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Psychedelic Healing

by Abbie Kozolchyk
Field Trip Health in Chicago

As she navigated a dimly glowing passage, Katy Parr knew she wasn’t alone. Something—or things—seemed to be moving alongside her. “There were these pulsating, fluffy pink discs exerting an almost physical pressure on me, but it wasn’t unpleasant,” says the 34-yearold supply chain specialist in Houston. “They were blood cells, and we were traveling down a vessel together.”

Of course, to anyone who hadn’t just taken ketamine—the FDA-approved anesthesia that doubles as the only psychedelic treatment currently legal in the U.S.—the scene would have looked quite different. No blood vessels the size of waterpark slides. No pulsating pink fluff. Only Parr herself, ensconced under a weighted blanket and eye shade in a zero-gravity recliner, and Bobbie Russell, a licensed clinical social worker who guides people through ketamine-assisted psychotherapy at the Houston branch of Field Trip Health.

With 11 centers in North America, one in Europe and more in the works, this three-year-old brand points to a much larger trend: the mushrooming, as it were, of new psychedelic healing spaces across the globe. From at-home treatment models to retreats in Amsterdam, Jamaica, Costa Rica and beyond, the wellness world is witnessing what every publication from Nature to The New York Times has dubbed the Psychedelic Revolution.

Soltara Healing Center

The revolution, recapped

Though all kinds of forces have fueled the current “shroom boom”—as the phenomenon has also been called—it does trace back to a few major milestones. In 2018, Michael Pollan—hardly the face of radical drug advocacy—published How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. The book, including reflections on Pollan’s own psychedelic experimentation, quickly became a critical darling, bestseller and cultural turning point. The following year, Johns Hopkins Medicine launched the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, the largest such institute in the world. UC Berkeley then opened the Center for the Science of Psychedelics in 2020 and—not to be outdone—Harvard announced two psychedelic initiatives in 2021: one associated with the medical school (Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics) and one with the law school (the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation). Thus began the psychonaut space race in the highest spheres of academia. Or at least the latest go-round.

There has, of course, been ongoing academic interest in the field since the early days of Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann’s LSD research in the mid-20th century. To say nothing of the pioneering Harvard Psilocybin Project, cofounded in 1960 by researchers Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert and—on an amazing sidenote—covered in the campus newspaper by an undergraduate editor named Andrew Weil. By 1963, having accused Leary and Alpert of all manner of profligacy, Harvard dismissed the duo, who went on to almost instant countercultural stardom.

“The backlash against widespread use in the 1960s made psychedelics more difficult to study for decades,” says Albert Perez Garcia-Romeu, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But given society’s evolving views on drugs in the 21st century— when the likes of John Boehner can sit on the board of a marijuana investment firm and U.S. representatives of both parties can form a Congressional Cannabis Caucus—old limitations are clearly falling away.

At the same time, “there is a growing sense of disconnect and even existential anxiety around how we live in relation to our planet,” says Garcia-Romeu. Within that context, he suggests, some may consider psychedelics a means of reconnection to the natural world.

Imaginary visions, real remedies

For Parr—and countless others who’ve contended with severe depression, anxiety and/or PTSD—the draw of psychedelics is infinitely more concrete: potential relief. When your symptoms preclude your ability to function (or worse, your will to live), you’ll likely try anything to get better. At one point in her 20s, in fact, Parr cycled through nearly a dozen prescription meds in as many months, but none helped. So she safely took herself off everything, and eventually, found a new therapist. While their time together was productive from the start, neither realized just how in sync they were until Parr became transfixed by the 2020 season finale of CNN’s This is Life with Lisa Ling. The episode, entitled Psychedelic Healing, followed three people in search of help for treatment-resistant PTSD. “I had to pause several times because I found myself becoming overwhelmed by how much I identified with their suffering,” says Parr. “Seeing others in a similar mental and emotional space made me say, ‘Okay this isn’t normal.’ And the severity of my own suffering became apparent to me.” When she mentioned as much during a subsequent therapy session, her therapist said, “Katy, are you asking if I think you should do this?” Parr nodded, at which point the therapist revealed her own ongoing training in the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy. Not yet certified, however, she suggested Parr consider Field Trip’s recently opened Houston outpost. After an hourlong evaluation, Parr was booked for a series of six ketamine-assisted therapy sessions and three talk therapy integration sessions. With its “Eastern vibes, fountain and greenery wall, the space looked like a day spa,” says Parr—“if you can imagine a day spa for mentally ill people who take psychedelics.” Perhaps the most conspicuous clue? The headphones piping in a highly curated soundtrack and psychotherapist’s voice. Though her dosages and experiences varied from session to session, the denouement occurred during her last ketamine treatment, when “entering the psychedelic space felt like coming home,” she recalls. “It was so comforting, so warm, so familiar and so tranquil, like a warm hug from a loved one.” Visually, it seemed a surreal blend of lakes, streams, mountains and forests—the kinds of landscapes that have long served as Parr’s real-life “tether to peace.” On the other hand, moments spent sobbing in treatment—and they were legion—seemed valuable in their own right. “Once, I couldn’t stop crying—I just sobbed uncontrollably,” Parr recalls. “Bobbie smiled at me softly and said, ‘I wonder how long you’ve been holding that in.’” The episode was so powerful, it became a turning point. “I was letting go of all of this turmoil that had manifested itself in my body,” she says.

Field Trip Health

Pura vida redefined

Approximately 2,300 miles away—at the Soltara Healing Center on Costa Rica’s Gulf of Nicoya—Jodi Whalen had a similar experience. The 54-year-old visual artist from Burlington, Vermont, had tried nearly everything to work through serious childhood trauma and PTSD, and considered psychedelics a last resort. After researching various options, she decided on ayahuasca, a mixture of the namesake vine and the psychoactive chacruna leaf, both native to the Amazon basin and central to the area’s sacred, ancient ceremonies. If—as shamanic beliefs commonly hold—disease is the manifestation of trauma-induced energy blocks, then ayahuasca helps the healer recalibrate those energies.

Whereas Whalen had always tried to fight her way out of her trauma (ultramarathons were frequent go-tos), “I would instead need to surrender my way out of it here,” she says, “and that was really difficult, even when I was in ceremony.” Ultimately, she felt that the maestra (her healer) had done at least as much of the work: “She brought me into a place where I felt safe enough to let go,” Whalen explains. “She was present with me as I sobbed and sobbed, experiencing every moment of sadness and grief from my childhood. Then she sang to me, put her mouth to the top of my head and took a deep breath in—at which point the sobbing stopped, immediately.” Amazingly, recounts Whalen, “a physical peace came over me and I haven’t been triggered since.”

Two years later, she’s still not sure why: “Ayahuasca is the ultimate surrender, and the ultimate level of trust that there’s something bigger than you that wants to help you,” she says. But as for what that force is, she doesn’t know. Nor does she particularly need to. The important thing is that “the psychedelics took away the trauma that had continued to live in my body, and helped me truly understand that what had happened to that child is not happening to this adult woman.”

Though the ceremonial healing was clearly at the heart of Whalen’s Soltara experience, she also appreciated the yoga, meditation, journaling, beach access and discussion opportunities. Now, she can imagine trying ayahuasca “100 percent in nature,” but would recommend a retreat setting for first-timers: “I felt so safe, and the staff was there any time I needed anybody.”

Initially, this was not the kind of recommendation Whalen would have made publicly. When she began researching psychedelics, no one she knew was talking about them—despite study after study that pointed to their efficacy—and she didn’t want to be the odd woman out. But she eventually reconsidered because “people need to see that their neighbor, their friend—or their mom’s friend—used this medicine to heal, and it’s not this big, scary thing. As a 54-year-old mom, I want to put a face to it and help destigmatize it.”

Soltara Healing Center

Wall Street weighs in

Someone else who’s been working to combat that stigma, albeit in a much more public arena, is Rick Doblin, PhD, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. A broker of famously improbable alliances—he recently partnered with Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw and Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, for example, in an effort to secure millions in congressional funding for military-focused psychedelic research— he’s been a singularly effective advocate.

“His achievement has been to destigmatize psychedelics by cross-pollinating breakthroughs that benefit military veterans and psychiatric patients alike,” says Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, executive vice president of public affairs and corporate social responsibility for the psilocybin-focused Psyence brand, as well as chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s new Psychedelics and Healing Initiative. “Doblin’s uniquely nonpartisan approach has won support across the policy spectrum, and helped psychedelics make their way from the halls of academe to the corridors of Wall Street.”

Now, all manner of new venture is hitting the market. The aforementioned Psyence has joined a number of other psychedelic enterprises on the Canadian Securities Exchange, while four are listed on the NASDAQ (not least, Field Trip Health) and one joined the New York Stock Exchange last year: Cybin. But psychedelics may be poised to expand more than mere market share. “We have the potential to democratize wellness,” says Gifford. “We need to ask whether there’s a connection between America’s shocking decrease in life expectancy among our poorest citizens and the lack of mental health solutions,” she contends—and from there, “whether safe, legal psychedelic medicine could provide a national, or even global, benefit.”

While medical research suggests the answer is yes, the legal system hasn’t quite caught up yet: Oregon is the only place in the U.S. where psilocybin has been legalized, though the rollout is still underway. But with MDMA-assisted therapy thought to be on track for legalization as soon as 2023, thanks to a much-heralded trial by Doblin’s group, experts predict that more legalization will follow— especially given the range of the areas where psychedelics show promise. Beyond treatment of depression, addictions and existential distress in people with serious illness, says Garcia-Romeu, “the potential benefits of psychedelics in healthy people, in conjunction with practices like meditation, for example, are also very compelling.”

Already, companies such as Dr. Bronner’s are expanding their employee healthcare coverage to include psychedelic-assisted therapy. And the reaction to the new benefit has been positive, says Dr. Bronner’s public affairs & media relations manager, Lauren Stansbury: “While psychedelics may not be something everyone chooses to access, people generally appreciate having the option.”

Though Parr’s own insurance doesn’t (yet) cover her ketamine therapy, she’ll continue to visit Houston’s Field Trip office for what she calls “boosters.” She’s already been back for one small group session and plans to return soon for the full individual module. “When you find a tool that works, you hold onto it,” she explains. “I believe I’ll be living with this illness for the rest of my life—there probably isn’t a cure—but anything I can do to reduce the symptoms and to feel more fulfillment and live more authentically, I’m going to do it.”

Note: Psychedelics are not suitable for everyone; if you’re considering trying any, consult your own doctor first.

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