"BAD TRIPS" may be the BEST TRIPS
Walter Houston Clark
FATE Magazine, April 1976
A unique blend of Freudian analysis and Mexican shamanism
represent a breakthrough for psychotherapy.
NEARLY A century has passed since Sigmund Freud revolutionized
our understanding of mental illness and its treatment. Many significant
thinkerssuch as Carl Jungwent considerably beyond Freud
in plumbing the depths of the human psyche. But none of the myriad
psychotherapeutic techniques developed during these decades of
research has succeeded completely in fulfilling its theoretical
promise in terms of practical results. Psychotherapy for most
people remains a dubious, chancy and expensive undertaking.
An unheralded Mexican physician has evolved a technique that comes
as close to fulfilling its promise as any with which I am familiar.
It combines various forms of Western psychotherapy with the wisdom
of Mexican Indian shamans. These approaches have been blended
through the genius of Dr. Salvador Roquet, an eminent Mexican
public health doctor whose accomplishments include banishing yellow
fever from Mexico. Dr. Roquet's responsibilities brought him into
contact with the Mexican Indians and consequently with their unusual
approaches to health, including their use of hallucinogenic plants
for searching the soul in order to heal the mind.
When Dr. Roquet learned of my interest in the use of psychedelic
drugs for prisoner rehabilitation, he. invited me to Mexico City
to investigate his technique. Early in 1974 I visited the Robert
S. Hartman Instituto de Psicosintesis, as he calls his
Mexico City clinic. The Instituto is one of the three branches
of the Asociacion Albert Schweitzer; the others are a medical
mission to the Indians and a school based on the psychological
insights discovered by Dr. Roquet in his psychiatric work. Dr.
Roquet persuaded me that the best way to observe his technique
was to take part in the sessions myself. In turn I believe that
the best introduction to his highly original psychotherapy is
to relate my own experiences with it.
I REPORTED to the Instituto at 10:00 P. M. on a February
evening, along with a number of other patients. We were given
a psychological test called the "Hartman Values Questionnaire.
" After this, more patients arrived and we assembled in an
adjacent room to get acquainted. Since I cannot speak Spanish
I felt somewhat isolated until one of the participants asked me
in English to say something about myself. As he translated my
remarks for the others I felt more at ease and more a member of
the group. Eventually there were about 25 of us.
Between midnight and one o'clock we were led into a room not larger
than 30 by 40 feet. About 1,000 square feet had been set aside
as a treatment area for the patients. During the next 20 hours
no patient was allowed to leave the treatment area except to go
to the adjoining bathroom. A space of about 10 by 30 feet allotted
to the medical corps and electronic equipment was divided from
the treatment area by a table at which Dr. Roquet, his staff and
a few observers sat. Their white coats distinguished them from
the patients. The walls were covered with bizarre pictures painted
by former patients and likenesses of Freud, Gandhi and former
Chilean President Salvador Allende. A crucifix hung on one wall.
After a brief period of yoga-type exercises each of us was allowed
to select a pallet as a kind of home base for the period of the
treatment. The patients lay down and restful music was turned
on. Shortly thereafter, the lights were turned down and a series
of sound movies were shown. These were scenes of violence, death
and crude pornography, apparently designed to shock and disturb
the sensibilities of the average patient, although other scenes
reflected natural beauty, love, tenderness and the like so that
the whole sweep of human passion and experience was represented.
In other parts of the room still pictures with similar themes
were projected against the walls. As this variety show continued
the music gradually rose in volume and cacophony. Patients could
watch the scenes or not as they pleased but it was difficult to
ignore the assault upon our ears. However, the staff prevented
us from falling asleep.
During this time one patient after another was called to the table,
weighed and examined by a physician. The doctor checked me over
and remarked that my heart was strong enough for the treatment
but should not be abused. The altitude of Mexico City had brought
back an irregularity which had been under control before I left
the United States. This news, accentuated by some of the scenes
of the video show, helped turn my thoughts to death and associated
problems. The other patients seemed similarly disturbed.
At about four or five o'clock the staff began administering psychedelic
drugs or plants, the drug and dosage tailored for each patient.
(My watch had been taken from me so my sense of time was disoriented.)
My own turn came at what I judged was about six o'clock. I received
250 micrograms of LSD-25. Shortly after all the dosages had been
administered the sensory overload reached its peak. The cacophonous
music and an alternation of bright lights and total darkness punctuated
with strange neon effects created an extremely weird atmosphere.
By this time the room began to resemble a l9th-Century snake pit
or even an 18th-Century bedlam. Many of us were weeping, others
rolled on the floor and shouted in anguish, others vomited, some
stared into space and still others made hostile movements toward
the electronic equipment. At times I was afraid some patients
might attack Dr. Roquet as he sat impassively directing the stage
effects responsible for this violence and disturbance.
I myself became possessed by a confused notion that the persons
in white coats were tormentors appointed by the Inquisition to
drive me out of my mind. They all seemed so undisturbed by the
confusion they were creating that I strode up to the table and
violently denounced them for their smugness, an act hardly characteristic
in my normal state of mind. With my rapid alternation between
concerns about approaching death, the remorse that assails me
whenever I experience psychedelics, and distress over many things
I had intended to do but had left undone, the whole experience
can best be described as a descent into hell. I hardly could distinguish
what was outer from what was inner.
Toward the end of this phase of the treatment the music and other
sensory stimuli were moderated or turned off and the lights were
turned up. Referring to individual records when necessary, Dr.
Roquet summoned a number of the patients to the table in succession
and questioned them about their problems and experiences while
the rest of us listened. Translators interpreted the various languages
for the other patients. Some patients were asked to read short
passages appropriate to their problems, perhaps something personal
of their own or perhaps something chosen by the doctors, often
with expressions of poignant anguish. One young woman read a passage
from Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, which drew out a painful
identification with the personality of the novel's Emma.
During this phase of the treatment certain subjects received an
injection of ketamine hydrochloride, a powerful new psychedelic
drug as used by Dr. Roquet. Its effects vary with different persons
but often it produces a violent abreaction. One young man who
had received an injection was carrying on a conversation when
suddenly he dropped to the floor in a violent display of anguish
and terror, vomiting and writhing in torment.
At this point two staff members with vomit bags and towels came
to his assistance showing infinite gentleness and compassion.
This scene struck me as forcefully as had my previous conviction
that the staff were persecutors. I realized that the whole ordeal
had been manufactured for the patients' benefit and that what
had seemed like hell had really been a heaven. This perception
called my attention to the positive aspects of the treatment and
helped bring me back to normality.
After an hour or so, this phase of the treatment ended, the lights
were turned down again, soft music was played and we were invited
to rest for several hours. At the end of this time the windows
were thrown open, letting in the sunlight. We were not permitted
to leave the room but were invited to exercise and express ourselves,
by dancing if we wished. By this time I felt intensely tender
toward my fellow subjects and grateful toward the staff. Since
I could not communicate in their language I found myself expressing
my feelings in improvised dance.
After the rest period, the few unprocessed patients received attention.
The staff distributed to each patient significant pictures from
his fileusually family photographs, pictures of the patient
himself at various ages or photos of friends and lovers. These
sometimes touched off further emotional scenes. But by late afternoon,
some 20 hours after I had reported to the Instituto, everyone
had returned to a normal state of consciousness. About this time
relatives began to call for the patients and I found great comfort
in seeing my wife. At about nine o'clock we had the final ceremony;
a rose was presented to each subject. In my three weeks' stay
in Mexico City every patient I encountered either as an observer
or as a participant had returned to normal consciousness by the
close of the treatment.
A FEW days afterwards members of my group reassembled for five-hour-group
therapy sessions or for some individuals, private sessions of
shorter duration. Each patient composed a written account of his
session for his file. These follow-up sessions continued until
the staff decided the patient would benefit from another long
session, sometimes as soon as a month later, although the time
was longer as the patient improved. Improvement was measured by
the Hartman test and also by the clinical impressions of the psychiatrists.
Since I was not strictly speaking a patient and since my stay
in Mexico was brief, I did not participate in all this follow-up
but I did get to participate in a second long session about two
weeks after my first one.
I had hoped to take ketamine hydrochloride during my second session
but my heart irregularity persisted and the doctors judged that
inadvisable. This decision again turned my mind to the theme of
death. At my second session there were only 10 patients, a more
manageable number and yet sufficient for valuable interaction
between patients. Otherwise the procedure was similar to the first
time except that now I ingested fresh Psilocybe mushrooms sent
for my benefit by Maria Sabina, a curandera from Huautla.
This time I re-experienced the death phenomena but instead of
a descent into hell the experience took on almost the character
of a festival although against a background of solemnity nurtured
by the strains of Brahms' Requiem. I not only attained
delightful and moving insights into my own subjective life but
I could see humorous aspects associated with my death which brought
refreshing laughter. I also realized how the cacophony and sensory
overload which was designed to "frighten me out of my wits"
has a parallel in society where the perfectly natural occurrence
of death is transformed into a fearful event in the average person's
On the whole, this second session was the richest of my 10 to
15 experiences with psychedelic materials. It was the first such
experience in which guilt played no conscious part. I don't credit
the happy outcome of this "trip" to the mushrooms but
rather to the important conditioning of my previous "descent
The effectiveness of Dr. Roquet's technique is evident in my state
of mind since my experiences with him. For nearly two years now
my zest for life has been more positive than ever before. My appreciation
of music has grown almost to an addiction and other aspects of
my life have-been 'similarly enriched. Naturally this has given
me subjective insight into what the treatment might accomplish
for persons whose mental health is not as well established as
WHAT ARE the implications of Dr. Roquet's exciting technique for
the field of mental health? Based on my three weeks of intensive
involvement with his program I feel that what the average psychoanalyst
accomplishes in five or six years Dr. Roquet often achieves in
as many monthsand betterat from a 10th to a 20th the cost!
Dr. Roquet has brought psychiatry into the 20th Century. Doubtless
someday his methods will be improved but I do not doubt that they
will be hailed as a crucial breakthrough in the progress of psychiatry.
In my research with psychedelic drugs I often have found that
the "bad trips" are the best trips, especially when
handled properly. Dr. Roquet deliberately sets up a bad trip to
bring the patient's worst fears and problems to the surface although
this may mean, and usually does, a visit to his own private underworld
where madness lurks. For this reason Dr. Roquet refers to his
technique as "psychodisleptic," meaning "temporarily
disruptive of the mind's functions." The specific aim of
this technique is to overwhelm the carefully built defenses that
often make the patient's neurosis or psychosis invulnerable to
a physician. Many conventional psychiatrists might argue that
such violent methods may damage the psyche. The successful outcome
for nearly 3,000 patients treated at the Instituto obviously
best answers such objections.
How important are the drugs in the treatment? Dr. Roquet says
the drugs constitute no more than 10 percent of the total treatment.
I would agree but also would argue they are a very important 10
percent. The drugs appear to multiply the cogency of the experience
and enable it to penetrate the levels of the unconscious seldom
uncovered in ordinary psychotherapy.
Among the other important factors in the technique are the interpersonal
relationships. The staff's matter-of-factness and lack of alarm
assure the patient that Dr. Roquet and his colleagues are completely
in control of the situation. More important, their actively compassionate
attitude during the final phases of the therapy acts as a vital
healing influence. Almost as important is the interaction between
the patients themselvesincluding the supportive touching and
the awareness that one's own anguish is matched by another's across
Dr. Roquet has developed a thoughtful and perceptive theory that
underlies his therapy but this is too complex for presentation
here. Doubtless Dr. Roquet eventually will speak for himself in
English translation. I believe that in time Dr. Roquet's contribution
to psychotherapy will seem equal to that of Sigmund Freud.
ON NOVEMBER 21, 1974, Dr. Salvador Roquet, his assistants and
25 patients were arrested during a group therapy session by Mexican
police, who burst into the Institute brandishing pistols and machine
guns The raid was instigated by Guido Belasso, director of-the
Mexican Center of Drug Independence, according to the Mexican
The patients were jailed only briefly but Dr Roquet and his assistant
Dr Pierre Favreau were imprisoned for several wee s due to the
seriousness of the drug charges Dr Roquet had operated his clinic
in complete openness for more than six years and had earned the
gratitude of government officials for his help in stemming unrest
at the Universidad de Mexico by successfully treating a radical
An organization of Roquet's former patients, led by influential
Mexicans, came to Roquet's defense and a number of distinguished
American psychiatrists testified to the validity and effectiveness
of his methods. Ultimately Drs Roquet and Favreau were cleared
of the charges and allowed to reopen the Instituto.