Unwanted personality changes after psychedelics
Plus other news, research and events in our Tuesday round-up
Welcome to the Tuesday round-up of new research and articles on psychedelic and other forms of ecstatic experiences. The intro is free then the links are behind a pay-wall.
Rebecca Wolff had a bad trip in 1987, which she believes changed her personality in a way that was unexpected, unwanted and have lasted to this day. The trip occurred when she was a senior in high school in New York City. She had experimented with psychedelics for a year or so, and had wonderful experiences. ‘I was one of those people who’d say ‘everyone should take LSD at least once’. This time, however, she was feeling insecure before the trip, but nonetheless took LSD with her friend. They then walked across New York, from uptown Central Park all the way down to Tribeca.
We were tripping the whole way, hard. And I felt really, really isolated. It’s fascinating to me now to read so much about people wanting to use psychedelics for the experience of communion and unity. For me, it was this feeling of ‘you are not part of anything’, times a million. I couldn’t talk to my friends during the trip, or communicate these overwhelming feelings of dread, combined with hallucinatory experiences of doom, darkness, gloom, things looking frightening that weren’t really.
Whenever Rebecca had tripped before, she came back down to the same place she’d left from. This time, she still felt different when she came down.
In the morning, I was on my way home from my friend’s house. And I just remember feeling something is really wrong. I couldn't articulate it to myself. I tried to sleep. I was experiencing free-floating anxiety and dread. And it didn’t go away. I continued to feel detached from myself. It was like extreme dissociation. I could be sitting anywhere, and look at anything, and it would look terrifying.
Her feelings of dissociation and dread were so acute that she couldn’t go to school, or even leave her house.
I couldn’t talk to anybody about it because I didn’t know what to say. And because I was dissociated, I was good at acting like everything was ok. But it really wasn’t. I was constantly terrified by a million different things around me. I was having what I now know are called intrusive thoughts, where I couldn't go into the subway, because I would get a thought like, ‘you're going to jump in front of that train’.
This went on, and on. She spoke to a counsellor at school, before she dropped out, who told her she was experiencing flashbacks and they could get worse if she lost weight, because LSD lives in your fat cells [this is not true]. Later her parents got her a Freudian psychoanalyst who she saw three times a week, but the psychoanalyst had no familiarity with psychedelic adverse events. She also started taking anti-depressants, which she says helped her.
Finally, in her mid-20s, the feelings of acute dread reduced and she began to be able to have a more normal life. She studied English Literature at university, got married, and has become a celebrated poet and founder of a literary magazine (The Fence) - she’s never written about her experience or spoken about it much, but feels called to now, as so many people around her become enamoured of psychedelics. Rebecca has learned to live with her permanently-altered personality and accept the new reality.
I am still very dissociated. It’s never really gone away. I’ve gotten better at living with it. I am always watching the show, a movie that I am not fully engaged with. I don’t think I’ve had a clear sense of self since that experience. It’s affected my speech a lot – I struggle with spontaneous communication, and go for long periods where it’s difficult for me to be in the moment and speak to people. I think it stunted my ability to relate to other people.
Rebecca’s story is very similar to my own. I also feel my personality was altered by an acid trip in my teens, which turned me from a hyper-social extravert into a more neurotic introvert who didn’t trust other people or life in general. Like Rebecca, I sought professional assistance that didn’t really help, although I found some things that did - CBT, Stoicism, and a near-death experience. I also feel that in some ways the crisis may have even improved my writing, because the written word became a safe space when interpersonal relations became harder.
For years, I was gripped by the fear ‘you have permanently damaged yourself on psychedelics’ , and by grief for the self I had lost. I eventually learned to let go of that fear and grief, to accept the new self, and also to trust there is something beyond one’s temporary identity that cannot be altered or damaged – the soul. But the old happy-go-lucky me never came back.
Studies have begun to explore how psychedelics can alter people’s beliefs and identity in long-term or perhaps permanent ways. A new paper by Brandon Weiss et al gathered responses from 200 Americans, asking them if they thought psychedelics had changed their personality and if so how. 70% said they thought psychedelic experiences had changed their personality, and the vast majority said those changes were positive – themes included feeling more sense of unity, gratitude, purpose, compassion, emotional stability, open-mindedness and connection to self. But 14% also reported an extended feeling of higher anxiety, and for half of this group – 7% of the total sample – this anxiety solidified into a feeling of having become more neurotic, more risk-averse, more introverted, and more anxious and depressed. Here are some quotes from the study:
“The biggest influence was in wanting the experience to end, and feeling like it never would and I’d never get my mind back or be myself again. That was the catalyst that convinced me I wasn’t doing it again. I didn’t have any experiences profound enough to outweigh the terror that had permanently altered myself.”
“The experience changed aspects of my personality because I became much more anxiety ridden and panicky afterwards. I became more reserved and quiet and less trusting. I became more afraid of trying new things and I was definitely very anxious and worried a lot where before the experience those traits were not apart of my personality.”
We’re still learning what factors make positive long-term changes more likely and negative or unwanted long-term changes less likely. The authors note a correlation between positive changes and tripping in nature (as opposed to NYC). With Rebecca and myself, there were clearly factors that made long-term increased anxiety more likely – bad choice of set and setting, young age, and lack of effective support and communication during and after the trip, as well as possible genetic factors.
Safer settings, including medical settings, will no doubt reduce cases like ours. But they won’t eliminate them entirely. Weiss quotes a paper by Griffiths, Yaden and Earp looking at ethical issues in psychedelics, which claims that less than 1% of the 250 people who have been through psychedelic trials at Johns Hopkins had any post-trip negative effects. This seems low. We know of one person who killed themselves after a 1mg dose at a Johns Hopkins trial, another who was prescribed with anti-psychotics, and I’ve personally heard of one other woman who had difficulties beyond the trip, which Roland Griffiths suggested was a ‘kundalini awakening’ (she did not find this diagnosis helpful). That’s already more than 1%, and these cases were not always fully reported in the subsequent papers.
If we want a more ethical psychedelic culture, we need to be more honest about adverse effects, including the possibility of life becoming permanently harder. As Roland Griffiths declared at the start of the psychedelic renaissance, it’s remarkable that psychedelics can cause lasting personality changes after just one dose. But the changes are not always wanted.
In other news:
Next Thursday, come to our free online psychedelic safety seminar featuring Allison Hoots on psychedelic churches (she’s one of the world experts on them) and Brian Holoyda on the risk of malpractice suits for psychedelic guides. Allison is quoted in this new and pretty good Daily Mail article on psychedelic churches - although it doesn’t mention that people have sometimes died at these new churches.
Advaya has a new course on contemporary spirituality starting next month, featuring talks by Alexander Beiner, Dougald Hine, Elizabeth Oldfield, John Vervaeke, myself, and others! Register for the course here, and you can get 15% off with the code TEACH-CS-EVANS
After the pay-wall, new papers on spiritual chaplaincy in psychedelic work, psychedelics and bipolar disorder, ‘critical psychedelics’, plus a kerfuffle in the Vatican over ‘mystical orgasms’.