Can a Psilocybin-induced Rebirth Heal the Wounds of Birth Trauma?
Chris Elinchev was trapped in a dark, tight place, trying to free himself from the crushing weight of a nameless force. At one point it felt as though there was something around his neck, choking him. After finally managing to kick and wriggle his way out, he lay on the ground, battling to breathe. Then a feeling of calm came over him.
“Eventually the sky opened up into a grand, peaceful light grey,” recalls Elinchev. “Big beautiful black birds came to greet me, swirling about in breathtaking patterns. It was both beautiful and terrifying, a place I’d never been to before. At that moment I sensed that I had finally been properly born, that now I was fully alive. And for a brief shining moment I felt lucid and everything made sense.”
Elinchev believes that what he experienced during a psilocybin dose at a MycoMeditations retreat in Jamaica recently was his rebirth. It was an intense, lonely hours-long struggle that involved freeing himself from the umbilical chord that was choking him. “I don’t think I’m making this up,” says the 67-year old professional photographer, “But during my birth in the 1950s my mom was put to sleep. She was checked out. I had to find my own way out.”
Elinchev, from Madison, Wisconsin, says he always felt that he’d been damaged at birth, that he couldn’t access all parts of his brain. As a teenager and young adult, he grappled with a pervasive, free-floating anxiety. The talk therapy he tried in later years didn’t bring him much relief. And while a stint on Prozac showed him the possibility of an anxiety-free existence, the effects soon wore off. Eventually Elinchev decided to try something new.
The resurgence of psychedelics as a powerful tool for combatting anxiety, depression and addiction, as well as for promoting personal and spiritual growth, piqued his interest and he decided to sign up for the retreat in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. At these retreats participants take three doses of psilocybin in the space of a week, with a group integration session after each trip.
“I walked in with few preconceptions, thinking ‘I’m just going to turn myself over to what happens.’” But not in Elinchev’s wildest dreams did he think he’d be writhing and convulsing for hours, re-enacting his own birth.
Although not a new concept in therapeutic circles, rebirthing is now enjoying a “rebirth” of its own alongside the resurgence of psychedelics as a therapeutic tool. It was first invoked by Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, who broke with Freud in his belief that birth, not the Oedipal relationship with the mother, was the first and defining trauma. Rank believed that the birth experience has a lasting impact on our psyche, imprinting on us an essential, life-long anxiety.
Leading Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, who incorporated the spiritual dimension of human experience into our understanding of the human psyche (a term known as “transpersonal psychology”), also sees the experiences in the womb and at birth as having a profound, lifelong effect.
Grof identifies four key stages involved in vaginal delivery known as the Basic Perinatal Matrix: first, the period in the womb when the unborn child is connected to the mother; second, when the birthing process begins and the child is pushed toward the birth canal; third, when the baby is propelled through the birth canal, involving struggle and often suffocation but the prospect of freedom; and fourth, when the baby emerges as an individual into the world. Each stage can have negative or positive attributes and can involve dramatic, life and death struggles.
Few would deny that birth has traumatic components but there is less agreement on the significance of this trauma in later life. Most scientists would say that the baby’s brain is not yet developed enough to retain any conscious memory of birth. Nevertheless, it is widely agreed that traumas experienced in the womb and early life have a powerful imprint on the emotional development of the child, which can continue into adulthood.
Grof, who spent 20 years studying the effects of psychedelics on human consciousness, believed that repressed or forgotten negative emotions could be accessed in the altered state, helping the individual overcome their crippling effects on the psyche.
MycoMeditations lead facilitator Justin Townsend says he has witnessed several rebirths during the psilocybin retreats he’s facilitated. “It’s rarely been written about in scientific or medical literature, but anyone familiar with non-ordinary states of mind understands what it’s about,” he says, pointing to Grof’s work.
“It’s not just what we see here,” he adds, “but what our clients report. Sometimes they’ll say they feel as though a snake is wrapped around their bodies; or that they see a fleshy interior resembling the inside of their mother.”
Townsend says he “wasn’t surprised” when he saw Elinchev begin to twitch and writhe on his recliner, quipping that the spot where he chose for his journey has become known as “the maternity ward”, given the number of times they’ve seen this happen there.
Townsend helped Elinchev understand the context of his experience, but “he knew what he had to do. At one point it looked as though he was physically trying to kick his way out.” When Townsend saw that he started to choke and cough, he helped move him onto the earth to ground him, something facilitators often do when they see a person struggling in this way.
It was clear that Elinchev was never in any physical danger, Townsend said, though a facilitator supported him throughout. MycoMeditations also has a nurse and a therapist on hand during the sessions.
The following morning during integration, when Elinchev was able to process what had happened to him in the group, he began to feel the tremendous benefits, including a new clarity and openness.
Townsend recalls that Elinchev “was literally shining with a lightness of being afterwards. I could see he’d been through a profound psychological change but he was still processing it.”
Back home Elinchev spoke to the people he felt he’d hurt in the past with his anxiety-fuelled impatience and anger. He also stopped drinking, no longer feeling the need to reach for alcohol to blunt his anxiety. And he is now pursuing his own creative photographic work, something he’s always wanted to do.
His wife Ellen, a writer, who didn’t accompany him, was astounded by the changes she saw in him. “He was calm, more at peace with himself. He was also more open, he had less of that ‘male pride’ that would stop him from opening up.” While they both notice his anxiety creeping back to some extent, she is unequivocal: “Overall, I think it’s been a very good experience for him and for us.”
Research shows that after a psychedelic experience there’s a window of opportunity, a cognitive plasticity that lasts for a few weeks, says Townsend, which can be prolonged by mindfulness meditation. “We work with our guests to put a plan in place for when they get back home after retreat. Many guests will experience cognitive insights, emotional breakthroughs and maybe mystical experiences on our retreats. Once home, they need to begin to untangle those behaviors that no longer serve them and work on relationships that are toxic or emotionally co-dependent. It’s an ongoing process.”
“We know that the afterglow will pass but if you can act on your insights and adopt new ways of being in the world, then you can begin to thrive again.”