Personal story: An Airwoman’s journey through trauma, steps and into psychedelics

By Erin S

My history with addictions began at the age of 12 when I was fed alcohol to knock me out – this was so the adult giving it to me could sexually assault me. I started intentionally drinking when I was 13 and the first time drinking with my friends, I blacked out and I was too young to understand that might have been a sign. The feeling of drinking that first time though, It was as though a neural imprint had occurred, I was affected on a deep limbic level, I felt a sense of relief, in a way that I wouldn’t understand until decades later.

As a teenager, I used mushrooms and LSD and always felt they unveiled connections with all life; I remember specifically noticing the veins in a leaf, into the bark of the tree, every nook revealing part of this living, breathing aspect of mother nature, knowing I would never unsee that beauty and clarity, I started to see the layers of the world.

I also had very severe judgment against anyone who did “hard” drugs – if people were doing cocaine at a party, I was SO critical of them and meanwhile I was outside making myself throw up so I could make room to keep drinking. Little did she know…

At seventeen, I joined the United States Air Force and when I left for basic training, it was with all the youthful credulity and naive exuberance of someone who had just graduated from high school. I entered the military to pursue and live the ideal it had promised, to: Aim High. Inspired by my family’s ancestral legacy of having served our respective countries for generations and the vision of being an explorer, a warrior, and an agent for positive change in the world, I arrived on base with the express objective of being a career Air Woman; I could go to school while I served, obtain a degree, become an officer, and retire before I turned forty. For a time, these vainglorious ambitions seemed as if they were just within reach. I had procured a position in aeronautical medicine at eighteen, requiring secret security clearance and was working on missions that were literally out of our stratosphere, while attending college. Performing operations which regularly flew outside of the ozone layer and retrieving information (yes, spying) was absolutely thrilling and I discovered that my participation in these missions imbued my life with a profound sense of meaning. I knew on a bone-deep level that the work we were doing mattered. What I also discovered, however, was that the very same institution that exalted the very best of what it means to be human — our capacities for courage, compassion, imagination, and selfless discipline — was also a bastion and breeding ground of the very worst of human behaviors. I began to see the systemic degradation of women and how the military was still a Petri dish of patriarchy and repression. I was raped multiple times and suffered ongoing sexual assaults & verbal abuse from my work associates and when I reported these crimes to the base psychologist, I was sent away from her office with the following words that still chill my spine all these years later: “You are the thirteenth story I’ve heard this week that sounds the same and I just can’t take on another case.” It was clear to me at that moment how the paradox of two completely incompatible “truths” could coexist at the same time and in the same space. The Air Force can be a paragon of protection for the country, and a hothouse of abuse – the shadow and the light, something I continue to unpack in my psycho-spiritual practice. Less than two years into my initial term, my career plans deteriorated, and I quickly shifted gears. I moved off-base, threw myself into the local community theater, spoke at poetry readings, and began the process of using creative art therapies to heal these traumas — an instinctual response to processing this outcome. Throughout all of this, though, my drinking became increasingly excessive, to the point of being hospitalized due to alcohol poisoning.

When I was honorably discharged from the military, I moved overseas – I couldn’t fathom the thought of living in the very same country that had refused to acknowledge what had happened to me, running felt safe and it was a different form of relief, a denial sort of relief.

A year later I had run out of money and returned to the states and I began to experience that alcohol wasn’t enough and despite saying, as someone handed me a plate of cocaine, “this is a bad idea”, I barreled forward. Within a year, I was calling 1-800 cocaine for help… I stopped for about a week, then went back for more. About 10 years later, I thought I was given the best gift – someone introduced me to meth… it solved so many of my issues with “coke” – financially I could buy a bag of meth for $60 and it would last me a week, when a $60 of blow only lasted the beginning of the night.

This new habit and a cacophony of party drugs, I was a highly-functioning addict. Even within all of this addiction, I still had a spiritual longing… I trained to be a reiki practitioner, only to find myself smoking meth and doing hydrocodone with my instructor after class… more shadow and light.

I weaved and bobbed my way through the next decade or so, varying different addictions with different lovers – the only mainstay was alcohol and then the last few years of my addictions, I became a ketamine addict – again, in my mind, realigning with my spiritual self, not realizing at the time that my purposefully putting myself into K-holes was just another form of disengagement from being present… I would astral project and fly up into the cosmos and I just wanted to stay there – SO uncomfortable in my humanness and fearful if I stopped I would feel the decades of trauma I suppressed as deep down as I could. I felt safe there. I felt safe there until one nearly-fateful night where I tried to jump off of a 24-story building, being saved from 2 attempts by my then girlfriend who ended up taking me into the hospital within hours, where I remained in the psych ward for almost a month. I went kicking and screaming, in the midst of a drug-induced psychotic break – I was terrified, yet deep in my soul, I knew this was the only way I was going to stop and 10 years later, I’m happy to say, I haven’t touched alcohol or my drugs of destruction since. My first few years in recovery, I was a “good student”, I went to meetings every day, worked the steps, struggled with the steps, stayed sober and ate a lot of sugar, and I was just fine. My sense of relief had reappeared, in a new outfit, but it also felt a little like a flatline and I really was Only just fine…

About 5- years into my sobriety, my best friend suggested I try Ayahuasca – she not so delicately put it that I may have stopped “partying”, but I haven’t dealt with the trauma that got me there to begin with. I interviewed the shaman, mainly to get clear that my doing ayahuasca wasn’t going to mean I had relapsed – I was fully-committed to being sober- he assured me many people in recovery worked with this sacred medicine. I let go and went to sit in ceremony with a women’s group, and was so disappointed as “nothing happened” – I could hear the other women in the room processing amazing traumas and I laid there and stared up – waiting. The next day, we sat with San Pedro and again, for me, it was a bust. I went home that night feeling disheartened, like I had wasted my money and time and deep in my core I felt unworthy. My trauma pattern was one of; a violation happening, reporting it and nothing being done. From the childhood sexual assaults, through the military, every single time something happened, I reported it and every single time, nothing was done. This ceremony experience felt like one more “nothing”, I was trying to go in and heal and not even the spiritual realm was willing to hear me.

It wasn’t until 2 years later, when I decided to try Ayahuasca again, that the veil was lifted and I felt heard, and I had one of the most profound journeys, even still today. This set me on a path of self-discovery and a lot of hard, spiritual work. There are difficult times; using psychedelics as a healing modality is much akin to opening up pandora’s box of everything that I had suppressed for decades of my life and bringing these decisions and perceptions that were very much my reality, into the forefront and there are times when I feel the trauma has been completely resurfaced. This time though, I have been able to reframe my emotions and relations to the process. While the trauma is regurgitated, like a deep abscess getting extracted from the body, that pus stinks and is old and while it is needed to get out of the body, sometimes it’s easier to put a band-aid over it and go back to the doctor a little later. AND, my relationship to the steps deepened… much like the unfolding of the self is revealed as one works the steps, psychedelics gave me a more detailed experience with the steps and the steps themselves are very much like something one might do with an integration coach after a journey. The steps gave me a structured framework for self-examination and growth and while psychedelics can provide profound experiences, the consistent effort required to complete the steps provide that same structure for a healthy integration process. One of the most life-changing insights I had while working the steps with my “new” perception, was the ability to break the lifelong pattern of blaming myself for everything that had “gone wrong” in my life – I was able to take responsibility for things without making myself wrong – this had been a lifelong struggle up to this point – I was always “wrong”. What a Relief and a light within this shadow!!!

Shortly after this renewed experience, I was introduced to Psychedelics in Recovery (PIR), a 12-Step fellowship for people who utilized psychedelics in their healing process. I felt like I had found a new home and even though at that time, there was only 1 online meeting bi-monthly, I found more of my people. As soon as Covid19 hit, that one online PIR meeting wasn’t enough and I was asked to help start a women’s meeting, my friend’s in-person San Diego meeting became part of PIR and we also started an online PIR mtg – we were in this truly collaborative healing space with the need for more meetings as the fellowship began to grow and grow. It was very exciting to be a part of this new ground-breaking of PIR, the fellowship was everything to me – so much so, that I moved to San Diego to be closer to the group of fellows there and I felt like I was home, in community.

In late 2020, I started and managed the phone list and I also chaired the birth of the PIR Literature Committee where we spent the next 6+ months developing the PIR 12 Steps and other Literature. Chairing the women’s meeting and often other PIR meetings and on several other committees, I lived and breathed in PIR service and I was on PIR zoom meetings every time there was a meeting. Chairing the Literature Committee fed my soul; to be able to chariot the movement forward of creating new language in the steps, striping out the shaming patriarchal language was vitally important to me. And being of so much service, created this real sense of purpose and belonging – and did I come full circle in my relationship with relief? Absolutely, and PIR is still so fundamentally important to me and in 2023 I completed my tenure as our Intergroup chair and took a much needed service-vacay. Also in 2023, I reached my 10-year sobriety birthday and that relief?, well, relief has shown up in so many ways. In reviewing the events of both my interior and exterior autobiographies, I am awash with a sense of undeniable sagacity of both symmetry and synergy — the consistent nature of my passions, goals and interests is my desire to heal, through the body, mind, and spirit. Over the past ten years I have spent in recovery, I have cultivated an equilibrium with trauma, learning to embrace all of my experiences, not just the ones that were “happy”, discovering that even the seemingly happy moments were often a mask worn to prevent people from “not liking me”. I have utilized psychedelic therapies and ceremonies to dive even further into the stratum of my humanity, unearthing deep shadows that I continue to examine.

I’m relieved psychedelics are receiving the recognition for being true healing modalities, even the VA is starting to use them. Beyond the relief, I am grateful for those things, and also for step 12 and my daily psycho-spiritual practice…grateful for all the shadows and all of the light.