Monday, August 29, 2011
Medicine as medicine - Psychadelics and Healing
In case you had not seen: Michael and Annie Mithoefer, a psychiatric couple in South Carolina, are using MDMA (i.e. E, Ecstasy or Molly) to treat veterans who are the victims of PTSD.
I for one, applaud the courage of these and other therapists in trying to offer their patients an effective remedy and therapy approach to cure, and not just treat, their illness (which seems to be the current vogue in the medical industry). And while I am not without certain reservations, it must be said that its extremely encouraging to see the practicioners of Western psychological medicine finally using the right tools for the job, as opposed to simply doping up and keeping down their clients.
Yes, that's right - I did just say the RIGHT tool for the job. MDMA, Ibogaine, and even LSD, had been used successfully to treat depression, addiction and psychological trauma between their discovery and their criminalization, with a handful of extremely brave therapists such as the Mithoefers continuing to use it despite the bureaucratic and legal hurdles that exist to keep some of the most potent tools in their arsenal out of the hands of health care professionals.
And this is truly no surprise because ethneogens such as these, in addition to others such as psilocybin, salvia divinorum, amanita muscaria and many others have been the tools of treating and curing psychological maladies by another mental health professional - one that preceded the doctor of the industrial era. I refer, of course, to the shaman.
Shamanism has been around for a long while. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. There are many ways to describe it (not all of which that would promote understanding to those not already familiar with it), but from my own shamanic experiences I find that its best understood as a toolkit. A toolkit that allows for engaging with the Universe spiritually as much as a means of digging into the labyrinthine passageways of the human consciousness. Traditionally, shamans were viewed as healers and intermediaries with the Spirit world whose responsibility it was to find cures for the sick and to guide people out of the dark and awful places they might find themselves in life.
One of the important elements of the toolkit that shamans almost universally had at their disposal to successfully help others was some form of psychedelic or psychoactive plant or substance (Medicine, if you will), which either the shaman would take to garner insights into treatment, or that would be applied to the patient in order to facilitate the action necessary to address the underlying causes of the affliction. This isn't very surprising in many ways, because psychedelic substances activate portions of the brain that are often relegated to unconscious or subconscious processes - allowing the participant in such experiences to review memories, feelings and perspectives that might have been blocked or disassociated due to psycho-emotional trauma.
What's truly fascinating and encouraging about the Mithoefer's approach to the administration of the medicine is just how similar it truly is to the approach of the shaman. The patient is given the Medicine, and the practicioner keeps them under observation; only interacting when it would seem fruitful and giving the patient the space needed to engage in therapeutic introspection. The patient is ultimately the prime mover of their own engagement with their trauma, and empowers them (with the support of the practicioner) to confront and move past the demons that haunt them. In shamanic parlance, such an approach is called "holding space". In Western psychiatric terms, the Mithoefers refer to what they do as a "treatment session".
Different terms, similar results. BUT.
But there are still areas of concern here, particularly in the length engagement with the patient, which in comparison shamanic practice exhibits a far greater maturity of approach to the healing process. No medicine, even powerful ones such as psychedelics, is a cure-all. Such treatment is most effective only in combination with a full gamut of therapies and engagement that can last years.
And this ties directly into my most significant concern about the "rediscovery" of psychedelics as tools of psychological healing. Namely, that Western medicine is far FAR too quick to rely on pharmalogical/chemical quick fixes rather than the deeper (and proven) psycho-spiritual transformation that systems like shamanism have focused on. I fear that the overarching immaturity and irresponsibility of modern Western psychology will trend towards handing out powerful pychoactive substances like candy, leaving as many broken and incompletely healed people in its wake as it does now - but instead of numbing them with antidepressants or antipsychotics, destabilizing and disabling them.
As if to drive this point of intense concern home is this terrifying statement from the article: "Therapeutic psychedelia is a great, beautiful orchard filled with ripe fruit for picking.” As long as Western science and medicine cling to views such as this about such powerful substances, there will always be the high probability of their abuse and misuse - not just by the common citizenry, but by the so-called experts who claim to act with the best of intention.
At the end of the day, treating and healing psychological pain are two different but interrelated efforts. The crisis we confront today in mainstream Western medicine is that it only seems to care about the former and has forgotten the relevancy of the latter. As a result, its no surprise that so many people are turning away from the "norm" to alternatives that offer hope (some genuine, some deceitful) of the latter. Its for this reason that even mainstream research is looking into the impact that these powerful Medicines have. The tools of the mainstream are failing to deliver - something new must be tried. But different tools don't matter if the overall approach of the system stays the same.
But then again, as the old saying goes - you can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people ALL the time. Any system that ceases to deliver on the most basic of its expectations can not seriously expect to persist indefinitely. And in an era such as ours, when so many people suffer so much, do we have the luxury of subsidizing such an approach?
I do not believe we can.