This year, millions of people will use psychedelics outside of supervised medical contexts, many of them for the first time. Many psychedelic users are unprepared to tend to a psychedelic-induced difficult experience if one were to arise. As part of our efforts to minimize harm related to the non-medical use of psychedelics, on this page we provide advice for helping someone having a difficult psychedelic experience.
It is not uncommon for psychedelic users to have difficult psychedelic experiences. This is most likely to happen with first-time users, especially with high doses and without adequate preparation or guidance. Society has termed these experiences "bad trips."
A difficult psychedelic experience is not necessarily a bad one. With proper preparation and understanding it is possible to help a person having a difficult experience to receive the most benefit from it.
Psychedelic Harm Reduction:
4 Basic Principles
Create a safe space
Sitting, not guiding
Talk through, not down
Difficult is not the same as bad
Difficult psychedelic experiences can be frightening, but also potentially among the most valuable experiences someone can have. Difficult psychedelic experiences can be the result of external factors, such as a chaotic environment or traumatic events, or the result of painful or troubling emotions that arise during the experience.
By working with these experiences, rather than trying to "talk someone down," together the sitter and the psychedelic user can make a difficult psychedelic experience a chance for personal growth.
Video: How to Work with Difficult Psychedelic Experiences
A Practical Introduction to the Principles of Psychedelic Therapy and Harm Reduction
"Working with Difficult Psychedelic Experiences" is a practical introduction to the principles of psychedelic therapy and harm reduction. This educational video teaches psychedelic drug users how to minimize psychological risks and explore the therapeutic applications of psychedelics. Narrated by psychiatrist Ingrid Pacey, M.D., the video demonstrates examples of when and how to help another person make the most out of a difficult experience with psychedelics.
This educational video was originally produced by MAPS for the curriculum of a church-based harm reduction drug education program for teenagers. It is intended as a tool for anyone who has ever used psychedelics, for anyone who might in the future, for anyone who knows someone who has ever used psychedelics, or for anyone who knows someone who might in the future. In other words: you.
Psychiatrist and MAPS-sponsored researcher Ingrid Pacey, M.D., narrates and gives the introduction to this version of the film.
Watch the video below or download (Save As...) in Quicktime (1.8 GB MOV) or Flash (34.4 MB FLV) format.
You can also download an extended DVD-quality version in Quicktime format:
Manual: How to Work with Difficult Psychedelic Experiences
A true psychedelic experience, even a so-called bad trip, is sacred. In earth-oriented, shamanic cultures, even a psychotic breakdown, induced by a psychedelic, is part of the initiation.
So remember the way of the ancients: this is a process, a process of awakening, healing, and ultimately celebrating life.
To avoid psychologizing the psychedelic experience I have avoided medical or traditional therapeutic language.
Overview of what we will cover:
Role of the Sitter or Facilitator
Varieties of Psychedelic-Induced Crises
Working and Being with Psychedelic Emergencies
This is a short overview of the material we will cover in this hands-on training. It is based on 30 years of experience sitting for people. It has therapeutic value, but goes beyond therapy and moves into transpersonal and spiritual realms.
The manual is based on training, schooling, teachings and hands-on work with the leading people in the psychedelic movement, and on in-depth work with healers/shamans from Nepal, Ecuador, and the Navajo nation. It is based on my own healing and therapeutic work, using psychedelics, western psychology, body work, breathwork, art, and different eastern tools, like meditation, Zen koan study and nature work.
1. ROLE OF THE SITTER OR FACILITATOR
The work with psychedelics, entheogens, and plant teachers is an area of the healing arts that is ancient and has been rediscovered in the last 100 years. There are many different ways to work with and understand the psychedelic experience. When we work and sit with a person going through a psychedelic-induced crisis, it is important to understand that in a certain way this is a dialectic relationship, a way of relating that is ancient.
Every person is a psychospiritual system, meaning there is no separation of body, mind, emotion, soul, imagination and energy. Therefore it is very important to see each person as a unique individual.
There is always the tendency to overpower the other with our knowledge, wisdom, and insight. So let go of all knowledge regarding the experiences that the person is having. Just be with, listen, and observe. This brings us back to the dialectical relationship, paying full attention, allowing the other to express and communicate whatever they want. Just being, without a putdown or judgment.
It is important for the healer/sitter/helper to believe in her/his way of working. The belief in the method is important for the results.
The healer/sitter therefore is someone who has had their own psychedelic experience and has had some experience sitting for people, guiding her/his friends. Without any experience, it is impossible to just be with someone having a psychedelic experience or guiding someone having a psychedelic crisis. It is good to know that we all have blind spots and there is the danger that we might stop the experience if we have not explored this material or are afraid.
Rule #1, under any condition, is that we honor and respect the person having the crisis.
Even if we don’t understand what’s happening (the person having the crisis might be much more developed than we are, lost in worlds unknown to us, or reliving a drama we can’t comprehend), we serve as an anchor, a resting place, a quiet center. We know that our presence is helpful. At this moment we don’t have to solve all the problems and answer all the questions that the experience or the person’s life presents.
We have to remember that tens of millions of people have used psychedelics, in many different, sometimes not very supportive, environments, and returned home safely. With support, knowledge, and integrative work there is very little danger in the psychedelic experience itself. Even the most frightening and bizarre behavior, when explored and worked with, will turn out to be beneficial and enlightening.
As stated earlier, the positive outcome of our work requires trusting the wisdom of the ancients, trusting the wisdom of our modern teachers and healers, and trusting the built-in wisdom of our bodies, minds and souls.
We frequently pick up emotions and feelings and energies from others. We will cover ways of clearing, cleansing, and purification.
2. VARIETIES OF PSYCHEDELIC CRISES
This is a vast area, so we will just touch on it. For a more in-depth study, see the reading list.
There is no clear manifestation of any substance or mixture of substances. But there are some generalities. It is very important to know the active duration of the different substances. All psychedelics have a similar pattern: there’s the doorway with different physical, mental and emotional manifestations. There is a buildup, then an extended stay on a plateau, then the coming down, re-entry.
The most common felt threat to sanity is the feeling/experience that one is going crazy, losing one’s mind, or that this will never end. This feeling/experience is supported by changing mental states and powerful (sometimes) changes in perception. Major shifts in ego/personality structure, regarding one’s belief and understanding of oneself, the world, and god, are common.
Old traumas can be remembered and relived. These memories can be of a physical nature (reliving one’s birth, childhood abuse and/or illness, memories of famine and/or war, accidents, rape are some of the possibilities of re-emergence). These memories can also be of an intellectual, emotional nature (reliving verbal abuse, a lack of basic emotions, body contact, love, nurture, or a disassociation due to a traumatic experience).
These traumas can also be of a transpersonal nature, meaning phenomena that go beyond our personal identity or biographical understanding of the universe. These could be experiences from another life, becoming one with the earth or other life forms, or experiencing the life cycle of an animal. One could leave one’s body, have the experience of merging with an archetype, or experience the world of a god or a goddess. The memory of a violent death can be a most traumatic experience.
There can be many different, sometimes never experienced, sensory, energy, and body sensations. These can range from hearing colors to seeing music. It could be an extremely heightened sense of smell, taste, hearing and vision. Some of the most frightening manifestations of the psychedelic experience are energetic. People go through powerful releases, rendering their bodies out of control, shaking, twisting and vibrating. These energies, being activated by the psychedelic substances, could be related to birth, an opening of a frozen body pattern, bioenergetic, neo-Reichian type of release, or be a reconnecting with the universal life force. The life-force is called the kundalini and it manifests in a powerful opening of the body’s energy center. It could also be an intensive sexual or other emotional release.
The body sensations also cover a wide range of sensations and feelings. This can be the feeling (for the first time in one’s life) of coming home into the body.
Here’s a small list of other possible experiences:
Remembering different deaths
Reliving drowning, torture, and many other physical experiences from this and other lives
Reliving mystical states
Identifying with and reliving in detail the victimization of humans throughout history.
Leaving the body and traveling in the spirit realm
Merging with rocks, animals, plants and experiencing the pollution and death of the planet and different species
Merging with people, reading their minds, feeling their emotions
Being caught in a certain experience
Having a UFO experience
Being overwhelmed by feelings and emotions
In a psychedelic experience and crisis the person may react to the healer/sitter and project her/his own feelings and experiences onto the healer/sitter. This could be a sexual, demonic, godlike or fearful transference. When this takes place it is important just to be with, not to defend the transference.
3. WORKING WITH THE PSYCHEDELIC CRISIS
The experience of the person’s crisis is, many times, one of letting go on all levels of one’s being. So we have to create a space where it is possible to be open, a space that’s quiet, warm, safe, and beautiful. This space is as important as the sitting/facilitating itself. If possible, have flowers, candles, art and writing supplies, blankets, quiet music and soft light.
Pay attention to the body language while you listen to what’s being expressed verbally and emotionally. Follow the expression of the person. If they have a lot of energy, let the energy move, let it express itself (we provide a safe space) in whatever form: uncontrolled shaking, yoga postures, dancing, ritualistic type of movements, hyperventilation, kundalini type release.
If the person wants to speak, if sounds come out uncontrolled, support the expression. This might be: a different or dead language, prayers from the different spiritual traditions, far-out stories and memories, jibberish, animal sounds, looping sentences (repeating over and over the same words), lamenting, cries, or screams.
Respond when needed, do not take over, try to (if appropriate) engage in a calm conversation, responding to fear and anxiety.
The most appropriate response to a powerful psychedelic crisis might be to just sit quietly with the person, making them feel safe.
If the person is stuck there are several different ways to respond:
Wait and calm them down through talk, knowing the duration of the substance taken
Walk with them, talking or not, until they calm down
Have them express the experience through sound
Have them move through it, through a physical expression, holding a certain posture or letting the body go
One could do some deep, focused bodywork, just hold someone (meeting their needs) or gently massage them. Always ask for permission regarding any kind of physical contact.
Have appropriate sitter regarding male/female, important when recall of sexual abuse takes place.
The person could recline, eyes closed or blindfolded, being in a safe place, listening to comforting music and grounding the experience.
If their emotions are overwhelming them, encourage their expression.
When the person is calm enough or has come back from their difficult psychedelic experience, have art supplies and writing material available.
This will pass, this is a process.
This is an experience other people have had.
There will be support afterwards.
There are many ways to integrate the experience and to continue working with the opening that took place. It is important to complete any unfinished gestalt. Further reading should be encouraged, and the person should work with a trained practitioner to complete the experience. This could be:
Shamanic Integration work
Different forms of bodywork
Different forms of energy release work
Work with archetypes
Different art forms, making music, dancing, painting, sculpting
Meditation and other spiritual practices (following the images or insights of the experience)
There are certain medical conditions that should be treated by the medical management. There can be medical pre-existing conditions that are adverse to the taking of psychedelics. Some of the most common are: pregnancy, mental illness, cardiovascular problems like abnormal blood pressure or other heart problems, recent surgeries and/or accidents, and epilepsy.
5. RELATED READINGS
This is a very short list of some of the in-depth work regarding the psychedelic experience and crisis:
1. Psychedelic Reflections, Ed. Lester Grinspoon & James B. Bakalar
2. The Adventure of Self-Discovery, Stanislav Grof
3. LSD Psychotherapy,Stanislav Grof
4. Spiritual Emergency, Stanislav and Christina Grof
5. Green Psychology, Ralph Metzner
6. The Unfolding Self, Ralph Metzner
7. The Healing Journey,Claudio Naranjo
8. The Cosmic Serpent,Jeremy Narby
9. The Secret Chief, Myron Stolaroff (full text online)
10.The Ethics of Caring, Kylea Taylor
11. Shamanism, Roger Walsh
LSD Psychotherapy by Stanislav Grof, M.D., Ph.D.
Pioneering transpersonal psychiatrist Stanislav Grof’s LSD Psychotherapy is a comprehensive text based on decades of work with LSD-assisted psychotherapy.
Handbook for the Therapeutic Use of LSD: Individual and Group Procedures (1959)
This handbook, written by D.B. Blewett, Ph.D., and N. Chwelos, M.D., in 1959, was one of the earliest manuals written for LSD-assisted therapy. It is still one of the most comprehensive guides on psychedelic therapy, offering a wealth of details on dosage, setting, the stages of the LSD experience, and common issues that may arise.
Holding the hand of a screaming man tied to a table in a medical tent, I realized that the situation felt less like psychedelic therapy than it did like a psychedelic Civil War hospital.
On Labor Day weekend, I went to the Hookahville music festival near Columbus, Ohio, with a group of volunteers interested in learning how to help people undergoing difficult psychedelic experiences. We were accompanied by MAPS president Rick Doblin, who helped to organize the project and enlist our team, and by an experienced underground psychedelic therapist, who led a training session for our group.
Hookahville is a three-day camping event celebrating the Ohio band Ekoostik Hookah, and featuring other bands (this year Little Feat and The Wailers also played). Like most big music fests, Hookahville draws thousands of young people, many of whom enjoy their music under the influence of LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and other psychoactive substances. With over ten thousand people camped out at Buckeye Lake (an old Grateful Dead venue), more than a few end up overwhelmed, disoriented, and occasionally panicked.
Working under the supervision of Hookahville’s medical staff, we created the Serenity Tent, a safe space for those in altered states. Over the weekend, we worked with about twenty-five individuals, most of whom were under the influence of MDMA, LSD, or psilocybin, often in combination and/or in combination with alcohol or marijuana. By the time they reached our facilities, people were often extremely disoriented, frightened, or agitated. They were sometimes unaware of their surroundings or unable to communicate. Some wandered in, others were brought kicking and screaming by the medical team, some were introduced by concerned friends, and others we found lost and incoherent on the concert grounds.
Our group, composed of volunteers from MAPS, DanceSafe, and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, tried to help each person in a way most suited to their needs. Often this simply meant providing a quiet place away from the music and crowds, reassuring people and inviting them to feel safe in their surroundings. We helped people face the issues that troubled them, guiding them in a supportive but direct manner. We also encouraged people to use art supplies to express non-verbally some of what was taking place internally. MAPS also arranged for DanceSafe to conduct on-site pill testing at the venue, identifying adulterants in pills sold as MDMA and providing harm reduction information to concertgoers. We facilitated communication between the DanceSafe team and the medics so that the medical staff would be aware of the ecstasy adulterants being ingested.
Everyone we counseled eventually calmed down without requiring a visit to the emergency room or the aid of tranquilizers. We were also able to help some people work on larger problems in their lives, problems that contributed to their having a difficult psychedelic experience in the first place. Helping people face their fears and concerns probably reduced longer-term psychological issues.
According to the medical unit, we reduced the average time individuals were held for observation and relieved pressure on their medical facilities. It also seems likely that more at-risk concertgoers received medical evaluation than would have otherwise; many people seemed to trust our group more than the medical or security teams, and accepted attention from the medics at our recommendation.
At least six people came to the tent under the influence of ecstasy but none suffered from overheating, serious dehydration, or other physical problems. This may be due, in part, to DanceSafe’s efforts to identify fake pills sold as ecstasy. Our staff even heard a report that dealers threw out an entire bottle of pills after discovering that the pills contained not MDMA but DXM, a dissociative which is more harmful than MDMA and can cause dehydration and heat stroke, especially in combination with MDMA and/or alcohol.
The most rewarding work was that of helping people face deeper issues in their lives. One woman who came to us under the influence of LSD arrived in our tent yelling and talking incessantly. Over several hours of gently guiding her to work with her feelings, we learned that she was considering a divorce from an abusive husband, and she feared that she would lose custody of her children. She was shouting without pause to avoid facing her own thoughts, forcing her attention outward. Eventually, as she grew to feel safe with us and in her own thoughts, she was able to let go of her denial, and by the end of the evening she lay in a fetal position, sobbing unrestrainedly. It was a powerful experience for everyone there to see her begin to accept her grief and fear, the first step in coping with her difficult future.
Earlier in the weekend, a young man under the influence of ecstasy came to the tent, feeling fine but wishing to talk about other problems in his life. He had been experiencing panic attacks for two years, particularly when smoking marijuana. The panic attacks dated back to a traumatic experience with LSD, and he worked with our volunteers to understand why he had these experiences, and how to work with and learn from the panic rather than try to suppress it.
We also were able to use our knowledge of psychedelics to assist the medical team. In one case, the medics restrained a young man under the influence of datura, a disorienting and potentially harmful botanical psychedelic. Before the medics were able to get information back from the Poison Control Center, a therapist with our group was able to tell them the duration and physiological effects of the drug. Minutes later, the Poison Control Center reported the same information. We spent about four hours with this person, calming him and helping him achieve a more normal consciousness in a shorter time than was anticipated. We also humanized his treatment. Though he was restrained by the medics, tied to a cot by his hands and feet, he was able to be with his friends, who brought a guitar and sang him a song.
A small step in the right direction
From our perspective, the Hookahville project was very successful in furthering our educational mission. By helping to reduce harms related to psychedelic use, MAPS is acknowledging the risks as well as the benefits of psychedelics. This came through in some local media attention the project received, a large article on the front page of the feature section in the Sunday Sarasota Herald-Tribune on September 9, 2001. The story, headlined "Psychedelic Studies," focused on our project at Hookahville and on the personalities of the MAPS volunteers from Sarasota who participated. [read online at http://maps.org/media/hookahville.html] Hookahville was also an opportunity for us to increase awareness of psychedelic therapy and its potential benefits. We were able to teach, and learn, about the theory and practice of "sitting" for those in altered states. It was amazing to participate in the work of simply "being there" for people and allowing them to open up to their experiences.
During the weekend, we also met and strategized with national board members from Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, the heads of local DanceSafe chapters, and other young people who are working on legal, cultural, and health issues regarding psychedelics. Hopefully, this networking will strengthen all of the groups involved and facilitate more collaborative work.
Though MAPS is unlikely to fund projects similar to the "Serenity Tent" in the future, we hope that the success of our pilot program will encourage event promoters to consider funding similar programs themselves. Not only did our presence make Hookahville a safer and friendlier venue, we saved the management considerable time, resources, and police interaction.
The bigger perspective
It was an interesting experience, and a testament to the necessity of a new model for psychedelic use in our culture. Most of those we helped made it to our tent because they were making poor and uniformed choices. For example, a number of individuals reported ingesting MDMA, psilocybin, marijuana, and a six-pack of cheap beer. I found that my training in coping with psychedelic crises didn’t wholly prepare me for the "let’s get fucked up" attitude I saw around me. As long as psychedelics are illegal, the contexts in which they are available will continue to be limited. The tools for understanding and working with psychedelic experiences will be limited. For many people, using psychedelics is, like other illegal activities, associated more strongly with self-destruction than self-awareness. Unfortunately, sometimes even those who choose to take psychedelics absorb this attitude, which affects their choices and their understanding of themselves. Criminalization limits the possible interpretations of psychedelic experience, leaving users to a recreational model that does not speak to the emotional or spiritual issues that can arise, or to the process of integrating psychedelic experience into the rest of one’s life.
This was vividly illustrated for me as I sat with a sixteen-year old boy during his first psychedelic experience, a mushroom trip. The medical staff had found him standing rigidly near the stage, oblivious to his surroundings. We stayed with him for hours, sitting with him as he lay quietly in our tent. At the end of the night, he told us he had a beautiful experience, and would consequently repeat it the following evening. We saw him early that afternoon, just hours after he left our tent, and he reported that he had taken LSD for the first time.
What a shame! Without a cultural context with which to make sense of his experience, without guidance to help make responsible choices, this young man hassought to explore psychedelics in the only way he’s found: haphazardly. Probably he has never had an open, honest dialogue about psychedelics with his parents or his doctor, his teacher, religious leader, or therapist. In a sense, the young people who find themselves in a tent like a psychedelic Civil War hospital really are war victims, casualties of the Drug War that prevents open communication and responsibility regarding psychedelics.
A better model for youthful exploration
In response to our society’s harmful system for educating young people about drugs, MAPS is initiating the Rites of Passage project. In Ohio, we worked with people experimenting with psychedelics as young as 14 and 15 years old. Because those who explore with psychedelics are most often young people, we hope to open dialogues between young people and their parents about the potential value and risks of psychedelic use. This Rites of Passage project is an attempt to find new ways to integrate psychedelics and marijuana into our culture. Over the coming months, MAPS will be collecting stories of families who value psychedelics for a Rites of Passage section of our website. We are trying to find parents who have introduced their children to psychedelics or marijuana, or children who have introduced their parents to these substances. We’re especially seeking stories told from both generations, in which parents and children can each write about their experiences from their own unique perspectives, with their stories posted together in a family narrative. We want to learn what sort of drug education parents have given their children, or children have given their parents, and how that education was received, believed, and used.
By presenting stories of supportive, responsible use, MAPS hopes to give families a better range of alternatives for talking and thinking about psychedelics and marijuana. With the help of our members, we hope to move the use of psychedelics beyond music fests and emergency tents, and into the realm of scientific research and cultural support.
Article: Psychedelic Harm Reduction Services at the Boom Festival in Portugal
Ground Central Station at the Boom Festival: Creating a Safe Space for Working with Psychedelic Crises
Over the last few years, there have been ever-increasing numbers of young people attending large music events, raves and trance festivals around the world. This global emergence of events, although mostly focused on music and the arts, has also seen an increase in the use of psychoactive substances. Progressive promoters are beginning to respond by including harm reduction elements in the organization of their events, such as chill-out rooms for dancers to rest and safe spaces for those undergoing psychedelic crises.
With the support of MAPS and festival promoters, we have been creating a model for services which reflects the needs of those who choose to use drugs at these events, thereby, directly meeting users "where they are." Our intent is to provide spaces in which people can safely allow their psychedelic experiences to unfold, as well to provide central and reliable sources of information for those who seek to deepen their awareness of altered states. This is one of the emerging faces of harm reduction being put into practice.
The Boom Festival
During the August 2002 full moon in Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal, the Boom Festival was a 5-day, 12,000 person, psychedelic trance festival. It was set up as a temporary autonomous zone for an intentional gathering of the global trance/dance community.
The organizers created an environment in which to explore the music, dance, time-as-art mindframe, and the ever evolving and changing culture born out of the psychonautic experience. An excerpt from the promotional material stated: "Every culture is expressed by its Art. It emanates through the many expressions and shapes it assumes. A cultural event as an expression does not just focus on one of the aspects of the Art, but in the whole." This statement helped to create the general mindset of those participating, to become involved in the event as a co-created space in which to explore the many potentials inherent within a community focused on creating art to express itself.
Aspects of the festival included the main stage, an Ambient Garden chill-out area, a Psy-art gallery, a Dreamspell/Mayan calendar workshop dome, Psynema (showing movies and video from the psytrance community during the evenings), a market, chai tents, and an interactive daytime conference area known as the Dynamic Mythologies Tent. Organized by InVisible Productions, the Dynamic Mythologies Tent was intended to generate dialogue with festival participants on the nature, implications and integration of the psychedelic experience. Hosting presentations, workshops, and discussions over the course of the festival with the exploration of such themes as: consciousness and the nature of reality; resacralization of space and time; textures of hyperspace and visionary art; earth stewardship; shamanism and the Gaian mind; chaos and ecology; culture building and the integration of the psychedelic landscape into everyday life. Presentations and workshops from such notable psychedelic visionaries as Erik Davis, Jon Hanna, Alex Grey, Wilbert Alix, Zoe Seven, Charles Hayes, Morgan Brent and next-generation neuronaut linguists Sijay and Delvin made for a very interesting, interactive experience unlike any other offered at a music festival.
Ground Central Station
The creation of a safe space for Boom Festival participants was an excellent foresight of the Good Mood Productions team, organizers of the Boom Festival. It was named "Ground Central Station" to give it the sense of an easily accessible, welcoming space to which Boom participants could come to ’ground’ themselves if needed. Ground Central Station was intentionally created to be a place to which those undergoing difficult psychedelic experiences could come if they required solace from the constant stimulus and continuous trance music of the festival. Hosted by experienced volunteer facilitators from the Higher Knowledge Network and a certified Holotropic Breathwork practitioner and underground psychedelic therapist, the project’s aim was to facilitate journeyers while minimizing interference with the flow of the user’s experience. In May of 2002 MAPS hosted a similar space called the Serenity Tent at the Hookahville festival in Columbus, Ohio, which I also helped to facilitate. Ground Central Station was set inside a 16-foot diameter geodesic dome covered by white parachutes and decorated to be a cozy and inviting environment. It was supplied with information about MAPS, including articles about how to treat difficult psychedelic experiences, the Psychedelic Crises FAQ from Erowid.org, and drug info from a Portuguese harm reduction organization called Conversas Da Rua (Street Talk). This provided an opportunity for people to inform themselves as well as find a safe space for challenging psychedelic mind states.
The space was designed to operate not only as a safe zone, but also as an interactive exploratory dimension for interested trippers. It included art supplies for nonverbal expression, bottled water, fresh fruit and other snacks, as well as a collective altar space for objects which represent the Sacred, including galactic trading cards provided by Dew Press, aromatherapy oils, and incense. These elements made the environment more interactive and helped to create an atmosphere of comfort and grounding.
The Role of the Facilitators: "Response-abilities"
While the job of assessing physical emergencies remained in the hands of the medic team, it was our job to deal with crises situations of a more psychological nature. We worked in conjunction with the medics, security, and festival organizers, and whenever anyone was found needing our assistance, we were instantly contacted by radio handset. People came to the tent under the supervision of festival staff, some were brought in by friends, and some wandered in on their own.
Those who did experience difficulties with their trips almost immediately calmed down once inside the tent and were often able to enjoy their experiences afterward. Some retreated to an internal state to reflect upon their journey and take time to integrate whatever it was that they were feeling and experiencing. Others seemed to appreciate the support we had to offer and many engaging discussions were generated about the nature of the psychedelic states being explored. All in all, the benefits of creating this space were readily apparent and many of those who had had need of the service affirmed it by coming back at a later time to say thanks.
A part of our job as facilitators was to walk around the festival grounds to see if we could find anyone needing help. On the fifth day of the festival, I found a young man seated on the ground in the blazing sun. He looked disoriented, dehydrated and seemed to be talking aloud to himself. I approached him calmly and offered him some water to drink. I sat there with him trying to establish rapport, and when we did begin to communicate, he seemed very comfortable with me. He told me he had taken LSD for the first time in years along with a little MDMA. He said he was "pretty high" but that he was enjoying his experience. He explained to me that he had been addicted to heroin for a few years and that he and his girlfriend were trying to kick the habit together. They had come to the Boom Festival to get away from their usual scene and to try to have some fun while going through the harsh withdrawals together. He was quite proud that they hadn’t used in the last two weeks on their trip there, and was really glad to have an opportunity to be at an event like the Boom Festival. He felt the LSD and MDMA were helping him that day to work through the issues he had around his addiction, such as; his reasons for using heroin, his family life, the pressure he placed on himself, and issues with physical pain. As we walked around the festival we had an opportunity to discuss the insights that he felt he was gaining from the experience and what he communicated to me was indeed a testament to the potential therapeutic benefits of consciously used psychedelics and entheogens.
For reasons I can only guess, we only had a small number of people come in for assistance. It was amazing to see that at a festival of 12,000 people, the majority of the participants had very few problems with psychedelic usage. It may be because the population was mostly made up of experienced trippers who knew the effects, quality, choices, and combinations of the substances they were taking (such as hash, LSD, 2C-B, Mushrooms, MDMA, Mescaline, DMT, and Cocaine). However, the well-organized set & setting of the event itself probably had a positive effect as well.
As a facilitator of the Ground Central Station tent, my experience at the Boom festival has had a very positive effect on my life. I not only got to make many new friends, but also had yet another opportunity to witness the powerful effects that psychedelics can have on us. I gained skills that enable me to be a better facilitator, listener and friend. It opened me up to the patterns involved in the process of communication as well as in the content, and to using the skills of intuition, empathy, respect and understanding that I had become more attuned to through personal use of psychedelics and entheogens in the past. The experience of facilitating gave me the chance to explore and recognize that each individual’s reality or model of the world enables us to cherish, rather than judge or fear, the differences that make us unique, and made me more aware of the amazing and wonderful diversity of humanity.
The Next Level...
The Ground Central Station project was a great success in that all those who participated in or used the services felt it was a beneficial and rewarding experience. I can only speculate as to what would’ve become of those who needed help if we hadn’t been there. Nobody should ever have to go through a difficult psychedelic journey without knowing that support can be found if needed. The potentials for a project like this are vast and multifaceted. The Serenity Tent/Ground Central Station model can be adapted to each event depending on its specific needs and situations. Factors influencing this might be location, type of event, age/demographic of participants, and availability of substances. Some events will require more focus on crisis situations, others may involve more detailed information booths and others may require something more interactive and play oriented. Pill testing would also be an extremely valuable function of this project. The task of designing an overall safe space and environment would be a benefit to any gathering where people are involved in psychedelic exploration.
It would be of great value if every music festival and event promoter/organizational team were to take this safe space model into consideration in their future planned events. It shows great dedication to the spirit of community and demonstrates a shared response-ability to look out for and take care of each other.
Perhaps in the future, through education, support and other opportunities to learn and communicate about this vast landscape of the psychedelic experience, the benefits and healing that can result from psychonautic exploration will be common knowledge. Until then, addressing and reducing the potential harms associated with the uninformed use of drugs is an important step to take. Ground Central Station offers an excellent model to move the culture in that direction, and in the meantime, offers those who choose to use psychoactives the support they need in times of crises.
Article: Psychedelic Harm Reduction Services in the Black Rock Desert
For our third project in providing psychedelic emergency services, MAPS volunteers joined 30,000 other participants in the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man 2003. Burning Man is often described as an exercise in radical self-reliance: with a ban on vending, and a remote location in the harsh Nevada desert, participants are expected to provide everything from their own food and water to their own creative energy, entertainment, and bizarre costumes. The result is Black Rock City: an interactive landscape of surreal sculpture, whimsical vehicles, and spontaneous fun.
Self-reliance, however, is balanced by community support. The "city" thrives on a gift economy, with a strong ethic of helping one another on survival needs, art projects, and emotional concerns. In fact, this community support is built into the infrastructure of Burning Man, in the form of a volunteer team of non-confrontational mediators: the Black Rock Rangers. These folks patrol the city, helping people set up their tents, assisting in disputes with neighbors, and addressing safety concerns. When necessary, they work with the medical and fire teams, and coordinate with outside law enforcement.
Mostly, however, the Rangers help people to solve problems themselves, gently offering help when needed and otherwise staying behind the scenes, working to create a safe environment for people to have their own experiences. It’s an approach that sounds almost like psychedelic therapy. As you might imagine, the MAPS team was very happy to work with this group to offer our own volunteer efforts.
APS volunteers worked alongside the Black Rock Rangers in Sanctuary, a geodesic dome adjacent to the medical tent. Our group included Sandra Karpetas, who has worked with MAPS on similar projects and now helps to run the Iboga Therapy House in Vancouver; Dr. John Halpern, a psychiatrist researching psychedelics at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital; trauma counselor Kate Sorenson; "Sam", an underground psychedelic therapist; and from the MAPS staff, myself and Rick Doblin. Other volunteers were Mark Brennan, Suez Holland and Steven Oldridge. In order to learn the Ranger system and better understand the layout and workings of Burning Man, several of us underwent Ranger training and went out patrolling on mentor shifts. A few of us even became full-fledged Rangers, which allowed us to use staff radios to listen for incidents and communicate with other volunteers.
One of the reasons MAPS has undertaken psychedelic emergency work is to demonstrate how the psychedelic community can care for its own.
Even when experiences become frightening or disturbing, medical or law enforcement intervention is often unnecessary if compassionate, experienced friends are present. Black Rock City is an amazing model of how a community can show responsibility and compassion. And psychedelics, while not used by everyone (or even by most), are, for many, part of the festival’s celebration of free expression and pushing the limits of possibility.
Of course, boundary-pushing of any kind can be overwhelming, which is why the Rangers created Sanctuary. This is a place where people can recover from, or at least sort through, the stress of obnoxious campmates, strained relationships, or failed art projects. While a professional crisis intervention team is available to handle the most serious concerns (for instance, domestic violence or tragic accidents), the Sanctuary staff provides an emotional safety net for the Burning Man community. People suffering from sleep deprivation can find a quiet place to nap, and staffers distressed by incidents on shift can find a friendly ear to listen.
As the chaotic activity of the event builds over the week, Sanctuary sees more visitors, and a number of these folks were having difficult trips. We had several very powerful opportunities to work with people in p s y c h e d e l i c states. Three individuals, in particular, had what seemed to be especially meaningful experiences, touching on the some of the most powerful events in life: birth, parenting, and death.
Early in the week, Sandra worked with a woman who was brought in because her loud yelling disturbed her campmates. She wanted to know if she had permission to let go and feel safe, asking, "Can I do what I need to do? Can I be vulnerable?" When she felt that she could, she proceeded to have what I can’t help but see as a classic Grof experience: she lived out the symbolic act of giving birth. Lying on the floor, for hours she sweated, groaned, and underwent contractions, until at dawn, she apparently gave birth...to herself. She slowly returned to normal consciousness, feeling that she had undergone a process that was important and cathartic. She explained later that earlier in life, she’d had an abortion, an issue that arose powerfully during her psychedelic experience. Far from being a psychotic episode, as her "freaking out" might have been treated in another context, this birth process was relevant and healing in her ordinary life. Peter also had an experience that turned out to be quite meaningful in his life. When he came in, he was extremely agitated and confused, complaining he felt uncomfortable and alternately too hot or too cold. He told us he believed he’d been dosed, though as he grew more comfortable with those helping him, he said he’d taken a hit of LSD. He seemed to trust those in the room, but felt he didn’t deserve their help, frequently over-thanking everyone. At one point, he worried that he was going to die, and he would never get to see his son again. Along with one of the Rangers, the underground psychedelic therapist on our team, "Sam", helped Peter to open up to his fears, encouraging him to use movement and sound to release his anxiety. The following morning, Rick helped him think through his experience, and discovered a symbolic component to his seemingly unreasonable fears the night before. In order to come to Burning Man, Peter missed an opportunity to be with his son, of whom he does not have custody, and his guilt and anxiety over his family life led to his "bad trip." Dealing with these issues directly as he came down from the trip, he felt that the experience was enormously helpful, likening it to "five years of therapy."
Dave was another participant who initially was afraid to admit he took psychedelics. His friend brought him in, explaining that Dave was having a panic attack, a regular occurrence for him. Rick sat and talked with him, and as Dave came to feel more comfortable, he revealed that he had taken mushrooms that night. As his story unfolded, he explained that his panic attack had a serious and specific cause: he had a terminal cancer diagnosis, and did not expect to live for very long. Often, as in Peter’s case, the understanding people have of their lives while on psychedelics is a symbolic one. However, after talking to Dave’s friends later on, we learned that Dave’s story was true. With Rick’s help, he started to face his fears, even becoming calm and comfortable as he discussed the end of his life. He talked about how he hoped to end his own life when the pain became overwhelming. Accepting the inevitability of his own passing, he was even able to reflect on the needs of others, thinking of how best to say goodbye to his daughter and the rest of his family.
Each of these people was able, with the help of an experienced guide, to turn a difficult experience into a valuable one. Even in the hectic environment of an outdoor festival, even when fearing legal or other repercussions, they were able to turn inward and use their own resources to work through hard issues. Not only does this speak to the value of psychedelic therapy, I would also argue that it reflects the capacity of individual lay people to use psychedelics beneficially. I disagree with those who feel psychedelics should only be in the hands of experts, like licensed therapists or religious practitioners. I think that despite the risks inherent in recreational use, a society with legal psychedelics would develop a body of knowledge and experience among users that would minimize harmful consequences. Burning Man’s do-it-yourself ethos is a celebration of the potential of regular people. From what I’ve seen there and elsewhere, people do have the potential to take care of one another, and have valuable, healing experiences with psychedelics in a recreational context.
I have to admit I was a little disappointed that I personally didn’t have the chance to work with anyone in a profound psychedelic state. I had a fantastic conversation with a dehydrated woman, sat with a drunken pilot who mistakenly thought he was dosed (until he fell asleep), and helped a possibly tripping, but definitely drunken participant look for her purse. But even though I didn’t get to learn much about how an individual can work with and integrate psychedelic states, I learned a lot about how a community can. For me, the best part of helping at Sanctuary was being part of a group that not only valued psychedelic experience, and supported individuals through difficult spaces, but also functioned as part of a community, creating a context for these experiences within a bigger whole.
Much of what takes place at Burning Man is not quite translatable to everyday life. The temporary paradise in the desert couldn’t exist if people didn’t work the rest of the year, saving the money for all the generators and turntables that create the electric playground for a week. High-intensity celebration and exploration can only last so long.
What’s amazing, however, are the values that are expressed in this transitory city. Even though it’s just a few days long, Burning Man requires an enormous amount of organization. This is both for its internal functioning (to build and maintain its structure, ensure the safety and wellbeing of participants, and protect its natural environment), and its external relations (to live harmoniously with communities nearby and interface effectively with outside law enforcement and regulatory agencies). Yet Black Rock City is run by a paradox, an almost utopian bureaucracy. This relatively non-hierarchical system honors individual personalities and experiences, living its values as it performs its functions. I believe these values include a respect for the benefits of psychedelics, and a sense of responsibility to protect individuals from the unwarranted intrusion of others’ value systems or outside institutions - such as the Drug War. I was grateful to have the opportunity to participate in such a unique organization. I think Burning Man offers a glimpse of what’s possible when people work together to express their idealism in the real world, holding onto a vision in the dust and sweat and toil of reality. Which reminds me a little of MAPS. With the support of our own unique community, we can continue the struggle toward a policy on psychedelics and marijuana that’s founded on solid research, common sense, and compassion. It’s slow, but it’s inspiring - and sometimes it’s even a whole lot of fun.
Article: The Haven: A Safe Space for Difficult Experiences at Ozora 2012 in Hungary
Safer Festival is a not-for-profit organization born in 2011 aimed at promoting well-being and safety at festivals and other large music events.
In August 2012, Safer Festival was part of Ozora Festival in Hungary with a chill-out area called the "Haven". The main goal of the Haven, as printed in the official festival flyer, was to provide a "safe space where people could process, share, and celebrate their emotional and spiritual journeys," counting on the help of trained facilitators in case of need.
The team was composed of 26 people (including psychologists, nurses, psychotherapists, harm reduction workers, and others) from 11 different countries.
Inside the Haven, there were also flyers in different languages about psychoactives provided by the Nightlife Empowerment & Well-being Implementation Project (NEWIP), a harm reduction and health promotion project financed by EU.
The structure provided by the festival organizers was a huge circus tent, decorated with soft lights and with an altar made of sand in the centre. More than 3,000 people, out of the 22,000 present at the festival, visited the Haven and benefited from the possibility to celebrate their experience in a calm and safe environment or just to rest and relax after several days of dancing.
Feedback from the guests was really positive. "You are amazing people, thank you for looking after us! We really appreciate it!" wrote a visitor in the guest book. "I would like to have always people like you around me. I want to thank you!" wrote another one in the personal account notebook.
The service was provided in partnership with the medical staff, ambulances, and internal security.
A short video about the Haven is available on the Safer Festival website, with the goal of spreading this service to other festivals and getting in touch with people interested in this project.
A special thank you to MAPS, to KosmiCare, to the NEWIP coordinators and to the Ozora organizers for their support and to all the Safer Festival volunteers for their dedication and service.
With deep gratitude,
Jonas Di Gregorio
Psychedelic Harm Reduction FAQ at Erowid.org. Many concrete tips for helping someone undergoing a difficult psychedelic experience. It also provides resources for assessing whether or not a person's condition requires medical intervention..
Grof Transpersonal Training. Information, workshops, lectures, trainings, and books about Holotropic Breathwork, a technique used produce altered states through breathing.