I Wanted Ego Death. This Powerful Psychedelic Gave It To Me.
Unconditional love. An experience of nonexistence. Here’s what happened when I took 5-MeO-DMT at a luxurious retreat.
Montego Bay, on the northwestern edge of Jamaica, is, according to a popular tourist slogan, “the complete resort.” Snorkeling. ATV safaris. Catamaran cruises. An outpost of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Golf. But I wasn’t here for any of that. I traveled to Jamaica, during a global pandemic, to experience, well, total nothingness.
I came in pursuit of the feeling of nonexistence, chemically catalyzed by a tryptamine called 5-MeO-DMT, aka 5-MeO or Five. It’s also called Toad because it occurs naturally in the pustulelike glands of Bufo alvarius, a toad native to the Sonoran Desert. Most fancifully, 5-MeO-DMT is called The God Molecule because it facilitates full-blown mystical experiences, including an alleged communion with some higher-order, divine consciousness. It is the most powerful psychedelic on the planet. (5-MeO-DMT is illegal in the US and its full effects on one’s health are not known.)
Freebased at low doses, it promises an extremely intense rejigging of waking consciousness. As the underground chemist Ken Nelson described the experience in a 1984 pamphlet: “You will be completely absorbed in a complex chemical event characterized by an overload of thoughts and perception, brief collapse of the EGO [sic], and loss of the space-time continuum.” Among users of psychedelics, this is referred to as “ego death,” which a team of researchers at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University say is marked by “a complete loss of subjective self-identity” and a feeling of “merging into the surrounding environment or the entire universe.” Alexander Shulgin, a chemist best known for first synthesizing MDMA, or ecstasy, described a more pointed reaction after smoking 30 milligrams of Five. “I was crawled up on my bed (in the fetal position) with my eyes closed,” he wrote, “squirming around, screaming (in my head) ‘Fuck! You killed yourself!’ I repeated this several times, very fearful of death.”
Psychedelic tourism was, at least pre-COVID, trending. Gwyneth Paltrow dispatched her staffers to a magic mushroom retreat for an episode of her Netflix series The Goop Lab. Megan Fox recently told Jimmy Kimmel about visiting a Costa Rican resort serving ayahuasca, a ceremonial brew used by pan-Amazonian Indigenous groups; Lindsay Lohan is also an evangelist. According to Cameron Wenaus, cofounder of Retreat Guru (which he describes as “an Airbnb for psychedelic, and yoga, and meditation retreats”), such vacations are becoming normalized. “I mean, heck,” Wenaus told me from his home in Nelson, British Columbia, “now you can invest in psychedelics, as these companies are growing.” Biotechnology companies are now researching and developing psychedelic pharmaceuticals, with generous estimates speculating that the psychedelic drug market could be worth $10 billion by 2027. And as Wenaus noted, several companies are already attracting investors, whether on major stock exchanges like the Nasdaq or smaller exchanges trading in more specialized securities.
One of these publicly traded concerns is Silo Wellness, which has its headquarters in Toronto. It sells a variety of package holidays hosted at luxury resorts around Jamaica, where many psychedelics remain unscheduled under Jamaica’s Dangerous Drugs Act. These retreats are mostly focused around psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. But there is also a more curious offering. “Take on the Hero’s Journey,” reads the online catalog copy, “with the most powerful entheogenic substance on the planet, ‘The God Molecule.’”
Psychedelic tourism can fairly be called “problematic.”
Such mind-expanding sojourns are nothing new. In 1955, the J.P. Morgan exec and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson trekked to Oaxaca, Mexico, to take part in a traditional Mazatec ritual involving psilocybin mushrooms. Wasson’s travelogue “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” was published in Life magazine two years later, seeding interest in indigenous psychedelic rituals among white, middle-class Americans.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a class of powerful, underground drugs reframed by mainstream medicine. I have heard stories from individuals whose lives have been enriched by these drugs and narrowed my gaze at a new class of profiteers looking to cash in on the increasing clinical and cultural acceptance of them. The psychedelic renaissance shows no sign of abating, and I’ve criticized its gentrifying effect on these drugs. Still, Silo’s Douglas Gordon invited me to take part in the company’s first 5-MeO retreat in Montego Bay, paid for by Silo. The offer was tantalizing, though it all seemed a bit ludicrous. I imagined the daily itinerary: At 9 a.m. some meditation, followed by a buffet lunch, and full ego death by 5 p.m.
Psychedelic tourism can fairly be called “problematic.” In the decades since Wasson, plenty of white folks have trekked south of the border in pursuit of mind expansion. And that’s fine, when done respectfully. What can rankle is the co-opting of traditions developed by native tribes, some of which date back a thousand years. It’s not uncommon for a rich, white, twentysomething to have an experience with a drug like ayahuasca, recast themselves as some nouveau shaman, and then set about hawking a version of that experience. Retreat Guru’s Wenaus tracked growth in several newer psychedelic retreats at reaching 50%–73% in the two years before the pandemic. “My gut sense,” he told me, “is that there have been many new entrants into the space in the last few years, so competition has increased.” And growth means growing pains.
Drugs prized for helping to heal the wounds of colonialism are now being colonized. This new cohort of tripper-tourists, as writer Mark Hay noted in 2020, “contribute to the wanton commodification and fetishization of the cultures whose practices they wish to insinuate themselves into.” Even Wasson’s original experience, it was later revealed, was underwritten by the CIA — all part of an ongoing psychedelic research project that included the psychological torture of unwitting clinical volunteers.
In this sense, 5-MeO-DMT is unique. It sounds similar to N,N-dimethyltryptamine (also known as N,N-DMT, or just DMT), a key ingredient in any ayahuasca blend. But the similarities are mostly alphabetic; 5-MeO is radically different, chemically and culturally. Despite trace elements being found in some Amazonian tobacco powders, it has little documented ritual place among Indigenous cultures. Its recreational use wasn’t even widely reported until the 1970s. And it was not ruled illegal in the United States until 2011, when the US Drug Enforcement Administration added it to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, alongside cannabis, mescaline, LSD, and heroin. (The DEA’s official ruling noted, “The risks to the public health associated with the abuse of 5-MeO-DMT are similar to the risks associated with those of schedule I hallucinogens. There have been reports of emergency room admissions and a death associated with the abuse of 5-MeO-DMT.”)
It also comes with no ancient playbook. Its biggest boosters are mostly super-nerdy clandestine chemists like Shulgin and Nelson, prodigious tinkerers whose experience with psychedelics is vast to the point of completionism. (Michael Pollan wrote about 5-MeO in his 2018 bestseller, How to Change Your Mind, a chronicle of the new landscape of psychedelics that has seemingly contributed to a marked uptick in psychedelic tourism.) Five, as far as psychedelic drugs go, remains more or less untainted by the stink of cultural appropriation. So what would a multiday retreat based on a drug that stimulates a wildly powerful but brief experience look like?
The trip began, as most things do nowadays, on Zoom. My fellow participants and I met the retreat’s facilitator, Joël Brierre, who has penetrating eyes and a wide, friendly smile. His body is an inventory of ink from various traditions: blocks of Sanskrit text, mandalas, thick Polynesian-style whorls. His background, he told me, was “yogic philosophy.”
Joël told me that we wouldn’t be smoking actual toad venom, but rather a synthetic 5-MeO-DMT. This was just as well. For one thing, the oozes of Bufo alvarius, while no doubt “organic,” include other, potentially lethal, toxins. There’s a conservation issue too. The swelling interest in 5-MeO has led to the overharvesting of wild toads, which could be avoided with the use of lab-made versions. Some enthusiasts say the essence of the experience is spoiled by synthetics; they believe the toad’s “spirit” drives the trip. I was relieved to hear this isn’t Joël’s stance.
Six days later, I opened a PDF sent to me by Victoria Wueschner, Joël’s partner “in life and medicine,” and the retreat’s cofacilitator. “The Initiates: Preparation Guide” read like a new age spirituality starter kit. It included references to “The Great Mystery” and to my forthcoming “Rebirth,” a quote from Oprah-approved spiritualist Eckhart Tolle (“The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ — and find that there is no death”), and an image of Morpheus from The Matrix. The guide stipulated that all participants fast for eight hours before the “ceremony,” in order to help prevent asphyxiating on vomit, which can be one of the risks with 5-MeO. “The clothing you choose to wear for your Rebirth is completely your choice,” it said, “some choose to wear all white.”
My anxiety mounted in the days before my departure, as I began worrying more and more about the drug itself. I frantically researched 5-MeO and its effects. A 2019 study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands concluded that a single inhalation of the drug could produce “long-term changes in affect and cognition in volunteers,” including “sustained enhancement of satisfaction with life, mindfulness-related capacities, and a decrement of psychopathological symptoms.”
Other prospects weren’t quite so positive. There was the noted risk of asphyxiation, but there was also the potential for “serotonin syndrome,” brought about when the chemical serotonin floods the brain, which can result in seizures, hyperthermia, and if left untreated, death. But our guides seemed vigilant about safety, and about protecting us from these negative outcomes. (What, I wondered, was the insurance policy on a psychedelic retreat where someone could choke on their own vomit and die?)
More troubling, and less predictable, were the potential psychological effects of the drug. As Matthew Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Center For Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, explained to me, as with most psychedelics, the risks associated with 5-MeO have less to do with the compounds themselves than with the possibility of the redoubtable “bad trip,” which can lead to “someone doing something dangerous when they're panicking as a result of the effect.” On Erowid, a website relating psychedelic experiences, such bad trips abound. People speak of “unimaginable depths of terror” and “existential horror.” One user describes a feeling of “dissolving into shit.” Others report persistent nightmares and paranoia, lasting weeks after a single 5-MeO dose. Johnson told me, “There are some anecdotes of people having prolonged panic attacks after using it.”
My own mother fretted that this whole experience would somehow snap my brain in half.
Though he lived to tell the tale, Pollan’s experience with the drug also seemed pretty harrowing. His account in How to Change Your Mind is full of vivid descriptions of his ego “being blasted to confetti” and being “consumed in the flames of terror.” On Reddit, some people have worried that 5-MeO could precipitate full-blown schizophrenic breaks. While I knew the causal relationship between psychedelic use and mental illness was, according to existing research, tenuous, I couldn’t help but worry. Even if such direct connections are difficult to prove, the notion that psychedelics can cause psychosis, even in those without an existing predisposition, has endured. Just think of those old public service announcements depicting the brain as a frail eggshell and drugs as a piping hot pan eager to fry its contents. “I always think of Syd Barrett, the first singer of Pink Floyd,” Johnson said. “It was very clear that he showed the signs of schizophrenia, before he started dabbling heavily in acid — and it likely put him over the edge.”
The ’60s-era hysteria around these drugs exploited the idea that a single bad trip could permanently dement the sensitive user. And there have simply been fewer research studies conducted about 5-MeO than other psychoactives, like psilocybin and MDMA. Even Shulgin’s notes on 5-MeO included reference to a friend who after smoking an “unknown amount” of the drug experienced “absolute ecstasy,” followed by breathing loss and intense panic. He ended up being treated, three days later, with antipsychotics. My own mother fretted that this whole experience would somehow snap my brain in half. It may have been an unreasonable fear, but it freaked me out all the same. I didn’t want to get pushed to the edge, let alone over it.
I tried to temper my misgivings. After all, one naturally assumes a certain level of risk doing much of anything. You could choke on one of the shrimp in your cocktail. You could get hit by a bus crossing the street. We accept these hazards, especially when there’s a promise of reward: like the chance to slip the bonds of life’s routines and abiding sameness, if only for a few days, or a 15-minute trip.
I packed my bag, including a wrinkled white linen shirt. I set out, predawn, on my hero’s journey. Just like Hercules — if he was flying a budget airline that charges $35 for a carry-on.
When I arrive at the five-star Rose Hall Villas at Half Moon Bay, Joël and Victoria greet me with warm smiles and hugs. Then I meet the retreat’s other participants: Godfrey, a 41-year-old physician from California, and Nicole, a 50-year-old from Tampa who’s between IT jobs. (“Godfrey” and “Nicole” are pseudonyms.)
5-MeO is intense and relatively rare, even in the underground. Acquiring it requires access to Sonoran Desert toads or a high level of specialized chemistry know-how. I had assumed a retreat like this would be like an upper-level graduate seminar, catering to veterans of all things psychoactive. It’s also expensive. A single-occupancy booking for this retreat costs $3,995 US, which includes meals but not airfare. (Silo covered my airfare, as well as the retreat cost.) I imagined it might lure well-heeled wayfarers looking to cross a rare compound off their bucket list, like golfers who make the pilgrimage to St. Andrews or birdwatchers who pay top dollar to spot an emperor penguin in Antarctica. Not so. “The majority of people going traveling to use psychedelics have healing in mind,” Wenaus told me. “They’re not just going to explore the multiverse.”
Nicole and Godfrey strike me as perfectly normal, all things considered. They aren’t seeking some wild drug trip; neither is especially experienced with psychedelic drugs. They have more personal reasons. Nicole had previously undergone treatment with ketamine, a dissociative drug now being used in clinics treating depression and anxiety. She was also no stranger to more conventional pharmacological interventions. “I've been on all kinds of antidepressants, most of my adulthood,” she tells me, sitting outside on our villa’s balcony. “I need to heal myself from within. Because that medicine isn't going to do it.” She says she has tried everything: prescriptions, meditation, yoga, eating right. Nothing took.
She tells me she had spent the better part of the last two years in hospitals. Her mother was in a car accident and died after three excruciating months. Her boyfriend died shortly after. She was also laid off from her job and suffered stresses around a new property purchase. “I just needed a let-go journey,” she tells me. “I looked at ayahuasca and other ones,” she says. “None of those really appealed to me. But this did.”
As a physician working through a pandemic, Godfrey arrived with his own share of burdens. “It's already a pretty hard job,” he tells me, sitting in the villa’s high-ceilinged great room. “I came into [medicine] to feel rewarded, and feel like I have a purpose. But right now I just feel like I'm a machine. I can only be so empathetic. And it's just burning me out.” Godfrey already had a self-directed psychedelic experiment under his belt. He grew his own magic mushrooms and took them alone in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. While he achieved what he called a “peak experience,” he also experienced a pretty scary comedown, which ended with him calling paramedics to his room.
Still, he continued researching psilocybin retreats, and chanced upon Silo’s 5-MeO offering. “It seemed to cut straight to the point of what I was trying to get at,” he tells me, “which was this absolutely mystical experience.” The drug was novel, the location was luxe, and there was a strong focus on safety and aftercare. Godfrey was especially intrigued by the drug’s high potency and the relatively brief duration of the experience: Where a mushroom trip lasts six to eight hours, 5-MeO runs closer to 15 or 20 minutes.
I also get to know Joël and Victoria, our facilitators. While there are no universally agreed-upon best practices, given the risks associated with 5-MeO (including the potential of asphyxiating while vomiting in a state of semiconsciousness), many veterans advise users to take it with a guide, or “trip-sitter.” Here, the sitters were supposed to be seasoned (Silo’s Gordon enthusiastically talked up Joël’s experience with powerful hallucinogens — Joël says he’s done 5-MeO over 100 times — as well as his “energy”), and the environment was accommodating, from the sand and surf to the private chef. (As Joël said to me, “There’s definitely a lot worse locations that I’ve worked.”)
Joël is 38. He grew up in Washington, DC, and fell into what he calls “knuckle-headery.” He started using hard drugs, then selling them. He became addicted to heroin, crack cocaine, and crystal meth, which he kicked while in jail. In time, he veered to a different, healthier extreme: taking up yoga, training diligently, and moving to India to study. He says he once sat in the company of the Dalai Lama. He can quote the Upanishads, the Buddha, and countless spiritual sourcebooks I’ve never heard of. He claims to have done 15 hits of acid at once, and that he has served 5-MeO to famous contemporary artists and former Olympians. He says he can make the best margarita in the world. His grandfather, Jean-François Brierre, was a Haitian poet exiled to Senegal during the Duvalier regime.
“People are getting hurt. People are having bad experiences.”
Victoria, 29, grew up in Grande Prairie, Alberta, northwest of Edmonton, in Peace River Country. Her face is wide and open, and she radiates a vaguely pixie-ish energy; Joël calls her “Tinkerbell” or “Tink.” She worked as a piercer, and as a cannabis grower on Vancouver Island, before her first experience with ayahuasca in Peru, where she drank the hallucinogenic tea with a group called The Temple of the Way of Light. Her curiosity took her further: to yopo (a South American perennial boasting psychedelic properties), kambo (a frog secretion used in folk medicine by Amazonian Indigenous peoples), and finally, 5-MeO. “I knew that [I was] going to work with a medicine,” she tells me, as the three of us sit by the Caribbean Sea. “That was going to be my path.”
The couple take their work very seriously. Together, they run Kaivalya Kollectiv, a psychedelic wellness organization operating out of Tepoztlán, about 90 minutes south of Mexico City. They are aware of the various issues associated with psychedelics, even as the drugs, according to multiple reports, are seemingly enjoying a new vogue. They have spoken out against some veteran 5-MeO practitioners whose reported malpractices run the gamut from unsafe serving practices to psychological torture and sexual assault. Joël expresses concern about rookies entering the space, with plenty of enthusiasm but little respect for these compounds. “They call themselves shamans after doing a two-week training,” he says. “They buy a nice feather and a rattle and they're like, ‘Oh yeah, I can serve this medicine’ ... That worries me, because people are getting hurt. People are having bad experiences.”
While Joël and Victoria were hired by Silo Wellness to host this ultra-plush 5-MeO retreat, their own day-to-day work is usually a bit more modest. In their retreats in Mexico, they subsidize spaces for members of BIPOC communities in an attempt to make these experiences accessible to those who aren’t as wealthy and, typically, white. “I'm the lightest-skinned half-Black person you'll ever meet,” Joël said. “It's very important to me that this type of healing is accessible to the Black community.”
On our first night, Joël and Victoria walk us through what to expect during our ceremony the next morning. To familiarize us with Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey, Victoria shows us a flow chart on a large flap of white presentation paper, like something you’d see at a corporate retreat. She says that, like Campbell’s brave souls, we have heeded the call to action and will soon leave the realm of the ordinary and venture into the domain of the supernatural. We will cross the threshold, undergo a full dissolution of the ego, and submerge into an indivisible reality of pure consciousness.
They explain the different reactions people can have to the drug. Some sit stiffly and still, “Buddha-style.” Others writhe around “dynamically.” Still others strip naked. Purging is a possibility, as is having an orgasm. We are to feel unashamed; there is no judgment here. (I tell them that, in the event that I take my clothes off while under the Toad’s spell, they should feel free to throw a blanket over me.)
Still, I can’t quite buy into the woo-woo vocabulary. A big reason I’ve developed an interest in the psychedelic experience is because it offers access to the mystical within the confines of the secular. I don’t believe in God. Or Brahmanism. Or even karma. Nicole, who is a Christian, asks me at one point during the retreat if I believe in a “higher power.” I cook up some response about “the human spirit” and the great works humanity can accomplish when moved by a common cause.
Yet all these mix-and-match spiritual frameworks are part of the retreat’s “set and setting,” a key concept in psychedelics, first developed by the eccentric psychonaut Al Hubbard and popularized by former Harvard psychologist and countercultural mouthpiece Timothy Leary in a 1964 handbook. It describes the idea that one’s mindset and physical environment can give shape to a trip. “I don't think you can undermine the power of set and setting,” says Gordon. “The psychedelic experience — of taking the medicine, and being in a sacred space, and having a very deliberate construct — is very moving. It’s a matter of comfort.”
What seems to matter more than the mishmash of myth and mysticism is the goodwill of our facilitators. Joël and Victoria are kind and knowledgeable. And despite the impending strangeness of the experience, I feel comfortable. As far as settings go, being put up in a tropical villa in paradise probably doesn’t hurt. I go to bed, feeling calm.
In the morning, I realize my baptismal linens don’t fit. I had put the shirt in the dryer, which you’re not supposed to do with linen. It rides high, my belly peeking underneath it, telltale. So instead I sport a grayish T-shirt for my big 5-MeO trip.
Everything here has its own name. The arrangement of mats and pillows where we freebase the 5-MeO is called “the lily pad” — a reference to the drug’s amphibian origins. The acrid gurgle that is sometimes produced upon inhalation of the drug is not “vomit” but “God-foam.” And of course, the drug is not a drug, but a “medicine.” “I feel like ‘drug’ has a very negative connotation to it,” Victoria tells me. “Whereas medicine is something that helps to heal people.”
Godfrey, Nicole, and I sit around the lily pad, cross-legged. Joël and Victoria sit in front of us as incense burns and new age music plays. They explain the complexities of the smoking mechanism: a glass pipe, looking a bit like a tiny bong. In the pipe’s flumed bowl section sits a porous stone, which gets heated, and, in turn, heats 10 to 15 milligrams of powdered 5-MeO. They tell us that if we want to “go deeper,” we should bring our thumbs and fingers together into tight claws and tap them together in front of us. This means “more” in American Sign Language.
Godfrey and I both want to go first, but I cede the honor to him. After all, he paid to be here. Joël asks him to repeat a mantra: “I will surrender. I surrender. I have surrendered.” Our facilitators ignite the 5-MeO with a butane torch, and he inhales. Godfrey gently falls down on the pillows. His eyes are closed tight. Then they snap open. He is quiet and still. After a few minutes, he begins to emerge from his reverie. And he says, “I can’t believe I forgot.” I don’t know what he is talking about, but he seems to have resolved some kind of inner question or recalled some repressed memory. Yesterday, Godfrey was lamenting the heaviness of working in a hospital during the pandemic. Now he seems to be levitating an inch above the floor. I’m not sure why, but I begin to sob.
I am similarly moved watching Nicole’s turn. She struggles at first, retching as Victoria gingerly holds her head over a metal bowl. Nothing comes up, no “God-foam.” It seems painful, and it’s a bit hard to watch. Then she rolls over, facing me. She is radiant, as if all the anxiety she had been holding in her body had vaporized along with the 5-MeO. She lies in complete silence, smiling. Then she snaps out of it, sits up, looks me dead in the eyes and says, “You’re up.”
“I” had gone offline.
I assume the position, bowing over the pipe. I will surrender. I surrender. I have surrendered. The mantra loops in my head as the smoke, which smells vaguely of shoe leather, fills my lungs. I hold it, then exhale. I feel as if my skull is puckering, like the guy on the bags of Warheads sour candy. At the edges of my vision I see gray-black fractal shapes racing past, like I’m on an escalator moving up at light speed. I put my hands over my face, as if to hide myself. My hands disappear. Then my face. Then my self.
These experiences are always tricky to write and read about. Descriptions tend to slump into what author Aldous Huxley once termed “twaddle.” For one thing: I was not, strictly speaking, conscious. Or maybe I was purely conscious? For another, 5-MeO is distinct from other psychedelics in that it is not hallucinogenic. Trippers on psilocybin may see colors grooving or lights throbbing. LSD may stimulate phantasmic reveries. N,N-DMT is vividly, almost comically hallucinogenic: Users commonly report visions of elves and angels and other entities of spurious ontology. 5-MeO offers none of that. I vaguely recall the inside of my vision folding over on itself, in shades of gray. And then blackness. Not a scary, foreboding blackness. More like a celestial blackness that was unfathomably deep.
At some point — a few minutes? forty lifetimes? — I felt the room around me bleed back into my periphery. I heard the music and the affirming coos of my guides (“Yes...yes…”). I mustered every iota of strength, pinched my fingers together and tapped them. “More.” I plopped my body upright — My stupid body! It was back! — and I smoked again. The familiar throttling at my temples returned. And then I was far gone. That intense pressure in my head exploded, like a star going supernova. I had no sense of my body. I could apprehend ideas, and intuit things, but I could not see them. Even my mind’s eye was gone: a full-blown ego death. I had switched on my recorder before the trip, expecting some high-minded blather from another dimension. Running the tape back, there is only laughter, fitful and joyous.
There was also no fear. No feeling of dying, no dissolving into shit. There was a feeling of no longer existing, maybe. “I” had gone offline. But I also felt more alive and aware than maybe ever before. I felt unconditionally loved. As my mind melted, my priorities clarified. All the inky, putrid thoughts clouding this clarity receded, like a storm cloud rolling over the landscape in reverse. As I came out of it, I sensed my nagging ego returning. “Didn’t you know that?” hectored a familiar voice of self-loathing. “Didn’t you know you are worthy and loved? How stupid are you?” I imagined myself bonking that ego on the head, like Moe from The Three Stooges, and it retreated.
The incurious will wave away such stories, saying, “Oh, that’s just the drugs.” But it’s not like the molecule includes a scripted revel activated by virtue of absorption in the bloodstream, like a VHS tape clicking into the magnetic reels of a VCR.
Normally, my mind is a tangle of bedeviling, often self-contradicting, thoughts and feelings. On 5-MeO, I felt this tangle loosen and relent. I was able to follow my thoughts to their sources and identify the causes of complex problems. The things that mattered to me became crystalline. And the things that I obsess over, but which, ultimately, don’t matter...didn’t. This knowledge was always there, just buried. I did not feel any closer to God, which is fine by me. Instead, I felt at peace in my own head, a place I usually relate to more as a shoddy apartment with an interminably long lease. The word “psychedelic” has fallen out of fashion — replaced by “entheogen” (in the ritual context) and “neuropharmaceutical” (in the clinical context) — but I’ll always love it. It means “mind-manifesting.” This kind of drug allows the mind to show itself to itself.
“So, dear family,” Joël laughs as I rejoin the group in the light of waking consciousness. “What do we do with all that?”
As extraordinary as the 5-MeO ceremony was, making sense of it is challenging. It’s so intense, so ineffable, so unlike any other experience (including those induced by other psychedelics) that it’s hard to know what to do with it. But in my view, a totally novel reworking of consciousness is reward enough. The world can seem so bland that an opportunity to tweak the dials of workaday sentience can just prove plain fun.
But the others weren’t here for fun. They were here in search of something beyond the ego-death experience. “It’s indescribable,” Godfrey says, recapping his experience a few days later. “That peak experience … was so mystical, and so unknown, that I was confused that evening, for sure.” Much of the retreat thereafter was devoted to parsing that confusion. In the world of psychedelics, this process is known as “integration,” and it’s as key to any form of psychedelic therapy as the compounds themselves.
We all sat together in the evening for lengthy confabs, which Joël and Victoria called satsang, a Sanskrit word meaning, roughly, “being in the company of truth.” These sessions were indispensable. They gave shape to that first, and largely baffling, trip. They gave us an opportunity to explore our experiences, in our own words, without recourse to myths or Hindu loan words. I was able to make sense of the experience without recourse to God, or the Buddha, or Joseph Campbell. Instead, I relied on my own references: a Prince lyric, a line from a Clint Eastwood movie, some wooly notions drawn from European philosophers. Doing such a “confrontational” (to use Joël’s word) drug without this processing strikes me as unwise. Maybe that accounts for some of the harrowing 5-MeO trip reports, from users left baffled and even afraid.
We enjoyed several more ceremonies, at lower doses, over the course of a few days. These helped illuminate that initial experience. We also did yoga and guided meditations, and feasted on trays of fresh fruit. Joël and Victoria led us through breath work sessions following the Wim Hof Method, a form of forced hyperventilation devised by a Dutchman who, in 2007, attempted to scale Mount Everest in shorts and sneakers. But nothing matched the intensity of that first day.
Godfrey said that, while under the sway of 5-MeO, he was able to ask difficult questions and receive answers immediately. Nicole traced her own journey along a gradient: Her first trip was black, which turned to gray, and, in subsequent sessions, a luminous white light. “We all go down in those rabbit holes,” she says. “We all have our patterns. And I feel like I'm walking away with tools to manage my life in such a happier, uplifting way than taking a pill.” It may seem odd, confiding in total strangers. But we spoke freely, easily, and eagerly, bound together by the shared weirdness of the trip. It was like being at a psychedelic summer camp.
In my reporting on the reemergence of psychedelics, I have spoken to plenty of people kind enough to share their trip reports. I’ve heard people with stage 4 cancer talk about how they found peace and happiness and an ability to reconnect with loved ones — grace afforded to them at the very end of their lives. These stories are powerful. But to see these changes happen in real time — and to feel those changes — is something else altogether. In some current clinical applications, psychedelics are heralded for their ability to relieve various psychological maladies deemed intractable. That’s a word I take very seriously: intractable. It suggests that these disorders are fundamentally stubborn, impossible to relieve.
On the first night, Victoria posed a simple question to me: What was I anxious about? Until then, I had largely brushed aside my own internal reckoning under the guise of professionalism. I was there to work. Not to do work on myself. But I realized that was just a front. What I was anxious about was that this treatment would work. What if 5-MeO potentiated a quantum shift in my worldview and my sense of self? What if it actually eased my depression and anxiety? Who would I even be if I were not always full to the brim with black thoughts? What if I became “okay”? The prospect of feeling better struck me as wholly preposterous. Pretty much everyone I know is depressed, or manic, or anxious, or otherwise definitionally “unwell.” I have come to accept this as the de facto state of affairs. But what if it isn’t?
If I had anything like a big takeaway, this was it. I can’t speak for people who found answers to Big Questions, or found themselves cradled in the bosom of God Almighty. Much of the experience remains totally perplexing to me. And in a world so drained of mystery, I think I prefer to keep it that way. I think back to Godfrey blinking out of his first trip and saying, “I can’t believe I forgot.” That’s what these drugs can produce: a feeling of intrinsic dignity and wholeness that the material world, in all its cruelty, works so hard to take away. People carry so much pain: sorrow, trauma, hatred, and petty gripes. To feel it all lifted, if only for an instant, is profound — because that means it can be lifted. Healing becomes, at the very least, conceivable. And beyond the power to present the mind to itself, and to restore a sense of forgotten wholeness, I have come to regard this as the true gift of the psychedelic experience. It can reinvest our bland lives with a sense of mystery and rekindle a sense of possibility in a world that seems, more and more every day, utterly, intractably, impossible. ●
The writer was a guest of Silo Wellness. Silo Wellness did not approve the content of this article. 5-MeO-DMT is illegal in the United States and could cause short-term and long-term health and medical effects. This experience should not be tried without fully understanding all medical, health, and legal issues and hazards. This author and BuzzFeed News are not promoting the use of 5-MeO-DMT among readers.
Spot illustrations by BuzzFeed News.