A traumatic psychedelic trip is like a box of puzzle pieces, sitting there in your mind, waiting to be put together. The first step, as with working any puzzle, is to open the box, dump out the pieces, and start to separate and organize them. Understanding and healing from a bad trip is no different. To leave that box of pieces sitting in the attic of your mind is a huge disservice to yourself because, well – who could possibly work a puzzle without opening the box and spreading out the pieces?
A trip is a largely subconscious experience, meaning that it’s not logical or rational and it doesn’t naturally fit into the mental frameworks that normal everyday life adheres to. To keep the trip in your head is to keep it bottled up in its original, illogical form. Being “illogical” isn’t a bad thing – the fact that that word has any negative connotation should make it clear how little our society values the subconscious and how much it values that prefrontal cortex of your mind which is responsible for logical, rational, concrete reasoning and creating the stories we tell ourselves and others (i.e. lying).
The subconscious mind, on the other hand, knows all things and doesn’t lie about any of it. Through symbols and seemingly strange story lines that are utterly devoid of the candy-coating our prefrontal cortex is so addicted to, your subconscious tells you the way things are and the parts of yourself you really need to be paying attention to. Instead of being addicted to logic so much that we shun any “illogical” behavior or feelings, we need to balance and respect both sides ourselves – that means respecting the illogical, subconscious side of a trip and infusing it with some logic in order to better understand it.
Unfortunately, many of us are totally disconnected from the symbolic language of our own subconscious minds, mostly because we never take the time to open up that puzzle box and start trying to put things together. In order to make sense of your trip, or even your nightly dreams, you’ve got to get this stuff out of your head and into concrete reality where you can begin to apply logic in a good, constructive manner that will ultimately bring understanding. When you leave dreams or trips in their raw, original state inside of your head, it’s much more difficult to process and fully understand them or apply their lessons to your day-to-day existence.
Writing about your trip
Almost all of my guides on healing from bad trips begin in the same way: write down every detail of your trip in chronological order to the best of your abilities.
If you haven’t done this yet, I’d be willing to bet that you have a sort of ominous memory of the experience looming somewhere in your brain, weighing on your consciousness and bringing itself up at all the wrong times. Perhaps this memory is a source of anxiety or a numb reminder of what you may view as a terrible mistake. It’s a lot like a nightmare.
The other night, I woke up from an unsettling dream around 4am, and I found myself lying awake in bed, mulling over the details of the dream over and over again until I finally opened a new note on my phone and wrote it all down. Once I got things written down, I was able to start seeing how see the meaning of the symbols and making sense of the visceral message my inner self was trying to send me. Needless to say, I was able to fall back asleep after doing that.
When you write down the details of a subconscious memory or experience, you’re allowing yourself to disassociate from it just enough to see things through a less emotionally charged lens. This is the first step to healing. If you’ve ever been through a breakup, you’ll remember that it was nearly impossible to see the reality of you and your ex’s incompatibles and the fact that they were totally the wrong person for your until it had been long enough since the breakup that you were no longer super emotional about it.
Emotions, also a subconscious process, are no more logical than the trip itself, and what you truly need is to infuse the situation and memory with a healthy dose of logic. Notice that I’m not suggesting that you look at it from a purely logical perspective as many tradition psychotherapists choose to do – this perspective says “it’s not real, just pure hallucinations,” which is a gross misunderstanding of the power of a psychedelic experience.
So, if you haven’t written down every detail of your trip, go and do that now. Write everything in painstaking detail – it doesn’t matter if it takes you five hours to get it all out. You will be glad you did.
A trip document
I recommend creating a special document on your phone or computer or even a dedicated journal for your recovery process because there is so much else to write beyond this initial account of your trip. Let’s say you’re using a document. In this file, create a space to write interpretations of what you think aspects of the trip meant. Create a space to ask questions about the nature of your experience, the nature of reality, or the nature of consciousness. Answer the questions where you can and leave the ones you can’t blank, knowing that you’ll eventually find the answers as you continue to live your life. Create a space where you write down your feelings, dreams, or the traumas you think you may have. Create a space where you can process your feelings about any relationships or aspects of your life that are suffering as a result of the trip, and a place to keep records of your anxiety.
Through this holistic document, you are dumping out that puzzle and beginning to separate and organize the pieces. Don’t expect to work the whole puzzle today or even tomorrow, but do a little bit everyday. It will eventually come together and show you a beautiful picture.
Reading & Listening
As you work to heal from your traumatic trip, I recommend reading books and listening to lectures or talks about psychedelics, particularly the specific substance that you had a bad experience with. By learning more about that substance, its effects, and the ways in which it can be used, you will start to remove the sting. By seeing how your substance has been best used for optimal results by others versus how you used it, you’ll start to think, “No wonder I had a bad experience.” There is a sense of relief that comes out of this.
I would recommend reading an actual book, such as The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide by Dr. James Fadiman, who was a graduate student involved in psychedelic research at Stanford in the 1960s. The perspective of this book is very balanced and eye-opening, providing personal accounts, accounts of 60s research, discussions of micro-dosing, and a guide for taking psychedelics as well as trip sitting. It talks mostly about acid, mushrooms, and mescaline.
I particularly agree with this passage from the book:
I feel strongly that we should return entheogen use to the context of a guided relationship, which has been the model in every traditional culture that I have studied. The idea that people should go off and trip with others their own age who don’t know any more than they do, be they fifty or twenty or twelve, has never worked well in any culture, and it certainly doesn’t work well in ours.
So if I were the spiritual experience czar and decreed that people would be allowed to have freedom of religion in the United States of America, I would start by saying that freedom of religion of an entheogenic sort will be done similarly to the way one has the freedom to fly a private plane. You don’ t start by going up alone. You first go up with someone who knows more than you do. The trained pilot is in charge and tells you when you’re ready to fly it yourself. – pg. 266
Another way to broaden your horizons in this sense is to listen to lectures or talks given about psychedelics, and I would recommend starting with talks by Terence McKenna or Mark Passio. McKenna talks primarily about mushrooms and DMT, and less directly about LSD. While I don’t agree with everything he says, I believe that he is gifted in his ability to put the psychedelic experience and the possible meanings of it into words. Mark Passio is influenced by McKenna but offers his own perspective, delivered in his own unique and admittedly more abrasive style.
Here is a McKenna talk on the subject of DMT, and here is another wonderful McKenna talk on psychedelics in general.
Here is a talk from Mark Passio’s radio show. He takes the perspective of psychedelics as a basic human right and a necessity for healing societal word-view issues.
I have a lot thoughts on when and how to talk about your psychedelic experience, and the basic idea is that, when you’re just starting to heal, it’s best to keep things private. You can read more about that here. If you’re beyond this early stage of healing, though, I do recommend starting to talk about what you’ve been through. What you’ll find is that more people than you ever expected have done psychedelics and many of them have had traumatic experiences with them. When you start to talk, you open yourself up to bonding with new people, learning about their experiences, and hearing their perspectives, which can be tremendously helpful.
It’s often easier to interpret another person’s dreams than it is to interpret your own, and the same goes for a traumatic trip. Telling someone else about your experience can help you to gain a new deeper understanding that comes from another person’s perspective, especially if that person is experienced with psychedelics. At an even more basic level, talking and hearing from someone else who’s gone through this too can be a big source of relief. I remember when I first talked about my experience to someone who was well-versed in tripping and also quite wise and level-headed – it was so comforting and helpful. It helped me better understand my experience, but it also helped me to feel safe again.
If you know or can find a group of people who are interested in and experienced with psychedelics, I would recommend opening yourself up to them as long as they give you good vibes. If you’re in a college setting, there are often pro-psychedelic clubs on campus where you might find a good community with whom you can share. As you’re healing, I would still refrain from opening up to people who have never done psychedelics or are judgmental of them, just to protect your own psyche as you try to make sense of things.
A positive psychedelic experience can help open you up to a world of creative possibilities beyond what we are usually able to see for ourselves. They help to remove the clouds from our vision and see how creative we truly are. If you had a traumatic experience, though, it’s unlikely that you were able to tap into this rushing river of creativity during the trip. It’s likely that you missed out on this joy.
Now that you’re healing from the traumatic elements of this trip, take the opportunity to “make friends” with it from a creative perspective. Let the sights, experiences, and feelings inspire you to make or create something. Make a drawing or painting. Write a poem, or even a song. Use whatever creative outlets you’re comfortable with to explore the experience of your trip from a perspective other than fear, confusion, or anxiety. By doing so, you can begin to appreciate the experience even though it was traumatic at the time. You’ll create something wonderful in the process. Initially, what you create may feel very private, but as you heal, I would recommend that you share or perform it as much as you can. You can read more about psychedelic creativity here.