Based on an interview with Pål-Ørjan by Håkon F. Høydal that was published in the Norwegian newspaper VG (Weekend Magazine) on 2015.03.08, photos by Fredrik Solstad.
As a 13 year old I, Pål-Ørjan Johansen, stood almost alone in the world. Today I am a psychologist, psychedelic researcher — and I have treated myself with psilocybin “magic” mushrooms and MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy.
I had experienced things that I never allowed myself to think about, let alone speak of. Then I took MDMA and began talking.
At age seven, I stood at the top of the government building alongside my distinguished grandfather. Six years later, I was almost alone in the world, having lost four of my closest family members. Today, I am a psychologist, researcher, family man – and to increase access to quality controlled MDMA and psychedelics as my next goal.
Here I recount how I healed my traumatic past using psychedelics and MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy. I want more people to have the same possibilities that I had, without being criminalized and condemned. I want to help make a change. MDMA is not illegal because it’s dangerous; it can be dangerous because it is illegal.
I live in Oslo, along with my wife Teri and our two daughters, but Trondheim was where I grew up.
My maternal grandfather, Reidar Moen, was a distinguished union advocate and leader of the First of May committee. I walked at the front of the First of May parade every year as a child. I remember eating dinner with Prime Minister (and later director of WHO) Gro Harlem Brundtland. My grandfather was a role model to me.
My family, however, were hiding a shameful secret: my grandfather was an alcoholic.
One time, he was intoxicated during a televised debate. I don’t know about those who weren’t close to him, but everyone in the family could tell.
Later on, I would eventually understand how my grandfather’s underground resistance campaigning during WWII led him to excessive drinking. But when I was a child, the truth of my grandfather’s addiction was shrouded by a roaring silence.
Then, I turned 13. That year, my life fell apart.
In less than a year, I lost three of my grandparents; my maternal grandmother was first to go, followed closely by her iconic husband. My paternal grandfather passed shortly thereafter.
It was during his funeral that I saw my older brother for the last time.
It is now autumn, and I had newly entered the 7th grade. I am taken from class one day and rushed to my mother, who is in the hospital after an operation. My mother’s health is not the reason for my requested presence, however. It is because she shall tell me about my big brother.
My older brother just died, he was serving in the military, and he suddenly fell over due to a heart failure. None of us had any warning.
It is still painful to talk about this. My brother and I were very close. In the summer, he and I would camp out alone in the upper part of the Nidelva river, fishing and enjoying each other’s company for weeks on end. I found comfort in his sense of security, and we stayed up all night, exchanging stories.
A few months after my brother’s funeral, my class is attending Christmas Mass. I am met with puzzled looks as I bolt down the aisle and exit the church. I run directly to my brother’s grave, upon which I lie until my teachers fetch me.
The tragedies of that fateful year lead the remnants of my family to escape from it all. Together with my mother I move to Spain for a year, during which I refuse to attend school. I followed my interests that year. It helped me regain my desire to learn, and I ended up fluent in Spanish by the time we moved back home.
The effects of alcoholism in a family can be devastating. My family members did their best to handle it, each in their own way, others in my closest family developed alcohol problems as well. I even developed alcohol issues myself.
I was about to develop a serious drinking problem during my time as a student. Alcohol gave me a temporary escape from my childhood issues, but it only caused me to avoid solving them in the long run.
As a successful student, I led a bustling social life, exercised regularly and had girlfriends. But none of my many friends and love interests knew what I was going through on the inside and at home.
I was so troubled. My parents were divorced, and my mother had sole custody of me and my two siblings. Our financial situation was desperate most of the time. Sickness and death plagued my family. To top it all off, nobody dared speak of alcoholism, nor any of the consequences it had on the rest of us. Alcoholism leads to traumatic memories, which in turn leads to more alcoholism. If nothing is done to break that vicious circle, it can perpetuate through many generations.
By the time I began his psychology studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, I fell in love with a fellow student. At the time, she was studying the effects of drugs other than alcohol.
I began reading about it myself, familiarizing myself with the risk profiles linked to the various substances. I was curious and wanted to try them myself, but I was always aware of what I needed to know beforehand.
One day in 2002, I ate mushrooms containing psilocybin. It was my first psychedelic experience. The experience itself was of Biblical dimensions. Concepts that religious texts only refer to in writing became animated, alive, tangible. I gained a deeper understanding of my connection with others and how my past was effecting my present.
Immediately following my experience, I make a decision to take psilocybin once a week for a whole year. Every Sunday, I woke up before dawn and ate dried mushrooms.
Slowly, I quit using alcohol altogether. I had to take care of myself when I took mushrooms, and being unbalanced was not an option. Psychedelics led me to examine the destructive behavioral patterns that I was unable to face before.
Although frightening and challenging at times, the experiences were always enriching. We are right here, and nowhere else. There is no use trying to escape from this world. Coming to terms with that fact led to my personal freedom.”
I received a grant to visit Harvard University in 2005, setting the stage for the next chapter of my journey: MDMA. On a summer morning that same year, I tried it for the first time at my girlfriend’s house.
It was like bathing my soul in pure love and care. Although psychedelics can bring about a profound conversation with oneself, MDMA can be better suited for processing trauma and occasioning emotional learning with others. It gave me a strong sense of love and belonging.
Previous attempts at addressing my issues through psychotherapy had proved unsuccessful.
Much of what I experienced on MDMA closely matched the characteristics of a good therapeutic process. MDMA eased the pain of talking about the most difficult memories. The pain and sadness became easier to bear. Simply knowing that you have been able to talk about your problems makes their presence noticeably less shameful.
The next few years I took MDMA every two-three months. I felt no need to take it more often than that. MDMA can have a long-lasting positive effect, and I eventually learned how to reactivate love and self-care without MDMA.
In Boston I met American researcher Teri Krebs. The first few times she inquired about my life and childhood, she was met with a reflexive response: “I don’t want some sort of therapy session!”
Teri is positive about my history with psychedelics and MDMA.
– “I think it made him more open to share about his feelings. He was deeply ashamed of his own family history. It’s only in the past few years that he’s been able to talk openly about what happened”, she says.
Teri and I have two daughters, age 3 and age 1.5. I have not seen any evidence that taking MDMA or psilocybin makes you a worse dad. My experience is that it has made me into a better caregiver. I take better care of myself and those around me.
Teri is a neuroscientist, we have researched psychedelics for many years. Last month, we published our latest article in Journal of Psychopharmacology, where they analyzed a large health study from the US.
Out of 135,000 respondents, roughly 19,000 had used psychedelics at least once in their lives.
We found that the respondents who had used psychedelics were less likely to be admitted to psychiatric treatment than the rest. We also found no correlation between psychedelic usage and mental problems later in life.
Additionally, Teri has published a letter in this issue (April 2015) of Lancet Psychiatry. In it, Teri argues that psychedelic use is a human right.
– “We must ensure that national and international policies respect the human rights of individuals who chose to use psychedelics as a spiritual, personal development, or cultural activity”, she writes.
We recently founded the NGO EmmaSofia. The goal of EmmaSofia is to produce medical-grade MDMA and psilocybin. It has never been illegal to use MDMA or psychedelics in medical treatment settings, but there are currently no large-scale producers of the substances because their patents have expired.
We want to change the laws that govern access to psychedelics and MDMA. The U.N. is due to hold a special meeting on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances next year, and we would like to be there.
Ketil Lund, former Justice of the Supreme Court and member of the International Commission of Jurists, is a legal consultant for the EmmaSofia organization. Lund regards use of psychedelics as protected under the United Nations human rights conventions, and he has delivered a statement on this.
It is in our duty as scientists to speak up when we discover that laws and regulations do not correspond with scientific findings, especially when the laws and regulations are conflicting with human rights.