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Tilling the soil of my psyche
How one parent unpacked trauma through breathwork, therapy and psychedelics
Last week’s essay on psychedelic parenting generated a lot of feedback—mostly positive—but also came with a record number of unsubscribes. I believe this is an important conversation to continue and am offering this space to other parents who want to share how plant-based medicines have contributed to their healing journey. This week I’m excited to hand over to one of those parents: Joseph Dana. Joseph is a former Middle East journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. He now investigates fresh approaches to mental health in his newsletter Both/And. For those new here, sign up to get The New Fatherhood in your inbox every week.
When we talk and think about psychedelic parenting, we are really speaking about the parent’s personal growth. There is no special trick here. It’s tough and slow work. We see ourselves and our internal psychologies through our children and our parenting. Whether we choose to do anything with that insight is a matter of personal choice. But the material is there, and psychedelics have the power to help us dive deeper or decline further depending on how you approach it.
I had my first psychedelic experience a couple of months after my 40th birthday. Growing up I was always afraid of psychedelics even though they were prevalent and popular at my East Coast private school. My ego, that wily animal, established itself early in my life as a coping mechanism to deal with the gravity of my parents’ divorce, the departure of my father, and my mother’s lifelong depression. The sensitive, curious, and empathic feelings that typify a child’s existence were suppressed as my ego took centre stage. Nothing much changed as I grew older and so the prospect of experimentation with psychedelic drugs didn’t sit well with me (or my ego).
Like anything in life, psychedelics require reverence and a great deal of preparation. Without clear and noble intentions, the psychonaut can easily lose out on the deep and powerful lessons these substances offer. The stakes are even higher for parents, given how our childhood directly affects our child-rearing – whether we acknowledge it or not.
Becoming your best self (and parent)
Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychologist popular in some corners of the psychedelic community, believed that we each had the ability to become the best possible version of ourselves. This lifelong exercise, which he called the individuation process, required deep and uncomfortable introspection into all parts of the psyche and unconscious. Most of us fall short because we are unwilling to engage with that murkiness and unresolved material.
Around mid-life, the darker aspects of our personalities that we keep from our daily personas, which Jung called our shadow, bubble to the surface. Along with suppressed emotional trauma from childhood, these aspects of our personalities give us a test. Confront the material as part of the individuation process of becoming our best self or suppress the material even deeper.
Confronting uncomfortable material from deep inside is something most parents have surely encountered. Thrust into the extraordinary situation of caring for another human being forces us to consider how we were cared for as children. At least, that is what happened to me.
The work of becoming the best version of myself began in earnest the moment I found out we were having a boy (he is three and a half now, and we are expecting a baby girl in August). Something shifted for me at that moment. It’s like my fractured relationship with my father entered the doctor’s room and said, “you can’t avoid me any longer”. My parents divorced when I was about five. I lived with my mother but would see my father once a week after school and every other weekend until I was about nine. Then the relationship ceased, and I haven’t seen him since.
After my son was born, I returned to therapy for the first time in a decade. Unprocessed trauma from my childhood rushed to the surface after his birth. I was desperate to unpack it for myself and for him. Every parent fears laying their psychological issues on their children. Robert Johnson, a well-known Jungian analyst, writes about this process in reference to the shadow of the parent:
“Probably the worst damage is done when parents lay their shadow on their children. This is so common that most people have to work very hard to throw off their parent’s shadow before they can begin their own adult lives. If a parent lays his shadow on a young child, that splits the personality of the child and sets the ego-shadow warfare into motion. When that child grows up, he will have a large shadow to cope with (more than just the cultural shadow that all of us carry), and he will also have a tendency to put that shadow upon his own children.”
I had been in and out of therapy since childhood, but I never deeply connected to a psychologist. My overdeveloped ego never allowed me to truly break down those inner walls while on the analyst’s couch. Most of my sessions turned into a lame intellectual exercise where I tried to catch the therapist in some sort of trap because they hadn’t read this author or were unaware of such and such concepts.
I put real effort into therapy after my son entered the world to deal with all of the emotions the shift brought to the surface. I didn’t want to parent from a place of trauma or engage in reparative parenting. Therapy also helped me and my wife cope with the stresses a new baby put on our relationship. I am still reflecting on how my childhood trauma has and continues to inform my parenting.
While I couldn’t dislodge the ego, I have made some real headway. Looking back on the months I was in session before my psychedelic journey, which wasn’t planned when I restarted therapy, I feel like I was tilling the soil of my psyche and preparing it for the psychedelic experience that blew everything wide open. Around this time, I began doing breathwork.
At first, it had nothing to do with therapy or mental health. I was getting into cold water swimming and stumbled across the Wim Hof breathing method. As I went deeper and my breathing sessions lasted longer, I began to unlock suppressed memories from my childhood. I would enter a breath-hold, and suddenly I was back at my primary school from a drone’s perspective. During one breath-hold, I was running after a small boy who I thought was my son only to catch up with him and discover that it was myself as a child.
Something was shifting. Becoming a parent of a son was dredging up visceral memories from my childhood and activating my “stuff” that lay just below the surface. Therapy was dredging up emotions that have been suppressed for years. The breathwork was using that fresh material to offer insights and avenues. Then I turned to psychedelics.
Despite my fear of psychedelics, I have long been attracted to these substances, at least from an intellectual perspective. The research into psilocybin therapy for the treatment of depression and terminally ill patients is impressive. At some point last year, I became obsessed with the idea that psilocybin could transform my mother’s life and break down the walls of depression surrounding her.
My mother is sick. I won’t go into the details of her condition but suffice it to say that a lifetime of mistreated depression and terrible luck with life partners left her under a mountain of anxiety that is literally killing her. And so I thought that psilocybin was the panacea that would break her free. While she might be facing a terminal illness, I thought, at least she could experience a profound change in her quality of life. My (self-appointed) task was to try out the experience for myself. How else would I be able to sell her on it? Spoiler alert: She has refused to follow me down this path, and my quest to help her ended up helping me.
I took a 5-gram “hero’s dose” of the potent azurescens strain of psilocybin mushrooms with a female guide last September. Over eight hours, while wearing a blindfold and listening to ambient music, my ego was temporarily disabled, and I reacquainted myself with the empathy of my childhood. I finally caught up to the child I was chasing during that profound breathwork session.
It was the little version of myself that had shut down my empathic side to cope with the emotional stress of my parents’ divorce and father’s departure. During the psilocybin experience, a divine and feminine consciousness walked me through the journey, never making herself visible but always present. The journey set off a cascade of changes in my life. I quit most of my writing gigs that weren’t serving my deeper needs of expression and meaning in work. My wife and I bought our first house. We fell pregnant with our second child.
Putting the pieces together
Following the journey, I had a blissful couple of weeks in which I experienced healthy emotional detachment for the first time in my life. My ego wasn’t driving the ship anymore and this allowed me to experience healthier relationships with friends and family. I found a yoga practice after years of trying, maintained a healthy diet, and began microdosing psilocybin. My bond with my son deepened (which I didn’t think was even possible) and I found myself to have an endless depth of energy for him.
It was idyllic but short-lived. Within two months of the journey, we found a perfect house to purchase, but our family wasn’t enthusiastic about its location. Life’s challenges have a way of allowing the pesky ego back into the driver’s seat. From buying a house to the prospect of rebranding my career, my ego found fertile ground to reassert itself with a vengeance.
This post-journey cycle culminated in a trip home to see my mother. It had been nearly three years since I’d been home, thanks to Covid. Aside from the daunting travel from South Africa to Southern California with a three-year-old and a pregnant wife, the trip was emotionally jarring. All the work I had done in preparation for my psilocybin journey and the epiphanies I had experienced in hyperspace about empathy were lost on me during this trip. I slipped back to that old version of myself that was defensive, aggressive, and short-fused. Healthy emotional attachment went out the window. “If you think you are so enlightened,” Ram Dass said, “go and spend a week with your parents.”
Psychedelics are just the beginning; the work never ends
The psychedelic experience itself is just part of the bigger journey. This is a comforting thought but also one at odds with the current marketing of psychedelics as wonder drugs. Like anything in life, the more you put into something, the more you get out of it. Sure, you can microdose LSD or psilocybin and get great mood-enhancing, anxiety-fighting benefits. You can also spend some time researching and interviewing guides while removing junk from your diet and setting an intention for a trip into hyperspace (which is just the inner recesses of your mind).
Undoubtedly, psychedelics help us move beyond our personas, dull the ego momentarily, and explore the recesses of our minds that we normally ignore. The journey afforded me a rare opportunity to think and feel without my ego. The day after the journey, I remember thinking to myself that I had searched for a space where I could truly be myself and start the process of healing my emotional wounds. The harsh reality is that you can’t stay in that place forever with psychedelics. They are just the beginning of a lot more work.
As a parent, I view psilocybin as a critical part of my tool bag. The substance has the remarkable ability to remove all the bullshit of life, however temporarily. When you remove the bullshit, you can see what’s really important and for me, that’s being an attentive and present father.
The feeling I am left with is summed up by a passage in Jung’s incredible Red Book:
“There is only one way, and that is your way. There is only one salvation, and that is your salvation. Why are you looking for help? Do you believe that help will come from outside? What is to come will be created in you and from you. Hence look to yourself, do not compare, do not measure. No other way is like yours. All other ways deceive and tempt you. You must fulfil the way that is you.”
By affording access to the inner reaches of your mind, psychedelics show how right Jung was about fulfilling our own ways. When applied to parenting, we are back to where we started. The key to cracking the code of parenting rests in the parents’ ability to embrace their own way in life and do the heavy lifting of bringing their psychology in line with that path. Psychedelics are one of many great tools in that process.
3 things to read this week
“The Men Getting Vasectomies to Save the World” by Simon Usborne in The Guardian. Last month’s essay on the decision to have a second child kicked off a few great conversations. Over in the community we had an enlightening chat on the topic of vasectomies, with a few dads sharing their experiences (the tl;dr from those dads: a little painful for a few days, but otherwise all good!) This article from The Guardian talked to men driving the growing trend of vasectomies before children, who are doing so for environmental reasons.
“The History of the Tripp Trapp Chair” by Lauren Gallow in Dwell. On the 50th anniversary of the Tripp Trapp chair, and after 12 million sold (and re-sold multiple times, if our pre-owned one is any indication) design bible Dwell talked about this game-changing piece of kid’s furniture: “The Tripp Trapp pushed up against the adage that children were to be seen and not heard, instead elevating children to the centre of the home and the family.”
“How Text-Only Relationships Can Help Solve the Male Friendship Crisis” by Tanner Garrity in Inside Hook. How many group chats are you in? And how many of those are with friends you haven’t seen for years? This piece made me realise just how important those ongoing, seemingly innocuous threads are for staying close to friends who, for all kinds of reasons, you aren’t able to see regularly. “It’s nice to have a person who isn’t in your environment. It’s easier that way. You feel more relaxed. At least that’s I feel. He’s able to give you the best possible advice.”
One thing to ABSOLUTELY NOT watch with the kids this week
A few hours after sending last week’s email I started feeling wiped out, and over the weekend developed some worryingly familiar symptoms: extreme fatigue, headache, persistent cough. You know the drill. Thankfully it wasn’t round three of Covid, but strep throat, according to the doctor. So I’m on a course of antibiotics and on the mend. I’ve spent the last few days on the sofa watching the Harley Quinn animated series on HBO Max, and it’s been delightful. Harley realises she’s spent her life in an abusive relationship with The Joker and finally works up the courage to get out. Poison Ivy is her best friend, constantly reminding news anchors that she’s not a supervillain but an “eco-terrorist.” And everywhere you look is another incredible voice actor: Tony Hale, Jason Alexander, Giancarlo Esposito, J.B. Smoove, and many more. Hilarious, violent, profane, and highly recommended. Unlike strep throat.
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last weekend I wanted to know what your plans were for the summer. Seems like everyone is excited to get away, apart from Daniele who is expecting to become a dad any minute now:
I've made it my goal this summer to microdose my family on the blessings and pleasures of being outside for days at a time (aka camping). Backpacking saved my life this winter, and I think throwing the rest of my clan into the elements will do us all some good. They're mostly humoring my theory so far. So we're traipsing up and down bits California, Obi Kaufmann's field atlases (!!!) and tents in tow. Next stop: Humboldt Redwoods State Park! Andrew
Where I'm living is at the edge of where Scotland starts turning mountainous (in its southwestern corner), so since I'm taking July off from writing my own newsletter, it's time to take my backpack and tent and go see some stuff. Just across from me is the isle of Arran, but there are maybe a dozen other islands maybe a half-day's journey away, so that's my summer plans sorted. Mike
We just got back from taking the kids to Italy...we used Tula carriers for the toddlers and "backpacked" them from Venice to Tuscany. It was perfection. To be honest, showing them Italy and experiencing so many organic interactions off the beaten path summed up my idea of a perfect vacation, it was incredible. Matt
“Lovely and inspiring messages and plans here. For the first time of my life as adult I am not making plans since I am becoming father within 7+ days. Luckily it's holiday season in Sweden so I am planning to take 6 weeks off from the day the baby will be born. If life is gonna stabilize after a while, we might take the van and visit a national park outside Stockholm. Otherwise I will begin enjoying the fatherhood at home.” Daniele
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Branding and illustrations by Selman Design. Thanks to Joseph Dana, and the creators of paracetamol and ibuprofen, for their essential contributions to this week’s newsletter.