Psychedelics and Me – Part 1: Stigma.

For anyone close to me, it won’t come as a surprise that I have been mildly (read intensely) obsessed with the world of psychedelics for a while now. I’ve wanted to write about this for over a year, but I’ve been very reluctant to do so because of the stigma surrounding psychedelics. Even more importantly, I’ve been scared of talking openly about psychedelics because of my professional designation as a nurse practitioner.

However with the current exponential amount of research and development happening in the field of psychedelics (the psychedelic renaissance, if you will), I finally feel courageous enough to talk about this.

I have no idea how many parts there will be to this blog series, but I suspect it will be an ongoing thing seeing as I have a lot to say on the matter, and also because my exploration of psychedelics is ongoing. So, strap in and get ready for a fun trip (pun totally intended).

Before I dive deep into the topic of psychedelics, how my interest was peaked, the research I’ve done and the experiences I’ve had, I’d like to back pedal a bit and write about mental health and drugs in general, as well as the stigma attached to all of this.

In my blog post Climbing Out from the Depths of my Head, I made a comment about my frustration with the diagnosis of depression I received at the very young age of 14. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while but I feel this pressure to be extra mindful of what I share here, given my professional title. I’ve witnessed fellow nurses get completely eviscerated by both the public and the nursing profession itself, when sharing alternative views, some even losing their license. I’ve been sitting with this struggle between my personal and professional worlds for years, and I finally feel ready to step into a version of myself where both of the worlds can co-exist and inform eachother. Where I don’t have to reject who I am personally to be “good” professionally. Here goes.

The problem I have with our current medical view of depression, along with many other mental health conditions and addictions, is that, for the most part, it reduces a very complex human experience to a simple medical label, complete with the coordinating pharmaceutical drug of choice.

I’m in no way a psychiatry expert, however I am an expert in being Michèle. I’ve also had significant experience caring for thousands of people, in my roles as a registered nurse, and especially a nurse practitioner, who have struggled with their mental health, addictions, and frankly just the stress of life.

And unfortunately the reality is that medicalizing our complex human experiences just simply has not yielded great results. We haven’t addressed the root cause of the symptoms (i.e. mental conditions and addictions are symptoms, rather than the actual problem). In fact, things have just been progressively worsening around the world and the pandemic has acutely exacerbated these issues.

Or rather, the pandemic has exposed what has always been there. Only we’ve just worked so hard at covering up the problem, constructing “busy” lives to hide what’s underneath it all, that most of us have lived in absolute denial.

Enter stigma.

Most people are so uncomfortable when faced with someone who is struggling with a difficult emotion, that they don’t know how to act. We aren’t very good at sitting with others when they are in pain. I know I certainly wasn’t until quite recently, not until I learned to sit with my own darkness (à la Jungian).

Yet it’s not at all surprising. I mean it’s not like my parents’ generation grew up talking about their feelings and “creating safe spaces” for each other. So how were they suppose to know any better? And model any better?

When I was diagnosed with depression as a very young teen, placed on pharmaceuticals and shipped off to a shrink, I felt very deeply ashamed. The weight of the stigma I perceived was crushing.

I didn’t know it then, but at that time, the stories forming in my head were stories of weakness, being broken, being too needy, too emotional, too expressive, too sensitive … too much, really.

I don’t know why, but the diagnosis of depression, and the idea that I simply don’t have enough serotonin in my brain, just never really sat well with me. It never really felt right, never accurate, never like it fully encompassed my experience as a complex feeling machine.

I remember being in high school and feeling so ashamed of my struggles. I remember worrying a lot about what my classmates thought of me, convinced that they saw me as “that crazy girl”. My young self just couldn’t bear the weight of all these emotions. I didn’t have the capacity to hold all these feelings. Didn’t have the tools to cope, the wisdom to know that I would make it through.

So I escaped.

I escaped, yes by using drugs and alcohol a little bit, by seeking sexual encounters to feel loved, by perfecting, even by trying to take my own life … but mostly I have escaped (and at times continue to) by numbing.

I’ve written about numbing before, and I’m going to keep writing about it (god damnit) because it’s so darn prevalent in our society. Numbing is all the things that we do to avoid feeling and processing our emotions. It’s drugs, alcohol, smoking, gambling, sex, food … But it’s also keeping insanely busy, obsessing over our outwardly appearance, relentlessly chasing “success”, buying all the fancy things, forever sprinting on the hedonic treadmill until the day we die.

Why?

Why is numbing such a common thing?

Stigma.

That darn stigma. The same stigma that kept me from expressing myself as a teenager struggling with big emotions, is the same stigma that kept me from openly talking about my mental health struggles as a young adult, is the same stigma that has kept me from talking about psychedelics as a nurse practitioner.

Until now.

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