To Heal an Old Wound, Return to the Weapon.
An unconventional journey on healing trauma and radical reconnection.
Note to readers: This essay contains stories about drug use and domestic violence.
I paced around my office in Brooklyn, New York, staring down at a weather report for Southern California on my phone, wondering if I should cancel the trip to Los Angeles that I was planning to take just after the New Year. My friend, Eliza Clark (Eli), was expecting me. Should I text and tell her I’m not coming? That we should reschedule? Yes, I thought, in a moment of relief. Yes, I think I should. There were, of course, many reasons to cancel: My daughter was coming down with a cold. I was finishing an antibiotic. California was about to get smashed by yet another torrential storm. Or maybe I just wanted any excuse not to go for the very reason I was going: to recalibrate my relationship with myself and confront something that happened to me years ago, in an apartment in my early twenties.
California and I have been feeling the same way in recent years: not like our old selves. We have felt misunderstood. Out of control. Volatile. Unpredictable. A little attention-hungry. At the mercy of others. Like California, there are parts of who I am—who I used to be—that are deep in drought. That are in the midst of a disappearance. I’m turning forty this year and am already well on my way to perimenopause, and my mortality—what I am or am not doing with this one wild and precious life, as Mary Oliver so beautifully puts it—is heavy on my mind. I have been feeling the erosion, in body and spirit, and I’ve known for some time that floods are coming. That a shift is already in the air.
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To make room for the flood, you need to give in to the water. And so I made my way west to Los Angeles, despite the threat of storms. The weather seemed fitting for my state of mind—hostile, uneasy. The next morning we prepared for our trip to Joshua Tree, a trip with a specific intention and plan in mind. This journey was the reason I had come to town. I was nervous and packed a backpack in an anxious rush—too many socks, not enough shirts. I forgot my wallet altogether. Eli and I got in the car and headed south toward the desert in a downpour of rain and thunderous wind.
Like me, Eli is a writer who grew up a child actress with expectations placed on her that no kid should have to endure. Like me, Eli outgrew the trap of being typecast young, something most child actors don’t get to survive. She is a bright, curious, exuberant powder keg of energy, joy, and occasional darkness. She can be both spontaneous and hungry for adventure, while also being there for you, whenever you need her, no matter what. Eli knows how to be a wild card in her own ever-dependable deck, and she makes that approach to life infectious. I love this so much about her.
Even though we have much in common, Eli has had a good head start in her post-pandemic-that’s-still-a-fucking-pandemic journey and all the grief that comes with what was lost along the way. She’s something to aspire to. This is also why, when I made the decision to come to Joshua Tree, she was the only one I wanted to be with. I didn’t want to be with someone who had all their shit figured out completely. But I did want to be with someone headed in that direction, who knows how to enjoy the journey, no matter how flood-filled it can be.
Driving south toward the desert, the rain pummeled the highway so hard we had to put our emergency lights on. We’re crazy for doing this, we thought. We’re crazy and thrilled. It was dangerous, and so were we. At one point the rain was so concrete, visibility was less than ten feet in front of us. There was a fresh car accident every several miles. We drove past a black pickup truck spun out and sitting on top of the center divider, its back wheel still spinning.
I used to know a truck like that. In my very early twenties, I used my acting money to purchase one just like it for my boyfriend at the time. A purchase made out of guilt. I was finally ready to leave him after many painful, emotionally and physically abusive years together. In retrospect, this grandiose, absolutely absurd parting gift was my denial on full display. Not denial that it was ending, but denial that it ever existed in the first place. It was an attempt to normalize us: his mental illness and violence, my complicitness. In a long-term abusive relationship, your capacity to prove that your love can fix everything is strongest right before the moment you decide to leave. I thought using my money in this way could make leaving him easier—could make everything seem not as bad as it really was. The truck wasn’t just a truck. It was a memento that protesteth too much: No matter how much you hurt me, look how big I can still love you back. Look how much we still might be able to make it.
Toward the end of our relationship there was an incident that, to this day, informs so much of who I am, though I may never fully understand what happened. I came home from work to the apartment I shared with that boyfriend. I left my half-gone Starbucks coffee on the counter in the living room and went to shower. After my shower, I returned to drink the rest of my coffee. Later, I began to feel strange. My body tingled, my sensations heightened, the room glowed and moved around me. I went to the bedroom to lie down and writhed in our bed sheets, digging my nails into the mattress, drinking water like a sponge. He came in to check on me, several times, acting strange, shaking. Even in my inebriated state, I understood what was going on. I had been drugged. With some kind of hallucinogen or ecstasy. Probably in my coffee. I searched his face, his eyes fully dilated, his hands, frantically rubbing my back. Oh God, I thought. Oh God.
There is much that I have blocked out about what took place over the course of that night. Things I wanted to say no to but couldn’t find the words—the sense of reality. But I do remember, clearly, the next morning. I was sitting in a chair on our apartment balcony, wrapped in a blanket, trembling, coming down off the drugs. He came out and sat next to me, his pupils less dilated now. With sorrowful eyes, he said he just wanted to find a way to reconnect. It was an admission I will never forget.
I was a club kid in my youth and used psychedelic drugs recreationally, once in a while—at parties, at raves, with friends on dance floors. But for close to two decades after that incident, long after our relationship was finally over, I told myself I would never touch one again, not even for healing purposes. I didn’t want to, but also, I didn’t need to. It was a safe narrative I carried for myself.
In recent years, close friends have used microdosing for therapeutic reasons, and even my longtime therapist had suggested I consider monitored psilocybin use (mushrooms) as a treatment method for some of my own trauma healing. I judged my friends and brushed off my therapist, telling them and myself that I didn’t need any of that—that my imagination was already a feral, wild trip all on its own.
But deep down, I was jealous of the journeys they were getting to have, free of what I had experienced. And even deeper, I was scared. I was scared that if I did it, I would be confronted with my life as it truly was, and not how I safely perceived it. A life that fills me with anxiety over the future, and judgment toward what I have or have not been able to achieve. A life that has deviated from the clear course it was once on.
Even worse, I was scared that if I ever did do a psychedelic, I would be forced to go back. Back into that bedroom in my early twenties, nails digging into the mattress, out of my mind on a drug I did not willingly take. I was scared I would have to confront that younger me—a confrontation filled with anger, resentment, and blame. Why did you let it get to this point? I would say to her as she writhed in terror on a bed of her own making. Why did you let it get this bad? Why did you stay with him for so long? How could you hate yourself this much?
For years, I could not face the possibility that the effects of taking a hallucinogen for so-called “healing purposes” might bring me back to the scene of the crime of my life, and even worse, accuse me of being the killer.
But things changed in 2021 and I began opening up to a new kind of need for healing. I experienced a devastating breadth of loss within a matter of months, deaths both literal and metaphorical, and I found myself freefalling into 2022 numb, disoriented, and completely destabilized. I had come to California to try and change all that in a big, profound way. To be with Eli in Joshua Tree and to try the very thing I had feared for so many years: a hallucinogen in the form of mushrooms.
What I found on my journey was unexpected and life-altering. There was no violent confrontation with old forms of myself or terrifying unravelings or sickening revelations. Instead, I found myself sitting outside under the safety of a covered porch for hours, watching the many tantrums of the weather, moved by the beauty and volatility of the natural world—a perfect reflection of my inner self. We understood each other, me and California. A dark set of clouds rolled in over the mountains in the distance, and soon rain and wind swept across the whole desert valley. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It would pass, and sunlight would peak through, then clouds again and more unruly wind and rain. This, I was not hallucinating, but merely lucky to be present for.
During those hours, Eli was taking her own journey, dancing inside in the kitchen, writing in her journal, and poking her head out once in a while to check in on me. “You doing okay out here?” she would ask. I could not contain my smile. Yes. Yes, I am doing okay.
That afternoon, I was struck with such a fierce and present love for my life, for my living. And such sadness for how hard I’ve been on myself over the last several years—throughout my whole lifetime. My entire body felt like it had been returned to me, and I held it, sitting there in the storm, a new bond forming between us. I felt the truth of my life not as an afterthought, too late, but as something here and now; a life vital, beautiful in its aching, and worthy of giving grace and compassion to. The cacti bent and swayed in the wind. I sensed an enormous, steady, confident presence within me; a mother without fear of her own potential. You’re getting free, I thought to myself.
Sitting under that covered porch in Joshua Tree, I was even able to return to that bedroom, where the twenty-something girl I used to be was having one of the worst moments of her life. I was ready to see her again. I had the wind and the rocks and the Mother Without Fear behind me. I had California.
I didn’t judge that younger version of myself or feel the need to be different than her—better—to prove that the person I am now would never let that happen. I did not try to carry or reinstall her pain into my current state. But I loved her so much. So much. Part of my love was letting her go and letting this past of mine be at peace, like letting the dead rest. To conjure her constantly, this old memory of me, was to ask her pain to awaken anew, to relive it, over and over again. If you can forgive yourself, she seemed to say, I can forgive myself. Don’t you see? That’s our way out of all this.
So I did. And I said goodbye to that story that had lived with me for so long. The story of what happened, of who I was, of what I did or did not do for myself back then. I let that memory of the girl go, but never the girl.
She was going to come back home with me to New York, to join me on our next journey together, wherever that may take us. The journey of getting free.
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