Psychedelic Validation

Last week a friend of mine took me to attend a meeting about the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs.

I’ve suffered from cluster headaches for a very long time. Earlier this year they were coming on even more frequently than usual, to the point where I rarely went more than three days headache-free. This got me a little more desperate than usual about finding a solution. I’d heard that low doses of psilocybin were sometimes effective. I knew my friend had had some success treating himself with that stuff for depression. The dosage he used, he said, was not enough to make him trip.

I have absolutely zero interest in ever being high on psychedelic drugs again. I did that when I was nineteen years old and I know exactly where it goes. It’s nowhere I want to be. But if a dose of ‘shrooms so low it won’t have any noticeable psychedelic effect might possibly help with these terrible headaches, I’m willing to look into it.

When we got to where the meeting was being held we found out we’d gotten some of our info screwed up. The meeting wasn’t about headache treatment, it was about treatment for depression and suicidal ideation. And the drug they were talking about wasn’t psilocybin, it was ketamine. But we were already there, so we figured we’d hang out and listen.

The presentation was by a doctor who had been using ketamine to treat depression at his own small, private clinic with great success. But he wasn’t getting a whole lot of support from the medical community. I wasn’t sure of his exact age, but he looked old enough to have lived through the heady days of the sixties when psychedelic drugs were all the rage. The audience members were quite a bit younger, ranging from mid-twenties to a couple of old codgers like me in their fifties. My guess would put the median age at around 35 to 40.

The meeting was in a small classroom at one of the universities here in LA. The tables were arranged in a horseshoe shape around the lecturer who was seated in the middle. I’d guess there were around twenty of us in there to hear the presentation.

I barely paid any attention to what was being said about the use of ketamine for depression because I was much more interested in the fascinating interaction between the audience and the speaker.

It was easy to see what the audience wanted. They were desperate to have their ideas about psychedelics validated by a real live doctor. The doctor was well aware of this, but didn’t have any interest in validating them. His motivation for being there was harder to figure out. It seemed to me that he was getting so little support for what he was trying to do that he would take whatever he could get from anyone he could get it from. Maybe he figured these folks would spread the word about his clinic or perhaps sign a petition or two to keep his research going.

There were bunch of psychedelic evangelists in that audience. My first hint of this came when we were asked to each briefly say our names and why we were there. Lots of folks in attendance had a story of how psychedelic drugs had saved their lives. There must have been five or six who used that phrase. Although we also were told how one of the regular attendees to these meetings had recently committed suicide in spite of the use of self-administered psychedelics to treat her depression. So it was kind of a mixed message, I thought.

Anyway, when my turn came around I decided I’d rather not say much. I just said, “My name is Brad and I’m just curious to see what people have to say .” I figured that would get me off the hook. Instead, the response I got was the kind you might get at a church if you said the same sort of thing. Some of those folks were visibly and audibly excited that they might have found a new convert. I’m sure the fact that I look so much younger than I actually am added to the rush they must have felt.

The lecturer wanted to hear the audience’s questions, so rather than a presentation followed by a question and answer period, the whole talk was like a long Q&A session. I do the same sort of thing a lot, so I could relate to that.

This is where the desperate need for validation really started to show.

There were a lot of questions about mystical experiences. Did the doctor’s patients have mystical experiences? Were these mystical experiences the reason for the relief of their depression? The doctor said that his patients had reported a variety of different experiences, some of which seemed highly unusual. Some patients had pleasant experiences, while some had experiences were so bad they never came back. It was impossible, he said, to draw any conclusions about whether so-called “mystical experiences” were the direct cause for changes in their depression.

Had the doctor ever done ketamine himself? No. Why not? He just didn’t feel any need. Oh he really ought to!

Is the kind of ketamine you get from the streets the real deal? Highly doubtful, the doctor said. Why? It’s very difficult to make ketamine, while its near cousin PCP is far easier to synthesize. Wouldn’t I know the difference between ketamine and PCP? I don’t think so, said the doctor. But I’m very experienced! The doctor didn’t budge. The subjective experiences, in his view, were very hard to distinguish.

It was fascinating watching these folks beg for validation while the doctor steadfastly withheld it. I know that experience. These same kinds of psychedelic evangelists are also desperate for validation from genuine spiritual teachers. If you set yourself up as a spiritual teacher who doles out that kind of validation, you can be sure of a lot of support — Hello Vince! Hello Trudy! If you refuse to validate people’s drug-induced “mystical experiences” you can be sure of being denounced as a fundamentalist and a phony.

It was neat to see that I’m not the only one who gets this sort of reaction.

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