One of the most controversial topics in AA has to be the use of psychedelics as an aid in recovery. It’s hard to even broach the issue with any committed 12-Stepper; when I have raised the topic, many become very closed-off, even bitter. It’s as if I’m in a cult, insinuating something unsavory about our leader. I find this reaction bizarre, as it is never my intention to spread any sort of agenda. I’m very intrigued by the topic, but my personal opinion remains unformed.
After doing some research outside of AA, I learned that Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, did in fact experiment with LSD between 1956 and 1959. He spoke fondly of his experiences, and believed that LSD could help deflate the ego of struggling alcoholics, and ultimately, help them to surrender to the true nature of their disease. It appears Bill Wilson may have quit LSD in response to pressure from the AA community, who felt his use of the drug could present an unhealthy confusion.
Bill Wilson also had an oft-referenced spiritual experience while hospitalized in late 1934. Less discussed are the specific circumstances of his visions, which occurred during a period of delirium tremors (a rare symptom of severe alcohol withdrawal) for which he was administered the Belladonna Cure. This treatment included doses of sedatives and the frequent administration of Hyoscyamus niger (or henbane), and Atropa Belladonna (or deathly nightshade) both powerful and toxic deliriants.
Under the influence of Atropa belladonna, subjects might experience hallucinations resembling recent conversations of special significance. These hallucinations often fulfill what the subject desired to hear, and appear to be of profound importance. It seems unlikely that such a potent concoction played no direct role in the awakening reached by Bill Wilson. Dr. William D. Silkworth (Author of “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous) – well-aware of the hallucinogenic properties of Atropa Belladonna – advised that Bill W. “hold on” to his vision. This stay in the hospital marked the end of Bill W.’s drinking career and the inception of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Now, I understand why the Big Book doesn’t delve into the hallucinogenic nature of Atropa Belladonna; I can accept that Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t highlight Bill W’s experimental use of LSD. Still, many of Bill W’s most fervent followers rely entirely on AA literature in forming their impression of the man. Many members of AA quote Bill W. as if his opinion were the final word, yet fail to see how their own black and white thinking is not aligned with that of AA’s co-founder.
Many addicts/alcoholics have sought and achieved recovery outside of – or in conjunction with – Alcoholics Anonymous. One such path leads to the upper Amazonian jungle, where consumption of ayahuasca (a powerful brew containing DMT) occurs in ritual healing ceremonies among indigenous tribes. Ayahuasca is known to resurface suppressed memories in the user, forcing a confrontation of fears, and ultimately, catharsis. Ayahuasca also has a purgative nature; the brew rids the body of parasites and cleanses the digestive tract. This physical component highlights what advocates cite as a sort of enema for the soul.
Many addicts/alcoholics enter the rooms with severe trauma or other affliction; the prospect of becoming vulnerable with a sponsor can feel threatening. The Big Book mentions those with “grave emotional and mental disorders,” and cites the “capacity to be honest” as the factor needed to recover. This can feel a perilous step for many who want sobriety desperately. Ayahuasca has been said to concentrate years of psychotherapy into a single experience, providing a psychic change and profound spiritual awakening.
The ingestion of ayahuasca of course poses risks. Physically, the user’s body must be void of a variety of drugs; SSRIs and MAOIs pose a particular risk, as do amphetamines, MDMA, cocaine, and heroin. Psychologically, the ayahuasca experience provides more terror than release. Many take ayahuasca several times before achieving the change they sought, and others never reach freedom from the bondage of self.
Medicinal use of hallucinogens has become less taboo in the Western world. The popular club drug MDMA was originally developed as a therapeutic tool for emotionally estranged couples. More recently, the drug has been shown to improve symptoms of PTSD when administered in conjunction with talk therapy. Due to MDMA’s widely illicit status, studies have been limited; however, results seem to surpass those achieved by talk therapy treatment alone.
Ibogaine is a powerful drug native to Central Africa whose anti-addiction properties have been well-documented. Recently, medical use of the drug has become more prominent in the West; ibogaine has successfully treated dependence of a variety of substances: heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and alcohol to name a few.
Use of hallucinogens can be risky for anyone: these drugs can bring out latent mental disorders including psychosis, and pose a particular risk when taken in unsuitable environments. Many hallucinogens – including MDMA and dissociatives such as ketamine, DXM and PCP – have serious abuse potential and can cause irreversible brain damage. Preparation – both emotional and physical – is needed before engaging in use of hallucinogens. Many of us can delude ourselves with justifications; we convince ourselves that our intentions are pure, or that the use of particular drugs lie outside the realm of our addiction. For those in recovery, the decision to take hallucinogens is both highly personal and supremely unpopular.
Filed under: Recovery · Tags: 12-steps, AA, Alcohol and Drugs, Alcoholics Anonymous, Ayahuasca, Belladonna, big book, Bill Wilson, Hallucinogens, LSD, Recovery, sobriety, soul searching, spiritual awakening