by Margaret Gladieux
*starred names in this story have been changed for privacy purposes
“… she swallowed six half-gramme tablets of soma, lay down on her bed, and within ten minutes had embarked for lunar eternity. It would be eighteen hours at the least before she was in time again.”
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
The desire to slip away from time, from the now, is incessant. I yearn to escape into the past or into nothing, constantly, to go back to the not-here, to retreat into the before, to drift into a time that was happier, easier, where every moment wasn’t a battle to swallow the past, where every moment didn’t feel like a never-ending pursuit of happiness.
Darryl picks me up at the corner of 35th and Walnut. His Prius is stained vaguely with the scent of cigarette smoke, though well disguised in cologne and the unmistakable wash of a freshly dry-cleaned rental car. It’s clean and comfortable. He’s playing soul music through the speakers.
I assume the role of quiet passenger. Eyelashes slicked in mascara, face lightly dusted in powder, tailored pants, boots that give me an extra inch of height, I feel fidgety and unsure, but have tried to dress the part in the hope that the self-assuredness projected by my outfit will somehow seep into my bones.
Five minutes into the drive, he asks what I do for a living. “I’m a student,” I say. “At Penn.” As if it weren’t obvious—he picked me up just outside of the bookstore. Then I remind myself of the role I’m playing. “But I’m also a writer,” I add. “I’m on assignment. I’m going to see a psychedelic therapist.”
I’ve piqued Darryl’s interest. “Huh, what’s that?” I explain that I’m going to see Dr. Gail Serruya, a psychiatrist who prescribes ketamine to be used in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy.
“Ketamine? That’s a horse tranquilizer? That’s what they use on my dog at the vet!”
“Yes, but it also has therapeutic effects in humans for processing trauma. It’s been successful for treating veterans with PTSD. And it’s legal. Anyway, I’m going to speak with someone who can prescribe it,” I say.
“Huh, well, that’s something to write about,” Darryl says.
“Yeah, I’m writing about access to it—” Yes, as it falls out of my mouth, it feels right. This is a serious, reported story about the psychedelic industry. I heave out the rest of my pitch. “The problem with it being legal is that it can be misused, or pharmaceutical companies can take advantage of it,” I say.
“Oh, don’t get me started on pharmaceuticals.” For the last ten minutes of the drive, Darryl tells me of his years working for a chemist at Penn and his qualms with the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare. I say little else but listen contentedly. Before we know it, we’re on West Indian Queen Lane, in front of a bright red door and sign for Voyage Healing.
“Well, this is it,” Darryl says. “You’ll be safe with this psychedelic lady?”
“I’ll be good, thanks Darryl.” I slide out of the car and into the chilly October air. I wave at Darryl and he winks and waves as he pulls away.
I go to pull on the door, but it’s locked. I’m five minutes early. Voyage is on the side of a large, abandoned church that’s been co-opted into an office space, mostly for non-profits and community organizations. It towers over the neighborhood, which is packed with mid-century houses with hardly any space between them. They all have big front porches, many with hanging plants and dusty patio furniture.
Dr. Serruya arrives in a compact car at noon on the dot. She has a thin frame, tan skin, and short, dark, wavy hair. She’s dressed not unlike my mom would for work: simple pants and blouse, with a big shawl draped over her shoulders. She reminds me of a therapist I had in high school.
We shake hands, she welcomes me into the clinic, unlocking the bright red door. When we step through, I realize we’re in the church’s basement, the ceilings are low, and we’re in a sort of liminal hallway space with several doors.
This isn’t my first time in a psychedelic therapy clinic, but I don’t tell this to Dr. Serruya. I don’t think that’s a part of this story, at least not yet.
I spent the summer immersed in the world of ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. Psychedelic therapy clinics are now all the craze in the wellness world—as long as you have a psychiatrist who can prescribe the ketamine and some trained therapists, or even non-licensed trained “guides,” you can operate a fully-functional, fully legal, ketamine clinic. And on top of my two other summer jobs, I found myself putting in thirty hours a week there through June and July—unpaid.
What I witnessed that summer would leave me disillusioned with the promise of psychedelic treatments for treating psychiatric conditions like anxiety and depression. It seemed to me that the “healing industry” was exploiting, even twisting, scientific evidence. Nonetheless, I emerged from the summer as somewhat of an expert on the use of psychedelic drugs for healing trauma. And endlessly curious at what a psychedelic journey could do for me.
At first glance, the psychedelic therapy center felt like a home. Dark oak paneling lined the floors and walls along the staircases. There were wide couches adorned with jewel-toned throw pillows and matching floor cushions scattered about. The rugs were printed in the mass-market geometric knockoff pattern you can buy for $30 on Amazon.
The walls were covered in psychedelic-painted canvases depicting trippy, unsettling scenes. A person lying flat in a box of rainbow checkerboard against a scarlet sky. A collage of birds and eyes against a blood-red background. A flaming sailboat on an open ocean.
There were small statues of cross-legged Buddhas plugged into walls so they shined a soft orange glow and pink salt lamps that sat perched in small corners throughout the space. Sitting on the bedside table of the Ketamine Room, the name they gave to the biggest of the therapy rooms at the clinic, a patient might believe the hunk of plastic painted to look like a crystal might add some extra healing to whatever trip they were about to take.
Dr. Serruya shows me briefly around Voyage. Unlike the other psychedelic therapy clinic where I worked, Voyage feels more or less like your average psychotherapy center: comfortable but not exactly radiating spiritualism.
“We can chat in my office?” she says.
There’s a desk in the corner, neat, but stacked with files and papers, and a small lamp on top, a few filing cabinets, and diplomas and framed prints on the walls. Dr. Serruya sits in a grand armchair, and I take a seat on the large couch against the wall, facing her. On a small side table, there’s an eye mask and blood pressure cuff.
“It’s a really nice space,” I say. It really is. It’s comfortable, in the cozy way a therapist’s office should be, and I sink into the couch a bit. Dr. Serruya has a certain warmth and ease despite me being there for an interview, and I mimic her relaxedness. It’s a pure sort of comfort I haven’t felt in a while. For a moment, I imagine I’m a patient; I’m here for my first intake.
The daily routine of the summer at the psychedelic clinic: I would come in early and set up a room before each ketamine session: a fresh fitted sheet on a bed, topped with a flat sheet and fluffy blanket, tucked neatly with sharp hotel corners, two pillows with fresh pillow cases, and a weighted blanket folded at the foot of the bed. I’d ensure everything they’d need was placed neatly in the room: two mugs and an assortment of tea bags, carafe of water, blood pressure cuff, stethoscope, eye mask, and medical-grade vomit bags. I would leave the clinic before the patient arrived for the session; the next morning, I’d do the laundry. Fuzzy blankets and pillow cases. Towels. Then dishes to wash. The remnants of herbal tea in mugs, the soaked leaves congealed at the bottom with half-dissolved honey.
I ask Dr. Serruya to walk me through a session. “What would it look like if I were a patient here?”
Dr. Serruya smiles and sits back. She explains that it starts with initial intakes, a long, detailed clinical history, and conversations about the patient’s motivations for wanting to do psychedelic therapy. Then they do preparation for two more sessions: discussing side effects of ketamine, selecting music, setting intentions for what they want to get out of the therapy.
When there’s been sufficient preparation, they ease into three to six therapy sessions over the course of a few months: they come to the office like they would for any therapy appointment, but before the session starts, they either get an intramuscular injection of ketamine or slip a lozenge under their tongue. They lie back on the couch, slip eye shades over their faces, and slip into the music playing through the speakers. For the next few hours, the therapist is at their side, there to talk if they want, but mostly a silent presence through the journey.
The ketamine retreat fades into a blur: four people sprawled on the ground on makeshift beds, guides kneeling beside them, hand on their shoulder or knee or cupping their heads, afternoon melting to evening as the sun ducked behind the trees and sent shadows across the room.
They started seated upright on floor pillows, a blanket covering their legs. Each facilitator handed their partner a capsule of ketamine, slightly larger than a cough drop. All four patients were instructed to swish the lozenge in their mouth for ten minutes, then swallow it whole. As the ten minutes went by, you could see each person slowly begin to drift away, and when they were ready, they pulled eye masks over their faces and laid on their backs, blankets pulled to their shoulders and a weighted blanket placed as a second layer by their facilitator, softly cocooned.
The facilitators lit candles and spread the room in sage smoke. One of the facilitators tapped gently at a gong and cymbals, filling the room with a sort of metallic hum. A rhythmic drum beat played low through a set of speakers. I was entirely sober, but in the room, four bodies lying on the floor, facilitators crouching over each of them, holding their arms, and legs, the music, the smell of herbs and smoke, I was sent into my own sort of dissociative trance.
As time passed, some broke free of the blankets, arms moving slowly above them, as if the air were water. Others stayed completely still. I’d slip in and out of the room, a quiet observer. As the ketamine faded, they slipped off their eye masks and spoke about what they’d experienced.
When they “land,” the term Dr. Serruya uses to describe when the ketamine wears off, patients process what they experienced while on the medicine. The patient sits with the therapist and talks about the journey and how they feel, integrating their experience into their previous understanding of themselves. The integration continues over the course of the various ketamine sessions, connecting insights from each and processing them progressively.
I’d ensure everything they’d need was placed neatly in the room: two mugs and an assortment of tea bags, carafe of water, blood pressure cuff, stethoscope, eye mask, and medical-grade vomit bags. I would leave the clinic before the patient arrived for the session; the next morning, I’d do the laundry. Fuzzy blankets and pillow cases. Towels. Then dishes to wash. The remnants of herbal tea in mugs, the soaked leaves congealed at the bottom with half-dissolved honey.
Insurance doesn’t cover the kind of treatment Dr. Serruya offers at Voyage. She mentions Spravato, a nasal spray à la Flonase that allows you to squirt ketamine up your nose like it’s allergy medicine. Spravato is covered by certain insurance companies because it’s FDA approved for treatment-resistant depression. But ketamine infusions, the sort you’d do in conjunction with psychotherapy, are purely out-of-pocket.
We talk about the psychedelic telehealth industry, which she also mentions can reduce costs of ketamine treatment. I tell her about the targeted Instagram ads that pop up on my feed for Mindbloom, a company trying to sell me at-home ketamine therapy in rainbow lettering. Ketamine can be shipped to you as easily as a multivitamin; psychedelic therapy is the latest fad of the wellness industrial complex.
According to Dr. Serruya, it’s pretty easy to start prescribing ketamine. If you can send someone to CVS to get an SSRI, you can also get them ketamine. “It’s like a Wild West,” she says. Dr. Serruya shares the same concerns as I do about psychedelics as a cure for the malaise of the modern world. She’s worried about the fact that anesthesiologists can open ketamine clinics, prescribe it, and passively have people take it without guided therapy. I jot notes, and nod knowingly. A psychedelic drug once criminalized, now the next wonder drug for our epidemic of depression, anxiety, trauma. Twenty-first century psychiatry’s sparkly darling.
One person described being trapped in a cage for the first hour. Eventually she was able to break free with the help of a second version of herself, a clone who shattered the enclosure. Then that version, wilder, more carefree, less inhibited, had guided her on an adventure through space, a desert, then a jungle. As she retells it, she comes to the realization that she was suppressing a part of herself to fit expectations. In the process, she lost touch with a more innocent, carefree, and wild part of herself, a part she desperately needed to revive.
Another had separated from themself, floated up from his own body as if he were a balloon tethered to his physical self on the ground. He became one with the music, and began conducting an underwater orchestra. His experience was mostly meditative, but he said he felt a great sense of self love and oneness with the universe. “As I woke up, I just wanted to give myself a hug. We don’t give ourselves hugs, why is that?”
I’m admittedly a psychedelic nut. I hold my breath as to not let this show too much to Dr. Serruya. Play the part: I am a knowledgeable, well-read student journalist. This is a story about making psychedelic experiences accessible, not the way it affects the body, not the spiritual retreats that happen behind closed doors, not the personal healing journeys you witness when the lines blur between medicine and recreation. No, this is not a part of this story.
Ketamine can be shipped to you as easily as a multivitamin; psychedelic therapy is the latest fad of the wellness industrial complex.
When I need to reference what I know as I ask her questions, I lead with “I’ve read it’s like,” or “I’ve heard people describe it as…” Of course, I’ve seen it for myself. I’ve gotten so close, I could nearly touch it. Nearly taste it. I don’t let Dr. Serruya see the way my mind pulls toward that dissociative, hallucinatory state. The way I crave the sweet promise of years of therapy replaced by a lozenge you could just slip under your tongue or inject in your arm. That’s not what this story is about. At least, not yet.
Psychedelics are my favorite buzzword: doctors and investors and tech bros and writers and psychologists are all transfixed by the elicit hippie drugs that will more than likely go mainstream by the end of the decade. Who wouldn’t jump on the flashy technicolor promise of some pseudo-Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in your psychiatrist’s office? Billions in investments, hundreds of training models for psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and the trip-curious self-proclaimed self-help gurus trying to capitalize, capitalize, capitalize on the latest drug, waiting at the bait of full FDA-approval for the pharmaceutical companies to package it in pill bottles.
The desire to heal of course comes from somewhere. Maybe it was the folklore I’d hear about my father’s days in San Francisco after he graduated college, when his weekends were spent sprawled out in fields in rural central California, high on LSD or shrooms or whatever he could get his hands on that week. By his mid-twenties, he moved back to his home state of Virginia to go to medical school, ultimately becoming a psychiatrist, though prescribing SSRIs rather than psychedelics to patients.
I like to think my father would be one of the psychiatrists leading the psychedelic revolution within the healthcare industry. But he died in 2009, at least five years before MDMA, psilocybin, and ketamine became words that medical professionals could even utter without risking DEA investigation. I imagine he’d be some revolutionary trip doctor, increasing access to psychedelic therapies to people who couldn’t afford it, lobbying the insurance companies and lawmakers, writing op-eds, maybe even opening a private practice to prescribe psychedelics. I don’t know any of this for sure, of course, but as a child of grief, I’m entitled to my imagination.
In Voyage Healing’s model, ketamine is only a tool to unlock something bigger, a chemical supplement for breaking down walls to access the negative thoughts, toxic thought patterns, and traumatic memories that underlie most mood disorders. It’s less a cure, more a system for uprooting the cause, allowing access to the source. It’s like an accelerator to facilitate some grand pursuit of happiness, to alleviate anxiety, dissolve depression, and rid the body of trauma. Maybe it’s not a happy pill, but it’s a promise to unravel the badness of the past to find goodness in the future. A highway over the muck of our endless pursuit of happiness.
The story does not unfold linearly, not when a single string can unravel a past. The body holds onto our experiences, they live within us. I reject the idea that we move through time; what if time moves through us? What if every moment of past time settles within our cells, clutching to our essence? What has passed is not really past us because it has changed our very substance, we hold onto it, bits of it lie in us forever. I reject the idea that we can ever fully know a person, or that we can ever fully know ourselves, because it’s impossible to see the mosaic of all our past selves all at once, all the fragments of time clutching to the versions of us here and now.
The week after I meet Dr. Serruya, I’m off for yet another psychedelic adventure—or at least to supervise one. University City is high on the buzz of Homecoming. I lug all 15 pounds of my weighted blanket down Spruce Street and knock on the door of Chris’s* house. Luna* answers.
I’ve only known Luna for a few weeks, but we are connected by loss. This wasn’t what the story was supposed to be about. But inevitably it seeps in, as it always does. My father, his death, the way it seems to permeate everything I do. When Luna tells me her father died when she was ten, there’s an instant connection, a sudden understanding that she too holds grief in her bones.
Loss has been swirling in her mind lately. And she wants to do ketamine to understand it. “I would love for you to guide me on a ketamine trip.” This wasn’t going to be a part of my story. But my investigative intentions lead me to the experiential, the reported facts always become personal, the grief always circles back. Every story I try to tell seems to go back to this loss. I push it away and it lingers at the surface; I try to hide it or mention it in the vaguest of terms, and it screams back No! I’m here! I’m inside of you! You cannot exist without me!
It’s less a cure, more a system for uprooting the cause, allowing access to the source. It’s like an accelerator to facilitate some grand pursuit of happiness, to alleviate anxiety, dissolve depression, and rid the body of trauma. Maybe it’s not a happy pill, but it’s a promise to unravel the badness of the past to find goodness in the future. A highway over the muck of our endless pursuit of happiness.
So when Luna asks me to guide her through the ketamine to explore her loss, it slowly overtakes me too. Before we know it we’re planning, I’m calculating the right doses, and I write the list of what I’ll need: candles, a weighted blanket, eye covers, pillows, a notebook, a well-rested mind. A willingness to grieve and re-grieve and grieve again.
The ultimate guide book to psychedelic journeys is Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience, a handbook based on the famous Buddhist text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I first encountered when I was fourteen and my family was preparing to move. As I packed up a dusty bookshelf, I found a collection of books on meditation and spirituality that had once belonged to my father. At that point, he’d been gone for over five years, but little pieces of him still washed up now and then, new secrets that brought the whispers of grief closer. It was a sudden glimmering shell brought to my shore of remembering, another piece of the person whose memory only existed in shards.
Leary wrote The Psychedelic Experience in 1964 and dedicated it to Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, and early supporter of psychedelics. When I read Brave New World in the tenth grade, I fantasized about Soma, the happy pills the characters carry at all times to regulate their mood. No longer would I chase happiness. I’d hold it in my pocket and pop a pill when the darkness crept in, slipping into blissful ignorance, bodily joy blanketing the depression and anxiety and incessant intrusive thoughts and memories.
I’d only met Chris the day before. Luna had asked me to meet her at the library; one of her friends was going to join us for her ketamine journey, and they wanted to plan. I’m hesitant, but Luna insists that having her friend there will help make her comfortable. And if there was one thing I knew, it was that feeling safe for her journey would be essential.
When I arrive at the small corner they occupy in the lobby, Chris greets me with a hug. The tips of his dark curly hair are bleached and he wears beaded necklaces and bracelets. He tells me he studies business and engineering, but he has the energy of a religious studies or philosophy major.
In the brick of campus, between the cinderblock walls of basement parties, college students whisper about trips: shrooms, LSD, special K. But Chris’s enthusiasm surpasses the curiosity of early twenty-somethings for psychedelic party drugs. His interest in psychedelics is eerily familiar, pseudo-spiritual, and vaguely evangelical, like the slogans of the psychedelic therapy websites, their transformative power, their potential for healing. Chris is the type of person you’d meet at a ketamine retreat. Or DMT or ayahuasca.
“So what’s the plan? What should we expect?” asks Luna.
“Yeah, I’ve never done ketamine,” says Chris.
They stare at me intently as I describe it all: set and setting, the retreats I’ve seen, dosing, different routes of administration. I talk about ketamine-assisted psychotherapy, walk them through the off-label model for therapeutic use. I could be Dr. Serruya, a walking testimony for this enhanced model of therapy.
“So, we’ll be, like, asleep. So different from shrooms,” muses Chris. “I’m hype for this.”
I pause, confused. “Wait, so let me just clarify, both of you are taking ketamine tomorrow?”
Luna had first asked if Chris could join because he was “interested in this kind of therapy work.” I’d blindly agreed, thinking he’d be an extra sitter, there to make her feel more comfortable and safe. I’d misunderstood: Chris would actually be doing the ketamine with her, and I’d be sitting with both of them. I was supervising a full-on ketamine retreat. Tomorrow.
Luna leaves, but Chris asks me to stick around to continue chatting. He begins rambling about the psilocybin journey he led Luna on over the summer. “It’s something I do,” he says cooly. He explains a system of cards for setting intentions that he’d designed under the supervision of one of his professors. “Have you heard of Wavepaths?” I shake my head. “It’s this startup where they design the perfect soundtrack for your trip. It’s great.” He leans back knowingly and I nod along. “It’s okay, I’ll send you the link.”
Chris walks me through his whole system. “It’s not just about the drug, it’s about the whole experience.” He’s packaged it into glossy words that promise healing; I realize he views the psychedelic promise less as medicine and more as recreation, maybe even luxury, somewhere between spa and rugged adventure. He could be the poster child for the budding industry and market of psychedelia-infused wellness culture. A walking psychedelic infomercial.
Sure, I worked in a licensed psychedelic therapy clinic for three months. I’ve witnessed sessions, read every piece of scientific literature, and even done the training to be a psychedelic-assisted therapy guide. I explain this to Chris; but he has another way, another philosophy. In his mind, what is clearly the correct philosophy.
There are two key parts of any psychedelic journey that Leary details in The Psychedelic Experience, known as set and setting.
Set describes the preparation one does before a psychedelic experience and the intentions and insights one uses as guiding thoughts as they go into the medicine. Setting describes the physical space that you occupy on your trip, the music, temperature, smell, physical surfaces, and people who surround you as you dip into the psychedelic realm. Both are essential for accessing insight, deep reflection, and the healing the psychedelic experience is supposed to establish.
The most important element of set and setting is trust: trust that you are in a safe place, trust that you will get something positive from the experience, and trust in the people who will be there with you, trust that any experiences or memories that emerge will be treated as sacred, both by everyone in the room—and your own mind.
The next day, Luna takes me through a door on the first floor and into an apartment, then down a set of stairs into the basement. Jazz music is playing from the speakers and string lights are twisted around a large pipe that stretches across the ceiling, oscillating in blinking patterns. The walls are covered in framed posters and in the center of the room is a glass coffee table and deep brown leather sofa. I’m struck with the warm scent of sage incense, patchouli, and the pumpkin candle that flickers on the coffee table.
Chris is in his bedroom in a Zoom meeting, so Luna and I get a chance to sit and talk, just us, mutual daughters of dead fathers. The unspoken understanding between us disintegrates a certain wall that usually rises between me and most people. She tells me everything: the endless yearning for her father, the constant fear that he would leave her, the incessant anxiety of loss, and the ultimate devastation when he left and never came back. She speaks, I listen.
We both suffer from a sort of deep existential anxiety about losing. The way that Luna replays memories of her father reminds me of how I find myself traveling backward any time I think of my family or the narrative of my life. Don’t go there, this isn’t about you.
Despite the connection I feel to Luna, the implicit trust between us, I do as I usually do: keep my story vague, don’t let her on to too many details about my dad. I’ve already shared a lot with Luna, dipped back into the past more than I like to let myself. My voice quiets, I withhold details, keep my grief short, vague, and palatable, as always. Stay present, stay here.
But the grief cycles back, it always cycles back.
Losing my father left me with the sort of trauma that isn’t shakeable; childhood grief morphed into depression and anxiety and a constant hum of what if. I sometimes wonder what he would have prescribed me. I tried a suite of psychiatric medications: sertraline, bupropion, hydroxyzine. They either flattened my emotions, sent me into bouts of insomnia, or made me drowsy and dizzy to the point of falling over. No meds. Instead I cope through balance: healthy eating, a regular sleep schedule, Vitamin D, a weekly one-hour session with my therapist. I manage. I warily, reluctantly, desperately take every ounce of advice I can from self-proclaimed wellness gurus in the hope of somehow being better.
My voice quiets, I withhold details, keep my grief short, vague, and palatable, as always. Stay present, stay here.
The world has taught me that trauma, loss, anxiety, depression, prolonged grief, and all the other labels that have been put on me by counselors, teachers, therapists, relatives, are things I should try to exorcize from myself, or at least package into a small, pretty box that isn’t too painful for others to see. I may keep it with me, but it’s been a long time, so I shouldn’t let it show.
That doesn’t stop the sudden waking in the middle of the night, caught in a dream from the past or some warped version of the present, the sudden racing heart in any sort of open, crowded space (stores, lecture halls, street corners), and the mornings when I don’t want to get out of bed, when I ponder the possibility of never getting out of bed. It’s a normal response to grief and it never quite goes away: it makes its way into your cells and defines the way you do everything, no matter how much time passes. Every day, I fold it tightly into my little box, tie a ribbon around it, and never let anyone fully see inside.
When Chris finally emerges from his room, I get to work with setting. We move the coffee table into the corner and build makeshift beds in the center of the living room. I walk them through what I brought for the session: soft lavender candles which I’ll light once they settle into the medicine, a weighted blanket to help them feel grounded during their experience, and handkerchiefs to cover their eyes and encourage them to remain internally focused during their journey.
“These were my father’s,” I say. “I also wanted to bring a piece of myself into this experience.” It’s a sweet memento, the kind of grief-souvenir that’s admissible to let show, sentimental without oversharing.
He always had them in his pocket to wipe sweat or snot, or dirt or tears, depending on the day. When he coached my soccer games, he’d tie them on the goal posts to remind us which direction was ours, a swatch of familiar cloth, a reminder of where my team was aiming to score. Navy blue with tiny white floral patterns, they are my dishrags, my pocket hankies, the napkins I give to guests I have over for dinner. I’ve washed them hundreds of times. They still feel and smell like him.
We practice touch, which I explain will be my main role when they’re on the medicine. “If you feel nervous or need a reminder that I’m here, I’ll be by your side.” We practice a few touch points: Luna wants me to ground her at her elbows and head, Chris on his shoulder.
While Chris was in his room, Luna and I had mostly done the set preparation we needed to do, going in-depth on Luna’s experience with loss and the reflection she’d like to do while in the medicine. But Chris—of course—has his own system for leading journeys. He pulls out his notecards and asked Luna to write with him on themes: self-criticism, grief, gratitude.
Luna and Chris write on hexagon-shaped notecards—part of Chris’s package he uses for leading people on journeys. Luna’s are more or less what we already discussed, with a tornado of her fear of loss and words that cling to her in the face of it.
Chris’s responses take a simultaneously practical and spiritual tone. Expectations from childhood haunt him, he struggles to let himself relax. At the same time, his relationship to loss feels guided by a higher power.
He explains that he’s been struggling a lot with motivation and productivity, the usual tribulations of a college student, but also that he has a friend who’s also experienced loss recently. He tells me that a friend of his, Ruby,* recently had her father pass away. And he wants to reflect on how to help her through it. As usual, dead fathers are an inevitable theme. And I guess Chris wants me to help guide him to an answer. I bite my tongue to resist telling him: There isn’t one.
I am intoxicated by the perfume of candle wax clogging my throat. I am thinking about how the basement reminds me of the house of my mother’s best friend, the house where we got snowed in when I was three, where we played dress up, wearing swimsuits and snowcaps. It was the first time my father almost died (though I didn’t know it then), the first place I remember ever feeling afraid and joyful at once. Stop going into the past. You are here. You are now.
Luna kneels at the small table and lets the ketamine enter her, then crawls across the shag rug to her bed, pulling my weighted blanket under her arms. She lies back, eyes wide. Though I expect Chris to go next, he instead turns off the music and replaces it with a guided breathwork meditation, a deep voice replacing the jazz through the speakers and filling the whole room. In two-three-four, out two-three-four.
Chris says an affirmation about grief that sends my mind spinning, vaguely prayer-like. “The people who have passed on,” he says. I always hated the word “pass” to refer to death. The verb to die exists for a reason. Pass assumes that dead people have gone somewhere else, rather than ceased to exist, an implication of something other after, something bigger, something higher—that felt untrue to my experience of my father. When he died, he’d disappeared completely, the only parts of him remaining a box of ashes, photos, and my memories.
I nearly interrupt Chris to tell him he can’t know that people pass on after death. A tear escapes from my eye as I hold my breath. As Chris finishes his affirmation he takes his dose and lies back. “Meg, can I have my eye mask please?” I crawl over to him, draping my father’s handkerchief over the top half of his face.
Luna still has her eyes open. Half an hour has passed since she took the drug, and for a moment, I’m concerned. “Checking in, how are you?” I whisper. She’s staring at her hands, which she twists softly in front of her face. “I feel so weightless, I don’t recognize my hands,” she says with wonder. She’s silent for a minute, then says, “Meg, will you cover my face?”
I grab my father’s handkerchief and place it over her eyes. I wonder if she can smell him too.
When ketamine hits the brain, it blocks NMDA receptors; these have many important roles in the brain, but one of the most important is their role in memory processing. Additionally, they play an important role in the formation of new connections in the brain. Unlike many anesthetics, ketamine only sedates parts of the brain, allowing others to maintain active, spinning, alive. When NMDA receptors are blocked in some regions, it can force the activation of new pathways, allowing new connections to form.
In conjunction with self-reflection, a ketamine experience can literally rewire the brain, reframing memories and experiences, like a switch forcing a stream of electricity to find a new path. A new way of viewing the past and the self. Its effects can be felt within minutes of ingestion.
Chris and Luna lie in complete stillness. About ten minutes after I cover their eyes, a roommate of Chris’s crashes through the front door upstairs, talking loudly on the phone, and I’m hit with a wave of panic. How are Chris and Luna experiencing this sudden interruption? Is it going to ruin it? Did Chris not warn his housemates to be quiet this afternoon? That he’d be on a ketamine trip in the basement, supervised by a stranger?
I glide up the stairs and introduce myself to the stranger who’s house I’m co-opting as a ketamine retreat space. “Hey, I’m Meg, Luna and Chris are in the basement on ketamine, I’m sitting with them.” His eyes are wide at the stranger suddenly approaching him in the hallway of his own home. “Can you try to just be a little quieter, just so you don’t disturb them?” I’m aware of how bizarre it is, and the roommate is at first taken aback, but then laughs, agrees to be quiet. “Ha, of course they’re on ketamine.” As if this is a normal occurrence, an unsurprising activity for Chris on a Friday afternoon. I run back to the basement, expecting Luna and Chris to be sitting upright, untethered from their trip. But they both remain lying back and completely still; I return to my perch at their feet and begin scribbling notes.
Reality is supposed to appear as something objective, but our reality is inherently shaped by perception and our sensory modalities, which develop differently in each individual. We cannot perceive anything in the same way as anyone else. The past and the way it shapes our perceptions has a way of creeping in when you least want it to. We are all supposed to be able to agree on reality, but our unique neurochemistries and cytoarchitectures make that impossible.
“This is really perfect,” Chris says at one point. I think of his perfectionism and how undoubtedly un-perfect this whole thing is. A strange basement, a loud roommate, imprecise measurement of the drug, my anxiety. I’m squirming and ready to crawl out of my body, a dissonant discomfort sweeping me in the otherwise serene candlelight. The basement feels suffocating, their calm heightening my angst. This is for them, not for you.
I spend the whole time writing. I sketch the room in words, noting every subtle movement. I’m on edge, like at any moment something could go wrong. I’m highly aware of how foreign the space is—and how foreign I am in it. The hours pass swiftly and I find myself constantly fixated on the two people in front of me. Their minds are far away and mine is fixed firmly here, a guardian of their bodies. I assume the role of caregiver, pushing away the worries and spiraling thoughts that knock at my mind.
About an hour in, a fast drum rhythm whispers from the speakers, a change of pace from the otherwise calm of the playlist, and blankets the whole room. As it intensifies, Chris and Luna begin speaking, eyes still obscured by the handkerchiefs. Luna whispers about stability and normalcy and how no two loves feel the same. Chris mutters something about “The light of others who are lost,” and I wonder if he’s finding the answers he seeks. If there even is an answer of how to help another through grief. Like a ketamine journey, I’ve always seen grief as something that occurs in the presence of others, but is inevitably a battle of solitude.
There is no light left when we lose. I think of the grief circles my mom would take me to when I was young, how at the end of each year, we’d hold candlesticks, light them with matches, and then blow them out one by one. Grief has always felt to me like the endless twirling of smoke when the flame is extinguished, the suggestion of fire hanging in the air, but cold, a crumpled burnt wick a reminder that the flame will not reappear.
Ketamine inherently distorts reality and our perception of what is and isn’t. When someone reflects on their experience on ketamine, they don’t use words like “I felt like” or “it was like” —they use an absolute, definitive voice—”I was in space”—”I was running through the desert”—”my spirit floated away from my body, tethered by a single string.” No one else perceived them to be doing these things, but that was what they were perceiving as tiny connections in their brain sought new paths. Who’s to say that isn’t nonfiction?
Their voices are soft, and I crawl closer to listen, a mild rug burn striking my bare knees as I stretch my body across the carpet. Some of what they say is audible, other things I can’t hear. They talk to themselves, they talk to each other. It’s not always clear what is lucid, or if they’re even conscious they’re speaking at all. Their words slur and slow, then they both quiet. The room is again bathed in silence and the low patter of drum and string singing from the speakers. Though the room has quieted, my heart is racing. I rush to my notebook to scribble what they’ve said.
Ten minutes after they stop speaking, I ask how they are, if they’d like a grounding touch. They both say yes, so I kneel between them, my left hand on Luna’s elbow and right hand on Chris’s shoulder. Suddenly, all three of us are connected. Their bodies are warm and I fear that I am a cold and unwelcome presence.
“Is this okay?” I ask
“Yes, it feels so nice,” whispers Luna, and Chris slowly nods with a deep hum of affirmation. I think of how vulnerable they are, how they trusted me to guard their bodies. I let my energy pulse through them and take a deep breath, imagining the hesitation flowing out of my body through the top of my scalp, a calming assurance springing from my fingertips and into their skin.
After five minutes of holding them, I softly say, “I’m letting go now,” and I slip back to a cross-legged position at their feet. I wonder what they’re feeling, what they’re seeing.
Around three in the afternoon, Chris seems to be asleep, a crackle of snore rumbling from his throat. Luna’s lip quivers as if she’s crying and she grips both sides of her bed. It’s been two hours. I whisper to check in, and she nods that she’s good. Ten minutes later, she pulls off the handkerchief and notes that her eyes are wet, but she doesn’t know why. Chris wakes at the same time, touching his neck, abdomen, and legs, then wiggling his feet. They’ve landed.
The rest of the afternoon fades to blur. When Chris and Luna wake, they want to go on a walk. We emerge from the dark cave of the basement and into the warm October sun. I ask questions, curious to hear what they experienced. “It was just so calm, so relaxing,” says Chris, “totally different from psilocybin or LSD or anything like that.”
Luna talks about loss: that it’s a part of life, that she feels overwhelmed by trying to make things feel normal. To her, loss disrupts normalcy, we try to stop loss, but we can’t. And that’s frustrating. While she’s on the medicine, she realizes she needs to embrace its inevitability. Loss isn’t a disruption of normalcy; it is normalcy.
On the walk, I feel dizzy and disconnected. I’ve done nothing but sit in the basement for the past several hours and the sunshine feels unreal. We walk to a playground and Chris and Luna muse about childhood. They’re both still a little high, calm and giggly, like teenagers emerging from laughing gas after the extraction of their wisdom teeth. I’m tense with the burn of anxiety, but feign a smile, listen to what they say, walk at their slow, meandering pace back to Chris’s house.
There is no light left when we lose. I think of the grief circles my mom would take me to when I was young, how at the end of each year, we’d hold candlesticks, light them with matches, and then blow them out one by one. Grief has always felt to me like the endless twirling of smoke when the flame is extinguished, the suggestion of fire hanging in the air, but cold, a crumpled burnt wick a reminder that the flame will not reappear.
Back in the basement, we integrate. I read Luna and Chris my notes. “At one point you said it was ‘perfect,’” I tell Chris. “But it wasn’t perfect, there was interruption, we had a makeshift space,” I read from my notes.
“What can that teach you about your feeling that you always need to do, to be productive all the time? You took an afternoon dissociating from everything. What’s so bad about stopping to relax, about not always moving to the next thing, but stopping to just be with yourself?”
I don’t know if I’ve said the right thing until Chris responds with a wise, knowing, “Oh, yes, what an insight.” I have a feeling it’s not quite what he expected, that for him, the ketamine was more or less like a heavy, dreamy dose of melatonin.
Luna doesn’t find what she’s looking for, but she arrives at what she needs. “I thought I was going to see my father,” she says. “I wanted to see my father, for him to guide me to the answer.” Instead, she goes back to everything that came after, every moment where she was in the middle of loss. And she found not what she expected, but instead a sort of peaceful realization: loss was a part of her, inextricable, and the ketamine switch eased her brain to that understanding.
Luna and I talk more about her dad. In her still-drugged state, the memories flow out of her in vivid detail. I’m almost jealous of the way she seems transported back. She could be ten years old, sitting in front of me, recalling her father’s love and the pain she felt every time he’d leave—and when he never came back. Chris sits at the edge of the room, writing. I wonder if he’s listening, but assume he’s writing reflections on his own experience as Luna and I reflect on her grief. I’ll later learn he’s taking detailed notes of every word Luna and I say, as if Luna and I are roadmaps for him to take back to Ruby, who he’s intent to guide through the loss of her dad.
I would have told him there’s no guiding anyone through grief; there’s only letting it see where it takes you, relinquishing control, and letting others hold your hand as you learn to live with it.
The sun dips behind the trees as evening nears, and I leave Luna and Chris. They’re going to a horse farm for the afternoon to bask in the remnants of the drug that circulates in their systems. I’m hit with a pang of exhaustion—and sadness. My shoulders are sore, my neck stiff. I’ve spent the afternoon at the bedside of others, a warm hand to comfort, an eye to observe, an ear to listen. But I feel my own hurt bubbling at the surface, screaming to come out. This isn’t about you, this isn’t what this story was supposed to be about. But it is, the grief is always a string, an essential thread that could unravel me at any moment, if someone or something tugs it right.
Grief is an initiation into something unshakeable. When I say my father is dead it pours out of my mouth as easily as my hair is brown or my name is Meg. It is etched into my cells and I make it look easy to hold with me every day. I try to carry it lightly. I share my experience and I let others pour their grief onto me. We bask in the knowledge that we can relate to each other and speak the same language.
I have gone most of my life not thinking of the loss so much as trauma, but as a fact of reality. It is not heavy. It is just the way things are. I’ve swallowed my grief so many times it is like saliva and I do not admit that it burns. No matter how much time passes. I make it into a million metaphors to try to get people to understand. The simultaneous heaviness and emptiness, the hurt that no longer carries pain. Grief is an infinite contradiction. A surreal sort of oxymoron. And my little body formed around it so long ago that I now cannot separate myself from it without cutting into my very essence.
Through all of it, there’s one thing I don’t admit: I am on my own constant pursuit of happiness—and I’m failing. I was so desperate to write a story that felt serious, investigative, rigorous, well-reported that I wrote a shell of the truth. I didn’t write about the breakdown eight hours after my visit to Dr. Serruya, a breakdown where I say it aloud: “I’m just so unhappy.”
These words echo in my head most of the time: it’s a truth, a prayer, a curse, a plea. I am unhappy. I hate clubs and email and work and responsibilities. I hate waking hours and conversations and pretending like everything is okay. I yearn for my bed, to slip into sleep, where nothing exists, where I don’t exist. I feel a constant tightness, as if years of holding all my grief and sadness inside are slowly squeezing the life out of me.
I was so interested in stepping into these clinics where a substance could induce some big epiphany. I wanted to get so close to the pursuit of happiness that I could touch it. I wanted to pull it apart so that I could confirm it was too good to be true, so that I could validate my own lack of it.
My therapist explains that my unhappiness probably comes from some unresolved trauma that I’m trying to process. Like I let the grief scab over in the hopes that it would heal, but instead, I’ve let an infection simmer just under the surface. I’ve been working so long to let it go that I didn’t realize there were still tiny pieces stuck to me. Maybe there is no such thing as letting it go. But pretending it isn’t there is rotting me from the inside out. I’m letting the bad memories live in the present. And it’s clouding my mind in crippling unhappiness.
Sometimes when you take a can opener to the past, you get cut. This is what a family member tells me when I go asking for stories of my father. I don’t want shards or washed up bits that require me to dig and collect; I want all of him, long stories that the people around me have refused to share, the parts of him—who he was in his twenties, the memories of when he was my age, the little moments—that I grieve every day, the things he can’t share with me himself.
I’ve taken a can opener to the past many times, scrolling through my memories, dissecting them, asking questions of every family member with the patience to share details about the decades before I was born. I take a can opener to their memories too, and any sharp edges I leave behind are necessary. I get cut in the process, but at least I can heal it with narrative. Fill in the details and make sense of the present with a mosaic of the past. It is sad and hurtful, but at least I can make it into something sensical, something to ground me in the reality of how I came to be. I collect the past and hold it inside me, coil it in my chest where only I can see.
There is the part of me that wants to try it, to let ketamine wash over my brain and let the memories flow unhindered by the strict pathways I’ve erected for them. I want to look at Dr. Serruya and say, “Do you have any openings?” I want to ask Luna if she’d sit with me next time. I even considered asking Chris to guide me on one of his journeys.
But I fear that psychedelics would take a can opener to me. I do not want to let it all out, I do not want my mind to be cut open, I do not want to unbury the things I’ve chosen to leave behind. I like my narrative. It’s the truest thing I know. It’s heavy, but it grounds me in my core. It is the one thing that I can control: how much I tell, the way I tell it, and who I tell it to. I don’t want to seek happiness or enlightenment à la Leary’s Psychedelic Experience. I need to find a way to be happy without a drug that sends my brain loose. I do not want to relinquish control to new pathways and dreamy sedation, I do not want to let others see it. It’s mine; I’m afraid if I let anyone have it, hold it, know it, they won’t be gentle. And that would unravel me.
In the third act, a new character enters my investigation of the pursuit of happiness, a surprise variable that had been hovering at the edges of the story, and then finally making herself apparent as an essential part of everything, an embodiment of my avoidance of the grief that lurked in my bones.
I’d heard her name—the friend of Chris’s who’d recently lost her father. Ruby—at least as I’ll call her here. She has a story too. Little did I know that Chris had weaponized his ketamine experience against her. And she found me—Ruby was launching her own investigation, too, and I was at the center of it.
On the phone, she tells me everything: her father died at the beginning of October. Two weeks before the ketamine in the basement with Luna and Chris. When he did, Chris was a friend, but not a close one. He’d only found out about Ruby’s loss from an Instagram post. He suddenly became attached to her, trying to support her, digging into her grief when she was still in the early stages of processing. A grief vampire, desperate to be a part of her loss. Someone who wants to suck the sadness out of you, energized by the trauma of others or the fantasy that they can heal them. The type of person who caused me to lock my grief away and make it look pretty and light on the outside. My worst nightmare.
He then began berating her with calls and texts, asking to speak. He grew hostile, showing up at places he knew she’d be, cornering her into talking to him. He told her he had led two girls on a ketamine experience, two girls who had lost their own fathers when they were young, and that through that experience, he’d found the empathy and absorbed the experience to help Ruby grieve her father, too. At this point, I gasp.
“No, I sat with him. That was a lie,” I tell Ruby. “He’s completely twisted it.” I’m suddenly back in the basement. I had let little bits of myself into the experience, shared feelings with Luna, supported Chris, even let my own father’s handkerchief’s rest over his face, grounded him in his journey. He met that by exploiting my experience, my life, my presence with him to take advantage of Ruby, to act like he could ever comprehend the inexplicable chaos and devastation of the loss of a father.
Ruby refused to speak to him, blocked his calls and texts, told him to leave her alone. The most disturbing part: he told Ruby she wouldn’t be able to “properly” grieve her father without faith. The exact sort of prescription of belief that anyone you love could be “in a better place” that has haunted me ever since my father died.
I tell Ruby what really happened. I tell her I can’t understand her loss, can’t imagine what it’s like for it to be so fresh, but that I can be a “dead dad friend” if she ever needs one. Grief shows the worst in people; it’s a mysterious thing you can only know if you’ve experienced it yourself. And on the outside, it can either cause people to retreat, or attract those who only wish to make it go away. Those who refuse to believe that it never goes away.
After I speak to Ruby, I’m buzzing in rage, in grief, in frustration. I want to scream. I want to expel all the awfulness from my body and brain. The psychedelic is where experience collapses on itself, the ego shatters, the worries fade and everything is one, a body entirely capable of knowing itself. I feel detached yet trapped; I feel a desperate need to both become more tethered, and escape completely.
There’s a practice I learned when I was working at the psychedelic therapy center. Wim Hof, or holotropic breathing. It’s a controlled form of hyperventilation that floods the body with oxygen, but with such rapid movement that only a fraction of it reaches the brain, causing portions to disassociate, while others launch into hyperfocus. It’s a stress-induced anxiety relief, mimicking the effect of a drug. A sort of mini ketamine rush. A breathing-induced psychedelic state.
I start by writing down all of my worries, sadnesses, frustrations. I won’t ever find something that will make me fulfilled, something that will make me happy. My dad is missing everything I’m doing. He wouldn’t even recognize the person I am today. What if I forget him, what if my memories of him fade like everything else? I’ll never be able to connect with people because of the weight of this grief. I’m incapable of loving correctly, I will never be able to love as I should. I’m too trapped in the past. I lie on the floor of my room and imagine these thoughts floating over my head, catching them in my hands, and contracting my fingers slowly to crush them.
My spine and shoulder blades dig into the linoleum. I light candles, grab a handkerchief from the small table beside my couch, and lie it over my face.
I take three slow, deep breaths, then hold the third for as long as I can. When I can’t hold it anymore, I exhale a thin, concentrated stream, through my lips, like a slowly deflating balloon. Time to begin.
I set a timer for 5 minutes, rapid in-out-in-out-in-out-in-out. The oxygen is barely reaching my cells. My mind is nothing but in-out-in-out-in-out. Everything is tense. I remember age nine, lying on the floor of my room, the carpeted floor static against my hair. I wanted nothing more than to die. The month after my father died, my mom told me I could paint my room any color. We went to Home Depot and I picked a bright lavender, spent all of July sloshing it onto the walls. I’d put a pillow over my face and hold my breath for as long as I could, but inevitably my lungs would give in, forcing me to deliver oxygen to my cells, to cling to life. I’d let tears stream down my face, eyes fixed onto the ceiling as my vision swam in the purple-walled periphery.
In-out-in-out-in-out-in-out. My grief will always separate me from other people; they’ll never be able to understand the weight of what I carry in my little box. I can tell them, but they’ll never be able to feel it the way that I do. So why tell them anyway? It will only hurt them, make them uncomfortable, and burden them with my sadness. In-out-in-out-in-out-in-out.
When I hear the ping of my alarm I exhale desperately and hold for 30 seconds, and my whole body relaxes, the blackness under the handkerchief growing orange around the edges.
I imagine the worries floating above me, flashes of memory. Front yard soccer games and the warmth of evening sun. Dad playing guitar before dinner, the maracas he’d place in my hand, telling me to shake to the rhythm and sing along. My mind feels looser, but I’m in complete control. The photo albums he made for us, every moment documented meticulously and preserved in plastic sleeves. Maybe his worst fear was that I’d forget too.
I do not want to forget. I do not want peace. I do not want to rid my body of the trauma, for the memories to become empty shells of what they once held. In the pain there is beauty and joy and nostalgia and I could bask in that forever. I want to remain firmly fixed in this world, to find happiness in even the worst parts. To let the memory of the past and the beauty of the present collapse on one another.
The psychedelic breath brings no relief, only awareness that I’m trapped in my own dollhouse of remembering: I pass through the same sadness, the same fear, the same memories, the same worries, the same days, the days that collided with me and left pieces of themselves behind like microscopic shards of broken glass. Bullet fragments that penetrated my appendages and stuck there, the flesh building itself around the pieces of hurt and memory. I think if I try to remove them, I’ll bleed out.
I sob so hard that I begin heaving, which transforms to hyperventilation and extreme nausea. I pull myself from the floor and scramble to the bathroom. I keel over and watch as everything I’ve eaten in the past day pours into the toilet water, acid burning my throat and bits of fluid splashing my tear-stained face.
Every time I try to write something personal that’s not about grief, it seeps in anyway. The loss creeps in even when I ask it not to, the reminders of it are everywhere, my dad is everywhere, the past is everywhere.
I’ve always thought it was my fatal flaw, but maybe it’s just the truth. Maybe if I’m trying to avoid it, I’m not really writing non-fiction.
Two weeks after our phone call, Ruby and I sit down for coffee.
“I’ve been wearing black, like all the time,” says Ruby, “but I thought I should put on some color for meeting you, so you don’t think I’m psycho.”
“No, you have a right to wear black whenever you want,” I say. “Forever, if you want.”
I expect her to avoid talking about grief. I expect small talk about our lives and small mentions of her father here and there. Instead, she spills her whole heart.
She tells me her Thanksgiving was terrible. Yes, the holidays always are. I don’t even remember my first holidays without my dad. None of them were great; they all blend into an empty, hazy blur.
She tells me everything about her father: his smile, his love, how she was his favorite. She talks about how he lit up every room he walked into and had a burning love of art, a love that lives in her too. She talks about her favorite memories with him and his final weeks of life. How she laid in bed with him as his breaths became more labored, as he slowly sputtered to silence. I smile, I laugh, I cry. I ask questions. She replies in excited and vivid detail.
I share interspersed details of my practiced narrative: my father was a psychiatrist and a musician. He died when I was eight-and-a-half. He was my favorite person. He was an amazing person. He understood me better than anyone else. I did lots of grief therapy when I was young. It’s hard, and I miss him, but things are okay. I keep it vague, digestible, withholding parts that would reveal anything too raw. No need to burden people with the details. I keep that tucked away in my box, only let it show in its pristine, unobtrusive package.
Ruby sees right through it and finally a question slips from her lips, a question I could tell she’d been itching to ask, the question that always tends to dance in the backs of people’s minds: Tell me how your father died. It’s not often people have the guts to ask, but here, now, Ruby does.
I pause, disarmed. This wasn’t supposed to be about me. My body tenses. And then I tell her. Everything. As I do, my body slowly relaxes. It’s relief, it’s catharsis, it’s freeing, all the misty details escaping. Ruby doesn’t flinch.
“I don’t usually tell people all that,” I say.
“What? Like your friends don’t ask?” Ruby says. Why would they? “That’s bullshit. I tell everyone. I want people to see it. I want people to ask. When my friends avoid it, I intentionally bring it up.”
I tell Ruby it’s not the same; for me it’s been years. No one in my life now knew my dad, or even knew me when he was alive. Her grief is an infant, in need of constant care, screaming to be soothed, given attention. Mine is a moody teenager, subdued, sad, wanting nothing more than for people to look away.
“But obviously it’s such an important part of you!” exclaims Ruby. Yes, it’s everything. “Who cares how long it’s been? I’ll never stop talking about my dad.”
“I guess…” I think about how warm it felt when Ruby told me everything, how light I felt as she listened to me explain all the things I usually lock away. How could I ever feel happy if I was constantly holding this part of myself back, obscuring it from everyone around me?
Experience is a blessing, experience can be a form of medicine. I feel the experience coursing through my body, thinking of how Ruby and Luna spilled theirs onto me. How when I finally let mine out too, it was like a sort of high, a weightlessness of release. Saying it out loud didn’t rid me of it, but it did transform the way I carried it.
I run into Ruby again a week later. She doesn’t recognize me at first—we’d only met once and only spoken for a few hours. I stare at her for a moment and then her face softens and she nearly tackles me in a hug. “Sometimes I forget you exist,” she says. “Talking to you felt like a dream—I haven’t stopped thinking about it.”
“Same,” I laugh.
I don’t want anyone to prescribe a solution to my trauma, or a cure. I don’t want to sit on an IV drip to wash it away or swallow it in pill form. I don’t want to live my life on some impossible pursuit of happiness. I want to live it loudly, honestly, unapologetically. I want to wear my grief like a flower in my hair, in all of its awful sweetness. Look at me! I’m here! I’m part of you! And I’m beautiful!
I want to step outside and scream it for all to hear. Chris thought he could teach Ruby how to grieve, but really she was teaching me what it means to grieve: furious, hopeful, unforgiving, endless.