UNM research scientist Robert Rhatigan battled alcoholism for over a decade. Like many addicts, he tried time and again to overcome his addiction, but willpower and ordinary treatment methods were no good for him. Undeterred, he instead sought help from shamans in the Peruvian Amazon, who treated Rhatigan with psychedelic plant medicine. The results? Not a single craving for booze for over four years, but a burning desire to better understand that which cured him.
Rhatigan, whose professional research is unrelated to his addiction and psychedelics, is the author of Purging the Monkey, an account of his recovery as it relates to psychedelic science. The Weekly Alibi spoke with Rhatigan about his unconventional cure and how American drug policy is counterproductive to healing.
What methods of conventional treatment did you use to try to overcome alcoholism?
Addiction recovery is already an uphill battle, and no solution to a difficult problem has much chance if your heart isn't in it. That is to say, if you don't believe in a strategy, it's not likely to work. I tried willpower over and over, but that was always too weak. I went to AA a few times, but quickly knew that it wasn't for me.
I also saw doctors and therapists and took prescription medications. That helped me stay sober for almost a year, but after much consideration I felt that I did not want to put synthetic brain-altering drugs in my body for the rest of my life.
My goal was very different: to eradicate my desire to drink. I wanted to look at a beer the same way I would a Pepsi. My desire was not to just quit drinking but to not want to drink. AA doesn't offer that.
How do you feel about more conventional avenues for addiction treatment?
They work for some people, but they’re not for everybody. The biggest problem I had with the 12-step program (which almost all rehab centers utilize) is that it asked me to accept my condition and manage it for the rest of my life (albeit one day at a time). My goal was very different: to eradicate my desire to drink. I wanted to look at a beer the same way I would a Pepsi. My desire was not to just quit drinking but to not want to drink. AA doesn't offer that.
How did you discover the shamans who treated you? How long were you with them?
I went to the Peruvian Amazon for four weeks. I had done enough research to know that finding a shaman wouldn't be difficult, but finding someone that I trusted and wanted to work with would be. So it was sort of a journey of faith. Two weeks and four difficult ceremonies after arriving in the jungle, I knew without question that my addiction was licked for good. A couple days later, I left the Amazon and flew to Lima where I partied like I never had before ... without alcohol.
What are your thoughts on American drug policy? How do you feel these policies impede better understanding of, and better treatments for, addiction?
American drug policy is rooted in ignorance rather than science. Take cannabis for example. It's listed as a Schedule I drug, which means it has no known medical use and a high potential for abuse. Yet 23 states and the District of Columbia have looked at a mountain of evidence and decided that simply isn't true. Classic psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin and mescaline are also listed as Schedule I, even though they are nontoxic and non-addictive, with plenty of evidence suggesting their therapeutic potential.
I don't want to suggest that psychedelics are going to help every addict. But they worked for me, and there is plenty of evidence—anecdotal and clinical research—to suggest that under the right conditions, psychedelics have a real potential to treat some addicts. However, it is extremely difficult to move this idea forward due, in part, to our arcane drug policies.
Why is it important for you to share this story at TEDxABQ? What do you want audience members to get from this talk?
I want people to know about the unconventional approach that helped me overcome addiction. I also hope to destigmatize the way Western society views psychedelics. These drugs have therapeutic potential, and when taken under the right conditions, they are extremely safe.