I slumbered for most of my life, bowed under the trauma of growing up with two mentally ill parents woefully unsupported in their communities. Their sins were more of omission than commission, which are often harder to see, what Romeo Stevens calls “negative trauma.” I suffered from something like what’s described as Complex PTSD. (Never diagnosed, and happy for it.)
I left home but I never really left home, carrying this self-protective tendency to lock myself away from the world into all of my relationships. The past few years were particularly hard, with several overlapping incidents taking me to my breaking point such that the pandemic barely registered as a problem for me.
That pressure subsided but I couldn’t live this way any more. I now had young kids and there just wasn’t time to fuck around any more. Trouble at work, trouble in my marriage. Desperate times called for serious medicine. After being very opposed due to some bad mushroom trips in my youth, the current psychedelic renaissance reached me with its tales of miraculous cures for a variety of mental health issues. The data was there! I was sold.
But I had no idea where to start.
The current psychedelic renaissance, exemplified by Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, is highly professionalized and leads you to believe that you need a trained therapist to guide you through a healing journey on psychedelics. Most of the advice suggests something like a full weekend retreat, where Friday is for preparation, Saturday for tripping, and Sunday for integration. Sounds lovely, and I would love to experience that some day.
Instead, I’m a dad of young kids (7 and 2). My wife and I both work full time and the idea of getting a day off, much less three, is simply unfathomable. I was resigned to wait until MDMA or psilocybin would become legalized so that I could experience a healing journey that I needed so badly, while I continued to fail to show up in my life the way that I wished I could.
Eventually I realized that, if I couldn’t fit into the professionalized container of the psychedelic renaissance, I would just have to design my own container. Suddenly I saw that I did have the time I needed, every weekday from 9-5 while my wife was at work and my kids were at school (and daycare). All I had to do was to take a sick day from work and acquire some substance. I could control my set and setting. I could trip solo.
I’ve now tripped many times with various substances at various doses over the past year. As an example of my more mature practice, here’s my most recent trip.
Friday’s MDMA Trip
I did MDMA this past Friday. I was originally planning on doing it on Wednesday, but I was greeted that morning by my older child throwing up. When my younger child is home sick I will often do a holotropic breathwork session during nap time. Once a sickness lasted days and I did breathwork four days in a row, one of which got me to quit my chronic cannabis usage.
Thursday also didn’t work, so I settled on Friday to take a sick day from work and do some solo MDMA therapy. I always consult with my wife in all of this: we are a parental team and she needs to know that I’m incapacitated for the day should the kids’ school or daycare call, although on MDMA I could probably show up in a pinch (at the risk of hugging everyone in sight!). Classic psychedelics would have me much too incapacitated at higher doses and so that option would be closed.
I swallow my dose as I’m walking my kids to their school and daycare around 9am. The sooner I start, the sooner I’m back to baseline and ready to resume parenting once they get home around 5pm. Eight hours is enough time for most drugs (but not LSD). Psilocybin is closer to 6 hours and so is great for this time range.
But Friday was an MDMA day. If classic psychedelics (mushrooms, LSD) help you to experience ego death, MDMA helps you to experience ego wholeness and repair. The ego is not bad, it just gets stuck in weird ways that can cause a lot of suffering. Since MDMA is not yet legalized for therapeutic use, I would have to find an underground therapist if I wanted to go that route. I do not have those connections, so I go it alone. This is not without its distinct advantages, which I’ll get into later.
But now to the nuts and bolts of the day. I need:
- a space to sit and/or lie down for inner work
- a sleeping mask
- a space to move and dance
- a full length mirror (this is my own innovation, more on this later)
- some way to play music (speakers are preferable to headphones but work with what you have)
- a way to record important thoughts that come up (I prefer recording voice memos, and currently use the Just Press Record app for this since it can transcribe)
I close all my blinds and push the dining room table over to make room for dancing and set up my speakers. I drag in some couch cushions to lie down on as needed. I start playing some ambient music and do some yoga asanas, after which I put on my eyeshades and sit down to focus inside. And I start talking to my Parts, gently, feeling into my body and asking what they want me to know. (Internal Family Systems is a great way to get started with Parts work.) This went on for a couple of hours. I’d positioned my cushion in front of the mirror so that I could occasionally gaze at myself lovingly while doing this Parts work.
Oh and I’m completely naked. To witness my unclothed body in the mirror with total feelings of love and acceptance is powerful medicine. It helps heal the sense that this body is foreign to me, not mine, not me. I periodically record some audio notes to myself for listening to later. This is the opposite of a “not me, not mine” practice. Me, mine.
Nearly 3 hours in, it’s time to dance. I change the music to something with a danceable beat. I’ve already done some really good Parts work, and the move to dancing does not stop that. I invite my Parts, most of which are quite young and stunted, to witness this mid-40s body dancing in all its glory. Look at me, look at us. We are beautiful. It is good to be this body, to be me. Who else would I be?
For the most part I just let my intuition guide me. Inviting my Parts to witness me dancing is a new thing in this session. Eventually a Part asks to dance, and does so gloriously, expressing itself in movement in ways I’ve never moved before.
I pause dancing from time to time to simply sit and witness myself in the mirror. I am glorious. I am whole. I am strong. I radiate lovingkindness (metta) to my loved ones. I radiate metta to those who have injured me. I radiate metta to myself, to all my Parts. I make a huge breakthrough with one of my firefighter Parts, who promises not to throw me into dissociation any more. I also tell this Part that I’ve cut off its access to the numbing machinery of my Parasympathetic Nervous System. I ask the Part what new work it would like to do and wait patiently for the answer to emerge. I speak all of this out loud into an audio recording so that I can listen to it again later for integration and reinforcement.
My 8 hours draw to a close and I restore my dining room to its normal state, mirroring my own return to ordinary waking consciousness. My children and wife come home and I am so overjoyed to see them. I do this work for them, so that I can show up in their lives in a way my parents were never able to for me. In an ideal world I would have another 24 hours to myself for integration and introspection. I live in this world instead, and I make it work.
Why Trip Solo?
Let’s back this out into some principles that may be able to guide your own solo trips. Let’s start from the top, with the very idea of tripping solo rather than with somebody like a therapist or a shaman or a trip sitter.
So far all of my trips except for one have been solo endeavours. Going solo is mostly a practical consideration, geared to access and safety. But it does help to clarify a paradox in play in play as psychedelic therapy becomes mainstreamed: the therapist does not heal. The psychedelic substance does not heal. You heal. Just as your body knows how to heal a cut on your skin, it knows how to heal all of your emotional wounds.
Stan Grof, the grandaddy of LSD research who sat with people on thousands of trips, called this the Inner Healing Intelligence. He quickly discarded the psychoanalytic tools he’d been trained in and simply held space (saying calming things, making sure people didn’t harm themselves) and let people heal themselves. Psychedelics were just a tool to help people to access that healing intelligence, which is typically suppressed in normal waking consciousness.
This is not to say that a sitter, a therapist, or a shaman/healer is not valuable. If you enter a trip nervous about what you may encounter inside, this will have potent effects on your experience. Anxiety can produce what’s usually called a “bad trip,” which can itself be traumatizing if severe enough. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The line between anxiety and excitement can be a fine one.
A sitter is still absolutely recommended when using classic psychedelics (LSD, mushrooms) in doses high enough to produce what’s usually called “ego death.” At these high doses, you really need somebody looking out for your body because your ability to assess harm to yourself and others is severely compromised. My first two high dose mushroom trips happened with my wife in the house, just in case. Most past and present psychedelic studies are oriented to these ego-death-type experiences, as they tend to have the most dramatic effects, except for MDMA-assisted therapy, which does not produce ego death.
It’s easy to believe that you must experience “ego death” for psychedelics to assist you in healing yourself, and nothing could be further from the truth. It can be beautiful to see your ego dissolve when it’s been causing you great suffering, but these are simply the most dramatic effects, which have a very valuable place in an overall program of developing mental and spiritual wellbeing.
And the most dramatic effects are being pursued in most current psychedelic studies, as they have the best chance of rolling back prohibition and making some of these substances legal for therapeutic use. There’s also the efficiency aspect, as each session of 6-8 hours is being supervised by 1 or 2 therapists. That’s expensive professional time, so the thinking is “let’s not muck about with low doses that are less likely to go somewhere dramatic.”
But healing is not efficient. Cuts and bruises take time to heal and so do all manner of mental maladies. None of this stuff really sustains without a commitment to spiritual practices in general. Prayer, meditation, yoga, service: you get out what you put in.
Low-to-medium doses, also called psycholitic, are very workable ways to relax the ego and allow some unconscious healing processing to occur. One study showed that zero patients who took around 1.6g of dried mushrooms had an adverse reaction, yet 45% reported mood improvement. Stress reactions increased to 14% with a 3.2g dose, and 86% with a 4.8g dose. Those reactions are not necessarily bad, as facing your own death in these experiences can be tremendously liberating. But there’s no need to start there. It can be the culmination of a series of progressively more intense experiences that you grow into as you go.
As for microdosing, I have no real comment. Some people swear by it, but my own experience when trying it was unremarkable. All of the available studies seem to suggest that it’s most likely a placebo effect in those who report help, but more investigation is needed. Don’t let me talk you out of it, but I’ve found low, medium, and high doses to be much more useful.
I’ll return to it later, but if I were recommending mushrooms to a friend, I’d tell them to work their way up in doses of .8g, 1.6g, 3.2g, and finally 4.8g to watch their ego melt and float away. Take your time. Chris Basche, who engaged in extremely high doses of LSD for cosmological exploration over many years, does not recommend his path to anyone. He consistently says that he would be gentler with himself were he to start again. There is a heroic romanticism associated with high doses, and they have their place, but my belief is that these experiences should be infrequent so that they can be properly integrated.
Which brings us to integration.
Integration is what happens after the trip to process what happened and integrate it into the ordinary waking state of consciousness. In the psychedelic psychotherapy model, this is usually performed by the same therapist(s) who sat with person who consumed the psychedelic substance. But if you’re flying solo, you’ll have to do this work yourself. A reminder: you are always the one doing the work, whatever assistance you receive!
In short, integration is taking the insights gained during a psychedelic session and asking yourself “so now what?” This does not have to be a dialogical process. It may look like doing art or engaging other spiritual practices. Conversation with a sympathetic partner can go a long way. There are also many psychedelic practitioners who are able to skirt the current legal issues of psychedelics by offering integration services. There is a whole world of these folks a google search and a phone or zoom call away. You may be driving this psychedelic bus, but don’t hesitate to ask for help at any and every point that feels appropriate. Tripping solo does not mean that you’re doing this alone.
Since I’m usually tripping solo, I frequently make use of voice memos on my phone to record any insights that seem important as they come up. Listening to them the next day is a core part of my integration process.
Healing Trauma First
Everything I’ve said so far more or less tracks with the received psychedelic therapy model gifted to us by the titans of the 1960s like Stan Grof and Tim Leary. The then-standard psychotherapeutic methods involved a lot talking, which is pretty much impossible when the walls are melting and so is your ego. Grof quickly adopted a more hands-off approach. “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream” was Leary’s mantra. Any therapeutic work was done after the trip, interpreting and processing what had happened afterwards. Nonintervention became the standard for psychedelic therapy.
But we’ve learned a lot in the past 60 years, particularly about trauma. From bad trips to people who feel unchanged on high doses, stuck traumatic activation in the body can either hijack your trip or prevent one altogether. More recently in my journey, I’ve begun to work with the Psychedelic Somatic Interactional Psychotherapy (PSIP) model, which addresses trauma in the body first before moving on to biographical, transpersonal, and spiritual work. Their primary method for trauma work, called Selective Inhibition, works with cannabis, which is legal here in Canada (and many states throughout the US), or with ketamine, which can be prescribed, making this a wonderfully accessible intervention.
In fact, nothing has shifted the quality of my baseline consciousness as much as two hours of cannabis-assisted Selective Inhibition. I can’t recommend it enough! I plan to write plenty more about it in the future, but in the meantime you can read my Twitter thread about it, starting here:
MDMA is an immensely useful substance for working with and resolving traumatic memories that live close to the surface. These painful memories can trigger strong waves of anxiety and/or dissociation in the present when something comes up that reminds us of the traumatic memory.
MDMA is also the substance closest to legalization thanks to MAPS. It would probably already be legalized if it wasn’t for the pandemic grinding the process to a halt. I’ve been hearing that it will probably be legal in 2024. But it won’t be accessible or safe for everyone.
The current MAPS protocol requires two therapists per client for 8 hours. With a bit of back-of-napkin math, let’s say the therapists are each compensated around $150/hr. That’s $2400 right there, before the cost of the substance, and possible room and board to stay overnight, never mind the profit motive. We’re looking at $3-5K easily, for one session, and that is on the conservative end of estimates I’ve heard. Insurance may cover it, and rich people can pay for it, but that’s completely out of reach for so many.
And why two therapists? It’s supposed to protect against abuse while MDMA has opened you up completely and turned off your fear response. You are unable to protect yourself. But even two therapists and video recordings were not enough to protect one MAPS trial participant from being sexually abused. And it doesn’t take a degree in economics to see that that that very expensive protection will go out the window at some point as well.
My own belief is that everyone who does MDMA therapy should do it solo, the first time or two, before deciding if they want assistance from a therapist. It is safer, more accessible, and far cheaper. I also plan on writing more about this in the future, but in the meantime the website SoloMDMATherapy.org is a wonderful resource to get started. You can also read the earliest version of my own mirror-based solo protocol that I invented in this Twitter thread:
Preparation and Ongoing Practice
The spiritual path and the psychedelic path explore much of the same territory. To use a metaphor, both can be used to climb a mountain, but psychedelics are more like taking a helicoptor to the top rather than the hard work of learning to climb. One is not better than the other. But most people, after taking a psychedelic chopper to the top and seeing the wonderful vistas unlocked from up there, come back with a burning desire to learn to climb, themselves.
The climbing here is ongoing spiritual practice. I have found Buddhist-style meditation and a bit of yoga practice to be tremendous companions on the path. I also encourage everyone doing this work to investigate more somatic therapeutic methods like Internal Family Systems, Hakomi, and Core Transformation. These Parts-work methods are very valuable tools to have on board before you do any psychedelic sessions. They can really help you to navigate the terrain opened up by psychedelics, especially MDMA.
Putting it All Together
I refused to wait for the same assholes who outlawed psychedelics to give me permission to heal. If you’ve been waiting for that permission, this piece was written for you, much as it was written for a version of me a year ago.
In no particular order, here is some of my best advice for setting out on a path of doing drugs for growth and healing while your kids at school:
- Your kids are not in the way, they are the way. Wanting to be so much better, for them, is why I do this work in the first place. (It gets especially interesting when your own children begin to reach the age of some of your Parts!)
- Tripping solo is not righteous, it’s merely practical. “Not needing anybody” is not the way!
- You might trip solo, but everything else needs to be as communal as possible. Involve your loved ones, your therapist, and your community, as much as is safe.
- Flexibility is key! Planned trips will often not work out. Disappointment and frustration are great grist for the spiritual mill.
- You won’t find time to trip if you’re not looking for it.
- If you know another parent interested in these journeys, you could combine tripsitting with babysitting for each other.
- Try lower doses (but not with MDMA, it’s mostly pointless)
- You can also learn to access nonordinary states of consciousness through holotropic breathwork and/or jhana practice. (The 2nd jhana may have similar benefits to MDMA for IFS therapy!)
- Mix and match! Holotropic Breathwork and low dose psychedelics go tremendously well together (the breathwork potentiates the psychedelic). Parts work goes well with any altered state, particularly Selective Inhibition and MDMA (or jhana!).
- Trust yourself. Trust your experience.
- Record yourself talking during your trip to listen to later. (I use the Just Press Record app on either my phone or watch.)
- Stay the fuck off the internet during your trip. Do not disturb mode is your friend.
- Do not make any decisions to do more drugs, while on drugs. Any booster doses should be decided upon and measured out beforehand.
- Learn about chemical analogues. I’ve experimented with both 5-MAPB and 6-APB in place of MDMA, and 4-AcO-DMT in place of mushrooms. They are not illegal in most of the world (sorry, US and UK) and can be ordered on the open internet right to your mailbox.
- Test your drugs! Occasional use of psychedelics is quite safe, but be sure you’re taking what you think you’re taking.
- If you are on an SSRI-type anti-depressant, I am very sorry, but you are going to need to taper off of them before you can derive benefit from psychedelics. SSRIs cancel out psychedelics. (6-APB may be an exception to this, as may the utterly new psilomethoxin.)
Everything here is linked throughout this article, collected here for your convenience.
- Psychedelic Somatic Interactional Therapy – trauma-informed psychedelic therapy.
- Parts work methods: IFS, Hakomi, Core Transformation, Focusing
- Holotropic Breathwork – access nonordinary states without drugs! Try the Othership App for solo guidance.
- Just Press Record – a great audio recording app for talking into during your trip and listening to after.
- Lovingkindness/metta meditation – produce love on purpose.
- Jhana meditation – produce bliss on demand. (This get much easier when some trauma has been cleared!)
- SoloMDMATherapy.org – one stop shop for solo MDMA sessions
And here are two links to Twitter threads I’ve written:
- Selective Inhibition (releasing stuck traumatic energy)
- MDMA Mirror therapy (learning to love yourself and your body)