Psychedelic Sisters In Arms is an ongoing series inspired by women who have recently come forward to speak their truths about the sexual violence they’ve experienced in psychedelic communities, and is indebted to the whisper network that continues to ensure the safety of the outspoken survivors to this day.

This series is a collection of personal stories on violence against women and marginalized people, dealing with issues of consent, gender, and sexual violence. It’s been led by women, and each writer is a member of the broader ‘psychedelic community’. If you have any interest in sharing your story, please reach out to oriana@psymposia.com

Get Up, Stand Up, Speak Up

By Katie Stone

I’ve been a survivor of sexual trauma since my childhood, and a drug policy reform activist since my teens. I have a hunch that many activists, with a strong sense of injustice around them, are also sexual assault survivors. But I don’t want to talk about those experiences. I want to talk about healing, and microaggressions, and how it feels when, as a survivor, you encounter blatant misogyny in your life after the assault.

I’ve never experienced a world where I was not fearful of men, especially men in powerful positions. You’d think that fear and early trauma would make you more cautious and careful, but despite it, I was still raped twice in my early twenties, and ended up in a sexually abusive marriage I finally escaped from. My story isn’t uncommon.

But in my mid-twenties, a transcendental psilocybin experience helped me dig a tunnel out, and showed me that trauma repeats until it’s healed. And so began my journey into plant medicines. My liberation and awareness were just the beginning of a lifelong process, one that steered my academic scholarship away from medical school and toward psychedelic research and activism.

I became part of many psychedelic and activist communities, most of which experienced the same sexism as the “regular” world. In spaces where I assumed our “enlightened” men would know better, I learned quickly this simply wasn’t true. As I began connecting with other women in the process of my own healing, I recognized just how deep this domination virus runs. There were rapists in our nonprofits. There were predators on panels at prestigious conferences. There were men in prominent positions of power preaching the miracles of psychedelics who were using these sacred medicines to assault people — and some of them weren’t even aware this behavior was problematic. It was a violent kind of ignorance.

The psychedelic “community” and psychedelic academy, it turns out, was NOT immune. And for a sexual assault survivor going through a sort of research driven rehabilitation, even seemingly small encounters with misogyny can feel gargantuan.

As a young, female, PhD student and aspiring psychedelic researcher, getting a chance to speak with world-renowned academics is often impossible. It’s a boy’s club, and these scholars have known each other for decades, are on a first name basis, and quite often only a quick phone call away. For the sexual assault survivor living with PTSD, approaching a man in a position of power takes some momentum, a great exercise in trust, and a lot of practice. There were years when I couldn’t even go into an elevator with a man, couldn’t be on the same side of the street with a group of them, and certainly couldn’t be alone in a room with one. Every small success added up over the years, and eventually I could keep the anxiety at bay well enough to function while still avoiding every interaction possible.

Things got better! It wasn’t “thriving” by any means, but devoting every waking hour to ending the Drug War is hard to do when you’re also trying to avoid conversations with men in positions of power. That’s why I say healing is a practice; there is no “end” to the trauma. Take for example my experience at Psychedelic Science 2017.

Like every major, world-renowned, psychedelic researcher, there was often a crowd surrounding Dennis McKenna everywhere he went. Everyone wants to shake hands, share their story, ask questions, get his opinions… and so did I. He was constantly surrounded by a chattering horde, and I didn’t feel it was my place, didn’t want to be rude and hover, circling like a hawk until I had my turn. So, each time I saw him throughout the event, I saw the throng of people, and I inevitably backed down. Maybe this wasn’t the year for introductions after all.

On the last day of the conference, one of my male friends stopped by the registration table where I’d been volunteering and asked me how my experience had been. I mentioned that of the five researchers I’d hoped to connect with, McKenna was the only one I hadn’t had a chance to. “There’s still time!”, he reminded me.

When we hurried toward the ball room, just before Neal Marshall Goldsmith welcomed his “fellow bodhisattvas” to the closing plenary, I once again saw Dennis outside the doors. There were only three people around him, no gaggle of onlookers in the wings. Perhaps it was my chance!

My friend sees me, and my hesitation, and nudges me toward him. Someone else steps in front of me, I hang my head down and my friend says, “Sometimes you have to be pushy.” “I don’t want to be pushy!”, I whisper. “Sometimes, you have to!”, he responds.

With knots in my stomach and my heart beating in my ears, I position myself to Dennis’ left, waiting for the other person to finish. As Dennis turns, I stammer out, “Hi! I see you’re trying to leave, can I walk with you and ask you a question?” He replies, “Sure, but you’ll have to walk really fast.”

 

 

And…we’re off! Dancing through the crowd, people are trying to grab his attention, so I speak louder, and nudge someone out of our path, whisking him away to his destination.

I’m two sentences in, and quite suddenly a man in his sixties approaches with a wide grin and a boisterous voice. “Dennis!”, he exclaims, cutting me off. As he walks toward us he extends his right arm out toward Dennis in a handshake. He extends his left toward me in a “stop” gesture, and arrogantly declares “Do you mind?”

He grins wildly and jumps immediately into an inconsequential question. Then, time stops as his open palm continues toward me, meeting my stomach with force, pushing me back several steps before releasing me. In one swift motion he’s stepped between Dennis and I, spinning himself around so that his back was to me and Dennis was staring, aghast, over his shoulder. “Oh John,” he starts, shrugging in annoyance, “you’ve already said ‘Hi’ 50 times this week!”

I completely freeze as the internal panic cycle starts and the words of past abusers begin coming back to my present. I lose my breath, my feet go cold, my stomach knots, my voice evaporates, anxiety and fear explode into my being:

He just touched me. I can’t breathe. I want to pull my hair out.

He just pushed me. I’m not safe. I want to punch his face in.

He just physically removed me out of a conversation. I can’t speak. I want to scream.

He just declared that I have no value or worth in comparison to him, and my words and presence were inconsequential!

He just decided that I am nothing.

Was it because I’m young? Because I’m female? Because he thinks he can use force to get whatever it is he wants? What will he do if I push back and resist his control? I should leave. I am worthless. I should hide. I should shut up. I am weak. I deserve disrespect, I’ll never have strength, I am broken. I should disappear.

I begin to look down at the floor, defeated, but Dennis catches my eye. As John Harrison laughs aloud, “Oh, I know we’ve talked, but listen…”, Dennis’ maintains eye contact, seeming to ask me, “Are you going to let him do this? Are you going to stand up for yourself? Do I need to stand up for you because I will, but I know you can do it?”

Suddenly, instead of wanting to feel small and hide, I want to feel strong. So, I hold my chin up, take a breath, and walk forward. I smile and my 5’10’’ frame towers over John as I put a hand on his shoulder and say, “No, actually I do mind! Do YOU?” In one smooth motion, I yank him backward and move forward towards Dennis, who’s right in step with me and doesn’t say another word to John.

We continued our dance as we dodged more onlookers and fans, but this time I was leading the way, with Dennis behind me, so this man could get to where he’d been trying to go! I got my questions answered, and I got an email to follow up, but I got so much more than that. I found confidence. I found self-esteem. And surprisingly, I found support from an older man that I respected. It may seem like a small moment of triumph, but to anyone who can relate, it felt like a victory, decades in the making. I’ll never forget it, and when I tell my future children about the adventures of the Brothers McKenna, I’ll be able to tell the story about how Mom finally realized she’s worthy of taking up space in a “boys club.”

But back then, I was incredibly triggered, and rightly so! A total stranger pressed his open hand into my stomach and shoved me out of his way. The last time I was “manhandled” was during a sexual assault. Would he have treated his daughter like that? And while things are better for me today, lately, we sexual assault survivors are having a particularly intense time. #MeToo started roughly one year ago, and in that past year I’ve had plenty of disassociated time to reflect on my own traumas, my family’s traumas, and our cultural traumas. As more of the communities and organizations I’ve supported or worked with over the past decade struggle to support survivors, I’ve come to wonder why it’s often so hard for some to hold another’s truth when it conflicts with their own. Isn’t that one of the paramount lessons of psychedelics? Isn’t also compassion? Respect? Sanctity of mind, body, and spirit?

What I’ve been landing on over and over again is that the nature of sexual trauma and violence is so often intergenerational; it’s not just our own wounds we are carrying, but the wounds of many. And like drug use, sexual trauma is highly stigmatized. Because of so many different taboos, we don’t talk about it, we don’t heal it, we don’t address it, and so the virus continues to spread. Generation after generation after generation, going all the way back through my parents and ancestors until… who knows when. I think ALL of it has to be brought into the sunlight before it will ever release us. I’m not suggesting we talk about our assaults all the time forever, but for a period of time, while we’re restoring ourselves and our society, this needs to be all that we talk about. It must be named so it can be healed.

But then what? We name it, and it’s gone? We stand up to domination, and it disappears? We educate our children about consent and they’re safe? We surround this virus and do our own inner work and find some allies and keep it at bay, all while knowing it’s a chronic illness? Do we ostracize those who were never held accountable, or do they get to do their own work and find a healing community somewhere out there? Do we hold them accountable to ourselves, our community, or to the prison industrial complex? What does accountability look like? Is a restorative justice approach possible?

And is it okay for some of us to show compassion for abusers, for our family members who harmed us, our elders who repeated the cycles they were also born into, our colleagues and peers whose cognitive dissonance makes it impossible for them to even see their own behaviors, let alone heal them? Now that we’re coming forward, will we keep our families severed? Our wounds caged? Will our communities continue to suffer under a premise of justice where victims seek retribution and perpetrators take plea deals and the corporations collect prison profits? After all of this media has run its course, and we’re left with bare hearts and scabbed traumas, how will we go forward and reweave our cultural narrative? Can a nation of survivors learn to live without fear of the “other”? Can we call the “other” back in? Can we move from reactionary outrage to broad societal healing?

For me, these are the questions coming up on the other side of my fear, and I am terrified to share them publicly. But I have no clue where to start unpacking them. So, can we do it together, with integrity and mutual understanding? In these intensely triggering times, I’m looking for the alchemy in all of this.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

I don’t want to be afraid of men. I don’t want men to be afraid of me. I don’t want to raise my future daughters to be fearful of men, or my future sons to be terrified of women. I don’t want to poison the world with more of my fear, regardless if it’s legitimate. Healing my fears, one triumphant little victory at a time has transformed my lived reality. In front of someone I deeply respected, a psychedelic elder even, I was demoralized, but I took it as a chance to change my narrative. Moments make a lifetime. I’m going to keep cultivating and sharing those kinds of moments until it’s everyone’s lived reality.

Another part of alchemical healing is changing our minds. Though I believed otherwise, I learned that sometimes, I have to push back. Sometimes, I have to be loud. Sometimes I have to let my community know that seemingly small instances of arrogance, misogyny, and sexism are harmful; that use of physical force to dominate another is not acceptable; that survivors everywhere are working toward healing; and supporting them is really not hard to do. Sometimes I have to let my fellow survivors know that healing is a practice, accountability is subjective, but our shared stories must inform the path ahead. I cannot help but think that path involves mutual healing and restorative justice. I haven’t a clue what that looks like, but I know our community is uniquely qualified to figure that out.