How One Soldier’s Experiments With Psychedelic Drugs Could Change the Way PTSD Is Treated

·6-min read

Keith Abraham never expected to find himself deep in the Peruvian jungle drinking a powerful hallucinogenic brew from a dirty Coca-Cola bottle.

A former member of the elite British Parachute Regiment, he had enlisted after 9/11 to, as he puts it, “hunt down the bad guys”. After a relatively uneventful tour of Iraq, in 2008 he was sent to fight in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, one of the world’s deadliest battlegrounds. Early on, his unit were ambushed and in the first burst of gunfire he saw two close friends die. Like so many other soldiers, Abraham eventually returned home to Britain wracked with a debilitating cocktail of grief, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

After leaving the Paras he attempted to start a new life with a high-flying city job at JP Morgan, but he knew he was falling apart. He would sit in his office with sweat pouring from his hands and face. His hair fell out in his sleep. He could never escape the feeling that his body was being held in a stress position. Conventional antidepressants just made him feel worse, so when a friend suggested he travel to South America to try ayahuasca - a traditional plant medicine containing the hallucinogen DMT - he figured he had nothing to lose. He flew to Lima in April 2014 and claims he returned a changed man. “Psychologically, I knew that I’d been healed,” he says.

Abraham’s story is one more case study to add to the growing mountain of evidence that psychedelic drugs such as DMT, psilocybin and MDMA can provide real and lasting treatment for severe mental-health disorders, including PTSD. The idea is becomingly increasingly mainstream. In 2019, Imperial College London opened the world’s first centre for psychedelic research, and in November last year Oregon became the first US state to legalise psilocybin for therapeutic use.

Evidence suggests that psychedelic therapy works best when a patient is guided through the experience by a trained therapist, but for Abraham, sitting in a tiny wooden hut deep in the rainforest, the drug itself was his guide. After arriving in Lima he flew to the Amazonian city of Tarapoto before travelling upriver by boat. After a few days of almost total isolation he was visited by a local shaman, an ordinary-looking man in jeans and a T-shirt carrying a blackened Coca-Cola bottle. “It looked like he’d dumped it in a muddy puddle,” remembers Abraham. “It looked awful.”

At the shaman’s instruction, Abraham took his first shot of ayahuasca and remembers having a hallucinatory experience that made him feel as if he could see and understand the workings of the universe, and even time itself. A couple of days later he had a second dose, and it was then that his healing really began. “This voice came out of the darkness and said: ‘Have you finished playing?’” he remembers. “I recognised it as the voice of authority, because I went there for a purpose. I wasn’t there just to have a trippy experience, so I said: ‘Yes, I’m ready.’”

Abraham then saw himself in a room that he describes as looking like a “Dickensian classroom.” He was the only student, while in front of him was an “old lady, who I recognised as the spirit of the plant. She was ayahuasca.” Over the course of the next six or seven hours, Abraham relived difficult and traumatic experiences from throughout his life while his ‘teacher’ guided him as to how he could respond to these incidents in a healthier way. “At the beginning of my education that might be as simple as taking a breath before reacting to something,” he explains, “If I managed to do it, I would pass and go on to the next lesson. I had lifetimes of lessons and tests. I failed many times, but I’d just go back and we’d rerun it. It was profound, that’s the only word.”

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Because psychedelic drugs have been illegal since the early 1970s, it is only recently that neuroscientists and psychopharmacologists have begun to really understand how they work in the brain. Psychedelic drugs act on receptors for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, appetite, sleep regulation and other high-level brain functions. There is evidence to suggest that psychedelics enhance the brain’s “neuroplasticity” and help users escape from rigid patterns of thought. The receptive state the drugs confer opens the door to fresh ideas.

As James Bunn from Drug Science, the UK’s leading independent scientific body, explains, even recreational users of drugs like MDMA may have experienced some of these effects. “If you've ever been on a night out when someone takes maybe too much MDMA, you'll know that they’ll start talking to you about everything in their life, really pouring their heart out,” he says. “So if you've been repressing something for a long time, your brain has learned to switch off anytime it thinks about that certain thing. If you're given a drug that floods your brain with emotion, you're going to have to confront those in a very immediate space of time.”

Abraham’s life was so transformed by his ayahuasca experience that he now runs the British arm of Heroic Hearts, a charity dedicated to widening access to psychedelic therapy for former soldiers and frontline emergency services workers. The organisation has plans to take a group of British military veterans to an ayahuasca retreat in Peru later this year, although one more established than the local shaman Abraham himself visited. A second group of veterans who suffered traumatic head injuries will travel to the Netherlands for psilocybin therapy to see what effect the drugs can have on the physical brain, alongside the hoped-for mental-health benefits.

The reason it’s necessary for Heroic Hearts to take veterans overseas to receive this sort of treatment is that psychedelic therapy remains illegal in the UK. Abraham has already made some powerful allies in the fight to change this, including Crispin Blunt MP, a trustee of Heroic Hearts who is also the first Conservative to co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform. “The first thing we’ve got to do is to get the law and the regulations in a better place, and I'm frustrated it hasn’t been done already,” says Blunt.

Blunt recently submitted a paper to the drugs minister, Kit Malthouse, seeking a change in the scheduling of psychedelic drugs from schedule one to schedule two, which would mean they can be legally prescribed, possessed and supplied by pharmacists and doctors. “That would significantly open the path to more research and the prospect of wider trials,” Blunt explains. “We need to get these daft regulations put in a more sensible place so that we can proceed properly on the evidence. We would be in a much better place if we’d done that for the last 40 or 50 years.”

Changing the laws around psychedelic therapy could have far-reaching implications for how a whole host of mental health conditions are treated in Britain, from severe PTSD through to more common depressive disorders. After so many years of misinformation and stigma it will be a long, hard journey to legalise and normalise the use of psychedelic drugs as medicine, but - as Abraham can attest - it’s a trip worth taking.

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