I have been noticing a disturbing trend in psychedelic groups lately, in which powerful mind-altering substance are being used for emotional and sexual manipulation -- especially among young and...
I have been noticing a disturbing trend in psychedelic groups lately, in which powerful mind-altering substance are being used for emotional and sexual manipulation -- especially among young and vulnerable demographics. In order to combat the collective trauma resulting from these practices, I am attempting to spread harm reduction information far and wide as it pertains to the subject.
This is one of my more recent articles. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, in case anyone would like to build off of it. If anyone has constructive criticism or experience, any feedback would be immensely appreciated. Thank you :)
Psychedelics facilitate increased intimacy
There is a tenuous association between psychedelics and cliquey, tribal, or cult-like group behavior. This should be taken seriously, especially in large group whose members bond through regular psychedelic sessions. Psychedelics have a number of potential effects that can make individuals more suggestible, and may occasion rapidly-escalating intimacy:
- facilitate deep feelings of connection to others
- induce dissociation, depersonalization and ego loss
- increase suggestibility, making it easier to impress new beliefs or ideas upon the user
- re-expose the user to potentially traumatic memories
- evoke emotional re-association and object transference, including trust and sexual interest that may not otherwise be present
- invoke religious or metaphysical experiences, that instill a sense of meaning and personal significance
- create a sense of paranoia or suspicion, in part as a result of being involved in a potentially illicit activities
- evoke symptoms of mental illness in vulnerable users, making one reliant on external social and economic support
Not all of these effects guarantee problems, but rather indicate how psychedelics can open users up to remarkably strong bonding. The ability of hallucinogens to connect individuals into family-like organizations is notable, as psychedelic have been foundational to many rituals, communities, and cults through history. In part due to these effects, many psychedelic groups exhibit some degree of organizational eccentricity, marked intimacy, or social drama.
Identifying safe group dynamics
If you need help identifying whether or not an organization exercises exploitative practices, consult the following guidelines on cult behavior and gaslighting. Troublesome psychedelic groups are usually large in size and have organized leadership structure, exhibiting the following qualities (as adapted from the Cult Education Institute’s webpage):
- possessing an egotistical leader of social or creative influence, who may have a record of abusing power or individuals
- a rigidly directed ideology, and excluding or punishing members who do not conform to it
- provoking members who are under the influence of psychedelics, or attempting to selfishly influence the psychedelic integration process of another member
- maintaining a culture of misinformation or fear or threats, in which members are easily excluded or blacklisted
- illicit dealings and in-group abuse that is concealed by a culture of secrecy, including: promoting or selling increasingly risky drugs, sexual or romantic grooming, or the use of psychedelics as “tools of seduction”
Perhaps the best takeaway from the association between psychedelics and cult activity is this: psychedelics have the ability to destabilize and rearrange one’s sense of self, which makes them more susceptible to peer pressure and the influence of others. For users who already are mentally liable or require a secure mindset and setting, it is essential to make sure that they feel in control of their drug use, and have the personal autonomy to ensure their trips are safe and serve personal growth.
The Cult Education Institute’s signs of a safe group/leader are also adapted below:
- can be asked questions without judgement
- discloses ample information such as structural organization/finances
- may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate, or forbid others from associating with them
- will not have a record of overwhelmingly negative articles and statements about them
- encourages family communication, community interaction, and existing friendships
- encourages critical thinking, individual autonomy, self-esteem, and personal growth
- leaders admit failings and mistakes, accepts criticism, and follow through on implementing constructive changes
- operates democratically and encourages accountability and oversight
- leader is not be the only source of knowledge excluding everyone else; group values dialogues and the free exchange of ideas
- members and leaders recognize clear emotional, physical, and emotional boundaries when dealing with others
Gaslighting & manipulation tactics
Many of the tactics that both individuals and groups use to manipulate people are examples of gaslighting, or attempts at convincing members that they are somehow mentally compromised in order to control them. This is often done by withholding information from them, invalidating the victim’s experiences, verbal abuse (including jokes), social isolation, trivializing the victim’s worth, and otherwise undermining their thought process. When combined with the suggestion-enhancing properties of psychedelic drugs, these kinds of behavior can be traumatizing to individual victims, while remaining relatively undetected or overlooked by onlookers.
In order to help identify gaslighting by a group, consider if you relate to its effects, as described by Robin Stern in her book The Gaslight Effect:
- constantly second-guessing yourself, feeling confused, or as if something is wrong
- asking yourself “Am I too sensitive?” throughout the day
- frequently apologizing to people who hold power over you, feeling as if you can’t do anything right, or running over things you may have done wrong
- frequently wondering if you are “good enough”
- frequently withholding information from your friends or family so you don’t have to explain the group or make excuses for it
- you lie to group members, to avoid being put down or gaslighted
- paranoia about bringing up innocent conversation topics
- speaking to group leaders through another member, so you don’t have be worry about the leaders becoming upset with you
- making excuses for group members’ behavior to your friends and family
- friends or family try to protect you from the group
- becoming furious with people you used to get along with
If you suspect you have been involved in a psychedelic cult or gaslighted, you may be experiencing regular instability, dissociation, or feelings of uncertainty. Although it can be difficult at first, finding a new group that demonstrates a high degree of member safety and accountability may help rebuild one’s sense of safety and trust. If you shared psychedelic experiences with group members while being taken advantage of, it may be beneficial to seek out a professional psychedelic integration therapist to help emotionally contextualize these memories. Victims may also benefit from adjunct trauma therapies, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Radically-Open DBT, somatic bodywork and movement therapies, therapeutic massage, and other complementary therapy practices.
Douglas, James. (2017). Inside the bizarre 1960s cult, The Family: LSD, yoga and UFOs. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/13/the-family-great-white-brotherhood-australia-melbourne-cult-anne-hamilton-byrne
Evans, P. (1996). The verbally abusive relationship: how to recognize it and how to respond. Expanded 2nd ed. Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media Corporation.
Mayorga, O. and Smith, P. (2019, May 19). Forgiving psychedelic abusers should never be at the expense of their victims. Psymposia. Retrieved from https://www.psymposia.com/magazine/forgiving-psychedelic-abusers/.
Neiswender, Mary. (1971). Manson Girl’s Acid Trips Detailed. CieldoDrive.com. Retrieved from http://www.cielodrive.com/archive/manson-girls-acid-trips-detailed/.
Ross, Rick. (2014). Warning signs. Cult Education Institute. Retrieved from https://www.culteducation.com/warningsigns.html.
Stern, R. (2007). The gaslight effect: how to spot and survive the hidden manipulations other people use to control your life. New York: Morgan Road Books.
Windolf, Jim. (2007). Sex, drugs, and soybeans. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/05/thefarm200705.