In the premiere episode of Power Trip, the first season of New York Magazine’s new investigative podcast series Cover Story, we embark on an exploration of the dark underbelly of psychedelic therapy. We all want relief, after all — and now more than ever, we’re finding it in psychedelics.
Host iO Tillett Wright: People are handing out hallucinogenic toad venom as party favors. Goop is taking TV cameras on mushroom retreats. Some cities and states have already decriminalized mushrooms. Molly is crawling out of the clubs and into therapists’ offices. If you live in New York City, you’ve probably gotten the ad for a luxury ketamine trip in a velvet chair. And there are already psychedelic start-ups in the billions.
But beyond the mainstream is an underground world rife with abuse, where guides and shamans seek to treat trauma with illegal practices. Their mission is to make psychedelic therapy more widely available in order to “promote the evolution of humankind.” Collaborator Lily Kay Ross spent years experimenting with drugs, and at 23, she undertook that mission herself and trained to become a “guide,” an underground psychedelic therapist. Now she’s ready to talk openly about her experience.
Ross: I used to have such faith in the work. Now I want to have an honest conversation because people’s safety depends on it. I see a shitshow. I see cover-ups. I see the possibility that people could get hurt — and get deeply hurt. I was told that if I told the story of what happened to me, I was going to single-handedly destroy the psychedelic renaissance.
To hear more about underground psychedelic therapy listen and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, and find the full transcript below.
iO TILLET WRIGHT: Just a quick note: This series deals with sexual assault, so please keep that in mind when you decide when and where to listen. And to protect their identities, we’ve changed the names and voices of some of the people that we’ve interviewed.
LILY: So I’m wondering if you could take us back to what you think of as the beginning of your experience.
CLAIRE: I had a good relationship with psychedelics. I was intrigued.
CATHERINE: What got me involved? Desperation. I remember people saying, you know, “They’re your last hope.”
LILY: Do you remember anything about the sorts of doses?
CATHERINE: With the mushrooms? The number five comes up. Grams? Is that …?
LILY: That would be very strong …
iO: The person you’re hearing ask questions, that’s Lily.
LILY: Did they ever bring ketamine into the sessions with you?
iO: It’s become Lily’s mission to get to the truth about something very ugly. And the people answering Lily’s questions, they’re from a world that used to be her home. The world of psychedelic therapy.
CATHERINE: The idea was you need to break through. If you were nervous or if you were scared or skeptical of what was going on, you have to surrender. The drugs definitely make you more malleable.
LILY: Got it.
iO: Something awful happened to Lily inside this world. And when she tried to tell her story, people told her to keep quiet. So she left. Now, Lily’s back.
LILY: I really appreciate that you’re talking about it, because it doesn’t get talked about very much.
CONNIE: Yeah. It’s delicate.
LILY: Yeah. I used to have such faith in the work. Now I want to have an honest conversation. Because I think people’s safety depends on it.
CONNIE: People’s safety absolutely depends on it. I feel like I want to stop. Can we stop?
iO: People are handing out hallucinogenic toad venom as party favors; Goop is taking TV cameras on mushroom retreats. Some cities and states have already decriminalized mushrooms, and molly is crawling out of the clubs and into your therapist’s office. If you live in New York City, you’ve probably gotten the pop-up ad by now for a luxury ketamine drip in a velvet chair. And there are already psychedelic startups valued in the billions.
It seems as if the whole world is hailing these treatments as the golden ticket, a one-stop shop for healing our deepest psychic wounds. “Take a trip and come back whole.” Sadly, some powerful players in this world have been doing some ugly shit, and very few people have wanted to talk about it.
iO: So, Lily, I would like you to just kind of tell me what you’re doing, and explain, what is this?
LILY: Right. One of the things I’ve gotten really clear on is that this isn’t about me. I just want people to see what I see.
iO: What do you see?
LILY: The most immediate answer is I see a shit show, and I see coverups, and I see the possibility that a lot of people could get hurt, and get really deeply hurt. If this progresses, there are so many people who will live through something like what I lived through.
iO: When Lily first started talking to me about the shitshow and the coverups, I was skeptical. I didn’t want to be part of a project that played into the War on Drugs. I grew up in the East Village in New York, surrounded by people who used drugs, some for fun, some to self-medicate for pains the world wasn’t interested in helping them resolve. So I was sensitive to the way the world demonizes drug use.
Also, I love psychedelics. I’ve taken them in every context. I’ve eaten mushrooms on meditations in the desert, and I’ve taken Russian mystery dark-web chemicals at punk shows in Chinatown; I’ve done molly and acid at the same time and it was the closest that I’ve ever come to believing in God. Lately, I’m considering doing ketamine in a doctor’s office. It’s a three-week regimen for PTSD, which sounds excruciating. But I’m a believer. And I told Lily that almost the first time we spoke.
I guess I should tell you that I’m diagnosed with PTSD. And I spent two years on this psychedelic called 2CI which a friend of mine had been buying on the Russian dark web. We were teenagers figuring out who we were and what we cared about, wandering the city, skateboarding, and biking around, and holy shit, did it open the entire universe for me and lead to me finding myself. A by-product of having an addict parent is often that you have no awareness of your own needs or tastes or likes or whatever. And so I had no sense of self-awareness at all. And I think that based on my experience with them, I wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t accessed a deeper part of myself via psychedelics.
LILY: Yeah. I really relate to that. In my second year of college my dad sat me down and I was going through all this stuff. And he was like, “Lily, are you on drugs?” And I was like, “Well, I’ve been taking a lot of acid and I think it saved my life. “
iO: Lily started doing psychedelics when she was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz.
LILY: So on the UC Santa Cruz campus, there are these open meadows and you can see all the way to the ocean. I had these two really good friends from high school who had come up to Santa Cruz to visit me for the weekend. We went to the dining hall and we got ourselves slices of bread and we made peanut butter and mushroom sandwiches — which in retrospect is not recommended — and then we frolicked off into the Redwoods.
I was 18. I had long curly red hair and I think I was probably pretty goofy and smiling. I was really into MAC eyeshadows, like five different colors at once. And we hung out in the trees. There were horizons of experience, richness, and depth, and textures of being human that I didn’t know were there before that day. It’s like learning a different language or something. As I was coming down, I thought to myself, Okay, I would like to make my daily life more like this, to feel as alive as I did. There is something for me here.
I have to give a little bit of context. My mother was killed when I was almost 3. My brothers, my mom, and I had gone to a weekend retreat with our church. We didn’t take the same road back that the rest of the church took. We were driving in our minivan. I was in the front seat next to my mom. And it was two o’clock in the afternoon, but the person on the road in front of us was drunk and stoned. And they had turned a corner in the road and they’d overshot it and they backed up and our car … it didn’t roll, it cartwheeled. And then we were trapped inside. I remember the glass shattering, the feeling, and the sound of it. I remember the dust and I remember the smell. I was crying and I just wanted my mom. And she was dead.
By the time I was 18 it was becoming very clear to me that I was carrying around a mountain of grief. And that if I didn’t find a way to metabolize that, I wasn’t sure I was gonna live very long.
iO: What happens next?
LILY: More drugs.
iO: Those first three years of college, she told me there were more mushrooms. Then it was LSD. Then MDMA. And then, in her senior year, Lily started taking ayahuasca. She’d sit in a dimly lit room up in the Sierra foothills with a dozen or so people and drink this bitter liquid. People would barf in buckets, sleep on the floor, and feel things.
LILY: From the very first time that I drank ayahuasca it was like — I know this sounds so wacky-doo — but the experience subjectively was like a being that I had drunk was inside my body. It showed me compassion and tough love and helped me to face myself. I would be really deep in grief and really missing my mom. And I imagine a mother as this warm comforting presence that sort of wraps its arms around me and makes me feel okay. And then I would go into these states where I was really feeling the cold of that absence, and the grief of it, just the utter heartbreak. In the same moment, I had a part of me that was in an ecstasy of like, Life is a fucking beautiful thing. And the world is a magnificent place. And like, It’s all so beautiful! It sounds so cheesy now.
According to the stories, the family lore, my mother had perfect pitch. And in ceremonial spaces, I would sing medicine songs or just songs that I found meaningful in that state. I listened to a lot of Nine Inch Nails. It was still in that early stage of my own period of change. There was this one song called “Right Where it Belongs.” I remember driving in my car when it hit me just how deeply I related to that song. It was late at night and I was singing along to it. In the chorus, he says, “And if you look at your reflection / Is that all you want it to be? If you could look right through the cracks / Would you find yourself afraid to see?”
It was a moment of waking up and being like, Ooh, I’m not the person I want to be. But I felt like it was possible to change and to grow, and to face my demons. I was singing all the time and then I wasn’t.
iO: Talking about how psychedelics feel is ridiculous. You end up saying things like, “I left the planet. I entered another realm. It was like a being took over my being. I kissed the cosmos and was reinvented.” We sound kookoo-bongo. It’s so hard to verbalize that I often wonder what is actually happening to us. So we’re gonna take you on a brief trip to Mister Rogers’ psychedelic neighborhood.
CHARLES GROB: Okay. So first, who am I? Good question. I ponder myself. I’m a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine.
iO: Grob has the same voice and the button-up shirts and ties and the sweet smile that Mister Rogers has. Except around the same time Mister Rogers started his show, taking people to make-believe neighborhoods with his toy trolley, Dr. Grob started tripping.
DR. GROB: I had the opportunity to take a psychedelic drug on a few occasions. However, I quickly realized taking such powerful compounds in an uncontrolled setting, like a college dorm, was potentially risky. So I backed off and I did not participate for quite some time. But a few years after that I had the opportunity to come across much of the scientific and medical literature.
iO: He got excited about the potential of psychedelics to help people with mental health problems.
DR. GROB: I was kind of bitten by the bug and found psychedelics utterly fascinating.
iO: Lots of different psychedelics — mushrooms, LSD, MDMA.
DR. GROB: So with psychedelics, early on there was the observation, particularly in high-dose conditions, those ego boundaries would tend to dissolve, meaning the sense of separation from others may become very, very blurry. And this can lead to insight and knowledge.
iO: We don’t really understand exactly what psychedelics are doing to our brains. But there are some things we can track.
DR. GROB: There’s less activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with high fear responses.
iO: Which could mean that on MDMA, someone with PTSD might be able to process moments that are normally too painful to think about.
DR. GROB: They can put words to their feelings. They can articulate feeling states, including disturbing feelings that come from disturbing memories. There’s a sense of safety re-exploring this old terrain.
iO: Since the ’90s, the government has slowly been authorizing more research on the medical uses of psychedelics. Big universities are pouring money into studying all kinds of things, from how LSD affects brain function to whether psilocybin therapy helps people quit smoking. But most of the research is still in its infancy.
DR. GROB: Because psychedelics have been taboo for so long, we simply don’t have the degree of evidence that we might otherwise have had if we had been allowed to practice this model in an open field.
iO: Of course, there are countless people who never stopped experimenting with psychedelics as medicine just because the government said not to. The underground. The psychonauts who’ll try anything. The chemists who tinker. And then the renegade therapists who’ve been giving people psychedelics as medicine for years. These people mostly call themselves “guides.” And that’s the world Lily fell into and fell in love with. The world of guides.
LILY: I dove headfirst into the water.
iO: By the end of college, Lily had decided she wanted to become one.
LILY: I got fixated on Harvard Divinity School.
iO: She didn’t talk about psychedelics explicitly in her application.
LILY: I think I snuck two sentences about the Indigenous use of psychoactive plants.
iO: But she spent her time there thinking about drugs and spirituality. And between semesters she would go out west and roam around the underground psychedelic-healing scene. And that’s where she was at 23 when one of the most famous advocates of microdosing asked her to tea.
LILY: He asked me point blank, “Are you interested in being a psychedelic guide?” And I was like, “Well, yeah.” And so when I said yes, he was like, “This May there is going to be this meeting.” It didn’t have a name then. “There’s going to be a meeting and there’s going to be a whole bunch of underground guides that do this psychedelic work. Would you like to come? As we get into this, there’s one thing I want to share with you. This is the confidentiality form.”
iO: Do you want to read it to me?
LILY: Sure. (clears throat)
These are both difficult and exciting times. We are in the midst of enormous change, possibly one of the most dynamic paradigm shifts in human history. As such, these are also very volatile times promoting extremism. One of these extremes is the war against consciousness. The participants and presenters of this conference have personally risked themselves to promote the evolution of humankind. Therefore, it is important that each participant agree to keep confidential any information they may learn by attending this conference.
Which is to say, I’m not supposed to talk about this. I was fucking pumped. I was so stoked. I remember checking in and signing a thing. The place where we were was close to the water, so it had that oceany smell in the air and that unique humidity that you get in proximity to the ocean. And there were a lot of cypress trees. There was this big conversation about, What do we call this? We would say, “We are wilderness guides.” The other name that was floated and that did take hold for this was to call these gatherings “conviviums.”
LILY: I know! Just remember that for the future. Being one of the youngest people in the room, if not the youngest person in the room, surrounded by people, some of whom have been practicing in the underground for 40 years, I am among giants. It was like any other conference in some ways. There were breakout groups and you could go learn about different drug doses or ways of using ketamine in conjunction with psilocybin mushrooms to help people break out of certain types of thought patterns.
One of the memories that stands out the most in my mind was this forum on the ethics of psychedelic therapy. Pretty much everybody was in the main room altogether. There was a facilitated conversation happening that had to do with, Is it okay for therapists to touch clients? How are they supposed to touch them or not touch them? How do people deal with consent?
There was some work that had been done to set up basic guidelines and rules for psychedelic therapy sessions. And one of those rules was: You can’t have sex with your clients. Sex is not admissible. I think there was an understanding that sexual energy may be present in the room or that somebody may be in touch with that. That wasn’t deemed inherently problematic. But it was like, Thou shalt not fuck your clients.
I remember in the midst of this whole conversation, this beautiful woman with this incredibly soothing voice and this French accent stands up and starts to speak. Her name is Françoise Bourzat. She’s sort of small and petite. She has a way of talking that feels intimate, like talking to a family member or a friend. And she was known as a person that has a beautiful singing voice. She sings when she’s leading ceremonies and she’s actually made recordings of some of her songs. If you listen to her album of prayer songs, you can hear how entrancing her voice is. It was very clear that she was a person with a lot of power and respect in the community. She was really about bridging the shamanic with western psychotherapy. She had trained with an Indigenous healer in Mexico and she was a teacher in the space.
So she’s the one who stands up in this conversation about ethics and about what happens when clients become aroused and said, “I know firsthand that these transgressions can happen. I know that because I’ve crossed those lines with people and had inappropriate sexual relationships with clients and I really did some work on myself to address that.”
She was charming. She was clear. She seemed like someone who had worked her shit out. I think her words around it were that it was in her lineage. But she understood that this was incorrect, that she did a lot of inner work on herself to address the root causes of her behavior, and that it was important that practitioners were getting the right supervision and support they needed to be right with their clients. My knee jerk was like mad respect. Wow, this is a person who is admitting to significant wrongdoing and who is telling us about the things that they did to try to make it right. I definitely bought into it.
iO: That was before Lily started asking her questions.
LILY: So do you have a pseudonym so that, if we are going to say a name, we just say?
SUSAN: What fake name do I want? I just keep thinking: Susan. Like a generic name.
LILY: Susan works.
SUSAN: Okay. Susan. I was thinking of my first phone call with you. I was searching for anyone who would get it.
LILY: It just feels really special to get to sit down like this.
I keep thinking back to Françoise singing all these beautiful songs. And at one point I was crying. I think it was something about my mom. I was having some grief come up and Françoise came over and took off her shawl and put it around me and hugged me. I was in a trance.
iO: Lily, I know you left the psychedelic world, and I would love for you to talk about the moment where it went from being something safe and something growthful and beautiful, to something treacherous and bad.
LILY: Oh boy, have you buckled your seatbelt?
The turning point was actually when I had been deeply hurt and the response I got was: If I told the story of what had happened to me, if I kept beating this drum, that I was going to single-handedly destroy the psychedelic renaissance.