Experience from my 15 years in program.
Over the past ten years, psychedelics have come front and center for millions worldwide. Over the past 24 months, if you haven’t seen a documentary or read an article on the topic, you may be living in a cave.
Whether you’ve read or watched Michael Pollen’s “How to Change Your Mind,” or you’ve heard any number of celebrities (i.e., Prince Harry, Joe Rogan, Aaron Rodgers, Chelsey Handler…the list could go on for days) discuss their use of psychedelics, it’s hard to miss the massive resurgence of substances that we were told would fry our brains.
Unfortunately, one group of humans is still struggling to reconcile this newfound “miracle cure” more than any other – the members of Twelve Step recovery programs.
That said, as legalization efforts for cannabis and psychedelics spread across the country and “real” doctors are prescribing ketamine for things like treatment-resistant depression, more and more members are breaking ranks.
Some conclude that their mental health may be more important than hanging onto the perceived definition of “sobriety” held by old-timers and Big Book thumpers.
The History of Psychedelics in Alcoholics Anonymous
What was once a dirty little secret in the smokey rooms of recovery is quickly becoming a much more well-known anecdote. Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was successfully using psychedelics to treat his depression. Bill may have taken his last drink in 1934, but he took his first trip in 1956.
In her piece, “66 Years Ago, The Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Tried LSD — And Ignited a Controversy Still Raging Today,” Katie Macbride remarks, “By the time the man millions affectionately call “Bill W.” dropped acid, he’d been sober for more than two decades. His experience would fundamentally transform his outlook on recovery, horrify A.A. leadership, and disappoint hundreds of thousands who had credited him with saving their lives.”
Around 2012, even before I started my divergent path of healing with psychedelics, I was chairing a meeting of my homegroup (which happened to be a literature meeting), and I remember bringing a very early writing from Bill regarding his use of LSD. The room couldn’t have been quieter, and old timers more uncomfortable, than having just the saint of sobriety had actually been a drug user well into his third decade of sobriety.
To offer a little context, I would call my childhood experience sub-optimal. While not as bad as many of my fellow alcoholic brethren, being outed as a gay kid in a small midwestern town at 14 (in the mid-90s) was not a pleasant experience.
In one way, I was incredibly fortunate. To escape my tormentors, I became a foreign exchange student and moved from a town of 3,500 people in the middle of Central Nebraska to a city just 20 minutes south of Brussels, Belgium. In Belgium, if you could crawl onto a barstool, you could drink a beer, so I not only escaped my tormentors but was also permitted to drink as I wanted. This marked the start of my career as an alcoholic.
That very successful career continued for 15 years until the county court system of Nebraska kindly asked me to stop drinking. “Ask” may be a tad more gentle word considering my second DUI cost me around $10,000 and 21 days in jail (and that was just the beginning).
After getting sober in 2007, I worked a solid program with a fantastic sponsor (I may not be alive today were it not for Connie L.). In 2012 I found therapy then later that year found yoga. In 2013 I became a certified yoga teacher and met my first “shaman.” After working with her for a couple more years, I realized there was still something missing from my spiritual life, and, with her assistance, I found myself drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon jungle.
My life had been unquestionably altered for the better, and ever since, psychedelics have been a deep and meaningful part of my healing and growth.
To close the loop on my recovery, before March 2020, when the world shut down, I was still actively attending two to three weekly meetings. Since then, I’ve realized my need for meetings is much lower than the people in the rooms may have liked me to believe. I still meet with a sponsor (in two programs), but I also receive profound teachings and wisdom from numerous traditions and coaches.
Deep Gratitude to A.A.
I do want to make one thing abundantly clear before I stray away from the steps, traditions, doctrine, and dogma of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I would not be where I am today, nor would I have what I have, were it not for Alcoholics Anonymous.
Going one step further, I can almost guarantee I would not be writing this article from inside my own office in a home I own and working as a solopreneur coaching entrepreneurs and running a spirutal community center were it not for the steps, traditions, and principles offered to me by Alcoholics Anonymous.
I cannot think of any other way I would have gotten sober were it not for the love and support of everyone I have met in the rooms of all three of the twelve-step programs I’ve worked over the past 15 years.
To Connie, Jason, Doug, Jim, and Tyler. Thank you for your steadfast love, acceptance, and willingness to let me walk the path I needed to walk.
Things to Consider
With the gushy truth out of the way, it’s worth taking some time to think through a few things before you step off the rigorous road of sobriety.
First things first, if you are currently in active addiction or are struggling to get your sh!t together, psychedelics are probably not the next best action for you at this moment. These substances are not miracle cures. You will need a support system and proper integration for them to be truly effective. Trying to integrate your profound mystical experience while sipping Southern Comfort or snorting cocaine off a toilet tank in the back bathroom of the club is an unlikely path to success.
Next up, how long have you been sober? I didn’t decide to use psychedelics until I was seven years sober. I’m not saying you have to wait that long, but if you’re 30 days in and thinking it’s time to do your deepest work, you’re probably getting ahead of yourself. I highly encourage you to have at least a year of solid sobriety before adding a new substance into the system.
One of the most profound lessons I received from twelve-step recovery is the need for rigorous honesty. Doing whatever I can to make my outsides look like my insides has been one of the greatest gifts of my recovery. Telling lies and keeping secrets is the complete opposite of this. Bringing this thought process into your psychedelic use is critical. If you’re unwilling to tell your sponsor that you’re considering using psilocybin or ayahuasca for your healing, there’s a reason for that. That reason could mean you’re experiencing shame, or it could mean you need a new sponsor. Which one could be the difference between your continued healing or wrecking the life you’ve worked so hard to build. #discernment
Most everyone will tell you “psychedelics” are not addictive, so let’s add more clarity and context to this myth. First, by psychedelics, we’re talking about the primary four: LSD, DMT, psilocybin, and mescaline. Ketamine and MDMA are not traditional psychedelics, and they both carry a risk of physical addiction. Moving on from brain chemistry, while a substance may not cause physical addiction, it can 100% cause psychological addiction. I see this quite frequently in “experiential” journeyers, and it looks a lot like escapism.
Throughout my healing journey, I do my best to evaluate whether a substance is confrontational or escapist. Escapist substances usually include alcohol, nicotine, opiates, methamphetamines, etc. They quite literally numb you out by helping you escape your feelings. Psychedelics, on the other hand, can be very confrontational. They shine a giant spotlight on what you’re feeling and offer a chance to observe and change the thoughts and beliefs that cause your feelings. Every substance is different for every person. For one, LSD may be confrontational; another could be escapist. Flip a coin on cannabis. It may be legal, but the vast majority of users are not using it in a confrontational manner.
Finally, I think it’s vital that we create a distinction between mental health and sobriety. There may be a correlation between the two but not causation. I’ve met some genuinely miserable people in the program with 30+ years of sobriety. I truly wish these folks would find the help they need, be that therapy, breathwork, or even psychedelics. Wearing your sobriety like a badge of honor, even when you’re a cantankerous arsehole is nothing to be proud of. If you’re sober and unhappy, the Big Book allows us to seek outside help. Take that any way you’d like.
How I’ve Reconciled My Journey
From a super practical point of view, my journey has naturally unfolded over the years. Initially, I communicated with my sponsor about every instance of psychedelic use and every single substance I put into my body. A near-decade later, and now that I’m the minister of a psychedelic church, that level and need for transparency has faded considerably.
And while that transparency has lessened, I also know what shame and guilt feel like in my body. So if there is ever an instance where I feel like I’m hiding something, it’s time to get super honest and clean. Shame about my behavior is the fastest way to do something I might regret.
Another way I reconcile my use of psychedelics is with intentionality. Quite literally, if I do not have an intention for my journey, then I shouldn’t be doing it. In programs such as Overeaters Anonymous, Alanon, or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, abstinence is not possible. We have to eat, deal and procreate with humans. In those programs, sponsees work with their sponsors to create “bottom line behavior.” Behavior that is currently acceptable in their program. Personally, the recreational use of psychedelics is not a part of my program today. You and your support network must work together to determine your bottom line.
A.A.’s fifth tradition states, “Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” With that said, I have no business speaking about drugs in an A.A. meeting. My use of psychedelics is not a topic of discussion, and I never bring up their use in a formal meeting of A.A. My use (or even its discussion) may encourage a newcomer to think they can use psychedelics before they’ve got their sh!t together. I opt for behavior to prevent me from feeling responsible for someone losing their sobriety (because I’m also still a little codependent :-).
And finally, my approach to sacred medicine work is never to encourage others. As I learned in the program, my psychedelic life is one of attraction rather than promotion. Having said that, much like we’re taught in the rooms, if you’re in close communication with someone who may need the program, we break our anonymity and share with them the solution that worked for us. Suppose I see someone suffering in the rooms and have a close enough relationship with them or someone in their immediate support group. In that case, I may invite them into a private conversation about how psychedelics have improved my life. One conversation is enough. A second is never required.
Pushback Is Inevitable
Like anything requiring a significant change in attitude or tradition, changing the minds of the recovery community is going to take time. That’s probably the way it should be.
There are so many people in the rooms of xA programs that were given their life back, partly due to the wise counsel of the Big Book and supportive community who shows up to share the message every day across the world.
The 12-step community consistently says that A.A. is not a religious program but a spiritual program. At its core, I belive this to be true.
My definition of spirituality is very simply defined as self-knowledge. These programs do a remarkable job of helping us learn about and understand ourselves, especially in relationships with other people, places, and things.
While A.A., at its heart, is truly a spiritual program, it doesn’t exist without humans. And with humans come personality, beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors. Our brains are pattern-making machines and much of 12-step recovery is steeped in pattern.
- Meeting makers make it
- Easy does it
- If you go to the barber enough times, you’re bound to get a haircut
- Let go and let God
- Keep it simple, stupid
- Progress not perfection
- First things first
- Faith without works is dead
And those are just the ones hanging on the walls of clubhouses worldwide.
The challenge is when repetition gets tainted by correlating one person’s past failures with another person’s path. The above statements include some pretty hard and fast rules, but I’ve also met sober bartenders in the past fifteen years. Clearly, going to the bar every day doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to get drunk.
A.A. starts to become closer to a religion when the dogma and doctrine stop coming out of the Big Book and start coming from the mouths of humans.
In fact, in Bill’s Story, on page 7 of the Big Book, Bill Wilson himself writes, “Under the so-called Belladonna treatment, my brain cleared.” I hate to tell you this, but Belladonna has long been known to be a psychedelic plant and likely the potentiator of Bill’s first spiritual (aka mystical) experience.
If that doesn’t seal the deal, it’s pretty easy to separate the spiritual from the dogmatic with four simple questions:
- Did Bill W. take LSD? If yes, go to question 2.
- Did Bill W. die sober? If yes, go to question 3.
- Did he restart his sobriety date after ingesting a psychedelic? If no, go to question 4.
- If Bill W. used a psychedelic for healing purposes and he didn’t restart his sobriety date, why would taking a psychedelic today cause me to lose my sobriety?
It’s really that simple. If you get significant pushback without solid reasoning after politely engaging in these four questions, then you’re likely working with someone whose mind is not going to change. And as we know from Michael Pollan, the whole point of this work is “HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND!”
The hardest part about integrating psychedelics into my sobriety was the fear of the unknown. I was used to phrases like, “It’s not the 100th drink; it’s the first drink.” I was f’ing terrified that if I ingested a psychedelic, I could relapse and lose everything I had worked so hard to rebuild in my first seven years of sobriety.
But after multiple years of therapy, yoga, meditation, and all the other self-help modalities I’ve tried (which were and still are numerous), the pain had officially exceeded the pleasure, and I was willing to “go to any length” to feel better. No different than what we’d ask any newcomer to commit to working the first step.
I had begun placing my well-being and mental health above the rigid concept of sobriety.
The biggest thing to remember is that per tradition three, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Regardless of your psychedelic use, the program recommends we still save a seat for you. It also may mean people will question your sobriety date. Should that happen, you’re more than welcome to tell them to take it up with their sponsor or direct them to an Alanon meeting.
Here’s what I know with 100% certainty today. True healing happens from the inside out. When I change my need for something, the recurring and symptomatic behavior resulting from that need disappears. If my need stays the same, I’m simply white-knuckling it. This is why early sobriety is so damn hard. We need the alcohol and escapism not to feel our feelings.
As Connie C. reminded me, “When we get sober, we start to feel better. We feel pain better, anger better, sadness better, and happiness better.”
For the first time, we got and permitted ourselves to feel all our feelings, the hard ones and the easy ones.
If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll continue to get what you’ve always got.
Truer words have never been spoken…about sobriety and psychedelics.
Want to go deeper? Download your copy of the Psychedelic Field Manual.