REVIEW: Trippy: The Peril and Promise of Medicinal Psychedelics by Ernesto Londoño

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A riveting look at the tremendous promise and inherent risks of the use of psychedelics in mental health treatment through the lens of a New York Times reporter whose journalistic exploration of this emerging field began with a personal crisis.

When he signed up for a psychedelic retreat run by a mysterious Argentine woman deep in Brazil’s rainforest in early 2018, Ernesto Londoño, a veteran New York Times journalist, was so depressed he had come close to jumping off his terrace weeks earlier. His nine-day visit to Spirit Vine Ayahuasca Retreat Center included four nighttime ceremonies during which participants imbibed a vomit-inducing plant-based brew that contained DMT, a powerful mind-altering compound.

The ayahuasca trips provided Londoño an instant reprieve from his depression and became the genesis of a personal transformation that anchors this sweeping journalistic exploration of the booming field of medicinal psychedelics. Londoño introduces readers to a dazzling array of psychedelic enthusiasts who are upending our understanding of trauma and healing. They include Indigenous elders who regard psychedelics as portals to the spirit world; religious leaders who use mind-bending substances as sacraments; war veterans suffering from PTSD who credit psychedelics with changing their lives; and clinicians trying to resurrect a promising field of medicine hastily abandoned in the 1970s as the United States declared a War on Drugs.

Londoño’s riveting personal narrative pulls the reader through a deeply researched and brilliantly reported account of a game-changing industry on the rise. Trippy is the definitive book on psychedelics and mental health today, and Londoño’s in-depth and nuanced look at this shifting landscape will be pivotal in guiding policymakers and readers as they make sense of the perils, limitations, and promises of turning to psychedelics in the pursuit of healing.

CW/TW – Many of the people the author interviews are using psychedelic drugs to help deal with traumas from which they suffer. Mention of PTSD, suicide and suicidal ideation in the book is common. Mention of what caused the trauma includes graphic memories. The author is gay and mentions lgbtqia+ specific traumatic issues which the community has. The author mentions assaults and rapes that have occurred at psychedelic retreats. Several interviewees mention alcohol and drug use.

Review

I’m old enough to remember when TV shows began presenting psychedelic drugs as horrible things that would ruin your life (roughly about when Nixon signed the anti-drug law in 1971). So I grew up seeing magic mushrooms and their ilk as damaging. But in the years since, we’ve changed our minds a lot about drugs. Headlines tell me that many psychedelic drugs are being reconsidered as possibly useful in helping with the multiple mental health issues that plague society today. I decided to try this book to see what a reporter might find out.

Let me reiterate the CW/TW above. What patients and practitioners are trying help ease or eliminate are often terrible traumatic incidents that have led people to think suicide is their only option. Many are on their last (mental) legs and ready to give up. Think carefully if you are interested in reading the book.

Londono’s journey into this world is personal as well as professional. He details his own family history of mental health illness, his journalistic job that took him to frontline battlefields, his damaged relationships, and how close he came to suicide. He discusses his first trip to a center using ayahuasca and how he arrived skeptical and sure he was in a cult then left a changed man. He deep dives into the burgeoning world of psychedelic centers in various Central and South American countries that run the gamut from small and intimate to a corporate experience for the 1%. But note that all of them will require people to sign legal papers acknowledging that anything could happen and you can’t sue if it goes badly.

“when you’re administering psychoactive drugs to people in distress, a lot can go terribly wrong.”

And things can go badly since we’re talking about people (often foreigners) traveling deep into remote areas, then taking mind altering substances. In some cases this has led to sexual assault or to people in a happy state of bliss – or still seeking a happy state of bliss – who spend or are enticed to spend enormous amounts of money. The expected side effects of some psychedelics sound vastly unpleasant as well with (copious) vomiting almost a given as well as diarrhea. One drug requires the toxic secretions of poisonous frogs to be daubed onto (the patient’s) burnt skin and that’s after how the practitioners (horribly) treat the frogs to increase the potency.

Then Londono begins to examine how two Brazilian religions have traveled via converts to the US which ended up changing DEA laws about the allowed use of ayahuasca. New “religions” have since sprung up although what they advertise and promise is more medicinal than religious mysticism. Several military veterans suffering from PTSD who in desperation tried psychedelics talk about how these have drastically changed their lives and outlook on life. Clinical trials and experiments are now being conducted by the VA.

Londono covers everything wearing both his patient and reporter hats. He wonders how this might have influenced what he thinks but he goes into great detail about how his own use of psychedelics has allowed him to visit past trauma and events and (he thinks) emerge with a different perspective on them and that this – looking at past traumatic things with compassion and dissociation – might allow a turning point for people to accept and forgive their past selves and others. I had hoped that the information would be more scientific than it is but it’s early days in clinical trials. The hype might end up outpacing reality or these substances could be game changers for those whom conventional therapy has failed. Londono urges people to realize that none of this is a silver bullet that will cure everything quickly. I am curious to see what will happen moving forward. B

~Jayne

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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