The Support Groups That Help People Process Psychedelic Trips
"Why is there a medical system to assist people who take Advil or overdose on sleeping pills, but not one to help someone who felt like they met their own god or became completely in love with their friend while taking MDMA?"
"How do you come back from a trip?" asks Sherree Malcolm Godasi, perched on a round cushion in the back room of a Santa Monica boutique that smells of incense and is covered with Tibetan prayer flags and portraits of Buddha. "One way I love integrating is swimming."
It's a Monday night and there's about ten of us sitting on floor pillows in a circle around Godasi, who is from Israel and wears her long auburn hair in two tight French braids. Godasi is what's known as a psychedelic integration coach, and the bi-monthly, donation-based meetings she leads are intended to provide support and guidance after a psychedelic trip induced by hallucinogenic substances. The aim, she says, is to offer a space for thoughtful integration—or the mental processing of a psychedelic experience long after the effects of a drug have worn off. It's an aspect of psychedelic experimentation that's often overlooked in mainstream culture, but that devotees say is equally as important (if not more important) than the trip itself.
The concept of integration has been around in some form or another for nearly as long as people have been seeking enlightenment through mind-altering substances. Modern enthusiasts trace the practice back hundreds of years to Amazonian as well as Native American tribes who took psychedelics in ceremonial settings in search of enlightenment. But in Western medicine, it wasn't until the 1960s that integration became a tenet of the psychedelic therapy movement, pioneered by radical California psychologists like Leo Zeff, a Jungian therapist who saw psychedelics as a tool for self-improvement, and James Fadiman, who co-founded the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto in 1975.
But only recently have coaches, therapists, and healers begun to advertise these services more widely and to the general public. Godasi is one of just a handful of psychedelic integration coaches that openly practices in Los Angeles, but groups like hers have started forming in cities across the country. The rise of so-called integration circles coincides with what many practitioners are calling a psychedelic renaissance, signaled by a new wave of academic research into the possible medicinal benefits of substances like psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in mushrooms) and MDMA. Godasi and those who seek her services hope that these above ground meetings will help legitimize psychedelics as real forms of medicine and therapy, rather than just party drugs.
"The field is so new and it's so needed because everyone knows people who drop acid or who roll on molly—right, most of us do—and these people are experimenting with in fact what are considered extremely powerful substances and medicine," Godasi told me in a phone interview. "Why is there a medical system to assist people who take Advil or overdose on sleeping pills, but not one to help someone who felt like they met their own god or became completely in love with their friend while taking MDMA?"
If Godasi today considers herself something of an expert on psychedelics, then it was only recently that she was still taking substances "kind of mindlessly," she says. Then an experience at Coachella three years ago shifted her whole point of view. "I took a huge dose of MDMA that completely changed my life and it was hard to get back into this world, you know, with everything that I understand now," she recalls. "All of the new and incredible universal knowledge and downloads that I received and understandings about the nature of humanity" left her crying the whole drive home, she says. But she had no idea what to make of this experience or how to integrate it into her everyday life.
It wasn't until the following year that she discovered integration during a psychedelic conference in LA called Visionary Convergence. The idea behind it, presented in a lecture by Berkeley-based clinical psychologist Susana Bustos, immediately clicked with Godasi. But when she and her friend Ashley Booth—the founder of the LA-based psychedelic advocacy group Aware Project—noticed there were few places in the city that offered integration support, they launched their own last year. The result is an organization called InnerSpace Integration, which laid the groundwork for Godasi's integration circles (she has since branched off and now leads them under her own independent brand).
"Because of prohibition, people don't have the kind of support and education to be able to make good decisions about usage," says Booth, who adds that those who go on ayahuasca retreats in Peru, for example, where it's legal, sometimes arrive home to find there's nobody else to talk about their experiences with. "We really would like to create these sort of gathering spaces for people to be able to continue to talk about their experience and how their integration process is unfolding," she says.
Most psychedelics are still Schedule I drugs, with LSD, MDMA, and Psilocybin listed in the same category for abuse as heroin. Which is why Godasi begins every integration circle with a legal disclaimer: She is in no way encouraging anyone to procure or ingest illegal substances. She also instructs the group to avoid naming any medicine providers—a preferred term in this community for what others might think of as drug dealers—or disclosing the locations where we may have taken hallucinogenic substances like ayahuasca, which in the United States is often administered illegally during group ceremonies in private homes or other underground venues. There's always a chance there could be undercover cops in the room, Godasi says, before alerting everyone to my presence as a journalist. (The members of the group have asked to remain anonymous in this article, many citing potential professional repercussions as a result of their use of psychedelics).
The integration circle is mostly self-directed, and Godasi says she prefers to sit back and observe rather than guiding the conversation. (She also leads one-on-one sessions that tend to be more intensive.) But getting the group to talk isn't always easy, and even though everyone is presumably here to get something off their chests, the room is frequently punctuated by awkward silences. Godasi scans the room, making eye contact and gently posing open-ended questions to find out who recently had a psychedelic experience they're struggling to make sense of. Once the group finally does start to open up, their anecdotes are sometimes prefaced with notes of caution that they've never told it to anyone before. When one person says he no longer relates to his friends after having done ayahuasca, Godasi jumps in with supportive questions intended to provoke dialgoue. "Our entire life revolves around relationships," she says. "So how do you come back and talk to people?" Think of the experience, she says, as "an invitation to reassess where you are."
"James," a 50-year-old IT recruiter who asked me not to use his real name, is one of the group's more regular members. He says he experimented with psychedelics recreationally when he was in his teens and 20s, but after getting hooked on methamphetamines, he quit drugs altogether and got sober. "I moved away from the area I was in, I just changed my life and led a suburban life for 20 years," he says. "And a couple years ago my life got shaken up and I started looking for myself again."
That's when he turned to psychedelics—and this time he wasn't just looking to get high. He'd been seeing a psychotherapist for a while, he says, but it wasn't until he started tripping on ayahuasca and DMT that he started to have a breakthrough about who he really was and how to be himself—especially at work, where he felt like he was always pretending to be a more likable, corporate version of himself. "That process of becoming more at ease with myself, becoming less inhibited, being more comfortable with my own skin, all of those things have been helped immensely by psychedelics," he says, cautioning that while his own experiences have been positive, psychedelics aren't for everybody, nor does he advocate that they'll help anyone else in the same way. "That's where the practice of integration comes in because you learn things about yourself but you have to figure out what those things mean to you and how to integrate them into your life."
But it's not as if he can tell his colleagues and clients about the time he hallucinated that humanoids told him the meaning of life during a DMT trip. Those are the kinds of stories he saves for Godasi's integration circle, where it's not uncommon to hear from people who say they spoke to God, saw the afterlife, or communicated with the spirits of deceased loved ones during a psychedelic trip. These are the types of anecdotes that Godasi says could get a person diagnosed with psychosis or mania if they were to tell a doctor or a therapist about them—instead, she says, most people choose to keep quiet. Others, like James, seek out an integration coach.
As the 90 minute integration circle comes to a close, Godasi presses her palms together in prayer and bows her head down, thanking us all for coming and for sharing our experiences. Most of us just met each other tonight, but nobody is ready to leave yet. We all stand in a circle making small talk, and James asks another member of the group where her accent is from. She says she believes she may have inherited it from a past life. Then, as well all linger in the room, she says she can feel that maybe our spirits have exited our bodies and are now communicating telepathically with one another. Everyone stares at each other in silence.