Coming Out of the Psychedelic Closet
A small nervousness crept up from my stomach and floated into my chest.
I was on a Zoom call with a college friend, a friend who is seeking a second degree from an elite, classist, and racist institution, her place within which she has struggled to reconcile with values that revile the reproduction of power they represent; a friend I had met when we were sixteen and attending Simon’s Rock College, the place where my exposure to plant medicine began. We had been in a production of Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow is Enuf. I was the only white woman in the play. I remember, even then, being happiest in groups that were multicultural, groups that embraced diversity and had the richness that comes with that.
I had struggled to articulate how important it was for this movement, this one small slice of the pie we have here, to be rooted in the people who have not been included. This is the aspect that White Grassroots organizations so often don’t get right in their efforts to seek BIPOC from a tokenizing place― or they do so later down the road, after they’ve gained momentum, like a decorative multicultural flair.
I knew my college friend got the challenge of decolonization in our conversation about how best for the decriminalization movement to partner with indigenous people, how racism is embedded within language and capitalism, and how to include BIPOC in positions of power beyond flinging the psychedelic door open and saying, “It’s open! Come on in!”
I knew that she got the deeper complexity of fostering environments which feel safe and not re-traumatizing for BIPOC―and in that way, I felt held by her, I felt seen in the complexities I faced as I sought to lead and guide from a place of integrity. Then, our conversation veered to the big “Psychedelic Coming Out,” which would be inevitable with the launching of Entheo Society of WA.
“I’m nervous,” I confided. “I will be ‘coming out’ with people I work with, and I am concerned about that.”
“Do you feel like your work wouldn’t be supportive?” she asked.
I work for the Office of Public Defense, specifically with people struggling with mental illness and chemical dependency. Before that I worked for over ten years doing Child Welfare advocacy for Washington State, including Indian Child Welfare advocacy and working in Family Treatment Court. I’ve also done Cultural-based counseling for United Indians, an organization “that provides educational, cultural and social services that reconnect Indigenous people in the Puget Sound region to their heritage by strengthening their sense of belonging and significance as Native people.” So, there was an underlying awareness of what I had built for myself―the years of struggle to achieve success in my field, working for the Government, my own reputation and career in my local community (and these communities ran small)―and that it was all about to be surrendered and subjected to the microscope of public scrutiny.
“No, I think it aligns with the values of my job, like drug policy and fighting racist drug laws. It’s not that. It’s that this is deeply personal. Like that’s my job, but this is like my life’s work. This exposes me. I’m a deeply private person, and in that way, I feel like I am exposing myself. I like having that boundary.”
My friend spoke after a minute of thinking, “What if you got ahead of it? What if you wrote an article about just this, what we are talking about? Just this whole coming out experience. What does it mean? Can you take the power back and take control of the conversation?”
The following week I had two people in our core group bring up their own nervousness with coming out of the “psychedelic closet.” One member said “I’m nervous because my family is old-school. They don’t even know that I’ve smoked pot. They may not understand fully what psychedelics are; they are so removed from it. I am afraid they will judge.”
Another core group member disclosed, “I am getting ready for this launch and I’m like ‘Whoa, my family is going to see this, my Mother.’ Like, this is a huge step, and necessary. I am happy to be coming out to them, but still, so huge.”
Ahhh. So, it was not just me wrestling with coming out.
Underneath my discomfort I was secretly quite angry. Why should these people feel defensiveness or trepidation about coming out of the psychedelic closet? Why should anyone? As I intellectualized the problem (instead of dealing with my own unrest), I was furious that we even allow such shame over psychedelics.
Why are we continuing to pay the price of the negative propaganda that was deliberately perpetuated on the public by Nixon’s drug war goons (who were trying to break up the anti-Vietnam war activists, the Civil Rights Movement, and any collective consciousness awakening to a broader sense of humanity and interconnectedness that psychedelics might spread)? WHY!??? Why should we be fearful for our jobs or “reputations” when we are on THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY?
History will look back and be MORTIFIED that we criminalized plant and fungi substances that hold such healing potential. The streets have become cluttered with our cast-off vets, our broken, mentally-ill and drug-addicted citizens because we have FAILED THEM. We have criminalized their sickness and addictions, and we have broken up their families or eradicated their rights. We have PUNISHED the sick without offering them new ideas or potential treatment modalities, which are their inherent right to access as human beings.
We will be seen on the wrong side of history if we don’t speak up now.
But, I am allowed to be nervous, and excited, and liberated, and fully authentically MYSELF as I share that I care about this movement. Because YOU should care about this movement. Everyone who cares about healing, best practice, and what actually WORKS, and everyone who themselves has benefitted and WANTS TO GIVE BACK, should CARE ABOUT THIS MOVEMENT!!
I want our member who has kicked his ten-year heroin addiction using ayahuasca to share his story. This story needed to be shared. No one realizes that this seemingly successful person could have just become another “addict” on the streets. But, he has had his own battle with coming out and I can only stand by as a silent witness. This is his fight, his choice, his decision.
For over ten years I was part of a legal ayahuasca church with members in Washington and Oregon. It was legal and federally protected, yet I was never able to “come out” at work. I always kept this important part of my life separate. This was partly because belonging to an ayahuasca church as a Jewish person was not something the average person would understand, and I did not want to put my life on trial for judgment that comes from ignorance. I also had a young son and needed to protect him. So, I understood the member’s fear, that fear of making the wrong choice about sharing who you are, with wolves who may devour you without knowing why.
I told a few co-workers, who were also close friends, about being in an ayahuasca church, but for the most part I kept mum. When I brought up plant medicine to my fellow co-workers, most of them seemed strangely unaware. As if the cascade of articles flooding the media had escaped them. Yet, in every other area of their work, they were totally on top of the latest research.
We were all so desperate for cures, for solutions―we were working with the most marginalized, hurting, mentally-ill and addicted populations and I couldn’t understand being unaware of the overwhelming research out there promoting plant medicine use. I couldn’t understand why, when the “solutions” were failing us, why people who I considered so radical, weren’t willing to be radical in this way―a new way that contained so much potential.
Anyone that has worked with these plant and fungi medicines has their own story of healing. And that story is theirs to tell. And maybe, just maybe, because I tell my story, they can tell theirs.
– Leo Russell, Executive Director
Leonora Russell works for the Public Defense. Her views reflect her personal opinions and are not reflective of the views of the Public Defense.