The deep therapy of psychedelics and kink.
It was the height of COVID-19, when New York City was under lockdown and a hospital in Queens attached a refrigerated truck to their morgue to handle body overflow. With a curfew in order, businesses closed, and work opportunities dwindling as quickly as people were dying, it was a world of restriction, uncertainty, and fear. I couldn’t go out so I found other ways to escape—through kink—and found an altered state of consciousness, or ACS, akin to the effects of psychedelics.
Both kink and psychedelics provide an ACS, which is “activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of epinephrine and endorphins, and a subsequent period of non-verbal deep relaxation,” according to an article co-published by Cara Dunkley, group facilitator for University of British Columbia’s Sexual Health Lab, in The Journal of Sex Research. Such an altered state of consciousness can expand your worldview and help you better understand yourself, far away from the confines of a Harlem apartment.
“ASCs can not only eliminate routine distractions but provide a respite from the social and internalized stigma that can keep us from being deeply introspective and achieving personal growth and self-awareness,” says Dr. Dulcinea Pitagora, an NYC-based psychotherapist and sex therapist.
That’s certainly what it did for me.
As the pandemic worsened earlier this year, I had no control. No number of follow-up emails I sent could change the fact that many of my employers slashed their budgets, no mask would hurry up the government’s handling of the virus and shutdown. As an extrovert with friends like family and a career heavily reliant on public appearances, I felt like I was losing myself. While it would be many more months before I actually contracted COVID, the more the depression set in, the closer death felt. So I stopped fighting and submitted.
Luckily, during lockdown, I was trapped inside with my dominant partner. We live together and know one another well. I trust him. We have safe words. He knows about my history with sexual trauma and I feel completely safe with him. I feel so safe that I want him to make my body his, to use, and bite, and spit on. I want to let him take me far, far, away from here, out of my body yet grounded in reality through the bite of teeth, while I surrender. I want to fuck until my mind expands far beyond our apartment in quarantine, and I do. It’s healing, it’s freeing, and subspace, defined as the state of euphoria as a result of the mental and physical demands of submissive kink, wraps me in a blanket of comfort as I digest the shift in perspective from our play.
“Any given sexual experience has the ability to offer a space wherein the person or people engaging can step into a vast and deep world of discovery, transformation, and revelation, much like a psychedelic experience,” says Dr. Denise Renye, psychologist, sexologist, and psychedelic integrationist.
Any given sexual experience has the ability to offer a space wherein the person or people engaging can step into a vast and deep world of discovery, transformation, and revelation, much like a psychedelic experience.
Back in my Phish-following days of my late teens, I laid in the grass of a music festival candy flipping on MDMA and LSD, and became acutely aware of my weight, or more accurately, the eating disorder I picked up in high school under the pressures of the dance team. I simultaneously became aware of how immense yet irrelevant my existence was, an experience most people who use psychedelics can relate to. Looking up at the stars with the help of psychedelics, my altered state made me realize just how absurd it was that I fussed over a couple pounds. What did the universe care about a couple pounds?
“Both BDSM and psychedelics offer a means of escape from everyday realities and typical ways of understanding those realities, so there is more room to be creative about understanding our experience and to be open and accepting of ourselves,” Dr. Pitagora says. Of course, that one moment didn’t cure my eating disorder, it helped, but I also sought out a therapist and Western medicine to go with my Phish-fueled “aha moment.”
The depression I now experience can come with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, which I don’t act upon but remain quite disturbing, and are the reason I sought out ketamine treatment, which is useful at rapidly knocking out suicidal thoughts. While I never hurt myself, but enjoyed the pain of rough sex to remind me that I’m alive, I also found ways to continue my ketamine treatment, went to virtual therapy at least once a week, and took anti-depressants. They all worked synergistically.
That said, even though altered states of consciousness, through sex or psychedelics, can provide tremendous healing, it can be irresponsible to expect them to stand alone. Taking my medicine in addition to kink, both through ketamine and more traditional psychiatric medications, provide a reminder that there is one key difference between an altered state of consciousness through kink and through psychedelics.
“It’s not possible to get the same personal growth experience with BDSM as one would get with psychedelics, given that the experience achieved with psychedelics requires putting a substance in your body that wasn’t there before, and BDSM doesn’t necessarily require the introduction of anything that doesn’t already exist in a person. Having said that, for some people, BDSM offers a similar opportunity to enter an altered state of consciousness (ASC),” Dr. Pitagora says.
Also, importantly, you need safety, consent, and aftercare for both kink scenes and psychedelic experiences. If we want to shake things up, we must make sure that there’s a net for us to fall back into—perhaps that net is a lover’s arms, or simply the support of an online psychedelic community. Either way, the recipe for creating a safe experience is similar for both kink and psychedelics. Consent must be involved before taking anything or engaging in a scene.
Whether it’s your daddy or your trip-sitter, it’s important to have someone you trust with you. Your set (mindset) matters. So does your setting. If you eat some shrooms or break out the electrodes while in a foul mood and the government says you’re literally not allowed to go outside, there’s a fair chance it will hurt—and not in a good way. “Be mindful of set and setting. If your mindset feels off or intense, consider rescheduling. Discuss with your therapist and your partner(s). If your partner(s) are not understanding, this is good information as you want to be with people who respect your boundaries, needs, and desires. In terms of setting, be sure to set the scene in a way that is pleasant and conducive to what your intentions are,” Dr. Renye says.
You need safety, consent, and aftercare for both kink scenes and psychedelic experiences. If we want to shake things up, we must make sure that there’s a net for us to fall back into.
The psychedelic community likes to say that there’s no such thing as a bad trip, but there is such a thing as a bad kink scene, especially if you’re trying to work through trauma and show up ill-prepared. What’s just as, if not more important than the prep work and intention setting is the aftercare. In kink, aftercare refers to checking in on one another to make sure everyone feels good. It can involve putting ice on bruises, cuddling, or talking about the scene and what you’d like to do differently in the future. “Aftercare can be likened to the integration work that is integral in psychedelic experiences. The aftercare time is one wherein the intensity of what was just experienced can be assimilated and made use of psychologically, physically, spiritually and energetically. Deep healing and transformation is possible in this space,” Dr. Renye says.
And, with kink, much like psychedelics, that healing and transformation can take place anywhere—even a studio apartment in the middle of a pandemic.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for support. If you’re looking for peer support during or after a psychedelic experience, contact Fireside Project by calling or texting 6-2FIRESIDE.
—This article is published in collaboration with DoubleBlind Magazine.