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Heroin for Trauma and Psychedelics for PTSD: Meeting People Who Self-Medicate with Illegal Drugs

According to a number of studies, around two-thirds of problematic drug users report childhood physical or sexual abuse. These figures need to be taken seriously.

The War on Drugs is, to some extent, a war on the survivors of childhood physical and sexual abuse. This is not an easy idea to accept, but in the conversation I am having it seems inescapable. I'm speaking to Sarah, a former addict and sex worker who is absolutely clear that she used heroin to self-medicate in order to cope with the aftermath of horrific abuse. Quite simply, "nothing else worked".


This, of course, is not to say you should start self-medicating with heroin – or any other harmful illegal drugs, for that matter. Causing yourself physical damage to mitigate the effects of psychological damage is best avoided wherever possible. But it is a pattern a lot of people appear to fall into, and many choose much less harmful substances, such as cannabis or psychedelics.

Sarah has long since left heroin behind and is about to begin post-graduate research project into issues around trauma and addiction. She sends me a series of studies in which around 67.5 percent of the problematic drug users surveyed reported childhood physical or sexual abuse, and insists I note that these studies have been replicated over 20 times. The figures need to be taken seriously.

But beyond childhood trauma, the sheer scale of people who use illegal drugs to self-medicate goes much further and much deeper. When I started putting the word out that I was exploring this, the response was overwhelming. The stories speak for themselves, but the problem is clear: there is an arbitrary line drawn between certain chemicals, meaning some can be used to treat illness, while some cannot. At a stroke, entire classes of people simply trying to manage extreme pain or chronic illness are turned into criminals.

In fact, the problem goes even deeper. Not only are suffering people criminalised and denied effective treatment, but researchers are blocked from even investigating the therapeutic potential of banned drugs.


I spoke to Amanda Fielding of the Beckley Foundation, which has conducted several successful experiments on the therapeutic power of psychedelics, but constantly struggles against legal obstacles. "It is a disgrace that these compounds, which have such immense potential to treat illness and alleviate suffering, are scheduled in a category which makes it impossible for doctors to prescribe them, and extremely difficult and expensive to undertake scientific research," she said.

It's a near impossible point to argue against. A government that deliberately keeps its citizens in pain, and actively blocks research into potential cures for their suffering, has lost its claim to moral authority. Each one of the people interviewed below is a criminal, for no other reason than trying to be well when they are ill.

Jamie, in his forties, uses psychedelics for his PTSD

My PTSD crept up on me, resulting from experiences at a previous job that I can't discuss in detail. It got to the point where memory-specific anxiety cut through my every waking thought and I was staying awake almost all the time.

Anti-depressants helped in their way. They numbed the effect, but never resolved anything. Psychedelics, though, helped me to actually explore my mental illness. In particular, the chemical 4-AcO-DMT was life changing. This is similar to psilocybin in magic mushrooms, but offers a deeper introspection about one's emotional state. Over six different trips I explored the damage that had been done to my emotional stability. It was like unknotting scar tissue and re-finding my inner confident self. I very actively "thought myself better".


If I was asked for evidence of the near miraculous extent of my improvement, I could easily sit down with therapists and psychiatrists and explain in great detail the thought processes that made me well. Unfortunately, the misunderstandings about psychedelics, brought about by a drug policy that is not evidence-based, holds back scientific exploration of such potential therapies.

WATCH: 'Inside Britain's Ecstasy Underworld', from 'High Society', our documentary series about drugs in the UK.

Sarah, in her thirties, used heroin and now uses psychedelics to help her deal with childhood abuse

I was physically and emotionally abused by my father from about 18 months old, and sexually abused by another man between the ages of five and ten.

I tried many coping mechanisms – heroin was the one that worked. I began using at about 14, then stopped, then became badly addicted again from about 18 to 20. Heroin got rid of the nightmares, helped me sleep and made it easier to live – in the lack of other support. Even now I believe support isn't truly available; the people who study and treat trauma haven't gone through it themselves.

I was undiagnosed manic depressive and bipolar. The benefit of heroin was that if I used a very specific amount, with a specific amount of dex-amphetamine, then my mood was balanced. I got quite scientific with it – down to the milligram.

Since I stopped using those drugs, I've been prescribed just about every anti-psychotic and SSRI going. They have a sledgehammer effect: they flatten you. You survive, but you're too tired, too drained and too heavy to actually deal with anything. On the other hand, using psychedelics like psilocybin and 4-AcO-dmt has been a much more constructive experience, and has enabled me to begin working through my past in a really profound way. This has really helped me get to where I am now – I've just got a first in my degree, and am about to continue into post-graduate study.


Tim, in his thirties, uses cannabis for his glaucoma

I smoke weed every day to stop me going blind.

I've got glaucoma, which is an old person's disease. You usually get it when you're like 70, but I first developed it at 14. I went to see the specialist with my very conservative, white middle-class mother. At that time there was a story on EastEnders where Dot Cotton had glaucoma, and someone on Albert Square made her some weed tea for it. So my specialist was like, "Tim, have you been watching EastEnders? You know that's alright?" *wink wink*.

They usually medicate glaucoma with beta blockers, but you develop immunity and they have to keep changing the dosage. It gets really dramatic – they always want to operate, but I don't let them.

I don't particularly want to smoke weed every day – I'm not a stoner. But I have no choice with my sight. Getting high every night is actually quite boring. I'm lucky to have a dealer who doesn't sell me massively powerful skunk. In a lot of countries, like the States, I'd be prescribed weed – but here I'm a criminal. It's really backwards – especially how all my doctors know, but we all have to pretend it's not happening. It's pathetic, really.

Martha, in her twenties, uses cannabis and amphetamines for her OCD

(Photo: Andoni Lubaki)

My diagnosis changed from generalised anxiety disorder to OCD a couple of years ago, but I'd always known there was an obsessive disorder. I've had intrusive thoughts and some small tics for a while. More generally – like lots of others – I medicate with alcohol, though I find hangovers are bad for the anxiety. Smoking marijuana avoids the day-after crash.


Alcohol blanks out anxiety, but blanks out a lot of other things, too. Marijuana doesn't wipe out the repetitive thoughts, but it does allow me to stop feeling like I need to control them – it gives me a sort of negative capability I otherwise find quite difficult.

I'm sensitive to strobe lights because of the OCD. If I'm going somewhere with strobes I'll take amphetamines so they don't bother me. That's quite minor, but I wouldn't be able to stay without them.

I've taken valium in the past, but don't any more – I find it too easy to get hooked. The main reason I tend to opt for illegal over prescription drugs is that, crazily, it's much easier, quicker and less traumatic. If I want a prescription, I have to take time off work, get an appointment at a GP – which is difficult enough – justify it to a doctor, then trek to a pharmacy. If I want to buy weed or amphetamines I could make a call and have them within an hour. No need to explain to anybody that I'm having trouble getting bad thoughts out of my head, or can't stop clicking my fingers, or can't look upwards that day because I'm worried about having a stroke.

Winston, in his thirties, uses psychedelics to help deal with childhood abuse

Following my father's suicide at age two, my mother remarried and I suffered physical and sexual abuse for 12 years. As a result, I was shipped between special educational institutions and was a regular with child psychiatry, police, foster and social services. I started self-harming at nine, using it as a means to control and regulate my hormones and other brain chemistry.

As an adult, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, Type 2 – prolonged; depression; anxiety; and borderline personality disorder, mixed. I've spent eight years being passed from pillar to post within the psychiatric sector, each doctor prescribing more SSRIs and anti-psychotics, without really seeking to understand the underlying causes of my conditions.


About three years ago I started intermittently microdosing LSD and psilocybin – about 50 micrograms per-day for a week or so. The effects were astonishing. I began researching – reading everything I could on the subject, and experimenting on myself. In a very short time I found I was able to stabilise my life entirely. I wasn't self-harming as much, or feeling the desire to do so. I was eating regularly and sleeping every day. I was able to socialise again and beginning to rediscover positive emotions and associations.

I now take acid or psilocybin every month, or five to six weeks, in a ritualised manner, or whenever I feel my psyche slipping back into that negative mindset. I don't take it as a "party drug", but something far more akin to a shamanistic or therapeutic use.

John, in his thirties, uses cannabis to treat his chronic pain and ME

(Photo: Jake Lewis)

I have had chronic, crippling pain for as long as I can remember. When you're a child you don't even realise that this is abnormal – that other kids don't suffer in this way. But it definitely marks you out.

When I was about six my GP began prescribing Co-codamol, a powerful painkiller made from the opiate codeine. I used Co-codamol to manage my pain, and the ME I was eventually diagnosed with, for years. Inevitably I built a tolerance. It got to the point where I was taking 30 tablets a day just to get through. I know this has taken a toll on my internal organs. I live in the constant knowledge that one day it will be problems with my kidneys or liver that gets me, as a result of the damage done by the long-term use of prescription meds.


Discovering cannabis in my mid-twenties was a complete revelation. It's what allows me to get through the day. There is no doubt that cutting down the prescription pills is giving me a longer, better life. But because cannabis is illegal, it makes things very complex for my family, friends and partner – no matter how supportive everyone is. I think the fact that managing my condition makes me criminal in this country is not just wrong, it is actually sick and inhumane.

If you or someone you know is dealing with issues brought on by childhood abuse and would like support, contact The National Association for People Abused in Childhood via their website (UK) or 1177 Vårdguiden (Sweden).

(Photo WikiCommons user Psychonaut, via)

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