“I’m a little nervous. Is that normal?” I asked when I got on the phone with John. “I don’t know,” he chuckled, and I immediately felt more at ease. John is a psychedelic integration specialist and recovery coach for Being True to You, a coaching service that helps people navigate the mental and emotional ups and downs of addiction and integrate their psychedelic experiences. As a coach, John assists people struggling with addiction to make strides in their recovery. As an integration specialist, he asks people to share the “peak moments” of their psychedelic experiences in order to explore how they can understand the experience and relate it to their life.
I wanted to talk to John about a cigarette habit I’d picked up in the last year as well as two psychedelic experiences in that same time frame. I wanted to understand why I would start smoking cigarettes years after the average person does (9 out of 10 smokers start by 18 years old), and how the feelings that had come up during my psychedelic experiences could serve me in my relationship to the addiction. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was hopeful that it would give me some clues as to how I’d gotten here and how I could get myself out of it.
Cigarettes and Stress
I had already explained to John via email that I’d had a bit of a crazy year; I got engaged to my boyfriend, moved across the country, started a new job, broke up with my then-fiancé, moved again, quit that job, moved again, and started another job. Living in the thick of it, it can be hard for me to appreciate the depth of those experiences and the emotional marks they leave. John picked up on that first.
“Let’s just take a minute to appreciate and hold some space for what’s happened to you in the last year,” John said. “Take a deep breath,” he instructed. “Now exhale.” I took several more breaths under his guidance and, with each breath, I could feel myself making room for feelings I had quelled for months—fragility, sadness, and impermanence.
Taking another deep breath, I explained how I used smoking as a coping mechanism for social anxiety and work stress. Particularly, I explained that I get an urge when I’m writing and I know there’s a meaningful connection to make between disparate pieces of research but am not sure how to articulate it. John replied that it seemed my urge came from uncertainty, and my trigger was a fear of the unknown. That resounded heavily with me, as I’m sure it does for many who struggle with addiction.
Then he asked a question that took me aback. “How does smoking cigarettes serve you?”
I wasn’t expecting that from an addiction coach. Except for fellow smokers, I had only been criticized (albeit lovingly) about smoking—by my boyfriend, my friends, even the gas station clerk had clucked disapprovingly when I requested my go-to brand, saying I really should quit such a nasty habit.
But as an addiction recovery coach focusing on holistic integration and harm reduction, John specializes in helping people make sense of their addictions, both in terms of how it helped them in the first place (or why they turned to it in times of turmoil) as well as how it might detract from their quality of life. And I did have an answer for how it served me—I used smoking as a time-out from a stressful situation. It was a chance for reprieve in which I could to take myself out of the situation for a moment to go outside and think.
John explained how sometimes an addiction can protect you or even serve you during difficult times. The key was to know when it no longer served you and to know when (and how) to let go of it. We’d get back to that later in the conversation, but, meanwhile, I wanted to delve into my psychedelic experiences and how they related to my newfound addiction.
Two Very Different Psychedelic Experiences
Because of the legal status of psychedelics, specialists like John can’t condone psychedelic use or make recommendations as to which one to use. However, I wanted to share two of my past experiences with John, which is where an integration specialist’s expertise lies. The first was regarding using psilocybin with my sister, who had never experienced psychedelics before. When she arrived to visit me, I told her for the first time that I had used psychedelics since I was 18. From ayahuasca to cannabis, she was curious to know details, but as we delved into my knowledge about psychedelics, I kept my cigarette habit—the only legal substance of the bunch—hidden for the whole visit.
Our experience was lovely. We enjoyed an afternoon on a blanket next to a lake surrounded by mountains, but, most interestingly, I didn’t remember having a craving once during the afternoon. I had simply told myself the option wasn’t on the table while I was with her. John immediately keyed into the fact that I’d divulged my experience with psychedelics but kept the cigarettes under wraps.
“Are you ashamed of smoking?” he asked. “Oh god, yes,” I replied, almost laughing at how strong the feeling was. My parents had smoked when I was a kid, and we had always worried about them. In fact, we had signed a pact that we would never smoke cigarettes ourselves. Silly as a children’s pact might sound, I felt like my habit was a betrayal. John explained that the first step to letting go of the addiction was to let go of the shame—it wasn’t serving me. Just hearing that felt like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders.
Then John asked me about the second psychedelic experience. This time, my experience was with old friends on the beach. Even though I had gone into the experience with an intention to explore my nicotine addiction, I changed my mind going into it. Instead, I wanted to simply celebrate a longtime friendship with people I loved deeply. Again, I had a lovely experience, but this time I quickly found myself reaching for a cigarette. In the crazy upswing of the experience, I felt the need to be grounded and smoking provided that—a few times, I took leave of my friends and wandered away with a cigarette, needing a moment to myself before I rejoined the group.
John drew some interesting new connections between the experiences. With my sister, I had “a goal, an assignment,” John suggested. “You took on the role of caretaker to help her have the best journey she could, and so you no longer had the craving.” But with my friends, I not only didn’t take on the role of caretaker, but I had felt acceptance to smoke. So, just like it did in my day-to-day life, smoking had helped me feel grounded in uncertain moments and given me a moment of reprieve. John explained that my hook, while also physical, seemed largely behavioral.
Bringing Forgiveness and Mindfulness to Addiction
At the height of our conversation, John asked me point blank, “Are you ready to quit cigarettes?” I paused, trying to eke out the answer. “No,” I said finally. “I’m not.”
And it was true. I wasn’t. But that hardly meant our conversation had been for naught. For one, it helped me recognize my shame and separate it from the act, a huge step toward extricating the emotional from the physical parts of my addiction. Even more, it helped me tap into some forgiveness for myself as I endeavored down the road to recovery. Earlier, John had asked if I had had any other resounding feelings, thoughts, or visions with either of my experiences, and I replied that, with both, in my peak moments, I felt I could see through to the heart of my friends and my sister. I could see them as deeply flawed people, see their struggles, but I loved them, not even despite of their flaws but because of them.
Now, as our phone call was wrapping up, he asked me, “How are you feeling now?”
“Emotional,” I replied. “But not in a bad way.” It dawned on me that the compassion I had for the people I loved—how their flaws made me love them even more—was a feeling I could give myself. John agreed, adding, “We can find beauty in the flaw itself.” John also reminded me that, in many cultures, tobacco is sacred medicine. By treating it with the respect a sacred plant deserves, I could let go of some of my shame and guilt.
In the meantime, John suggested that the best way to work on my addiction was to be mindful about smoking. To explain the idea of mindfulness, John compared all of the things that take time and energy in our lives—whether work, relationships, habits, or addictions—to items we carry in a backpack. When we get exhausted by the weight of carrying too many things in our backpack, we need to take out something that no longer serves us. From my own metaphorical backpack, John suggested I take one thing out—my addiction—and just hold it in my hands for now. “You may not be ready to let go of it yet, so don’t throw it on the ground yet,” he said. “But meanwhile, pay attention to it; study it.”
Hopefully, one day I will be ready to drop it and make space for something new, something healthier that serves me. But meanwhile, by leaning into the sensation of my urges and naming my feelings, I can turn the triggered reaction to stress into a mindful response. And then, just maybe, I will find myself smoking less. “Find a way to make it serve you,” John urged. He suggested that, when I got the urge to smoke, to instead “take the cigarette out, look at it, then maybe put it back in the box. Take a walk and focus on the unknown, take in the beauty.” Then, if I still wanted to smoke, I could, but instead of a guttural reaction, it would be a thoughtful response.
Our conversation ended on a kind note, and John told me to contact him again anytime. “Behavioral change doesn’t happen overnight,” John said. But maybe, slowly and with deliberate mindfulness, the behavior could change over time. In the meantime, my goal is to be kind to myself about it. Whether you are struggling with addiction, looking to integrate a psychedelic experience, or have other goals in mind, speaking with coaches like John can help you approach your personal journey with greater honesty and compassion.