women in the history of psychedelic plant medicines

When someone asks for a fake name in a story, it’s usually either because they’re involved in something terrible or terrific. Survivors of sex cults ask for fake names; so do revolutionaries toppling dictators.

“Selena” works down a narrow lane in a small house in an extra bedroom with psychedelic art on the walls. In one typical session, 30-something client “Norah” swallows a clear capsule with 120 mg of MDMA. Norah has suffered from insecurity, loneliness, and bipolar disorder for decades.

Selena, a woman with bright, clear eyes and a steady demeanor, is a trained therapist who also does talk therapy with clients. But for the last five years, she’s worked underground, giving MDMA, mushrooms, LSD, and DMT to between 200 and 300 clients.

An psychedelic psychotherapist dances around a bonfire on a beach.
“Selena,” an underground psychedelic psychotherapist, feels she needs to hide her identity from law enforcement. Photo courtesy of “Selena.”

In a half hour, Norah’s world turns 90 degrees. A warm white light (or wave or wind) flows up from her feet, sweeping away anxiety and fear. Meanwhile, Selena plays DJ, therapist, and shaman. Hugs her. Massages the muscles to release energy. Rings a Tibetan singing bowl.

Norah has never felt so alive, and so whole.

After three hours, for Norah, the warm white wave recedes. But the outgoing tide deposits in Norah feelings she thought only belonged to other people—loving, trusting, believing—like glistening shells on the sand. Norah pockets them. To help ease the lull ecstasy causes the next day, Selena wraps in aluminum foil a pill of 5-HTP. Norah pockets the aluminum foil, and keeps it there for months. She fingers it whenever she’s depressed. It’s a reminder of what it felt to be calm. She is never so anxious ever again. 

The world of medicine stands at the brink of something amazing. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is likely only a year or two from being legalized. MAPS stands to legalize MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, COMPASS psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for depression. Thousands of people will feel feelings they never have before. The country’s mental health may change. Private companies will make billions. 

A sticker on a pole states "I heart MDMA"
“MDMA” by Walt Jabsco is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As those companies work their way toward legality, a cadre of healers have toiled underground for decades, violating the Controlled Substances Act to bring these medicines to us. 

We don’t know how many underground healers there are like Selena. Hundreds? Thousands? They don’t exactly stand up to be counted. 

And so underground therapists are rare jewels, sought after by curious thrill-seekers and desperate sufferers. What other choice do people have? Just a few clinical trials, a couple retreats in Jamaica and the Netherlands. 

“Underground therapists are rare jewels, sought after by curious thrill-seekers and desperate sufferers. What other choice do people have?”

Underground therapists also have advantages. They’re more flexible. They’re cheaper than foreign retreats, usually charging between $400 and $2,000 per session, depending on experience, substance, and level of care. (A four-hour MDMA session costs less than a 12-hour LSD trip, for example.) The sessions are so draining therapists usually only work two or three days a week. They often don’t report their income to the IRS, or claim a fraction of it as regular therapy or “coaching.” 

A lot of law-and-order types, who believe that illegal psychedelic practice shouldn’t be done because it is unlawful and therefore wrong, have locked up Selena’s colleagues. Some folks think Selena shouldn’t work underground because it’s risky, like performing brain surgery in a back alley. Selena can’t call the cops if things go wrong.

We talked to her on a sunny afternoon under an apple tree. 


Are you scared to talk to a reporter? 

Yeah.

Why risk talking to me?

To show people that there’s another way. Doctors don’t know everything. Pharmaceuticals aren’t the only answer. People can find healing in an unorthodox way. 

How do you feel about doing something illegal? 

It’s not great. But people come to me at their wit’s end. They’ve tried everything. They say, “I’m gonna kill myself if I don’t find another way to live.” That’s why I risk my life. 

Do you feel like working underground could end badly for you? 

Absolutely. People know where I live, and that I have medicine at my home, and if, God forbid, someone wanted to come after me, they probably could. Generally people are good and kind. And my mentor always says, “Something looks out for us in this work.” 

What looks out for you? 

I don’t know. It’s a sense. It’s a feeling. Even though we’re at a really tough point in time, with climate change and people are shooting each other and it’s scary, I have to believe in our collective goodness and our collective ability to move towards the best. 

This is the way my mentor would put it: the universe is always expanding, from the big bang on. It’ll always want to seek new experiences, learn more about itself. And as humans, we’re always expanding our consciousness. I’m working to help people expand their consciousness. So the protection comes in because we’re working to help people expand their consciousness, and (Consciousness) wants that to keep going. 

(Silence)

Does that make sense? 

I mean, it’s, um… 

It’s woo. (She laughs.) But this is fucking woo work, man. 

What other kind of things do you do to keep yourself safe? 

I only use [the encrypted app] Signal. I only take personal referrals. People will find me online through various ways, and I just won’t pursue that. I won’t meet people until I’m confident in them.

I do have a rule list that I read off. I say: “No sexual contact, comments or innuendo. If you make me uncomfortable your ride will be called and you will go home.” I do have a pepper spray. (But never used it.) One guy grabbed my hips one time. That’s as bad as it got.

You learned how to do this from a mentor who’s been doing underground psychedelic work since the 70s. That’s before MAPS existed, before COMPASS existed. How did he figure out how to do it?

The medicine taught him.

Say more.

My mentor is an intelligent person, very intuitive. When you’re working with people, the medicine sends you messages. When [the client] is going through something, it will tell me to go over and put a hand on their back. Or it’ll be like, “Say this thing now.” And you don’t even know why. And they’ll be like, “Oh thank god, thank you so much, that’s exactly what I needed.” When I first started out, I would not trust the guidance. And now I always trust the guidance. Because it’s always right.

Walk me through the experience of a client who really benefited. 

She came to me at 64, having suffered complex PTSD her whole life. She was molested by her grandfather. Her mother was malicious. Tortured her sadistically. Beat her. Manipulated her whole identity. Evil.

She’s been from relationship to relationship. She describes being numb. She doesn’t have any connections. She doesn’t have friendships. She couldn’t even move out of bed

I’ve worked with her for about two years now. She worked with MDMA, I’d say like five or six times over those two years. And she had done lots of really good work getting in touch with that scared little girl who was still inside her. She realized all of her symptoms were actually her little girl being stuck in this trauma state. She made a lot of art featuring the little girl. Just like emaciated on the floor in a prison. 

Finally we were able to contact the little girl in a way that [my client] was able to listen to her, to hear that, oh all these ways that I withdraw, all these ways that I push people away, is actually wisdom.

Even after all that work, she was still depressed. So we started working with psilocybin. The first session was so amazing. Like, she was able to connect with almost, like, divinity. She started singing. She started having visions of beautiful places in the world and her own goodness.

You’re tearing up. 

I love her.

You’re really crying.

The second psilocybin session, she just broke through the depression. I talked to her on the phone last week and her voice changed. I was like, who are you? There’s so much joy in your voice.

She’s a miracle. She’s even talking about getting married to her boyfriend. She got a puppy and she’s thinking about getting a job. She’s in an art class. She’s been painting.

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Discover Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative of the Americas

You really love your patients.

I do.

Have your patients changed you?

No, not at all. (Laughs.) I’ve always really loved people but I was more judgmental, I was more harsh. This work has really softened my heart. If I was in any other profession it would be easy to fall into despair, but because I see people working on themselves every day and bettering their lives, it lets me see the best of humanity.

There’s likely to be legal psychedelic psychotherapy in some way. That therapy is gonna be a standardized and regulated treatment regimen. Is there a risk that that could take away some of the magic?

Absolutely. Inherently, these medicines are magic. They help us connect with the magic that’s in us, the magic that’s in the world. Putting too much of a scientific structure around something that’s so ineffable and non-scientific is gonna be limiting.

“Inherently, these medicines are magic. They help us connect with the magic that’s in us, the magic that’s in the world. Putting too much of a scientific structure around something that’s so ineffable and non-scientific is gonna be limiting.”

Selena

There are these patent land grabs going on now. Compass has filed a patent on having a soft couch and a nice sound system. One company filed a patent saying they invented 125 million new molecules and they’re gonna own them all. What do you think about that?

Those are symptoms of the old consciousness, the ego-driven consciousness, the consciousness that’s creating destruction on the planet, climate change. Greedy and power hungry—everything that is destroying humanity as we know it. It’s not gonna work. It’s gonna die with the old paradigm.

Even if Compass does win these patents, you’re not gonna stop.

No. I mean, good for them.

And even though you could have gotten the MAPS training, you didn’t do it, because you have concerns about working in that framework, right? What are those concerns?

Just the regulation, you know, the structure around telling people how they can and can’t practice, how they can and can’t hold people. Some people need more than a handhold. They need to crawl into your lap and they need to feel held. That is part of the experience and that is so healing for people. And you’re telling me that if I train with some company that I’m not gonna be able to, you know, give people the support that they need in that moment? That just feels ridiculous to me.

A white woman gazes up at a yew tree.
“Selena,” pictured here, worries that the coming regulated psychedelic psychotherapy clinics may be too restrictive and actually inhibit growth. Photo courtesy of “Selena.”

And you do bodywork, you push on people’s muscles and you shake them and you play bells on people’s chests and you smudge smoke around them. There’s a lot of things that won’t be allowed in the MAPS protocol.

I just think that too much regulation is gonna be the downfall. 

And yet you think the underground is as safe as MAPS and COMPASS? There are unethical practitioners underground.

There are numerous sexual assault cases in the ayahuasca community. I’ve heard about people just taking advantage of their power. Because people are coming from a desperate place they want healing, it’s like, “Oh I’ll do whatever you say shaman. You want naked pictures of me if you heal me? Sure.”

“I’m not gonna let you get away with your bullshit. I sort of invite you in and build the trust and you feel comfortable and safe, so that I can then call you out on your shit. Bring your awareness to the ways that you’re keeping yourself stuck and how it’s in your own power to unstick yourself.”

Selena

For this sort of reason, a lot of people say they’d rather be guided by a woman. Do you feel like you bring a sort of motherly gentle feminine energy? 

And it’s fierce too. I’m not gonna let you get away with your bullshit. I sort of invite you in and build the trust and you feel comfortable and safe, so that I can then call you out on your shit. Bring your awareness to the ways that you’re keeping yourself stuck and how it’s in your own power to unstick yourself.


The future of the underground psychedelic psychotherapist as a class of healer is unclear. Will all work migrate to some sort of legal realm? Or will therapists like Selena continue to work on her own, off the books, one client at a time?

In the legal ketamine clinics, it can feel like an office park. You trip in what feels like an accountant’s space. You fill out insurance forms on a computer. In Selena’s work, you’re in someone’s home. You feel like you have a relationship. It feels more human. Her role may be a dying one, as legal clinics start to come online. Or it may just be getting started, as people seek smaller, more personal forms of healthcare. 

While Selena works alone, she carries on a long, rich legacy of women trusted to provide medicine/care that does not fit neatly into a regulated or remunerated environment. For centuries, “Whisper Networks” of women used herbs and potions to control fertility in liminal, risky, renegade planned parenthood clinics. Indigenous women like Maria Sabina kept alive the traditions of mushrooms while the Spanish swung their Catholic incense and their swords.

Many ended up burned as witches. But in America, a country about to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill, underground medical providers like Selena may someday be viewed as heroes of conscience who risked their necks to give medicine no one else would, women carrying a small flame while gales swirl outside. So let’s take a moment to sing a song of praise to the Underground Psychedelic Healer, and hear her sing her song.

Art by Marialba Quesada.


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