As long as I can remember, I had a wonderful childhood. Memories of me with my family barbecuing and learning how to bike, swimming for the first time without floaters thanks to my friends help, a van filled with gifts to the brim for my 7th or 8th birthday, going hunting every Friday with my grandpa, and the list goes on. Unfortunately in 2011 the Syrian revolution started and as an 11 year-old, that was something confusing.
The fear being instilled in every household certainly did not help, but this fear was a survival instinct that families needed to have to protect their children. It is natural in such an environment. One day in March or April 2011 at my grandparents house in Homs, Syria – I was on the balcony alone with no-one of my family in my vicinity, and saw a man at the end of the street walking towards the building I was in where all of the sudden a white van pulls up next to him, 4-6 people come out with assault rifles, hit the guy on the head and proceed to throw him inside then drive off. It all lasted not more than 20-30 seconds and I was no more than 100 meters away just watching from afar.
On July 11th 2011, our family got in a van and headed off to Damascus Airport and that was the last day back home. I remember my dad getting a call while we were on the way to the airport, a mere 30 minutes after we left Homs telling him that its borders were just closed indefinitely. It was definitely luck, but now I see it as part of the universal “flow”, part of my journey. I was to have these experiences so I could help others who also had them and will have them. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget being by that window seat looking down and seeing the yellow lights of Syria slowly fading away.
I am very fortunate and thankful to have a Spanish grandma and a house we could stay in, one I was familiar with when we went every summer for vacation. I was still naive and didn’t understand that this time it was just that, it was going to be home for an infinite period. Walk around with my mom and my siblings looking for an apartment we could live in is when it started setting in, I started understanding what the future held, but I was unprepared as any 11 year old would be.
Starting school was difficult because even though I spoke some Spanish, it was clear I was a foreigner, the only Middle Eastern kid in the entire school. It was hard making friends as I thought I would be spending my life with my childhood friends whom I still haven’t seen now 10 years later. I wouldn’t say I was bullied, but I was certainly picked on for 2-3 years until I finally became “one of them” and built meaningful relationships with some of my classmates. I was a beacon of positivity in their eyes, someone who was always happy, and that is how I always recall myself being.
Apparently it wasn’t that way all the time because teachers would tell my mom when they met for my progress reports that they felt I was in class but not actually “present” there. On my last week in school 4 years after I had moved to Spain, I was talking with one of my classmates and she mentioned dark/disturbing drawings used to draw when I first moved there, and I had absolutely zero memory of this either. Apparently I was drawing bloody dead corpses which shocked me and I was frozen in place because I felt a surge of locked memories try to surface but couldn’t.
After having finally adapted to the culture in Spain and having meaningful relationships with friends, at 15 I had to move continents all over again to Dubai, UAE as my dad was finally in a position where he could afford all of us living there together, reunited again after living 4 years away from him and only seeing him twice a year. The culture shock all over again hit me like a brick but this time I was more aware of the changes that would ensue so it was a much smoother transition. Being in a school where I wasn’t bullied, and with the chance to make friends who spoke Arabic which reminded me of home was something that made me happy. The years that ensued I was in oblivious joy. 5 years of growing as a teenager, making mistakes, having fun, breaking up with a girlfriend, getting stranded in the desert with my dad’s car at 3am, but at no point did my subconscious remind me of the hurdles that 11 year old had to face and just buried them deep down that I forgot they even existed.
Moving abroad alone with no family to The Netherlands for University was something incredibly freeing. There wasn’t even culture shock, I simply transitioned and just fit like a puzzle piece into the community and felt accepted for who I am. At this point having moved around so much and experiencing many different aspects of living and cultures made me extremely adaptable and empathetic. The Netherlands was also the first country I was exposed to where I had open access to all types of substances, and having the Middle Eastern mentality of “not wanting to disappoint my parents no matter what” – I knew that my inward exploration using psychoactive substances had to be methodical, careful, and with intention in order to avoid messing up in any aspect and ensuring I get the most out of it.
My first LSD experience was roughly ~150mcg and as Aldous Huxley says, my doors of perception were opened. Nothing was the same again, everything made more sense, beauty appeared in the simplest aspects of life. That one experience shaped the basis of my moral compass and peaked my interest in the depth of our minds and what lies beyond the veil. During that LSD experience none of my previous trauma resurfaced, but I was transported to a memory where I was in the bus going to school in Syria. All because the same song that the driver played during the ride was playing during my experience which was my first hands-on experience with the suggestibility of psychedelics and how easily external stimuli can affect any experience.
My following experience was with a low-dose (1g dried Cubensis) of psilocybin in combination of 100mg of MDMA. This MDMA was tested at a lab in The Netherlands after being acetone-washed and recrystallized – the person giving me the results was shocked to say it was the purest and cleanest sample they had ever tested so I knew I was prepared substance wise. Prior to the experience, I had read MAPS MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy manual and studied it as much as I could. I couldn’t exactly implement the non-directive therapy model to myself as I was doing a solo-session, but I tried to simulate as much as I could – even used the same playlist used in the trials.
I always had this worry ingrained within me that I was not enough and would not make my dad proud in my life, and that day I realized while being swept by the effects and allowing whatever needed to surface to do so, that he is and always was proud because “he IS me”. I understood the point is to grow, mature, learn and love unconditionally and that my dad had to do those things and experienced the same worries as he grew up – this “epiphany” engulfed me in warmth and love, I understood I was on the right path and accepted my mistakes and did not let them hold me back.
That experience was on April 28th 2020, and the following experience after that was July 30th 2020 with two people also under the influence on the same headspace, but they were both studying psychology and are up-to-date with psychedelic research and the MAPS manual was also studied by them extensively.
This experience consisted of 90mcg of LSD to promote insight and new ways of perception to existing issues, and then the 120mg MDMA to provide the empathy and willingness to talk. This time it was different as when the effects came on, my anxiety rose and I felt there was a knot in my chest, and I quickly understood the flood gates were opening and I would have to confront things I have buried within myself for far too long.
This session was so much more effective than the previous solo one as I had people to talk to who were aware of how the actual trial runs work. At first I tried pushing myself to speak but there was a knot in my chest and I couldn’t, it was my flight or flight response, and it sensed something dangerous which in reality wasn’t at all. Then a voice in my head said “speaking out loud won’t hurt you”. So I pushed myself and put in some effort and everything started rolling out for the first time in my 21 years of life. Whenever I would speak about something that was making me anxious from my past, the knot in my chest would slowly loosen, the more I talked the looser it got. “I feel guilty I made my mom cry when we lived thousands of miles away from my dad and she was all on her own” – “Maybe seeing a van with armed people pull up, beat a guy up senseless, throw him in a van and drive off had an effect on me as I grew up” – etc.
I realized I have social anxiety as I was never somewhere stable and constantly had to adapt to new environments, never allowing myself to discover who I really am, I realized this was the primary reason I am a shy introverted person. I always knew there were moments I did something awkward / weird and my mind would self-sabotage and think people are judging me for those things I did – which is essentially myself, but those two wonderful humans I was with weren’t doing so and having felt that for the first time in my life was incredibly empowering.
Now it is almost two years since that first LSD experience and everything is different. I am so much more aware and perceptive of everything. The dopamine and serotonin boost when I go to the gym makes itself more present as I recognize how it feels for them to be released. I squeak in bed right before I sleep excited for a restful sleep and what the new day tomorrow will bring. I have opened up to my muslim parents about my psychedelic use and had a psilocybin experience with my dad and it is a memory both of will treasure in the deepest parts of our hearts as long as we live. I told them of my vision of being a psychedelic psychotherapist and I have their full unconditional support and I am so grateful. The biggest lesson was surrendering, I am in constant flow now, I accept and welcome all parts of life, dark or bright.
– Aref Touleimat Ghaloul