Stephanie Stewart has taken quite a journey to arrive where she now is, and there’s no doubt her journey will continue. She grew up traveling and exploring, and from a young age, she received clear messages that she was destined to be a healer. In the context of the Western medical system, however, becoming a healer was not as straightforward or clear-cut as that path can be in other cultures, at least in the ways Stephanie felt called. Nevertheless, she went to medical school to become a psychiatrist, the profession she saw as most closely related to the spiritual forms of healing that spoke to her. Yet, as is often the case for those walking such an uncertain path, that destination proved to be only a new beginning, and Stephanie has continued exploring diverse and ambitious forms of healing in a Western context, an exploration that has led her now to work professionally with psychedelic medicines.
Sean Lawlor: Can you talk about your background and what has drawn you to work with psychedelics?
Stephanie Michael Stewart: I grew up in Hawaii and Nelson, BC, with nature being a very important part of my life. My mom passed away when I was nine years old, and I had a connection with her that felt across the veil, like she wasn’t really gone. So, I held a kind of sophisticated knowing for a nine-year-old that there was more than we see every day, and I was very comforted by feeling her spirit and also by being immersed in beautiful places. It might be a stretch to say that I had psychic abilities, but I really felt that spiritual dimension early on, and I knew at that point I wanted to be a healer, though I didn’t quite know what that meant.
I’m half white, and the other half is Black and Native American. There were kind of legends where an elder recognized I had a healer quality, and so I think that’s maybe where that word initially came from. It stuck with me. Fast forward to medical school, because a doctor was what I knew a healer in Western culture to be. I ended up choosing psychiatry because it felt like the closest thing Western medicine had to getting at the real mystery and spirit of what’s going on.
I remember seeing a kid in the ER who had been shot. We took out a bullet, patched him up, sent him out. He shot another kid; that kid came in, we patched him up, sent him out. He shot the first kid again, and I thought, “What are we doing here? Can we sit down and talk?” There were a lot of other instances like that where I saw the body can be in perfect shape, but if the mind isn’t, it kind of doesn’t matter.
That led me more towards the mind-spirit. There were cool things like art therapy and drama therapy and meditation that were a little more acceptable in the realm of psychiatry than other fields of medicine. I went that way, but then I finished with so many more questions than answers, feeling like, “This is it? You give me a prescription pad, and not even breathing techniques?”
There are mindfulness tools and CBT, obviously. I appreciate that, and I’ve seen it save lives, but I’ve seen it work more so on people who are looking to grow, while a lot of people that were severely ill weren’t helped. As it gets a little more to what the average person is suffering with, relatively little could be done with the tools of Western allopathic medical training. So, I kept seeking.
After residency, I started a Wellness Center in South Central L.A. We worked with a pretty traumatized population that was probably 90% Black and brown people, bringing a lot of the tools that I found through yoga, meditation, music therapy, art therapy, and drama therapy. My favorite thing that we created at that center was what ended up becoming travel therapy. We called it Urban Explorers. We would all get on a bus together and go on an adventure, maybe up to Pasadena, maybe to the beach. There were 60-year-old people who had lived in L.A. all their lives, six miles from the beach, and had never been because they thought it really wasn’t for them.
All along, the thread of seeing the effects of culture and race and poverty on people’s health was sort of a concomitant journey. I went to college and medical school in Atlanta, from the Pacific Northwest, so I saw levels of suffering and poverty that I hadn’t seen before. It doesn’t take much to realize that that’s a social justice issue. So, that is an additional devotion of mine I’m trying to learn about continually and make others aware of.
SL: When did psychedelics enter your radar as tools for healing?
SMS: Nelson, where I grew up, was a very drug-friendly culture. Back in those days, I was pretty young, but I started to get curious about dabbling in a little bit of psychedelic medicine. Mushrooms grew out behind the high school, so we would take them and set our little camp fire. As much as we could as kids, we were creating ceremony and creating intentions. We would lay there and ask questions, and I just loved it. But when I got sent away to boarding school to the States, and then medical school, it all got very serious, and I thought, “I’m an academic now. I use my mind. I can’t be messing around with these things. I probably should just let that go.” It fell by the wayside, even though my heart was still curious.
Then, someone introduced me to MAPS, and that got me very excited because I met other people that straddled both worlds. They were interested in consciousness as a core part of their psychiatric practice, and spirituality, and the therapeutic quality of a hug or a touch, as opposed to this Freudian blank slate, which never felt quite right to me. I was finding like-minded people in my profession that I respect and that get it.
At one point in time, I went to Peru and spent some good time there and learned from shamans in the Shipibo tradition. I wouldn’t say I have had extensive use myself, and I’ve been wary to try to practice underground. Being a person of color, I don’t want to mess around with the government or illegal substances. But I kept up with the research, and once that layer opened up to me, I really started to follow my passion of experiential therapy and travel therapy. So, I started a company called World Wide Wellness, and I took patients around the world to various destinations. It was always centered around an activity; typically, surfing.
So, the travel itself and the adventure and the movement and nature all became the therapeutic process. We would make sure to be a service in every place we went. There was nutrition, time for integration and meditation. That was a really cool program, and it really worked.
I stopped that to start my own family five years ago. I’ve recently moved up to Canada, and I’m committed to solely working with entheogens. I feel like the world needs these tools now more than ever, and I feel like it’s really important that they are accessible and the way they’ve been used for thousands of years is incorporated into their use today, and they’re not medicalized.
I’m at this intersection of psychedelic therapy and social justice. I did the MAPS MDMA/PTSD training along the way, and I’m starting on a team here at University of BC for clinical trials. I’m going to be doing ketamine therapy here in BC. I’m getting more formally connected with the organizations here in Canada, getting situated and ready for that to be the next chapter of my work.
That experiential therapy of going outward in a time where travel was more accessible feels very comparable to the experiential therapy that psychedelic medicines can give. I really believe that experience is the most powerful and potent way for transformation and healing, and I see this kind of mirrored image of going outward to find all this and going on an inner journey, so to speak. It feels like a good full circle moment.
SL: Would you be willing to talk about your trip to Peru a little more? Perhaps at which point in your career as a psychiatrist you did that and what that experience was like?
SMS: It was a funny thing. I don’t even know where along the way I must have picked it up, but I had this book on my shelf related to ayahuasca. Once I was conscious of it, I was like, “Where did I get this?” I think I didn’t understand the word ayahuasca, but whatever the subtitle was called to me, something about spirit or medicine or whatever it was. So, it was already on my bookshelf, and there were two or three other synchronicities like that, where it had already been vining its way into my life.
SL: Nice word for that.
SMS: (laughs) I knew that was what I needed, and it was time to experience that in its native country and conditions after my dad passed away. My dad was a vet and had PTSD, and he completed suicide.
I remember just really needing to understand how he could leave us, how he could do something like that, how he could go against all survival instincts and choose to end his own life. I remember feeling like ayahuasca helped me connect with some of these questions that I wanted answers to. One of the biggest takeaways was to stay in your own lane, that you really don’t want or need to know the answers to those questions. Those aren’t your questions; those aren’t your path.
Although my dad and I were very, very connected, we’re on two separate journeys, and I sort of understood that and was at peace with that. It showed me more important questions that I should be asking and exploring; namely, what is my path? And that’s really when I started World Wide Wellness and realized that my medicine had always been travel.
I knew at that point: plant medicine was the most powerful tool that I’d ever come across.
That was a big part of the ayahuasca experience, being there for a month and living a very rudimentary lifestyle, with cold showers and rats on the roof, being thankful for the birds that would come down and eat the rats, and just being very much a part of nature like I had never been before. It really shifted my world view. I knew at that point: plant medicine was the most powerful tool that I’d ever come across. But I also had strong feelings about going there to do the medicine, and people keeping it contained and keeping it safe, because there were some really scary experiences there, too.
I came away from that extremely humbled and cautious and grateful for the medicine experience, but there were some right off the bat pretty dark, frightening experiences; not within me, but around me. Things that shamans were doing. I’m extremely cautious about the dimensions that you can enter spiritually, that one may not be ready or invited to enter. Just kind of banging down that door in broad numbers with very little guidance is a huge concern of mine in the psychedelic renaissance. There’s a reason that shamans dedicate their life to studying this stuff and guiding people. It’s not just an afternoon activity. It’s medically dangerous. Psychologically, spiritually, there are cautions. So, it was beautiful, but I have to add that too as part of my learning.
SL: I’m curious about this last piece about the care and the power and the potential dangers. In the context of this Western medical model that we’re adopting them into, can you talk about the responsibility of practitioners, and perhaps some things that you’ve witnessed that are concerning around that care and respect piece?
SMS: There’s so many layers to that: environmental, cultural; this colonial mindset, of people just going in and taking. And then there’s really not knowing what you’re taking, so there’s danger for the people coming in, excited to have this wonder drug or whatever. There’s a lot of layers of caution, and I think that the medical model in particular creates a bottleneck. I think, on the one hand, concerning Western psychological states, the confidence in the medical system, at least for white people, could make people feel comfortable enough that it does help with some of these extreme experiences, especially turf wars and gun violence, some of the stuff that I dealt with when I was down there.
SL: Whoa. You saw that?
SMS: Oh yeah. During ceremony, gunshots were coming closer and closer. They were sort of threatening and shooting up our maloca because our shaman was not a local and had exposed one of the local shamans who had been sexually abusing participants. This Western shaman was Norwegian and from a lineage of shamans, so he held his own, but he also understood major depressive disorder and PTSD, things that Westerners came for, and he charged whatever it was, $1000 a night. It was bad for business for him to be there, and then, with him also exposing some of what was going on, they were getting a lot of threats. In the middle of ceremony, that was quite frightening. I think that ayahuasca tourism can be quite dangerous and start problems.
So, I think medical care protects from these completely dangerous experiences, and even, to some degree, dangerous psychological experience, because there is trust that basically, “I won’t die. I’m in medical care, I’m in good hands with somebody who’s read the books and who knows how to do CPR.” I think that will alleviate those types of fears, and I do think there should be some controls, checks and balances, making sure that it’s appropriate for the person in all these different ways, screening, etc.
So, it should be somehow regulated for safety, but the how is problematic when it’s the sterile, white coat, white male model, because, in my opinion, the people who really need it the most, who are suffering the most, are people of color, and there are so many reasons they wouldn’t be able to access these medicines if they’re coming through these private channels.
But I work with severely mentally ill people, and there are many, many stories of young people on the brink using psychedelics and never coming back. So, it should be somehow regulated for safety, but the how is problematic when it’s the sterile, white coat, white male model, because, in my opinion, the people who really need it the most, who are suffering the most, are people of color, and there are so many reasons they wouldn’t be able to access these medicines if they’re coming through these private channels.
I’m curious to talk with other people about different ways that they could be implemented in communities that just function differently than the Western model, and making sure these people get access in a way they feel safe with and confident in, and that they [providers] are clinically competent, because everything’s heightened under psychedelics. I don’t think limiting it to physicians will prevent that altogether. I mean, there was a case of sexual abuse in the clinical trials with MDMA. What’s not coming through in that case is the real heart and soul.
SL: In terms of that heart and soul, what is it about these adoptions of psychedelics into the Western model, from your viewpoint as a psychiatrist, that’s most promising and exciting?
That people in really bad shape and treatment-resistant in any other modality now have a pretty powerful and potent avenue to explore.
SMS: That they’re available at all. That people in really bad shape and treatment-resistant in any other modality now have a pretty powerful and potent avenue to explore. And that it does have an inherent spiritual component and a sense of unity and connection and fairness and balance that is a visceral experience that no amount of someone lecturing at you can offer, because it comes through your own kind of personal awareness.
The work is not just in the experience, but the integration and putting that to work in your life. The Western model does give some control over that, where you have to do a certain amount of integration sessions before you can be prescribed another dose. But I think it’s also kind of a veneer, because people can get access if they really want access. Once it’s let loose, it’s just going to be used however.
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We have to trust in the medicine itself, that it will give the people the insights that they need. Those are some initial protections, as long as they don’t come prohibitive. There are so many rural areas that don’t have a physician for hundreds of miles, especially here with Canada’s Indigenous populations, where it’s like, “Well, if you don’t have a prescriber, you don’t have access, right?”
SL: It’s a huge, obvious gaping issue. Before closing, is there anything else that you’d like to touch on?
SMS: I think part of what I hadn’t filled in that it might be helpful for my background is that, during that phase when I went out seeking after psychiatric residency and then starting the wellness center, I would go on trips or retreats and just do different things. I’m a yoga teacher, and I taught meditation for seven years. So, it’s not just psychedelics, but a lot of different forms of healing. I just believe that anything that you do as an individual can make you a better healer, because you can relate to people. Any other instruments or languages or even travel in and of itself will allow you to start conversations and relate to people and where they’re from.
SL: So, keeping psychedelics in the context of being one thing in this much broader framework of many different approaches that you use to help people. That’s really important to keep in mind, so it’s not just seen as a magic pill.
SMS: Yeah. And I think what is most important for the practitioners out there—and I try to keep this in mind myself and live by this philosophy—is that you can’t heal the people if you can’t serve the people. You can’t love humanity without loving each individual in front of you. And so, the work is very humble, and there’s a lot of personal work involved, especially under the influence of psychedelics, in being able to be effective and not have your own blind spots from your ego get in the way. I think that’s important.
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