Before getting on a plane, it’s a good idea to know the safety guidelines for air travel—buckle your seatbelt, know your exits, and in the unlikely event of an in-flight emergency, follow you crew’s instructions. Taking psychedelic drugs can be like air travel: People do it all the time, it’s usually fine, but when it’s not fine, it’s sometimes very bad. And that’s where a “sitter” comes in.
“On an airplane, you have attendants to go to in case something goes wrong,” said Grace, who works as a sitter. On an acid trip, it’s much the same. “People need to know that they’re safe and they’re OK.”
For $1,000, Grace and her partner P.J., who both asked that I change their names, will literally sit with you in your home while you go on a psychedelic voyage, which usually entails taking LSD, MDMA, or psilocybin mushrooms. They don’t procure or provide the drugs, they’re just there to make sure you have a safe experience.
“In general, we’re keeping an eye out for the person,” said P.J. “We can watch things like their breath, see how they’re looking, check in briefly (to ask), All OK?” They meet with their clients beforehand to get to know them and discuss why they’ve decided to take a psychedelic. Some are merely curious, some hope to work through a trauma or ease anxiety. On the day of the trip, P.J. and Grace bring playlists and sage or palo santo to set a ceremonial mood, then settle in comfortably near the client for anywhere from six to ten hours. The primary goal is what many sitters I spoke with called “holding a safe space,” not guiding or shaping someone’s experience, just being there. “One of the typical things we could say [is], You are safe. That’s a good one,” said P.J. And if they’re having a rough time, the sitters remind them, “This will end.”
Grace and P.J. are both experienced in taking the drugs and have educated themselves in the protocols university use for hallucinogen research studies, which include inviting the subject to sit or lie down on a comfortable couch with a blanket, dim lighting or eyeshades, and headphones, the idea being to make the subject feel safe and to encourage an experience of turning inward.
The $1,000 fee includes the initial consult, the day-long trip, and a post-trip discussion in the following weeks, if the client wishes. They work on a sliding scale for those who can’t afford their services. “We don’t want to be only for wealthy people,” said P.J. “We’re not rigid. If somebody has the money, then all the better, but if they don’t, we’ll probably work with them.”
Sitting with someone itself isn’t illegal, but due to the somewhat illicit nature of the work, they prefer to protect their identities, and until now, they’ve gotten most of their clients through word of mouth. "Staying underground is partially important,” said P.J. “But if it were totally important, we wouldn’t have a website,” he laughed. The site is new, a toe-dip into wider advertising of their services, with an email address to contact for more information.
Many first-time users of ‘shrooms or LSD take the drugs on a lark, without much in the way of expert consultation, but in the psychedelic community having a “sitter” is widely recommended, especially for newbies. In his 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, psychologist James Fadiman wrote that the importance of a guide cannot be overstated. “Your guide knows the terrain, can sense where you are, and will be able to advise or caution you as appropriate,” he wrote. “A well-structured session makes it far more likely that early psychedelic experience will be meaningful, healthy, and life-enhancing.”
Fadiman recommends a three-day process—one day resting and emotionally preparing, one day on the substance, and a third day to reflect and write observations about the experience. It’s much in line with what Grace and P.J. practice.
Part of their motivation for starting their business was rooted in their own experiences. “My first ayahuasca journey, it would have been way nicer if I had a personal sitter,” P.J. said. He had taken the drug in a group ceremony setting. “It was so difficult and I was too afraid to ask for help, even though I was advised, You can ask for help. You can’t always just ask for help!” It’s informed the way he works with people now. “I’ll know to ask, check in, not wait for someone to tell me, I wanted help but I didn’t ask for it.”
The Zendo Project, part of the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), takes the concept to an exponentially larger scale, offering free psychedelic peer support at festivals and events. They train thousands of volunteers and set up shop at places like Burning Man and Lightning in a Bottle. “We have found that if you build it, they will come,” said Sara Gael, MAPS’s director of harm reduction, adding that festivals like Burning Man are eager to incorporate their services into their safety plans. “People who are having a difficult time, drug-induced or otherwise, often are afraid to ask for support or there is no support available. People can often end up unnecessarily restrained or sedated when they could have been de-escalated using the peer support approach.”
The Zendo Project’s guidelines include keeping the person physically safe, offering blankets and water and not trying to guide a person’s psychedelic experience, even if it’s a bad one. “Explore distressing issues as they emerge,” it advises on its website. “But simply being with the person can provide support.”
Brittany, a sitter who volunteers with the Zendo Project, has traveled with them to two Lightning in a Bottle festivals in California. It can get chaotic. “You get a lot of newcomers,” she said, as opposed to a festival like Burning Man, where people return every year. “A lot of people have never been to a music festival at all, it’s their first time taking psychedelics, and that is extremely overwhelming.” Still, the experience for her is gratifying. “Just being able to sit with someone and allow them to be so vulnerable with you, yet so scared. I’m like—I feel for you. I’ve been there.”
Once a man asked her, “Is this really happening?” She wasn’t quite sure how to answer. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Does it feel real?’"
People are often are hesitant to tell her the drug they’ve taken. She assures them they won’t get in trouble, and in some cases—like a person she encountered who took Xanax, molly, and Adderall—that results in a trip to the medical tent. Many festival-goers will find their way to Zendo’s tent on their own, but volunteers also look out for people in the crowd who might need help or are being disruptive. “There are times where we do kind of have to shuffle them kindly towards the Zendo tent and sometimes that can take a long time,” she said, and then told me a story about a person who just sat in the dirt for three hours while she attempted to coax them inside.
She’s sat with people who don’t speak at all, people who think they might be dying. Once a man asked her, “Is this really happening?” She wasn’t quite sure how to answer. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Does it feel real?’” He got very emotional and said he didn’t know. “And I said, ‘I think if you’re breathing, it’s real.’ And that pulled him out of his emotions and he felt better. We just want to make sure we’re in a grounded space so we’re not affecting anyone’s experience and making it more difficult for them,” she told me. “Everyone just wants to make sure they’re not going to die.”
Even if a person is having a positive experience on a psychedelic, it can still be helpful to have a sitter, Brittany told me. You might need assistance getting to the restroom when your sense of perception is distorted, for example, or water to avoid dehydration. She also recommends being inside, maybe in your bedroom. “If you’re out in nature that may be wonderful, but a lot of paranoia may come up if someone sees you or if you run into law enforcement.”
All of the sitters I spoke with emphasized the importance of taking these drugs seriously, knowing the risks, and not combining psychedelics with other drugs. Fadiman goes so far as to emphasize that taking psychedelics in the context of his guidebook is not a recreational “drug experience,” but rather a spiritual one.
“I think there are a lot of people that are medicinal partiers—partying under the guise of medicine,” P.J. said. Others may have skimmed journalist Michael Pollan’s recent best-selling investigation into psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, and decided that psychedelics will solve their problems: cure their depression, calm their anxiety. “It’s not a quick fix,” P.J. added. “Most of the stories that seem to make headlines are—Went down to Peru, had an experience, and came back cured! That’s not the case at all most of the time.” Rather, he and Grace encourage their clients to incorporate other modalities like meditation, somatic bodywork, and Reiki. “I would call psychedelics ‘accelerators’ when used appropriately,” said P.J.
“It will give you insights and it will give you tools,” said Grace, “but it’s not going to make you a great, spiritual holistic person just because you’ve taken mushrooms.”
Cole Kazdin is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.