Nir Tadmor on psychedelic harm reduction
Nir co-founded Safe Shore, which provides psychedelic harm reduction in the Israeli psytrance scene, and he advises the Israeli government on its harm reduction policies
Nir Tadmor is a transpersonal psychotherapist, trained in Hakomi, which is a mindfulness based somatic psychotherapy. He did a masters in consciousness, spirituality, and transpersonal psychology through the Alef Trust, which works in collaboration with Johns Moore Liverpool University. And in my master’s thesis he studied the psychospiritual integration process that unfolds in the personal lives of mental health, professionals who use psychedelics. Nir leads a psychedelic education and harm reduction project called Safe Shore, together with Igal Tatarkovsky. They have facilitated more than 80 safe spaces in parties and festivals, and have supported more than 1300 people experiencing difficult trips. They have also trained more than 1,000 psychedelic harm reduction sitters in workshops around the world. They co-facilitate Holotropic Breath workshops, and they work as advisors for the Israeli Ministry of Health as psychedelic harm reduction specialists, in collaboration with the police, the Ministry of Interior and the Israeli paramedic association. You can watch the video of our full conversation here.
Nir Tadmor: We basically advise the Israeli parliament on how to create safer protocols for trance parties, because the trance scene in Israel is very, very big.
Jules Evans: Tell me about that.
NT: Israel probably has the biggest psychedelic trance scene in the world. Every single weekend between February and November we have dozens of outdoor, psychedelic raves. Some of them are 50-70 people, and some of them are 1,000, or even 3,000 people. Israel also has some of the biggest trance producers, like Infected Mushroom.
JE: Why is psychedelic trance so big in Israel?
NT: I think the reason is the army, and I think it's because everyone spends time in the Army - two years for females, and 3 years for men - between 18 and 21. And it’s almost an obligatory tradition to travel for a few months after the army. Young people who lived in a very confined strict environment for two or three years then go out to the world, to the most exotic and free places like India and South America. And in those places, often people meet psychedelics for the first time. Then when they come back to Israel, they gravitate towards the psychedelic trance scene. It’s part of our culture now.
JE: I wonder if people’s military experiences come up in their trips?
NT: It does. We see that in in the safe spaces we hold in parties and festivals, sometimes people confront their traumatic experiences for the first time during a party, and they never went to therapy, and of course that wasn't necessarily their intention. I wrote a chapter in the book that Tim Read and Maria Papaspyrou published (Psychedelics and Psychotherapy) – it’s a case study about a guy that we met in a party, who four months before lost two of his friends in front of his eyes and got a bullet in the shoulder. During the party he took some MDMA and LSD together, and he felt so much shame for surviving [the war incident] that he wanted to kill himself. It was a very, very intense process to support him. I feel that psychedelics allow this very extreme expansion and freedom after years of being confined and in war, wearing uniform, following orders, and it suddenly allows a completely different reality. And sometimes it's really hard to hold both realities together, and it can lead to a very kind of fragmenting experience, like ‘I'm not sure what is real, how am I integrating all these personalities in one body’.
JE: One of the things I'm interested in is the interaction of psychedelics and social and political attitudes. How does taking psychedelics and the rave scene affect people’s attitude to the Palestinian occupation?
NT: I think it's a really complicated question. I think that, in general, psychedelics tend to open people's mind to other perspectives, and to kind of break very deeply grounded pre-conceived beliefs, that were implemented through the education system, school, parents and so on. I’m sure that psychedelics change people’s attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In general, people taking psychedelics tend to be more on the left, and psychedelics have the tendency to make people pacifistic and to resent war, killing, uniforms etc. But I don’t have any specific data.
Harm reduction at festivals
JE: Tell me about your work doing psychedelic harm reduction at festivals.
NT: Initially, we worked at raves where there might not even be an ambulance, and we would have to take medical responsibility for people who might be OD-ing or really drunk, or in extreme distress. We decided that we will go only to parties that have an ambulance, usually the legal parties. Part of our work with the Israeli Parliament is to try and make it easier for parties to get a permit from the police, so they can have an ambulance present etc.
When there’s no ambulance present, people have sometimes died because of over-heating and other causes. I heard a story about one girl, a soldier, took some LSD, and had a very difficult experience. No one at the rave knew what to do with her, so they gave her some cocaine, then one of them started driving with her to the hospital, and the producer of the party called and said, no don't take her to a hospital, because then they will question you and close the party. Bring her back it will be fine. They left her in the back of a pick-up truck and she died.
So we say that the government should prefer legal parties, with a safe space for people having challenging experiences, and an ambulance. It’s a three-and-a-half-year dialogue with various different governments.
What makes a good ‘sitter’ for people having difficult experiences?
JE: You run two-day workshops on psychedelic harm reduction. Could you gave us one or two takeaways? What helps people having difficult experiences at festivals? How can people best sit with them?
NR: One of the first things we teach is that difficult is not the same as bad. If you often take psychedelics, at some point, you will have a challenging trip. When people confront an emotional or mental challenge, they tag this experience as ‘a bad trip’, and they already determine how the trip will unfold, they already decide okay, this is this bad trip. The first thing we suggest is it’s okay if you have a difficult trip. The important thing is to create a safe environment where you can confront and meet this challenge
Who we are with and where we are during the trip is as important as what substance you too. The set and setting are at least as important as the substance. So the fact that we have a difficult experience doesn't mean that we cannot do anything about it. We can go outside of the dance floor, or speak to someone we love, or go to the harm reduction space.
But I think maybe the core emphasis of this workshop is listening - we want to listen more, and talk less. Trip sitting should be very minimal, it’s kind of the art of non-doing.
JE: I suppose sometimes people's instincts would be to reassure: ‘It's gonna be okay, you're okay’. Is that appropriate?
NT: Yeah it's appropriate to remind people that it's okay, that this is happening now, and that you are in a safe space where we do it all the time. On the other hand, we are careful not to kind of promise, anything, to say ‘after six hours it will be gone’ because maybe it won’t. But we are definitely very reassuring and telling people that are somewhere safe, that we're not leaving them alone, that they can share with us or not, do whatever they feel like.
JE: What if they get paranoid about you guys and want to leave?
NT: It's a great question. So there was a party, where the security guard called me to get a woman out of the dance floor, because she was kind of harassing people. And eventually, like, I went there with one female volunteer and they were dancing together, and eventually the security guard said it doesn't matter that now they're having fun, she has to cool off, take her out of the dance floor or I will. So we told her, listen, I'm really sorry, but the security guard asked you to cool off for a bit - maybe you're willing to come with us to our dome, to just cool off for a while. And she said okay, whatever. And as soon as she entered the dome, she started cursing us, oh, you motherfuckers, where's my sunglasses, I don’t want to be here. I told her, listen, first of all you need to be a bit more quiet because there are other people here trying to rest. And the second thing is, you don't have to be here we just invited you to be don't have to be here. And then she said OK, I’m going. I said fine, but is it OK if we walk after you? She said OK, do whatever you want. So she kind of allowed us to follow her. If she said, no you creeps, I don’t want you following me, then we would leave her alone.
Working with psychedelic and psychotic states
JE: You worked in an emergency psychiatric ward for six years.
NT: Yes, I worked in different psychiatric hospitalization alternatives. I worked for 3.5 years as a guide in a home hospitalization project for people going through acute mental crisis. For two years I worked at houses built according to the Soteria model, which was developed in California, to give people having a psychotic experience an alternative to hospitalization. The idea is not to separate people from the community into a psychiatric hospital, but to create a space that is as similar as possible to a house. The houses that I worked with in were like big villas, beautiful villas, with like a big living room with many sofas and couches, and like a big kitchen and a huge garden and balconies, and like only two people in a room. It’s called the stabilizing house – the idea was to show the government, look, you spend $9000 per month on a single person in a psychiatric hospital. For that money we can provide something that is a lot better.
In these places, the relationship between the patients and staff is much more on eye-level. Like, in a hospital, it's pretty rare to see the psychiatrist sitting at a table eating lunch with a psychiatric patient. In a Soteria house, everybody eats lunch together, and there's always two guides that you can talk to 24 hours a day. In general, it’s staffed by loving, open-minded, compassionate people.
JE: But I guess there’s still an iron fist in the silk glove in the sense that, sometimes people have to be at psychiatric facilities when they don’t want to be.
NT: In the houses I was working in, it's not obligatory to be there. You’re not locked there. You can always leave you. It's not an alternative for someone who is very actively trying to hurt other people, or to kill himself.
JE: What are the similarities and differences between people on psychedelics and people in psychosis?
NT: Great, great question, I always tell volunteers in the safe space, in the parties, that what we do here is the easy work, because we know that in 8 hours or 24 hours, everybody would be fine, we did it already 80 times, we always got everybody back home safe, like 1300 plus people that we supported. I think that maybe 2 or 3 had to be sedated and taken to a hospital, and then when they woke up they weren't psychotic anymore, and 2 or 3 people got back home in a psychotic state and we had to connect them with therapists but it's like you can count on one hand the people that actually didn't go back home in the same state that they went. This is the easy work. But when I'm working with people who are going in and out of psychotic states for 20 years, and maybe today, we had a huge breakthrough and we had an amazing conversation. Then tomorrow I will go back to work and we are going to be somewhere completely different. It’s not a linear process.
When you're working in a psychiatric alternative center, you use the same tools and practices as a psychedelic safe space, almost exactly, but you're not going to be rewarded so easily. They won’t be going ‘oh thank you’ after eight hours. But the practices are very, very similar. Like, we we do our best to be non-judgmental to be compassionate, to listen more than to preach. Obviously there are things that are happening in a psychiatric center that are not happening in parties - in the centers we're encouraging people to cook together, to clean together, to study something that they want to study, so there's a more functional aspect of going back to life.
JE: And do you think that people working in psychiatric facilities can learn from psychedelic practitioners and vice versa?
NT: I definitely think so. I would say, my dream is to implement the knowledge and tools that we learn in the field to implement them in psychiatric hospitals. The compassionate harm reduction approach can be extremely valuable for people who are hospitalized in a psychotic state, and especially for people who have a first episode of psychosis. When you have someone that can kind of lay a map for you and kind of describe to you this process, in non-pathologic terms, it can be really important.
JE: I'm writing about the history of psychiatry, and of eugenics. And you get people in psychiatry who see mentally ill people as basically, defective, as nature's mistakes, as detritus. But perhaps if you’ve experienced non-ordinary states yourself you’re less inclined to that sort of sharp divide.
NT: Yeah, I can tell you that the psychiatrists I interviewed for my master's - both of them said that after having their own psychedelic experiences, they are seeing their psychotic patients in a completely, different way, they can relate to the psychotic state much more than before.
JE: Finally let’s talk just briefly about Holotropic Breathwork [a method of breathing devised by Stan Grof as an alternative non-drug route to non-ordinary states] which sometimes people put forward as a kind of safer alternative to psychedelic therapy, what do you think?
NT: I think that the Holotropic Breathwork state, from my own personal experience, is very, very different than my psychedelic experiences. It is still so surprising how much of ourselves we can meet when we have a supportive setting, without any substance. So I think, Holotropic Breathwork is a great preparation for a psychedelic journey. And it can also be a good integration method. If a very extreme state is awakened during the breathwork, the team are trained for like at least 3 years, so I think there's like the experience of the team is something that is very important, compared to other breathwork methods, that sometimes people learn only for a few weeks, and then they start facilitating these experiences. Breathwork is now quite popular, and people offer it without much training at all.
JE: So is there also the possibility of adverse or harmful experiences with breathwork?
NT: I think I would say that breathwork is as wide as the term psychedelics. It contains many different methods, and there are some breathwork methods that are pushing the body into a hyperventilation, into flooding the brain with oxygen, and this is like I would say in a sense, biologically chemically induced non ordinary state okay, you're breaking through the ego formation with oxygen. But in Holotropic Breathwork, the guidance is to use your breath in a way that is right for how you feel at the moment. We are not pushing people to hyperventilation. There’s a lot of respect for the ego. Sometimes in New Age cultures you hear ‘we need to ditch this ego bullshit, be free, expand your consciousness, lose your ego’ and in Holotropic Breathwork, and in how I perceive the psychedelic experience, I think the ego should be approached with a lot of respect and delicacy. It's the house, it's the psychic structure that helps you integrate all these different things into the lived experience.
Here’s the full video:
After the paywall, subscribers get access to more links on psychedelic and ecstatic experiences and harm reduction - featuring a fascinating talk by Alan Watts warning on the risks of psychedelics, posted last week by his son Mark, and also Tim Ferriss complaining about psychedelics becoming trendy! Subscribe and support our work researching how to help people who have difficult psychedelic experiences.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Ecstatic Integration to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.