on there in a way and to have compassion around it. And there was a guiding voice that said, “Are you ready to look at this? Are you ready too look at this?” And I felt like I was in control and I could say, “Yes” and then we’d go into something. And once the three major things were kind of cleared out, there was this just overwhelming sense of gratitude for this molecule, so to speak, grateful for this, you know?

33:40 AA: And in the same way that I was able to turn over these events, this orientation of being grateful for this molecule that I felt like was talking to me. It was like, “Ah and this is you, talking to yourself, and like being gentle with yourself.” And that was just so freeing, to feel like, wow, you can treat yourself kindly, for the first time in my entire life really I think. To feel like I was worthy of… To experience me and myself, loving myself and being gentle with myself, which I’d never experienced before. And I remember thinking this is how I wanna be with everyone, I just wanna be this way with people more. And before I went into that experience, I feel like there was this, as I’ve said before, this Encyclopedia Britannica of negative self-talk in my mind. And at the end, in the months that followed, it was more like a tweet or so, a sentence would slip through. But that wasn’t the end of it. I was also terrified that something was gonna happen. I still had that little level of fear after the session, “I better wait a while to see if I don’t go crazy.” I thought maybe in a month or two or something I would. And I did. I didn’t have the overwhelming suicidal thoughts, but I had crazy anxiety and paranoia that came up.

35:09 AA: Jesus talking to me and telling me, “You need to go to the police about MDMA.” And he’s saying, “Go tell them that you’ve done MDMA,” all this shit. And I thought, “This is what Jesus wants me to do.” We’ve talked about our shared Christian background or something, you know, there is something deeply inside of me that was like, “Jesus is angry at you,” and it felt very real and it was terrifying. And I was, again, fortunate enough to have some people around me that kind of just were able to say, “Just don’t go to the police and tell them that you did”. In a way I’m kinda doing that now, I’m telling the world.

[laughter]

35:51 PA: Right.

35:52 AA: It kinda comes full circle. Maybe Jesus was saying, “Go tell the world about your MDMA experience”.

35:57 PA: Yeah [laughter]

35:57 AA: But it was terrifying and it was a sense of, “You’re going to be punished, you should be punished for this in some way.” And so, it took a while, but I did it again. I did another session of MDMA. It took me about a year, I think, before I stepped back into it. And in the interim, I had found a therapist that… Her orientation was identical to the way that I related to myself at the height of that first MDMA experience. And so when I came across her work I thought, “Man, it’d be great to just be around someone that is like trained to be with me, the way that I was with myself, to kind of reinforce that gentle behavior pattern, so to speak.” And sure enough, in the next session, the anxiety and the paranoia, I just saw it for what it was, in a huge way and was able to go into it and release it. And then I thought, “Shit, maybe if you would have done this a month after your first session, you would have avoided that whole year of all your stuff.” So of course, this was me stepping into this unchartered territory of people saying, “Don’t do any psychedelics if you’ve had these histories.” Me thinking they could be useful and trying to experiment in that way.

37:16 AA: And over the course of those sessions… And I did some other work. It was always a useful experience in some way. There’ll be some thing that was challenge me or something to work on. But I think that in a way, looking back, it’s… Even though when I’ve taken psychedelics in the recent past, there’s something to work on and they’re useful. It’s almost as if like 80% of the work I’ve done in those first… It’s like, those first couple of sessions you know, I don’t… In a way it’s like maybe I miss the profundity of those initial sessions, but then I also realize how much shit I was letting go of and it’s like, “Yeah, it’s a beautiful experience that can stay where it is, in that way.” It’s not… There was something about that. It’s like being able to walk for the first time or something. You certainly don’t wanna go back to not being able to walk, but you remember how powerful and healing it was. And I’ve since found things like holotropic breathwork to be extremely useful and to help reorient myself towards these challenging emotions and challenging things.

38:36 PA: So one thing that comes up from this, right, is obviously you’re talking about before how this is an N equals one, and that your own experience with this in terms of what you started with, the gratitude letters, then transitioning into general positive psychology and then realizing that wasn’t enough, so you had to go deeper into those emotions, and you had the Ayahuasca experience, the MDMA. Which one of those came first?

39:00 AA: The Ayahuasca experience, I should say. And we talked about it earlier, the Ayahuasca experience without taking a chemical, so to speak, maybe put the caveat that some other Ayahuasquero told me that was what happened, and I didn’t fight it. I just said, “Maybe.” It’s interesting. An experience that tracked very similarly to what other people experienced on Ayahuasca with a woman and bring these things. That happened first, that was kind of… That was like the insight point really. You need to… That your pain is the medicine.

39:28 PA: Right.

39:28 AA: And that, I guess, core piece, that the pain is the medicine really has become… That, I think, is what really has reoriented me to a large degree. And not putting yourself into… Even there is utility in pushing yourself and experiencing pain in these ways. Not trying to create overly dramatic, or painful experiences for oneself. But the subtle pain beneath you, the subtle pain that we try to escape from, when we start a fight with someone. Or we withdraw, or we blame or criticize or escape in that way. It’s that subtle pain, making contact with that and just being willing to step into that, that has been, I would say the common thread through stepping into the MDMA space as a vehicle to be able to make more contact with my embodied experience. Stepping into the non-therapy practice that I did, to be able to be with a person that could help in relationship guide me into emotions that were challenging. In my relationship with my fiancee, having a relationship where truth is prioritized, and a context for us to hold space for emotion or whatever comes out of it. A context for romantic love as a psychedelic, that you wanna set in setting where you can use that space to navigate the archetypal sub-conscious shit that comes up, that you will project onto your partner and get pissed off at, as opposed to recognizing that this is about my parents, or my ancestors, or about the world in some way, and using our relationship in that way.

41:00 AA: And now it’s really informed, everything I do professionally, with my… Now I have a relationship-coaching practice and peek performance coaching practice, etcetera, even in the creative work. Right? Like looking at creative projects and seeing how there may be certain emotional states that are really intense, rejection or embarrassment, that you might wanna avoid, and how there’s a path through that. Just going into those… Like aligning your vision, and then being willing to feel whatever the rainbow of emotions are on your way there, is a spiritual practice in a way. And that’s paid dividends, like with the island project.

41:36 PA: So from your understanding, what are… ‘Cause I’d like to, maybe zoom out a little bit.

41:41 AA: Please, yeah. Yeah.

41:42 PA: I’m very focused on your experience, but I also know that you have a great mind, in terms of, from an abstract perspective.

41:49 AA: Yeah.

41:49 PA: What’s your understanding then of how things can be reoriented from a cultural, from a medical perspective, to then create more space for what you went through yourself? Because as you were saying, a big part of the issue and the problem is just the way that, for example, maybe the current psychiatric model treats bipolar disorders. So, obviously there’s a lot developing with… And I think a lot of people have high expectations in terms of how the introduction of psychedelics will change psychiatric care. But I would just love to hear your thoughts because you lived this out first hand.

42:24 AA: There’s sort of this idea, it’s not my own, that I think you hear repeated in kind of alt-psych communities, alternative psychology or alternative mental health communities, that is people that are mentally ill or schizophrenic or bipolar, they’re sort of like the shaman type. The phenotype of shaman is a person that has these things. And our culture doesn’t really have an infrastructure to have a relationship, a shamanic relationship with that. Without, I guess, tarnishing traditional shamanic traditions and the approaches, and the ritual, and the culture that’s steeped around the individual shamanic cultures around the world. There was something really helpful for me, which is this reorientation, this general kind of map of what I saw with humanity, which is, as humans evolve, as we evolve, we create new technologies. And as a result of creating new technologies, certain values become underrepresented in the tribe as a byproduct. Right?

43:28 AA: Early 20th-century or the Industrial Revolution era, people were less like… It’s almost like people weren’t lifting things around, and moving things through gravity a lot. So then all of a sudden, the need to have a gym emerges in the culture. It’s a way to put it, right? If you’re on the farm throwing bales of hay every day, you don’t need to go buy a Crunch membership.

43:49 PA: Right.

43:49 AA: But when your culture transitions to living in a city, well then maybe you do need to go work out in some particular way. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but I think that’s the idea. So in a shamanic culture, so to speak, the shamans from my perspective, are the folks who have this heightened sensitivity. They’re kind of like the canaries in the coal mine. The tribe is going in a certain direction, they begin to feel the pain that the rest of the tribe is maybe not aware of, or is not tuned into, or is just going to be experiencing on some level in the future. So they’re in a way, they are kind of in that future world. They’re feeling the pain of what’s coming with the tribe. And if a tribe has a shamanic tradition, they have an elder that understands, so they can interface with that young shaman, so to speak, teach them, mentor them on how to deal with those states of consciousness, and then that person becomes a source of wisdom and leadership in that tribe. I don’t see us having… In the West, we have sensitive people that create things that inform our culture in a way, artists etcetera. Certain people in the creative life, but it’s not as integrated. It feels like there’s a disconnection in a way, that when someone starts to experience these things the first response is, “How can we not feel?”

45:07 AA: I mean I think this is something that’s not thing up just in the mental, like with schizophrenia or or bipolar, I think this is showing up in the sort of toxic masculinity conversation that’s happening about men not being able to feel. That there is this suppression of something deep inside of us that we’ve tried to pave over with the comforts of the modern world and kind of fill in the gaps with Prozac and different things. I mean you could probably use psychedelics in that way too, right? You could use them as an escape from your feeling. You can use anything as an escape vehicle but our culture has a narrative around not feeling.

45:42 AA: The implications of that are that we are getting sick and that we’re getting more depressed and that we’re less connected and the orientation of what a shamanic culture might be, like a reintegration of shamanic values, I would say what that might look like in the West so to speak, is this interface between recognizing that that experience that a person is going through is, like it has value. Like it’s a valuable experience, not just for that individual, but for the entire tribe. And I think that that narrative, of the individual having intrinsic value is something that there’s been a war on, I mean at least in the last hundred years, in terms of propaganda, marketing, sort of taking out inside of you the thing that’s valuable and remarketing it to you and holding it up out here. Holding it up outside of you and saying, “buy this thing”, you know, the Edward Bernays approach to marketing and propaganda.

46:44 AA: Which we’ve spoken about, I believe, in the past, this exploitation of insecurity.

46:50 AA: Exploitation of insecurity, yes. I mean, how can we associate the thing that you’ve been craving since childhood with a car or something, right? Sells a lot of cars, you know and it results in a lot of global warming too, I mean there’s this way that our, we’re severed from our own divinity and I think that ultimately that really is, beneath all of this, beneath all of the pain, is just the most incredible divine love. It’s not dogmatic, it doesn’t… You can get to it from a variety of different ways and orientations but it’s there inside every single human being on this planet and I think that that ultimately is, that’s the mystic re-orientation that I think is available. My life after this journey, I mean I still get in fights with my fiancee. I still, life is still challenging, life has been more challenging in a lot of ways but there’s been a reorientation I suppose. That is the biggest thing is that the compass seems to be fixed. There’s a map and there’s a compass and it’s like this is the way.

47:52 AA: So even when I’m in some crazy fight, I always understand that the way back through it is to return to your heart and to feel the shit and to be willing to speak the truth and to go through it. And so, that was a microcosm of my life and I think that our culture in a way is going through that through various iterations and various facets across the board. I think that’s what the West is really in need of. I mean the world is in need of this in some… I can speak from my experience of being here in the West what’s that like and I see if show up in the relationships that come to me that are broken and people are struggling, it’s this deep, avoidance of the shit that’s happening inside of us. And it’s both the pain and the power, both of those, we’ve been numbed out to our pain through our culture and we’ve been denied our power through our culture and I think that psychedelics are an opportunity to re-experience both of those and I think you’ve gotta be willing face both of those. You’ve gotta be willing to face the pain that’s inside and you gotta face the power that’s inside.

49:02 AA: Well I was just thinking about this yesterday which is so ironic because I was thinking about this in the context of my own relationship and this sense of fear that comes up when you do wanna put in on this powerful front for your partner and this is the thing that I struggle with but we almost want to only have the power without recognizing that the suffering and the pain is just as important. To dive into it in fact, our power is truncated or neutered if we aren’t able to understand how to deal with the pain and the suffering and how to integrate, how to orient towards it, go into it as well.

49:46 AA: Yeah. I have respect for our ancestors that stuffed pain beneath the surface to survive. I wouldn’t be here without it, right? I think that there’s a deep respect for humanity’s ability to do what needs to be done to survive and we also have a brain, we can think and when we’ve gotten to a place of stability, it’s required work for us to face all this stuff. I’m not a big astrology person, I think I spent a lot of my life probably like making fun of it. I’ve had, I’ve seen so many incredible things now that I’m a bit reoriented to be open to everything but there’s an interesting metaphor that I’ve seen in astrology that’s quite interesting. They talk about the age of Aquarius, something that we’re in right now? And, yeah, I rolled my eye at that too…

[laughter]

50:31 AA: Before but when I begin to look at the archetype of what it is, right? It’s a woman, I believe it’s a woman, holding a vessel, an open vessel, with water inside of it. And so water always represents the subconscious mind and so to me, what I see in that image, is the feminine, not female, but just the feminine, the nurturance, kind of coming up with a safe container for the collective subconscious to be worked with, but that’s actually the medicine that we need right now. As opposed to us drown, you know. The idea the mystic swims in the same ocean that the schizophrenic drowns in, as McKenna taught and that ultimately, that ocean is contained in that vessel. This idea of creating space for the subconscious to process and work through and I believe that is the collective work we’re at. Whether that’s a cool coincidence of astrology, astrology kind of sees it to be a cool coincidence this whole thing is like a cool coincidence of the stars right?

51:30 AA: But we’re seeing it in the traditional methods of psychedelic and analysis and therapy, they’re just breaking down in a way that we actually have to create these containers for vulnerability, whether it’s in a therapeutic context, in a business partnership, in a romantic relationship, in a family system and culture and that really ultimately is what seems to me to be the work of what everyone is orienting towards right now, it’s finding spaces to be able to be vulnerable but ultimately like Bruce Lee said, is like watchers and be like water. These metaphors intersect in a way that there is tremendous power in water and being able to be in the subconscious and being able to be in the fluid state, now, not restricted by the trappings of your ego in a way or a flexible ego to be able to go through death and rebirth in the moment if needed.

52:24 AA: The psychosis I believe is from the death and rebirth process. I don’t think psychosis is something that we need to be learning to avoid any more than we should be teaching women to avoid having their period every month. I think that psychosis is a process of shedding an emotional system that is no longer relevant, that needs updating and that if we’re allowed to bring that process through completion, there’s a great book Dr. Paris Williams book “Rethinking Madness” outlines this process. That the psychosis process is a biological mechanism to regenerate an ego in a way, a healthier, more flexible, more robust ego, a new default mode, default mode network for the brain in a way, to be able to reorient towards the new environment that you’re in, the future that you’re trying to create and really the role that’s demanded of you as a warrior, as a leader, as a father, as a citizen so to speak.

53:19 PA: Yeah. No, that’s fantastic. We do have to wrap up and I think it’s a really good ending point and I think it is up to us as a culture at large and this is why we’re facilitating these discussions and why I think so many of us are optimistic about the modalities in particular psychedelic therapy introduce is because that appears to be a big influence and a big intention in terms of creating that space for us to allow this both individual but collective subconscious to be integrated and dealt with. It’s been great to have you talking about these things and it’s been great having these brief discussions obviously, we’ve talked about this at length but it was good to finally capture it in recorded audio right now because I think your story is really impactful and unique and interesting and I also think like you said, it is a microcosm of a much larger transition of many of us as both men but just people are going through it in Western culture today.

54:16 AA: Yeah, you create a great space here Paul, you’re doing great work.

54:19 PA: Thanks.

54:19 AA: Yeah, thank you for being here.

54:23 PA: Hey, listeners I hope you enjoyed the podcast. A quick couple of announcements of this week in psychedelics one, it was Bicycle Day on April 19th which was about a week ago or so there were a ton of places and events and things going on and we actually had a Psilocybin ceremony in the Netherlands that are legal Synthesis Retreats with about eight people on Bicycle Day so that was an incredible experience. It’s the 75th-Anniversary of when Albert Hofmann had the world’s first significant LSD trip. Two, Canada’s Liberal Party is supporting the decolonization of all drugs and this is great news, we’ve seen the success of that in Portugal over the last 16 to 17 years and Canada is really pushing the forefront in terms of liberal attitudes around drug policy and this is an important development and one that I hope continues to gain momentum. And then three, there was a major announcement that Trump is coming out in support of major marijuana legalization including the de-scheduling of cannabis and allowing states to choose as they wish to do so this is a huge announcement, it signifies a major change from previous policy and I think it’s really good news for the future of cannabis in the United States. So that all being said again, I wanna thank you for listening, if you enjoyed the show please leave a review on iTunes and we will see you next week.

[music]

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