by Kara-Leah Grant
Our society is awash with drugs of all kinds – legal, illegal, prescribed and self-medicated.
We (mostly) all do them (caffeine anyone?), but those who are caught doing illegal drugs are judged harshly in the media. If you take drugs you’re bad, or weak, and you certainly don’t want other people finding out.
People like future employers, future parents-in-law, or future kids. The media in particular LOVE jumping all over any public figure who’s caught doing drugs. Public figures aren’t allowed to have (perceived) failings or weaknesses.
But unless some of us (and especially those of us with a public persona) are willing to stand up and share our experiences, and what we learned or came to understand… we will likely never be able to turn the tide of addiction and abuse that currently threatens to overwhelm us.
Because whether we like it or not serious drug use is going on in our society – alcohol abuse is a major, major problem, as is to a lesser degree, marijuana use and other recreational drugs.
No amount of condemnation, nor criminalisation is going to stem the flow of use and abuse.
People just don’t work that way. All we’re doing is filling up our prisons.
No, we need to look at the issue from the other end. We need to understand why we take drugs. Then we’ll be able to constructively approach ways to deal with this use by removing the root cause. Why do we imbibe substances to get completely out of our mind? If so many of us do it, from so many different strata of society, in so many different countries… then surely there’s something universal going on with humanity’s quest to get wasted?
And this is why I’m going to share my story of drug use and abuse. Yes, I was a serious recreational drug user in my (mostly) 20s, and yes, I paid a serious price for this use and abuse – including experiencing two episodes of psychosis.
And no, the media will never be able to out me as a drug user if I ever run for public office of any kind because I have nothing to hide, and I am not ashamed. This is just what happened in my life.
Through my practice of yoga and meditation, my drug use morphed over time and I was able to meet the underlying needs that drove my drug use in healthy ways. But more on that later. First… the drug use.
Here’s my story of drug use:
Once upon a time, there was a strait-laced middle-class girl completely opposed to drugs because Authority had told her they were Bad. And she’d believed in Authority. Yet as she grew into her late teens and observed people around her drinking alcohol and smoking pot, What she’d been Told and What she Saw were two completely different things. What she Saw was people having a whole lot of fun, while she was sitting on the sidelines all prim, proper, tightly-wound and separate. And she didn’t want to be separate from everybody else, she too wanted to be relaxed, having fun, part of something bigger than herself.
Not so much Peer Pressure then – she’d learned all about that in school and there was no way anyone would ever Pressure her into doing Anything. No, this was Peer Pull – and no one had ever mentioned anything about Peer Pull in school, so she had no defences against it.
And so the journey into drugs began… first with alcohol. Didn’t like the taste much. Or the cost. Didn’t like being out of control. Stayed away mostly for the first few years. Then came Canada and $2 drink nights. No more cost barrier. Plus discovered Vodka Cranberry. No more taste barrier. Suddenly, instead of being the sober observer separate from everybody else in the pub, club, bar, BBQ, dinner party… a few drinks allowed relaxation and dissolving barriers dismantled the constructs of the Mind so one dropped completely into the moment and just went with what was. Awesome!
Marijuana second. A very different experience to alcohol. Sensory enhancing rather than reducing. Moment slowing rather than speeding up. Consciousness expanding. Something to do alone while exploring the nature of Mind. Something to do in nature while exploring the nature of Life. Something to do with others while exploring the nature of Relationship. Pot allowed a slow down of internal functions in such a way that the mind could be observed in action – observing thoughts, observing feelings.
What came next? It’s all a bit fuzzy really. So in no particular order.
Mushrooms. A favourite for a long time. Organic. A sensory explosion. A consciousness explosion. An extraordinary sense of oneness with the natural world. Total wonderment at the stars, at forests, lakes, rivers and canyons. Worlds upon worlds upon worlds opening up. Until the issues of psyche began to arise, changing the nature of the trip. What was fun became a psychological process with support necessary. Unshed tears from childhood breaking through. Understandings of family dynamics arising. Unresolved or expressed grief coming up. Nothing recreational about this anymore… something much deeper going on.
LSD/Acid. Similar to mushrooms but far more intense. Metallic. Can still taste it. Dangerous. Oh so dangerous. The warnings were clear though. Always on good terms with my dreams, six months prior to LSD-induced psychosis, there was a dream clearly warning me of this event. Where mushrooms had softy begun to expose the unresolved issues of unconsciousness and psyche, LSD flung open the doors of perception and marched out all weaknesses for minute examination. Wasn’t ready for that. Didn’t understand. Collapsed mentally and emotionally.
Ecstasy. One tiny pill, one giant love buzz. Nothing ever like the first, always on a slippery slope of ever-diminishing returns. So THIS is what unconditional LOVE for ALL feels like. Pity it couldn’t be maintained after the comedowns. Nasty nasty comedowns, getting worse by the year. But always the tiny thought… what would happen if all of humanity did E, just once? Or maybe twice? Just to experience what it feels like to truly love your fellow human being completely just for being them? Fantasies of putting it in city water supplies. Eventually, the guilt over taking drugs over-powered the chemical high and taking E didn’t even really work anymore. Didn’t go up, just came down. Damn powerful Mind.
Ketamine. Special K. Horse tranquiliser. What was I thinking? All boundaries of body disappear. Where’re my legs? What happened to my torso? Complete stupification. Thank God it only last a short time. Ten minutes. 30 minutes. Can’t remember now. Ugh!
Speed. Only ever touched this once. Maybe twice. Nasty drug. I’m energetic and upbeat enough thank you very much. Certainly don’t need to be kept awake all night on a knife’s edge of anxiety with crawling skin. Don’t get this one. Doesn’t gel with my psyche at all. Steered well clear after that.
Cocaine. The party drug. Common as chips in Canada, and just as cheap. Just like having a drink right? Go out, have one or two drinks, have one or two lines? And oh the ego boost. I AM FANTASTIC. Of course, YOU’RE wonderful too. BUT ME! AWESOME! Just listen to me… Ego, Ego, Ego. Let me boost thy Ego with Star Wattage. Short-lived though. Half an hour of POWER and then… more? Always maxed out on about four lines. Internal sense of ‘had enough’. Thank God. No coke benders for this girl. Still had the horrendous comedowns though. H-O-R-R-E-N-D-O-U-S. Can’t even IMAGINE putting myself through that now. What was I thinking?
Nicotine. An interesting one. Never a smoker, I did have the odd drag here and there to turbocharge E. Brought on the most intense body rushes. And then later, back in NZ, completely clean, living with two smokers who would retreat outside to the balcony most evenings to smoke and talk… started joining in so I could be part of the crew again (always seeking oneness huh?). Just a drag here and there. The odd full smoke. Enjoy just that much. But that’s enough. Too disgusting to smoke more. Now… might mindfully have half a cigarette (three drags seems to be the limit) after a couple of glasses of wine once or twice a year. Can see why nicotine was smoked the way it was smoked by First Nations people in America.
Did I leave anything out? Never touched heroin – I wasn’t crazy. Just a social drug taker. Like most people are social drinkers right? Everyone was doing it. All the time. Just the circles we moved in. Hospitality workers. Travellers. Seekers. Questioners. Rat race dropouts.
Besides, I was never a big drug user of anything, there were always other people doing far more than me.
Grams of coke to my half gram. 3 or 4 pills to my 1. Bongs after bong to my one pipe. A full tab of acid to my half. No addict, I was aware enough to know my drug use meant that I wasn’t completely healthy and whole. I knew it was a symptom of issues. And I knew when the fun levels began to diminish and the comedowns increase. I knew it was time to stop.
Think of my drug use like a bell curve. By the time all that playing with consciousness exploded my psyche with psychosis, I was well down the last 25% of the Bell Curve. Two episodes of psychosis were enough to rush me all the way down to the bottom. Almost. I still drank alcohol occasionally, although that spontaneously dropped away in 2018. And I continued to smoke weed off and on for about another four years before taking complete break that started with pregnancy and lasted six years. Caffeine has come and gone. Nicotine has come and gone. Plant medicines still show up occasionally, in ceremony.
That’s the story of my use… in a nutshell. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. I know literally hundreds of people just like myself – people who hold down jobs, make good money, function perfectly well in society and have also taken some serious recreational drugs. Or people who live mostly clean lives, but do ceremony with plant medicines on a semi-regular basis.
Serious recreational drug use was the total norm in hospitality, and amongst Kiwis travelling overseas. And it wasn’t taxing financially either – over in Canada, where I spent the majority of my time, recreational drugs were often cheaper than booze. Although I do have a few friends who deliberately came home from London to get away from the cheap drugs, and get clean. Or at least, go back to just booze and weed.
Now what to make of it all? I’ve had plenty of time to reflect since I came home from Canada in 2004, plus anytime I’ve used drugs, I pay very close attention to the arising motivations and intentions, the experience itself, and the aftermath. I’d started practicing yoga semi-regularly in 2000, and also often smoked weed expressly for the purpose of meditation. As a result, the way I’ve used drugs since 2000 has mostly been within the context of deep awareness, or meditative states.
For a start, you can divide the way I took drugs into two categories. First up, social enhancers.
These are drugs that we take to make us feel good about mixing with other people. It’s probably the main reason most people use drugs. For me, social enhancers were alcohol, cocaine and ecstasy. Left to my own devices, I’d never touch them. Never took any of them alone – that would just be silly. At least, not until I was a single parent and then I did have a glass or two of wine with dinner, alone, at the end of the day.
You can further divide these three up into those that worked on the ego level – alcohol and cocaine (enhancing the ego, boosting it), and those that worked on the heart and opening the ego boundaries – opening it, softening it – ecstasy.
Taking e was a full-blown heart-opening experience. Until then, I’d not realised I was living completely in my head. I hadn’t known what it truly felt like to feel love for other people. To feel open, and relaxed, and calm, and connected. Four years after my first hit of e, I was working with a healer in Hawaii, and I walked out of a session with him feeling the same kind of heart-open experience as e, only without all the jagged jitters around the edge. That was when I realised that what I felt on e could be the natural state of being – and I’d never need to come down.
Watershed moment. There’s a BIG difference to a life experienced from the mind and a life experienced from the heart. And I’d just discovered that it was possible to find a natural way into open-heart living – this was worth pursuing! Later, I would feel the same heart-open sensation after a great yoga class or a Kirtan session, and eventually, it would become something that I experienced as a natural way of being.
My need to take social enhancing drugs was an unconscious drive to connect – to drop the strait-jacket of Mind I lived in and just be my natural self around other people with no fear. I knew there was another way to be I just didn’t know how to find it any other way than through drugs (at that time). This is a symptom of childhood trauma, and why trauma is often the underlying cause of drug use.
The second category of drugs is consciousness-expanders.
These are the drugs that shift our perception of consciousness. I’d put nicotine into this category, and also weed, acid, and mushrooms. These are the drugs I’d take alone sometimes to journey within my own mind. Especially weed. It was probably my most favourite drug, the most difficult one to stop and the one I used most consciously to develop my psyche.
For example. People talk about how weed induces paranoia. From my own experimenting, I would say this isn’t strictly true. Weed highlights any insecurities buried in the psyche – fears about what other people think of you mainly. Once the insecurities are gone, so too is any paranoia. With orientation to awareness I was able to constructively work with weed. When I noticed feelings of paranoia arising, I could sit with them and observe where they started, what thoughts accompanied them, what was truly going on in my psyche underneath, and release it. After doing this a number of times, I stopped experiencing paranoia while smoking weed. The underlying cause had been dealt with.
I can’t remember if I started taking mushrooms before or after reading Carlos Castaneda’s books… but I do know his apprenticeship to a shaman and subsequent drug-taking was a big influence on me. Who doesn’t want to travel to other realms and learn to use psychic powers? I’ve heard quite a few people explain away their drug use in this context;
Hey shamans do it, so it’s all ok.
Even if shamans did use drugs… they certainly didn’t use them the way Western recreational users do.
Their use had context, ritual, and ceremony attached. There were specific intentions and guides to help you through. Plus there was always an understanding that drug use has a cost attached to it. And that cost must be paid, one way or another. Now, I do all most of my other-realm travelling and polishing of psychic powers via yoga and meditation 😉
Acid was another drug heavily promoted in the ’60s and ’70s as part of society’s evolution, and I have no doubt whatsoever that it shifts our experience of consciousness enormously. Those that studied LSD use were even able to categorise LSD trips into four specific types, each one following logically on from the other:
- Abstract and aesthetic experiences
- Psycho-dynamic experiences
- Perinatal experiences
- Transpersonal experiences
I don’t have room to go into depth on these four stages here, but I know that from my personal experience, it’s exactly what happened to me. Taking LSD and mushrooms dug up aspects of my unconscious and subconscious, bringing repressed issues to the surface for healing and integrating. Trouble was, I didn’t know this was going on and the walls of my psyche literally collapsed, with all of these issues swirling around and manifesting as psychosis.
The interesting thing too is that I know people who’ve taken LSD hundreds of times and never had anything other than abstract and aesthetic experiences. Me, I only ever took LSD a handful of times, and very quickly progressed right through to transpersonal experiences. You could summarize my experience as finding God… only because I’d not yet worked through my own ego issues, confusing myself for God ;), albeit briefly and with a questioning concern.
With the perspective of hindsight, I can see now that my drive to take consciousness-expanding drugs was all about the quest for oneness, or as Paths Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Vision puts it – the need for transpersonal experiences.
Transpersonal experiences may be defined as experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche, and cosmos. Paths Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Vision.
These two deep human needs – the need for connection (via expression of the authentic self) and the need for oneness underscored all of my drug use. Connection and oneness can come naturally for some people, but for those who have experienced trauma in childhood, it’s often through drugs that the first felt-experience of connection and oneness arises. And what a relief that can be! Hence the understanding that most often, the root cause of drug addiction is trauma. Treat the trauma, and the reason for the addiction can drop away.
Like many people in their twenties, I had issues with intimacy, I lived in my mind, I was judgmental and analytical, I had a low level of underlying anxiety about success and doing well… and I was mostly totally oblivious that all of these things were going on in my unconsciousness and subconscious. This total lack of awareness meant my behaviour was driven by things I didn’t even know about. On the surface, I just thought I was having Fun, Fun, Fun. Because everything was fun, definitely more fun than the rigid, controlled, limited sense of self I usually occupied from within my mind – a self I’d developed to keep myself safe in childhood.
By the time all this Fun exploded into psychosis, I’d already started to wean myself off drugs. My growing levels of awareness due to a slowly increasing yoga and meditation practice meant that all those buried sub and unconscious factors were starting to push their way to the surface and I wasn’t able to surrender unknowingly into the drug experience anymore. I was increasingly aware that my use masked issues and I needed to sort myself out.
I didn’t find it difficult to stop using drugs, it just meant sticking with my yoga practice, and staying away from situations where they were around.
Unfortunately, that was most of my social circle. And stopping using meant I began to separate out from the people I’d been friends with for years. While still in Canada, I did sometimes still go out to dance parties and full moon outdoor parties and stay relatively sober – maybe just smoke a little pot. And it was difficult. For a start, I was far more clear-sighted than everyone else wandering around fucked up on ecstasy, cocaine, mushrooms and acid. When you’re on those drugs, you have no idea that you’re OBVIOUSLY fucked up. And it was ugly. Real ugly. Inane conversations. Gurning of the face. Incessant chewing. Total focus on staying high, to the exclusion of all else. I was once again on the outside looking in and seeing a truth that dismayed me – especially because what I was seeing was myself.
Then the psychosis (or spiritual emergency as Ken Wilber would have classified it) hammered home a major shift in my drug use.
It meant I came home, to small-town New Zealand, where the only drugs I saw out and about were alcohol and pot. My levels of awareness meant my days of getting drunk were mostly done. My alcohol use continued to slowly decline until it ceased completely in 2018, all by itself. What I did find really difficult was finding my place again. And facing all of those long-buried issues I’d been able to successfully ignore while living way away from home, and in a bubble of partying and good times.
In Canada, I’d had a huge circle of (mostly drug-taking) friends – fellow hospitality workers, dancers, artists, film-makers, travellers, passionate outdoor enthusiasts… In New Zealand, I didn’t know how to make new friends without going to bars, clubs, parties… all of which involved drinking (boring!) and to a lesser extent, other drugs. My experiences meant I couldn’t view other people getting high and drunk without having a sense that they had shit they needed to work on. I was in a serious judgment-phase of my journey out of drugs as I pushed against the way I didn’t want to be anymore. I craved healthy, whole people who were capable of hanging out and having a great time without needing to be drunk to do it.
I found this in the yoga community, amongst other people who’d also found ways to healthily address those deep human needs for connection and oneness through their yoga and meditation practice. Going out to party now meant heading to a friend’s house for Kirtan followed by a potluck dinner – and dang it all, if the feeling and connection weren’t identical to all those e-fuelled house parties many years ago – except the feeling and connection, was real, solid, grounded, and clear.
And this is what all my drug use has taught me.
We humans crave connection – true connection that allows us to express our authentic selves without fear of being judged and connection that says ‘I love you and I feel your love for me, just as we are here today, two humans doing the best we can with what we know’.
We humans also crave oneness – a sense that we are more than this body this mind in this place at this time. We remember our divinity and we want to know it again.
To me, what this means is that if we can look upon those who take drugs with understanding and compassion, instead of condemnation and criticism, we can offer a pathway out of use and into wholeness. Drug-taking is not a moral issue and it doesn’t reveal character weakness. More often than not, it points to unresolved trauma and a deep desire for connection. If we can realise this, then we can say;
Hey, I understand. I was there once too, and now, with the help of yoga, meditation, friends and family (and maybe psychotherapy of some form), I’m not anymore. Let me know if you’re interested in finding your own way along the path to wholeness.
Because for many of us, drug use is just part of the path. It doesn’t define who we are. I am not an alcoholic, nor am I an addict.
I am a person who, at different times in my life, has used different drugs. Including nicotine, caffeine and alcohol. My experience does not define me for all time. By constantly seeking out answers to this great mystery of life, and by bringing greater and greater awareness to my experience and perspective of drug use via my yoga and meditation practice, I naturally found a path that went beyond drug use, and then into right relationship with drug use.
My path won’t be the path that all people who use drugs take. Drug use, can go into drug abuse, and then into drug addiction. It’s a sliding scale of experience that differs for everyone. So the response is different for everyone.
Some will do well with twelve step programs. Some will do well with rehab. Some will do well with another transpersonal practice – Tai Chi, Buddhism, Taoism.
And those who sit in judgment of drug users – I see your fear. For if you were not afraid you wouldn’t be able to sit in judgment, instead you would offer love and compassion. The question you could ask yourself instead is;
Why do I judge these people? What in me is still unresolved that I’m afraid to face?
For it is easy to stigmatize the illegal drug user yet abuse food, nicotine, alcohol, women, tv, computer games, work… anything that we use to distract us from ourselves, to ease our discomfort in the face of life… this is our drug.
In the end, we are all on the same path, facing our own demons in a myriad of guises.
For some of us, the demons are smaller and more easily integrated – or held at bay and ignored. For others, the demons loom large and demand attention, insisting that we do all we can to become who we truly are. Some demons are dealt with in sociable acceptable ways, and others are not. But whatever the path we’re on and whatever demon we might be facing, none of us can ever truly know what it’s like to live as another. All we can ever do is offer understanding, love, and compassion that says;
I’m with you, on the same path or one very similar, and if you ever need a hand, or just someone to laugh with, sing out.
That’s exactly what I’m doing right here, right now. I’m singing out – singing out my truth, my perspective, my understanding, and I’m offering it all with love and compassion. And maybe too just a smidgen of a prayer – that whatever the challenge is that you’re facing you have the strength to be all that you are. We all do.