Dr Ben Sessa has just written a novel called To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic. The story follows the journey of a conventional, conservative, NHS psychiatrist, Dr Robert Austell, as he breaks free of that mould and learns to challenge the traditional medical model. The transformation occurs when he accidentally stumbles upon the field of psychedelic therapy and meets the enigmatic, Californian maverick, Dr Joseph Langley. Soon a small farm in Somerset is transformed into a hotbed of psychedelic research, as personal and social growth emerges amongst a plethora of psychedelic therapeutic wonders.
Ben is the author of several novels and non-fiction books, including The Psychedelic Renaissance. He is a paediatric psychiatrist and is coordinating Britain’s first MDMA/PTSD study. He began publishing in medical journals on the subject of psychedelics as a trainee and since then has spoken nationally and internationally to doctors in a campaign to see these fascinating substances return to the mainstream pharmacopeia where their lives began. In 2008 he became a Research Associate under Prof. David Nutt at Bristol University, where he consulted for the ACMD on MDMA before working on the UK’s only human hallucinogen study in modern times – being the first person to be legally administered a classical psychedelic drug in this country for 33 years.
Robert Dickins: How much of your own experience as a doctor is there in the book? Is it semi-autobiographical, or simply informed fiction?
Ben Sessa: Certainly my general experience of psychiatric patients, hospital and clinics – and especially the attitudes and climate of traditional UK medicine – has informed the content of the book. But there are no clear descriptions of any of my individual patients from my last 15 years practicing medicine that would be recognisable; rather there are amalgamations from many small experiences over the years.
The journey from traditional medicine to discovering the fascination and clinical potential of psychedelic medicine has certainly been a journey I have been on – but nothing like Austell’s. Mine is far more sober and scientific than his. And furthermore, the Austell character is not me any more than is the character Langley. I have been part of various different psychedelic studies in the last ten years, but none as brazen and irregular as those carried out by this pair!
You’ve previously written The Psychedelic Renaissance, which takes a look at the history of psychedelia, research and the current state of psychedelic play today. Your new novel is peppered with psychedelic references. To what extent has the history of psychedelia played a role in the creation of TFHSA?
I have always been fascinated by the story of psychedelia and especially the colourful and inspirational characters along the way; including Huxley, Leary, Kesey, Hofmann and the like. I wanted to bring some of these people, or others like them, into the book. Also in places I have used the narrative to provide a form of subtle, and I hope interesting, education to the reader about this subject. I feel that psychedelia – especially the field of psychedelic medicine – is woefully under or misrepresented in mainstream culture, so I hope this book can be not only fun to read but also inform the reader and stimulate them to get involved with the topic.
There is both a unity and a division between the two main protagonist psychiatrists - Austell & Langley - in the novel: a unity so far as they share the goal of re-introducing psychedelics to medicine, division so far as one represents the hippie thread, the other the ‘everyday jobbing psychiatrist’. Is this a tension you find in yourself? Or indeed, in the field as a whole?
Indeed it is a tension in me. All my life I have struggled with whether I want to be a serious scientist or a layabout hippie, a musician or a doctor, a child or an adult, a physical doctor or a psychiatrist. And psychiatry itself is full of polarised points - most notably in the distinction between treating patients with drugs or treating patients with psychotherapy. What attracts me, therefore, to psychedelic medicine is that it is a perfect marriage of drugs and psychotherapy – it is drug-assisted psychotherapy. This is a radical new way of looking at treating mental illness. And because of the history of drug misuse in culture – and the continued problems with drugs in our society today - it is also controversial subject. But it need not be; the psychedelic drugs (unlike cocaine, alcohol and many prescribed drugs) are extremely safe – despite their negative public perception. This widespread societal misjudgement drives me to try and redress the issue, educate people, take on the challenge of changing hearts and minds. I feel it is a worthy cause to be backing because ultimately it is the patients that are missing out on these wonderful medicines and they deserve the chance to see them researched.
In reading the book, I was particularly struck by the role of the nurse, Betsy. Not only a strong, female character, but seemingly vital in her role of helping conduct psychedelic sessions. Would you tell us a little about her role in the novel, but also about the role of a psychedelic nurse generally?
In the book Betsy, an elderly (perhaps? Her age is somewhat ambiguous) nurse of Eastern Block origin represents a maternal character, a buffer and equilibrium-bringer between the two doctors. Her’s is definitely a maternal presence – her bust literally being a pillow of comfort at times to patients soaring high on acid or wobbling away into the depths of their inner souls on MDMA.
The nurse role in psychedelic therapy is absolutely vital – and it is a lost art. When LSD psychotherapy was banned at the end of the 1960s 15 years of psychedelic nursing experience that had been honed since the early fifties was lost with it. The patriarchal figures of the 50s and 60s are the ones who have shouted the loudest and had the high profile publications, but behind each famous doctor there stands a team of allied professionals – often female nurses – without whose rock solid support the psychedelic sessions would have been at best flat and unproductive and at worst wasted and unsafe.
Many contemporary psychedelic studies are trying to rectify this issue by insisting that male-female co-therapist pairs carry out the sessions. The presence of a female soul is, in my opinion, essential. The psychedelic experience unleashes the oldest, most fundamental psychological conflicts of them all; those of birth, attachment and motherhood. Where would we be in that arena without a Betsy on which to rest our soul?
The negative attitude that is constantly needing to be surmounted through the narrative, and best represented by the character Hunter, revolves around the failure of current psychiatric medicines, the pharma industry, and the very ‘anti’ attitudes toward psychedelic substances generally. Do you worry that this negativity will be levelled at the book, with accusations that you’re promoting potentially dangerous substances? And, do you think a general audience will take heed of what you say?
This is a good criticism of the book, and one I find hard to defend. I am, quite wholeheartedly, a proselytiser of psychedelic drugs. Not because I am blinkered or selectively biased in my cherry-picking of evidence – on the contrary, I have spent ten years researching in depth all sides of the argument – but precisely because on review of the data I (and anyone else who choses to look) find the wealth of evidence is overwhelmingly in the favour of the safety and usefulness of the psychedelic drugs.
YET…I remains flabbergasted (there really is no other word for it) at the continued negative attention and selectively negatively biased attention these drugs receive; not only from the (expectedly short-sighted) right wing, War On Drugs driven media, but also, most dishearteningly, from some members of the medical profession, who really should know better. It is these people to whom the character Hunter is directed; an odious, blinkered man, who lacks the balls to even begin to question the current situation, preferring to wallow in the historically arbitrary erroneous beliefs that “all drugs are bad” (whilst holding a pint on one hand and fag in the other, or in Hunter’s case, an antidepressant in one hand and a mood stabiliser in the other).
I am not one for conspiracy therapies (I go with Stephen Hawkin’s interpretation of conspiracy theories here; that humans are the most terrible liars and have an awfully poor record of effectively covering anything up if it truly happened; no secrets, no matter how well guarded, last for longer than a generation) but, when it comes to the pharma industry, it does sometimes feel as if the big companies know exactly what they are doing when they favour and aggressively market their high value, repetitively prescribed maintenance drug products, whilst showing little or no interest in potential treatments that could potentially provide a lasting remission.
When one looks at it like this it is hard to remain objective and see their point of view, so, yes, maybe I risk losing some credibility over this issue.
Do you worry/think that the book will encourage people to experiment with psychedelic substances outside the medical theatre?
No, not at all. People have been using these drugs both within and outside medicine for hundreds of thousands of years. 500,000 people take MDMA and LSD every weekend in this country. I would not flatter myself to imagine my little book will become a force to rival that established pervasive drive people have to alter their consciousness. Besides, even if they do; so what? The data is very strong that the majority of people who use these drugs do so safely and with great personal and communal benefits. Furthermore, there are many passages in the book that educate the potential user in the safe and cautious manner in which to use the drugs. So if they do go on to experiment with these compounds as a result of reading this book I am confident the way they chose to do it might be safer than had they not read this book. Bring it on – carefully, judiciously, spiritually and soulfully – but bring it on all the same!