Psychedelic Safety - On the Tightrope of Possibility
*Disclaimer: This article has been written to bring awareness to the safe use of psychedelics and for educational and harm reduction purposes only. If you have any health conditions or are taking medication, DO NOT take these substances without first doing your own research, and talking with your doctor or healthcare professional.*
During my coach certification, my favorite trainer cautioned about over-relating to clients.
“Keep healthy detachment between yourself and them,” he said. “Clients are coming to you because friends are too close, and therapists are too far. Friends say too much. Therapists, not enough. You are the sweet spot in the middle.”
I thought of that advice every time Lola came to see me. She longed for closeness. For engagement with boundaries. For feedback without projections. Things I, too, had longed for and pursued.
My own coming of age had been a barrage of expectations so intense and firm that my autonomy could only be known through the lens of rejection and defiance. Somehow, despite this, curiosity pulsed inside me. But curiosity repeatedly squelched created crisis, resulting in years of intermittent therapy with counselors sitting far away in sterile rooms. Their excellent listening leaving me in the void longing. Perhaps that is at least part of why I grew up to be a woman who listens and talks, dancing at the edges of healthy detachment, potentially care too much. As if that is even possible.
The last time I saw Lola in person, she was a radiant glow of love and solidity. She was guiding a group in meditation at the opening of a retreat. She floated through the room like an angel.
When she saw me, she flashed a smile. I felt her courage and her power beaming through her pain. She knew the strength inside her but was still waiting for permission to fully release it, only just beginning to understand permission was not needed or required, except from herself.
When I talked to Lola after that retreat a few weeks later, she spoke in hyper speed. Her voice frantic, a combination of ecstatic and manic.
“Lola,” I interjected, “You don’t sound like yourself. Are you okay?”
“I went to a strange retreat last weekend. It was kind of the best thing that’s ever happened to me and maybe the worst,” she said, voice cracking.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’d taken a flyer about plant medicine from my yoga studio,” she said. “I’d been wanting to try it even though it was a lot of money – $5000 on my credit card. I’ve read so many articles about how I could heal myself.
At first, it felt amazing, like my whole life started making sense. Then, everything changed. I felt unsafe and uncomfortable. I couldn’t tell the difference between my father and the man facilitating. Nothing bad happened. I don’t think so at least. But at some point, I blacked out. It was too much to process.”
Up to that day, I’d not discussed with Lola my work with psychedelics. She was in her early twenties when we first met which meant her pre-frontal cortex was still developing, making her impressionable and tender. Making the gravity of working with such powerful medicines that much more profound. I made a conscious choice to focus our collaboration on helping her create a solid foundation. Stability seemed the highest order if she were to safely unravel the ego and reconstruct it at some point in the future.
“Lola,” I interjected again, “I work with plant medicines. You need support unpacking and understanding this experience, someone to help you discern what was real and what was metaphor, and what any of it means. The ambiguity and disorientation you’re feeling now is not a good place to stay indefinitely. We can work together to find the meaning in all this.”
“You can help me?” Lola asked, her voice sounding half girl, half woman.
“Of course, Lola. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Thank god,” she whispered.
During my preparation to be a psychedelic guide, I’d asked my mentor what to do when people project.
“They’re supposed to project. Get ready to play Jungian archetypes all day, every day. That’s the job. To go back in time and receive a do-over. This is the portal of time and space psychedelics create.”
I held a canvas for Lola’s projections as she worked through the complexity of her psychedelic experience and the traumas of her life. It wasn’t about me, but I played a tiny part in that sacred space where our stories overlapped, and our destinies intertwined. She was trying to rewrite her story and alter her epigenetics, as I was also rewriting mine.
We were immersed in good progress when Covid started, and the normal outlets and coping mechanisms closed. Lola began missing meetings and sounding panicky. These were all red flags, yet entirely out of my control.
About six weeks into lockdown, I was tagged in Lola’s mass social media post that rang out like a cry for help, meets manifesto. She referenced suicidal thoughts and child abuse. She spoke with a voice that was raw, but clear. Angry, but powerful.
I’d been attempting to reach her, to reschedule our last missed meeting. The following day, I got a message from her partner saying she’d been put in a mental health facility, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed Lithium.
My heart sank. I knew Lola well enough to know this is not what she would have wanted. I also know that sometimes what we want and what we need are not exactly the same.
Lola called me when she left the facility. We resumed coaching. She oscillated between numbness and hope, punctuated by moments of desperation. She wanted to wean off the pharmaceuticals she’d been required to take at the facility. She started working with a holistic doctor and a psychiatrist and was trying to recalibrate.
The last time we talked, Lola sounded one part manic and the rest visionary. She shared concerns about the mental health crisis. She wanted to return to plant medicines, to a more natural, ancient path of healing. She wanted to travel that path with preparation, support and integration. She wanted to break down the labels, the stigma, the urgent need to diagnose and treat. She wanted to catalyze hard conversations.
“I see you doing all these things so courageously, Lola,” I told her. “I believe in you.”
“Why does it seem people learn more from the hurt and the dark than from the light and the love?” she asked me.
“Well, I think it’s a both/and more than an either/or, but it’s painful to see and feel the struggle, and you feel so deeply,” I said to her.
“Thank you for always listening and seeing me, and for not being silent,” she said.
A week later, I woke to a terrible dream that something bad had happened. I reached for my phone and saw a text from her partner:
“Lola left us three days ago. She loved you very much. You were one of a small handful of people she trusted. Thank you for being there for her.”
Lola’s departure shook me to my core. After several days of heartache and grappling, I sought wisdom and healing from my greatest teacher. She pulled me down into the depths of her great mycelium where she holds all of us and everything near and far.
Lola came to me first. She told me she was free. She reminded me death is also a teacher and life is affirmed through love and loss.
She hummed beautiful, wise words like a songbird to the struggle. The fine line between breakdown and breakthrough is a tightrope of pain and possibility.
Thank you, Lola, for walking that tightrope.
About the Author: Raised by evangelicals on a farm in rural Tennessee, Micah Stover is now far from home in Mexico where she resides with her family and works as an integrative support therapist with trauma survivors. Micah is currently writing and revising a memoir, chronicling the path to healing intergenerational trauma and PTSD with MDMA, psilocybin and guided psychotherapy. To learn more about her work, check her Website or Instagram.