At festivals like Burning Man, Zendo is first aid for bad trips

At festivals like Burning Man, Zendo is first aid for bad trips

VicesAugust 28, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Sometimes you do the drugs. And sometimes, well, the drugs do you.

Having a bad trip is where the Zendo Project steps in to offer a soft landing.

For example: at Burning Man, for years, Omar was all "party party party" while hanging out in his friend's "drug den" RV. And he says it was awesome, until one night the drugs did him. Omar slammed LSD on top of a pile of molly and biked alone into the pitch-black desert. He saw a light. He "became the light," as he says and, "entered another dimension." Then he time traveled into the future only to find it was suddenly daytime, and his friends were gone, his cell phone dead, all his water drank, his thinking scattershot.

"The only thing that made sense was that I had been abducted by aliens, and that the aliens had changed me in a way," says Omar. He then staggered around the Playa, parched, confused, lost.

Moments later, out of the desert haze, came a figure: not an alien, not an angel, but a woman from Boulder, Colorado, named Sara Gael.

Gael is the director of the Zendo project, an offshoot of the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies

Zendo is like first aid for a bad trip. Its staff and volunteers guide bad trippers into a soft-lit, blanket-covered tent. There are mats to lie down on. Volunteers talk you through your stories of alien abduction. They don't call them bad trippers, they call them guests.

"Psychedelics are disorienting," Gael tells volunteers at the Burning Man training seminars. "The visuals can be frightening." 

It's not just what Zendo does with bad trippers, it's what they don't do. They don't shoot anyone up with zombie drugs such as versed or haldol — like a paramedic might. They don't take anyone to jail — like a cop might. They don't fuck with a user by waving their hands in their face while saying, "Are you freaking out, MAAAANNNN?!" — like your dickhead friends might.

Zendo's biggest event of the year is Burning Man, the 70,000 person Nevada desert festival where tech CEOs mix with wooks in a dusty new age orgy of selflessness and self-expression. And — oh yeah — enough drugs to maybe kill Lil Wayne.

In 2016, at Burning Man, Zendo (which is funded through donations) assisted 477 people through bad trips, and educated hundreds more in training sessions.

[Zendo Project staff members, from right, Ryan Beauregard, Sara Gael, and Erica Siegal leading a public training about psychedelic harm reduction at Lightning in a Bottle in Bradley, California in 2017. Photo from MAPS.]

For this year's Burning Man, Zendo's sixth, a few things are changing: instead of two locations, there will just be one; and it'll be located near Center Camp, at 5:15 and A, near Rampart Medical. And it'll be open 24/7 during the event.

In its history, Zendo says it has helped 2,900 people through tough trips, and has trained over 1,500 volunteers. Zendo is now present at a handful of festivals, from Lightning in a Bottle in California to Envision in Costa Rica.

However, Zendo isn't the only organization doing this. There's Kosmiccare at Portugal's Boom Festival in Portugal and White Bird at the Oregon Country Fair. These are all part of a movement called Harm Reduction, in which conscientious objectors from the War on Drugs keep users safe and healthy by testing drugs and guiding users through bad trips.

Three Zendo volunteers say that bad trippers come in all shapes and sizes, from nervous suburban dads who ate too much weed brownie to sweaty terrified people looking like kidnapping victims who pulled off their blackout hood in an unfamiliar town. Often they're naked. Sometimes they're babbling about how they're God. (The volunteers don't tell them whether they're God or not — they just talk it through. "We're all God," one volunteer occasionally tells them.)

Zendo doesn't call these experiences "bad trips." They call them "difficult trips." Climbing a mountain or getting stuck in a flood isn't necessarily bad — it's difficult — and you can learn from it. Data backs this up. Johns Hopkins interviewed 2,000 people who'd had a bad trip, and "most reported the experience to be 'meaningful' or 'worthwhile,' with half of these positive responses claiming it as one of the most valuable experiences in their life."

Boulder's Alyssa Gursky, when she volunteered at Lightning in a Bottle, saw this go down. A girl was found passed out, cradling a 10 gallon thing of nitrous. She was dragged into the tent like a ragdoll, dead to the world. When the girl would flash back into consciousness, she'd yelp, "Did I just kill myself?!" Then she'd bite the medic.

[The atmosphere at festivals, like Lightning in a Bottle shown here, can be disorienting for trippers. Photo courtesy of MAPS.]

"This girl was spun out," says Gursky. "People were terrified."

Turned out that the girl was hallucinating about dying. So Gursky, a grad student in therapy at Naropa University, asked the girl if maybe she was scared of death. She was. They talked it out. The anxiety lifted. The girl felt a catharsis. She got "giddy and goofy," Gursky says. "She came in having to be carried by four people and she left giggling into the sunrise."

Omar, the kid who hallucinated aliens, has a happy ending story too. Sara Gael and Zendo helped him realize the alien abduction wasn't necessarily his problem; the LSD and molly probably was. "It clicked like, Oh, I'm going through this psychotic episode," Omar says. "I need to come down from this." 

Omar is paying it forward at this year's Burning Man, volunteering for the Zendo project.

"Sara kind of saved my life in a way," says Omar, who doesn't want his last name used. "I felt obligated to give back to the community, so that maybe I could be someone's Sara Gael."