Ayahuasca Part IV: Takeaways

What do you say about an experience that challenges your notions of what’s real and what isn’t? Well… This, I guess.

I had done plenty of psychoactive substances prior to my experience with Ayahuasca, and I did a fair amount of academic research on it leading up to the ceremony, but there just isn’t anything that prepares you for the kind of journey I was taken on. Every image that I saw with my eyes closed felt real – as if I wasn’t coming up with the images on my own, but I was being granted new eyes to see things that had always been there. Like in dreams where you’re convinced that you’re actually in that reality, but I never lost the sense that I left my reality – only added on new layers.

I interpreted the universes I saw as universes that exist simultaneously with this one. I knew that the spirits I encountered were very real, and many were there to help me. Not only that, but the other people in the room seemed to be able to tune into the visions I was having, and react to them in ways aimed at assisting me with them.

Prior to “releasing the dragon,” I had vivid images of the Spirit of Ayahuasca in a humanoid form, her hair made of long vines, her skin translucent, her heart and veins clearly visible, green, and glowing with life. Her and the Shadow Dragon stood side-by-side, arms outstretched, clearly holding space for my healing process as a blinding white light came from behind them. 

At the end of the ceremony on night two, Randy said, “I don’t want this to come off as egotistical, but I view myself as somewhat of a healer, and I was trying to help Sean release some spirits.”

“Let me set your mind at ease,” I said when the feathers were passed my way, “You hit the nail on the fucking head with that one.”

I view myself as an empiricist – I hold a very scientific worldview, but as any good scientist would, I leave open the potential that my view can be improved upon or disproven based on new evidence. This particular set of evidence caused me to challenge a lot of notions. It also ripped open a lot of old wounds, reexposing them to the open air, and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t ready for it.

I can see how, with the right guidance in the weeks following the ceremony, this would’ve been ultimately very good for me. I did not, however, have any plan whatsoever for the integration of this experience into my life. I should have set myself up with counseling to accompany this event, but I did not. I should have sought help to interpret these images and form constructive ways of dealing with them, but I did not. 

I do not see myself doing a ceremony again for some time – I still have a lot to go over spiritually, mentally, and emotionally after this go round. If/when I do embark on anything even remotely similar to this, I will have a very particular counseling plan set up so I don’t fall back into depression like I did this time. Without that plan, all those wounds just left me thinking, “Ow, this really fucking hurts,” as opposed to, “Here’s what I can do to help these wounds heal.” 

Ultimately, I’m glad I did the ceremony. I’m glad that I stepped outside my comfort zone to explore my reality in such an expansive way – I am, afterall, a dedicated explorer. Also, now that I’ve done this the wrong way, I feel certain that I’ll do it the right way going forward. If you choose to do anything like this, make sure you’re set up with a strong support system afterward, and be open about the fact that things aren’t okay. This particular form of medicine is powerful and can lead to amazing insights, but it’s also unrelentingly honest about where your weak points are, and without the proper guidance, that can really fuck your shit up for a while.

Take an honest inventory of whether this or any other psychedelic is the right choice for where you are in life before you do it, and make sure you’ve got a plan for afterward, otherwise you’re just doing drugs, and potentially causing more harm than good. Happy traveling.

The Radio Silence Is Hurting My Ears

Yesterday afternoon around 5:45pm a woman jumped in front of The L in what police are calling an “apparent suicide.” She jumped off the same platform I find myself on most days, as it’s two blocks from my apartment, and it connects me to the rest of Chicago. Per my MO, I was glib when I talked about it with my coworkers last night.

“I mean, suicide is a selfish act already. Why do you have to add to that by screwing a bunch of commuters out of being on time?” I said.

“Right? Plus now there’s a guy that has to power wash the front of that train. He’s fucked up for a good week.”

I think we both had pretty good points there, but I still can’t help but relate to the lady. Lately, I’ve had serious depression gnawing at the edges of my consciousness, waiting for moments of quiet to chew threw my mental walls and say, “Jump in front of that train!” or “You’ve got that gun… Have you considered…”

My schedule is full and my dog always needs walks, so I’m pretty capable of pushing those thoughts back with reasoning or the emotional appeal of sticking around for the pup, but that doesn’t make the thoughts go away. It just delays them – suicidal procrastination, if you will.

The dark thoughts aren’t all about ending it, obviously. That’s just sort of a fun fantasy that the thoughts play around with. The more prevalent rumination is meaninglessness. The feeling that the days don’t matter, that my contribution to society doesn’t matter, that I don’t matter, etc. I’m reminded that all of that isn’t true when I talk to friends or family, but I find it difficult to reach out to anyone, and if someone reaches out to me I tend to reject it, so I strongly encourage you not to view this as a call to arms.

In fact, stop worrying! I’m fine. I’ve always been fine. I’ll always be fine (I mean, we all die eventually, but I won’t be dying any time soon). I can’t always worry about your worrying in my writing, otherwise I’ll just be stuck not writing anything at all. Sometimes I just need to write things down to process them – share where I’m at in order to move forward, which is what I’m doing right now. I’ve been stuck in a quagmire of writer’s block that stems from my concern for your feelings, but I’m pretty sure that hasn’t been healthy for me, so we’re all going to have to suck it up and power through it.

My point – if there is one at all beyond the need to vent – is that I understand that woman. Her choice presents me with a stark contrast between my feelings and her action. It highlights for me the fact that I don’t want to be her. I’ve got very cool things to accomplish in the near future. I’ll be applying to grad schools soon to study things I’ve always had a sincere interest in. I’ll get to research and teach ways of viewing the world that I believe in strongly, and that’s cool as fuck. This little vortex of negativity is temporary.

Mother Nature is wasting no time in driving the point home, as it’s raining heavily outside right now. Annie might’ve been a little overly optimistic, as the most recent weather forecast says it’ll keep raining for a few more days, but the sun will come out again. This storm will pass as all storms do, and unlike our sister on the L, I’ll live to see that happen.

In case they have WiFi in the afterlife, I’d like to take a quick moment to say, “Thank you, you kind, tortured soul. Whatever your misdeeds in life, in death you’ve had a strong positive effect on at least one person, and I appreciate the fuck out of you. Rest easy, dear.”

Scared Sexless

I am considered to be – and in fact am – a person of considerable sexual prowess. I put in the time and effort to hone my abilities, learn how to read my partner, and maximally utilize my physical abilities for everyone’s benefit. Why is it, then, that when I’m watching videos about optimizing the human experience, I find myself avoiding the topic of sex?

At my core, I am a proponent of everything that they’re saying in the videos. I believe in the healing power of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual connection that can only come from intimacy with a partner. I believe that through a physical expression of love, we can connect to higher parts of ourselves. I believe that sex is great! So what the fuck?

I’m struggling to write this because I’ve been pushing it to the back of my mind every time it crops up. I am largely happy in my day to day life, and if I want it, I have access to a nearly endless stream of partners as I am attractive, intriguing, and work in an industry that facilitates meeting a lot of viable candidates (not to mention the various online avenues I could pursue). Something is amiss, and I’m having real trouble putting what that something is into words.

Nearly two years ago, one of my exes and I gave it another shot. We were – in my mind – the meant-to-be-together type. We share a bond that goes beyond time and space. As it turns out, we are not meant to be together in a romantic capacity, and are now incredible friends, but I think the dissolution of our romantic potential really fucked with my head in ways that I haven’t been willing to acknowledge. I have no real desire to reignite that flame because we really did put in the effort, and it drove me to actual madness (viscerally screaming at the top of my lungs and pounding on my steering wheel as I spoke with on the phone toward the end) when it became obvious that no matter what we did, it just wasn’t going to work.

It’s worth noting that since then, I have had meaningful sexual and romantic connections, but I’ve let those flames whither while I pursue other things in my life that are more me-centric. What the fuck is it that I’m looking for? What do I want? Why have I lost connection with my sexual self, and how do I go about reconnecting? Am I just destined to be asexual to some degree now?

My dog certainly eats up a lot of my energy in terms of connecting with people. Today, my friend invited me out to just chill on the beach, and instead of doing that, I’m sitting next to my dog typing this nonsense. I feel small tinges of resentment toward my pup for that, but I know in my heart that I’m using him as a scapegoat, and that there’s something inside me that’s causing this. A sadness, I suppose.

As someone in the night life industry, I often see real love pass between the eyes of two patrons at my bar. I see the connection, the softness, the warmth, the kindness, and the longing as two people sit closely together and talk about the nothings in their day. As I am a student of human emotion, I’m good at mimicking shit like that for short-term gains, but I DON’T WANT THOSE GAINS! (okay, I a little bit want those gains, but I also want other things more).

I want to FEEL what’s behind their eyes. I want someone to FEEL that right back at me. I want that next level shit they’re on.

When I was going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings with some regularity, I was encouraged to find a higher power. Initially, I was resistant to the whole notion because I’m an atheist and that sounded like some theist “get on our bandwagon” bullshit to me, but eventually someone told me that it didn’t have to be God or Jesus or Buddha (let’s be real, most of them were just talking about God and Jesus). It could be anything that was bigger than oneself – anything that served as a reminder that there is more than just the individual. My higher power was Love.

Do I have love in my life? I most certainly do. I have the love of my family and my friends and those are real and I express them on a regular basis with the utmost sincerity and meaning. But it’s not the same. It’s not that earth-shattering, time and space nullifying, universe-connecting kind of shit.

Ultimately, I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I’ll be hurt again. I’m afraid that if and when my life takes me toward my next destination, I’ll have to leave it behind. I’m stopping myself from even the remotest potential of real connection because I don’t want to feel that deep sense of loss that stole my sanity. I’m still hurting from the last one, and the thought of jumping in with both feet again scares the fuck out of me.

Hm. I’ll be honest – that last sentence is not where I expected to end up when I started writing about sex. On my walk home from the coffee shop, I mentally wrote out something much more along the lines of, “orgasm isn’t even what I’m after, it’s the tantric, meditative melding of minds I’m looking for.” Still a good, accurate line, but damn did this go deeper than I thought it would.

I’m scared. I don’t know how to address that, yet, but writing it feels like a step in the right direction. Hopefully the next step will reveal itself sometime soon. Until then – I love you. Thank you for being here.

Author’s Note: Had I stopped there, it would have been 969 words, and that number made me laugh out loud.

Oh Man

It has been a LONG time since I sat down and wrote anything. I definitely feel a catharsis deficit as a result, which I’ve been conscious of for some time, but then I get all in my head about how what I have to say isn’t that important or impactful and then I don’t even bother opening up my laptop. I’ve written a couple blurbs here and there in the journal I carry around, but largely that’s been relegated to to-do and grocery lists, which is a shame. I’m going to make this easy on myself and just stream-of-consciousness at you for a while to get myself back in the groove. Thanks for bearing with me.

So a little of what many of my friends are most interested in: a recap of my experience of Saint Patrick’s Day (or at least the parts I remember).

I worked at the honky tonk pub the night before, meaning I didn’t get out of work until around 5am, which is actually really good for a Saturday. We ended up closing a little earlier than usual because here in Chicago, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations start as early as 7am for some people, so most people are passed out by the afternoon.

From work I went to the key club I’m a member of (key clubs are establishments closed to the general public, but open to members; this one happens to be a bar that closed down for financial reasons, but still takes cash in exchange for booze and is usually open until around 7 or 8 in the morning depending on how busy it gets) to continue the drinking I started after my shift. I meandered around for a bit, then got into a conversation about how attractive I am with a gay gentleman, who happened to also be accompanied by a beautiful woman. A back and forth about my sexual orientation took place, I carefully toed the line so as not to immediately limit my potential to stay involved in this conversation, and we ended up chatting for quite a bit.

At some point, my plans for the day came up, and I convinced them to join me on my trip to the suburbs south of the city, as I heard that was the most authentic Irish experience of the holiday. We went back to my house to continue drinking until around 11am when we got in an Uber.

I’ll say this: everybody that I ran into was very friendly, but also seemed a little guarded. I suppose the combination of me, a gay man, and a black woman was a little too city for some of them, but maybe I just looked drunk after what was about 5 hours of drinking at that point. Not sure. Anyway, none of the bars there have kitchens attached. One had a food truck “on the way,” and the one I finally got ANY sustenance at only offered me fried cheese curds covered in ranch. It was gross and delicious, and fueled my continued search for fun.

We ended up wandering around the neighborhood for a bit. I walked up to any number of random folks on the outskirts of house parties hoping that my friendly demeanor would grant me access to their food stores, but no luck. Again, maybe if I was by myself it would’ve worked, but I wasn’t.

Finally we ended up at one house party because some dude was convinced that he knew me, and who am I to argue? We hung out there for a while, then decided to head back to my place to continue hanging out and drinking into the evening. My new gay friend grabbed a case of Budweiser that had “DO NOT DRINK – PROPERTY OF [Insert Irish female name]” written in Sharpie on duct tape, and we Ubered it away from the suburbs.

Overall, I’d say it was a wonderful community experience. I saw a great parade complete with some great bagpiping and drumming, some adorable children, and some proud men in kilts. Had it not been built up as a mecca of debauchery, I would’ve probably enjoyed it more for what it was., but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it.

Anyway, cut to today. I just filled out an application to work on a golf resort in Texas. It’s secluded (200 miles from the nearest Walmart per their website) and beautiful, and the south has been calling to me lately. Am I thrilled about the average temperature being upwards of 100 degrees? I am not. That said, I do like the idea of roughing it in the desert for a while to earn the right to use a southern accent from time to time. Also, it’ll offer me and my dog the opportunity to immerse ourselves in nature while I save up for my move to the Netherlands early next year.

That deserves some explaining. I spent the better part of five days heavily researching institutions that offer Master’s of Science degrees in Psychology, taught in English, around the world. I decided that a one year program would be better (read: cheaper) than a two year program, and would adequately display my aptitude for the pursuit of a PhD. As it turns out, the Netherlands offers some of the cheapest education to students coming from outside the EU, their schools are reputable, and they have an impressive quality of life. I can use the same planning framework for this as I already put in place for Vienna, so not a huge shift there.

Biggest shift: my cousin informed me that he would be moving out as of June 1st. He got accepted to a great acting program, and that’s wonderful, but it really fucks me in terms of consistency leading up to a major move. He offered solutions like, “sublet my room out on Craigslist,” which are fucking ridiculous, and I’ll never again subject myself to roommates I’ve not fully vetted over years of knowing them. So, the question is, do I move to a new place entirely (like Texas) or do I move to a more rural area surrounding Chicago, and maintain my current jobs? It’s a tough call. I’m leaning in the direction of a new adventure, but adventuring can be tiresome and trying. Of course, that’s never stopped me in the past.

Only time will tell where I go from here. I’m trying to maintain some degree of certainty during uncertain times, but it feels like an uphill battle. I am tired, I am working a lot, I am exercising, I am not writing enough, I am constantly thinking about what I will do next, and I am having trouble staying with any given moment. I’m also sick right now, which isn’t helping my mood any.

Usually I try to leave you with a takeaway, but I don’t have one for you today. All I’ve got today is an appreciation for the time you took to read this, and the time I took to write it. Feels good.

Separately, I’m sorry for any typos or errors in this – I shan’t be rereading it for revision. Cheers!

On Drinking – Present Day

There’s a dial in my head that’s been turned all the way to “information absorption” to the detriment of information dissemination lately. I had a rather heavy night out (read: “I drank really heavily”) a while back, and it sent me into a small downward spiral, and my inner critic had a lot to say when I handed him the mic.

He asked what the drinking was worth to me. Is it worth making friends with people whose names I can’t remember? Is it worth the hundreds of dollars I could have saved that night and the weeks of catching up on bills in the aftermath? Is it worth the multiple-day hangover and depression that inevitably follow? Or the lasting effects it has on my dog when I’m not willing or able to take him outside as often as I should because I can’t fathom getting out of bed? I think not.

About a decade ago, then chief drug adviser to the UK David Nutt, MD and a team of colleagues ranked different drugs based on nine different types of harm caused to an individual and seven types of harm caused to society. Alcohol was found to be the most harmful of all drugs (including heroin, crack, etc.) to society, and the fourth most harmful to the user. Dr. Nutt was fired from that position for saying that the government-sanctioned drugs were worse than the ones the government was trying to vilify – LSD, MDMA, and THC among them.

Much of alcohol’s harm to society is likely due to its legality, and the multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns encouraging us to raise a glass to whatever day it happens to be, or for no reason at all. There are, unfortunately, no juice bars selling small hits of Molly along with a kale smoothie – at least not that I’m aware of – but maybe that’s a much better way to hang out with your friends than having a beer together.

Don’t get me wrong – I love alcohol. I love the taste of it, the feel of it, the look of it – pretty much everything about it, actually. There are also plenty of studies saying that small amounts of alcohol can be good for your cardiovascular health, prevent kidney stones, safeguard against Alzheimer’s, and boost your social and sex lives. My problem is usually with the “small amounts” bit of those studies. When I drink, I fucking drink.

My friend called herself a “freegan,” meaning she only ate meat at dinner parties or when it was purchased for her. Essentially, she only ate it when she was socially called upon to do so. I think that’s the stance I’m going to take with alcohol going forward. If someone wants to buy me a drink, I’m not going to say no, but I’m also not going to ask for one or purchase one for myself. We’ll see how it goes.

Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” I seem to have the thinking and the saying parts down, but there’s still some room for improvement on the doing. I’ll keep you updated.

Alone in Chicago

On Thursday evening I made my way to an event called The Anatomy of Connection at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The focus of the discussion was on the lack of connection and the epidemic that is loneliness as we become ever more connected via the devices in our hands (or pockets or purses or on the table… whatever – stop nitpicking).

Loneliness has been linked to higher rates of mortality than air pollution, drinking, and obesity. In one of the longest longitudinal studies of health and wellness, loneliness at age 50 had a higher predictive power of death than high cholesterol. It can suppress our immune systems, lead to depression and anxiety, and in severe cases, suicide. It’s such a problem that the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Here in Chicago, a researcher had morning commuters do one of three things: engage the people around them in conversation, specifically avoid conversation with the people around them, and just go about their business as they would normally. At the beginning of the study, everybody who was tasked with talking to people thought, “Ugh, I’m gonna hate this!” By the end, those folks reported the highest amounts of happiness as compared to their counterparts.

The problem is that we all assume nobody wants to talk to us, so we don’t engage. We isolate ourselves in order to self preserve, then our empathy decreases as our defensiveness increases, and we start interpreting ambiguous social cues as negative. Moreover, it can be contagious as we all collectively avoid each other out of fear that we’ll get a weird look for saying hello or asking how someone’s doing today.

I know I’m guilty of this. I am a commuter in Chicago, and I certainly wouldn’t say I go out of my way to strike up conversations with people. I wouldn’t even say I go in my way to converse, given that folks are often pressed right up against me on crowded buses or trains. So, then what? Are we all just doomed to a life of self-perpetuating loneliness? Not if we put in the fucking effort!

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of A Road Less Traveled, said that “mental health is dedication to reality at all costs.” The therapist giving the presentation noted that we have to practice what he called, “radical acceptance.” We don’t have to approve of our state of loneliness, but we have to accept that things just aren’t right in order to go about fixing any of them.

I lost my phone a couple weeks ago, and I just haven’t replaced it. There are financial reasons involved, sure, but honestly I just don’t want a phone. I find my quality of life to be higher right now. Sure, there are parts of my day where I wish I could call an Uber or text a friend right when a thought comes up, but do you know what I do? I write that shit down, I take that note home via public transit, and I reach out when I get there.

As a result of my phonelessness, I’m more connected to the situations I’m in. I’m not constantly wondering how many Instagram followers I’ve gained in the last ten minutes since my post, I’m not wondering about any event updates for that thing coming up this weekend, I’m not fretting over an unexpected phone call (most of which I just let go to voicemail even when I do have the phone). It’s relaxing. As evidence of how fucked up I was as a result of having my phone in my pocket all the time, I occasionally think I feel my notepad buzzing in my pocket. Guess what? It is not.

On Thursday night, I walked away by myself, but in my heart, I knew that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. I think more of us are lonely than we’re willing to acknowledge (or accept to stick with the vernacular). So do me a favor, if you see me on a train or on a bus or in an airport, say hi (and buy me a drink if we’re at the airport, as I’m likely at the bar). Talk to me about your day, and I’ll talk to you about mine. Wake me up from the dream state proliferated by the screen in front of my face or by the endless stream of what-if’s I’ve got running in my head. We can do this. Together.

We’re all gonna die someday, but if we chat about it with a little more frequency, we lower our chances that that day is tomorrow. Sláinte!

Rebranding

I’ve spent the vast majority of my formative years meandering through what seemed like a meaningless string of careers and experiences that had nothing to do with one another. I wanted to join the Navy, then I wanted to become a psychologist, then I wanted to work in politics, communications, sales, physical fitness, animal wellbeing, firefighting, comedy, the service industry… The list probably isn’t over.

I know I want to write going forward – that’s going to be a given from now on. In all the research I did on becoming a comedian or an author, so many of those who had already made it asked their audience, “What is it that you want to tell the world? Who are you? What is your brand?” I’ve been struggling with that ever since. Like… Why should anyone listen to me talk about my meditative practice? Why should anyone be willing to lend their precious time to me for the sake of reading what I’m writing? Entertainment? Yes, obviously I’d like to be entertaining, but shouldn’t what I’m saying have some substance?

I think it should. That’s why I’m choosing to pursue this degree in counseling psychology in Vienna. I mean, sure I just really want to move to Europe, and Vienna is calling to me, but that’s why I want to reignite my passion for the field of psychology – because I think I can actually fucking help people. I think all of my failings and falling down and getting back up can actually mean something if I put some time and energy into figuring out their links.

When I was in college, I tried acid for the first time. I was just doing it for the sake of trying it, and it was a small blip in what became years of recreational drug use, but even then I knew it was something special. I read Electric Koolaid Acid Test and I became enthralled with the history and emerging science of psychedelics. I realized that there was something sitting on the edges of our consciousness that these drugs allowed us access to, but I got caught up in the powerful current of doing drugs for fun, and it took me WAY farther downstream than I thought it even could. But now, MDMA is being proven to treat PTSD and more and more research is showing there to be some therapeutic value in these substances I was captivated by (not cocaine, though).

Since high school I’ve been a strong advocate for physical fitness and eating well (mostly). I set up training sessions for my friends and me, organized trips to the park to climb on jungle gyms or throw around medicine balls, researched ad nauseum how different muscle groups worked together, and how to maximize each of their potentials. I’ve continued reading articles through to this day about the advances we’re making in kinesthesiology and nutritional science – how we can fine-tune what we’re putting into our bodies to reach new potentials.

I’ve always been an avid hiker. It’s been one of the most frustrating things about living in Chicago – I haven’t hiked once in the last six months, and I’m pretty sure it’s driving me mad. I’m a proponent of hiking because of the physical aspect, yes, but also because I believe strongly that immersion in nature can have such an unspeakably positive effect on our emotional and mental stability. There is no substitute for being five miles into the wilderness, and basking in the sunlight while you look out on rolling hills and vast mountain ranges, and absorb the energy of the life around you.

Still, there is no substitute for being surrounded by people you love, or people you don’t even know for that matter, and laughing together – unencumbered by social mores and time and space. Going to church and singing with 300 other people, voices harmonizing (or just being kind of shitty, but at least together) is an experience we should all have regularly. Having a drink with friends or making new ones at a bar in a new city can be just what I – what anybody – needs after long hours grinding away at work. We are social creatures, and socializing nourishes us in ways that nothing else can.

I want to study what it means to be a whole human being. I want to become one, sure, but I want to help others find whatever wholeness they can. I think that all of these things are a part of it, each as important as the last. We must all look inward and outward for pieces of the pie (mmmm, pie…), and each of those pieces will help us to paint a more full, rich picture of the people we ought to and can be.

That is the future I’m signing up for. That is the future I’ve been signing up for all along. And dammit, I’m really looking forward to that pie.