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When psychedelics trigger visions of childhood abuse
'Is this a genuine memory and what should I do about it?'
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In an Imperial College, London trial of magic mushrooms for treatment-resistant depression, a participant saw his mother smothering his face with a pillow when he was an infant. Initially, the participant was “relatively untroubled” by the vision and experienced six months of relief from depression. Then things changed. He was “understandably quite preoccupied and confused about whether the suffocation event had happened to him”.
So it’s [about] trying to move on, it’s all very well people saying “it’s all totally symbolic”, I don’t think it is. When it happened it felt more real than the here and now … I do think that something must have happened. Something pretty severe in my childhood for this treatment to take me back there … But what do you do with it? Do you just deal with it?
That person was not alone. According to public comments by the head of Imperial’s psychedelic lab, David Erritzoe, two other participants in the same 50-person trial of psilocybin for depression also reported resurfaced memories or visions of childhood abuse – that’s 6% of trial participants. There were similar instances in the MAPS trial of MDMA for PTSD. Adam Knowles, a British therapist who specializes in psychedelic integration, says:
One of the most common issues that people seek therapy for after a psychedelic experience is they experience memories of childhood abuse and then are left wondering ‘did this really happen?’
One famous instance of this sort of scenario occurred to the British comedian Simon Amstell, who has spoken and written about how ayahuasca healed him recover from years of depression by helping him ‘get to the root’ of his problems.
In his memoir Help, Amstell writes of experiencing an ayahuasca vision of himself as a baby in a pram, watching his mother be slapped by a man (he doesn’t say if it’s his father) and feeling helpless to prevent it. He writes that he realized that all of his subsequent hang-ups emerged from this early traumatic experience, and he felt the medicine or the rainforest telling him ‘it wasn’t your fault, you were just a baby’.
For Amstell, this is a deeply liberating epiphany which he credits with curing him of depression. Yet a note in small print at the bottom of the page says:
It is important to say that I don’t recall what I’ve described here actually happening in real life. What matters, I think, is the perception the baby had of something scary, which he felt was his responsibility to stop.
Readers’ experiences of psychedelic visions of abuse
We reached out on social media to ask if others had experienced visions of being abused as children while on psychedelic drugs. Several people contacted us to say they had. The respondents were on a spectrum of certainty as to whether what they witnessed had really happened or not.
Entrepreneur and author Shannon Duncan recounts, in his new book Coming Full Circle, how years of guided psychedelic journeys helped him delve deep into his childhood trauma, until he came to the understanding that a family member had abused him. He told his mother, who said another family member also said he’d also been abused by the same man. This was a healing epiphany for Shannon. He decided these memories are real and helped him ‘get to the root’ of his trauma in order to heal and be whole.
Another respondent, therapist Becca Williams, tells us she had ayahuasca visions of her mother drugging her and her step-father raping her when she was a child. She says:
It was during an ayahuasca experience that "I saw" my mother sitting beside my bed while my step-father, at the bottom of the bed with my legs spread, was sexually molesting me. I'm not clear what he was inserting in my body with drunken glee, but they were both immensely enjoying this violation of my five-year old body. This vision was both horrific and strangely comforting as the recollection (more than once but I don’t know how often) of me waking up and seeing my drunken mother grinning at me, "holding" me in place and urging me to go back to sleep afforded answers to that memory loop that kept slipping gears because my conscious self was only working with the conscious memories. I truly believe that the ayahuasca trip afforded me the whole story…uncovering it was a pivotal piece to the puzzle that was what I needed to bring myself back from the darkness in order to eventually discover peace, calm centeredness and wholeness.
I don't consider this a "woe is me" tale. Not at all. Actually, it gives me the ability to be a more effective guide in teaching emotional and trauma release to my students and clients. I have the ability to create a safe haven for both those who've come through unimaginable abuse and those who simply have areas in their lives that need tended to.
Another respondent experienced a vision of her grandfather abusing her, while she was on iboga. She said she found this a healing epiphany:
suddenly there was a relaxing space in its place. And my head was suddenly 1000 times quieter. That was 8 years ago and while I’ve had a noisy head on a few occasions since then it hasn’t been nearly as bad as it was before that “removal” of whatever the abuse had implanted into my system.
But some respondents were less sure how reliable their memories / visions are. One respondent told us:
During an ayahuasca journey, I had an extremely clear and vivid vision of being physically violated by a male family member when I was a baby.
This man says the entities he felt he was communicating with on the ayahuasca trip ‘were really clear that I had to accept that this actually happened because I immediately began to ask the question "how do I know this really happened?". To some extent he trusted this information, but he then had to decide whether to raise it with his family. He says:
I still don't feel complete after this experience…Perhaps the most difficult thing has been the question around whether anything else violating/abusive may have happened in childhood. I asked this during the trip and was told that I didn't need to know that yet or I had enough for now. I struggle with the question of whether to share this with my siblings but doing this would feel like dropping a nuclear bomb in the family and I can't do this based on a vision I had while on psychedelics, it just doesn't feel reliable enough.
Our respondents are not alone – in this Reddit thread, multiple people report experiencing psychedelic visions of themselves being abused as children, and then struggling with the question of whether these visions are real and what they should do about it. The thread also includes a post by a father in his 60s, who says he was accused by his daughter of years of abuse following a psychedelic vision she had.
The on-going Memory Wars
The veracity of recovered traumatic memories has been a very contested topic in mental health and especially in legal cases involving child sexual abuse and rape.
In the early days of psychoanalysis, in the 1890s, Sigmund Freud found that so many clients uncovered ‘memories’ of childhood abuse while under hypnosis, that he initially believed there was an epidemic of abuse in Vienna, before then deciding these ‘memories’ were all actually fantasies.
A century later, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. In the 1980s, a treatment called Recovered Memory Therapy became very popular in the US. Clients would be guided by therapists back to their childhood to uncover the roots of their trauma, through hypnosis, drugs and other techniques. Not surprisingly, some people who had not been sexually abused as children found themselves discovering previously “repressed memories” of such abuse by a family member or other adult.
In the same decade, thousands of American adults ‘recovered memories’ of having been victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse while they were being treated by hypnotherapists. Belief in a widespread high-level Satanic paedophile conspiracy spread through articles, TV specials, and best-selling books like Michelle Remembers, by Lawrence Padzer and Michelle Smith. the height of the panic, there were over 12,000 investigations into allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse. The vast majority of these Satanic Ritual Abuse accusations turned out to be false.
Another best-seller was the 1984 book The Courage to Heal, by feminists Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. It taught women how to discover repressed memories of childhood abuse and incest. ‘You may think you don’t have memories’, the authors wrote, ‘but often as you begin to talk about what you do remember, there emerges a constellation of feelings, reactions and recollections that add up.’ The Courage To Heal ‘launched the recovered-memory movement as a true mass movement’, in Julia Yost’s assessment.
Then came the backlash, as accused families built an alliance with sceptical psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus, Richard McNally and Frederick Crews, to form the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. This organization argued that recovered memories were a debunked Freudian idea, and that in many instances false memories of abuse were being suggested or implanted by over-zealous therapists. Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, declared in a friend-of-court brief: ‘The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry.’
The FMSF won some big legal battles against recovered memory therapists, and seemed to win in the court of public opinion. “The ‘memory wars’ are over”, announced Paul McHugh, former chair of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, in 2003.
But they weren’t over. The idea of recovered memory has resurfaced in the last eight years. It’s re-appeared in documentaries like the 2017 Netflix show The Keepers (about recovered memories of abuse at a convent), and in high-profile Me Too cases like the Senate hearing on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the trial of Harvey Weinstein. When Memory Wars veteran Elizabeth Loftus appeared as a witness for the defence in the Weinstein trial, she was lambasted online as an anti-feminist rape-denier.
While activists on the Left are focused on uncovering memories of rape and historic racism, activists on the Right have become re-obsessed with uncovering child abuse, partly thanks to conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and Qanon, which claims a global elite of (mainly left-wing) Satanists has been abducting, raping and murdering thousands of children. Such conspiracy theories have spread into New Age spirituality and psychedelic culture thanks to influencers like Sacha Stone. At the same time, of course, there are genuine cases of organized abuse by the powerful – the Catholic Church, the Jeffrey Epstein circle - and by cults like the Children of God.
While the public debate over memory and trauma is just as politically charged as it ever was, what about the scientific debate? Some scientists argue there is now good evidence for recovered memory. Jim Hopper is a clinical psychologist and expert in trauma and memory, and was also a therapist for the phase 3 MAPS MDMA trials. He trains therapists, police, prosecutors, judges and other professionals on these issues and has provided testimony as an expert witness in court cases involving recovered memories of abuse. He says:
There was a very successful PR campaign in the 1990s to say that there's no such thing ‘repressed memory’, that this was all just incompetent, overzealous trauma therapists, implanting memories and suggesting things to their clients. I admit that there were over-zealous, incompetent trauma therapists in the 1990s. But it is a scientific fact that people sometimes recover memories of abuse years or decades after they occurred, and [sometimes] these memories are subsequently verified by confessions from the abuser.
There are many ways this can happen – amnesia, conscious or semi-conscious suppression, delayed recall. ‘Memory experts’ [who testify for people sued and prosecuted for child sexual abuse] love to lump them all together as ‘repressed memories’ and then insist there’s no such thing as ‘repression’. But there are many ways memories can be inaccessible at one time and then become accessible at a later time. Are all “recovered memories” of abuse true? No. Are they all false? No. We need to be able to see beyond black and white polarisation. Likewise, does child abuse sometimes happen in cults, including satanic cults? Yes. Does that mean there is a worldwide all-powerful satanic paedophile conspiracy? No.
What Should Therapists Do?
Given the complexity surrounding memories and their veracity, how should therapists react if a client says visions of childhood abuse arose during psychedelic experiences?
One emerging consensus among practitioners is to shift focus away from difficult questions of the events’ veracity, and to return to their possible symbolic import and implications for the present - including clients’ somatosensory feelings about the ambiguity of the event. Therapist Dee Dee Goldpaugh writes in Chacruna:
The hard truth is, in most cases, absent a parent or caregiver to affirm details the client might remember, we can’t know what “really” happened. What we can know is what the body and mind are telling us right now that can direct our healing journey.
My approach with clients is to say, “we may never know for sure what exactly happened to you, but I will do my best to help your body to heal from the trauma it’s holding.” And that’s exactly where we start: the body.
The ‘Accept, Connect, Embody’ approach developed at Imperial involves a number of related prompts: asking the client to lie down with music, settle in the body and explore their uncertain feelings around the event, to identify with observing consciousness, and connect with the meanings and lessons of their trips. In their model of ‘psychedelic apprenticeship’, Imperial authors also suggest the Microphenomenological Interview Technique, which asks participants recalling their memory-laden trips to focus attention on highly specific features of their experiences.
According to Tara Rae Behr, a Colorado-based therapist, “[t]he worst thing a therapist could do for a client when they have abusive memories come up on a psychedelic trip that they are not sure of the literalness of, would be to either say, “can you prove it?” or to say, “well it absolutely must have happened.”
Instead, an appropriate response would look like exploring the doubts, offering that sometimes what is symbolically true, is not literally true, but it is just as important or “real.” Or perhaps on further exploration, and feeling into the experience, the person could find that it was literally true. There are a number of options here that have to be listened to by the therapist and client, to find the truth for the client.
Even if abuse were proved not to happen, Behr suggests, the memory may still evoke a broader dissatisfaction and failure to satisfy needs from childhood.
If someone was loved in childhood, they’d know it. They probably wouldn’t even be in therapy. So whether it was factually true or symbolically true doesn’t matter. The root message is, the person feels like they were violated in some way, and that’s terrible and needs to be validated by the therapist, not gaslighted.
Adam Knowles, a British therapist specializing in psychedelic integration, says:
I keep open the possibility that a client’s experience is literally true, since bad things do happen, but also the possibility that it’s not. Like dreams, psychedelic experiences may use rich symbols and, like dreams, most people are unpracticed at skilful interpretation. Its helped some clients to ask parents or other people who were there, to triangulate facts. But, mostly, they’re never going to know for sure. Then it becomes a question of how to live with the not-knowing. One approach that’s provided relief to clients is to work through all the various possibilities in turn and find some resolution to each.
Knowles also says that we need better literacy with regards to ecstatic and psychedelic experiences, and to the blurred lines between memories, fantasies, desires and fears:
Some studies have looked at the socialisation of hallucinations. I heard of one retreat where a regular part of the induction is the founder narrating his personal history of childhood sexual abuse. So, after the first ceremony, one participant reports to another participant their vision of being abused as a child. After the second ceremony, the second participant has a disturbing vision of being abused as a child. The participants then spend months trying to work out if what they saw really happened.
One needs to be particularly careful as New Age and psychedelic culture is quite infused with the ‘traumadelic’ model of healing, according to which psychedelics can heal people by uncovering and processing memories of early trauma or abuse. Stanislav Grof, the pioneering psychedelic therapist, suggested psychedelics can help people re-experience and hopefully process ‘birth trauma’. Other psychologists who teach the theory of recovered traumatic memory include Gabor Mate, Besser van der Kolk and Richard Schwartz of Internal Family Systems – all of whom are very influential in psychedelic healing. Many people come to train as psychedelic healers after their own traumatic childhood experiences. This could potentially prime them to see others as victims of buried trauma and / or abuse, even if that’s not the case.
At the popular level, New Age gurus promote the idea of recovering lost memories of trauma and abuse through psychedelics and other trance techniques. Teal Swan, for example, says: ‘I am completely on the side of [the theory] of supress and repress memory’. She and other gurus teach their followers how to recover and release traumatic memories through trance states including psychedelics. This could genuinely be healing, but there is also a risk of suggesting or implanting false memories, particularly given New Age culture’s tendency to conspirituality (Swan’s ex-husband, Valliant Gicqueau, once suggested to me that the Illuminati had concocted the pandemic and orchestrated child abuse on a mass scale).
There are reasons to be at least a little wary of believing psychedelic visions of the past too readily. Manoj Doss, a researcher on psychedelics and memory at Johns Hopkins, points out that drugs alter the brain’s memory processes and make drug-induced memories unreliable. Jim Hopper writes:
Attempting to recover abuse memories using hypnosis or other mind-altering techniques is almost never a good idea. The risk of creating very distorted or outright false memories is increased by such methods.
For individuals who experience disturbing psychedelic visions of early trauma or childhood abuse, alongside the perhaps-unanswerable question of ‘what actually happened?’ there is the question ‘what helps me integrate this experience and live with it?’
Some embark on a quest to find their earliest traumatic memory, but this quest can be endless. ICEERS psychedelic integration expert Marc Aixala tells the story of one client who used psychedelics to try and reach their earliest traumatic memory, and ended up going back through multiple ‘past lives’. The idea of healing ‘ancestral trauma’ through psychedelics is also promoted by psychedelic healers and companies like Field Trip and Behold Retreats. Arriving at experiences of trauma from one’s deep ancestral past can be healing for some people but, again, it could end up in a never-ending regression back to the dawn of time.
Jim Hopper says:
For some people, recovering memories of early trauma can be very healing. For others, less so, and it’s more about learning to cope with what they’re feeling in the body now. For some, identifying as a ‘survivor’ is a useful stage of the healing process. Others choose not to identify as that. It’s really about respecting the autonomy of the client to find what works for them.
Thank you to all the people who spoke to us for this article on this most sensitive of topics. If you have experienced psychedelic visions of early trauma or abuse and are wondering how to make sense of it, this page by Jim Hopper is a useful starting point. And for therapists, Christine Courtois’ book provides some guidelines on dealing with such cases.