Limb Loss, Psychedelics, Healing, and Ceremony

Amplitude‘s new story about the science of psychedelic medicine drew a thoughtful note from Dan Edmondson. A bilateral below-knee amputee since 2014, Edmondson (who we featured in our newsletter a couple years back) has first-hand experience with psychedelic cures: He participated in a peyote healing ceremony less than a year after losing his legs.

“It legit took away my phantom pain,” he says. “I still get phantom sensations. I can still wiggle my toes. And I still get discomfort and pain from wearing a socket and a prosthesis all day. But I remember what phantom pain was like. I remember it waking me up, these shooting pains. And I just don’t get them anymore.”

That’s not the only form of relief Edmondson gained from his experience with peyote—and it’s not necessarily the most impactful. We talked with him last week to find out what he’s learned about psychedelic medicine, and what recommendations he might have for other amputees who are considering this form of therapy.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Check out Dan’s art and skateboard exploits on Instagram at @danieljedmondson.

How did you get connected with the Native American community to be able to participate in the ceremony?
Friends of friends. I was only six months out from my accident. I was run over by a train, and it was my own fault that I was run over by a train. Not as suicide or anything—I jumped on a moving train and I fell. So the ceremony was about moving forward with my life as an amputee, forgiving myself for doing something stupid, and accepting that I’m going to have a difficult life as I age, and that I’m gonna have to deal with prosthetists and medical debt and everything else.

Was that an explicit understanding going in? Did the people guiding you through the ceremony know what you were looking for?
No, it’s not like they send out a survey. They don’t ask, “What brings you to Lodge today?” They just know that everyone who is there is there for healing. They don’t need to know what for.

If you’re using this medicine, which is a broad term for any psychedelic, you have to set an intention. And the only way to do that is either to use the medicine in a therapeutic sense or in a ceremony sense. I’ve done other ceremonies in addition to peyote; I’ve done ayahuasca as well. And what I’ve learned through doing this is that all parts of the ceremony are part of the medicine. You’re not just taking peyote—everything about it is medicine. The songs are medicine. The rituals are medicine. Burning the sage is medicine. The sweat lodge, where you put your thoughts, prayers, and intentions into the stones before they go into the fire—that’s medicine. And then the feeling afterwards, the laughter and the feast, is part of the medicine, too.

It’s very different than when I’ve received IV treatments of ketamine. That happened during COVID, which is the only time I’ve ever gotten really depressed. Even after my accident, I didn’t get seriously depressed. But during COVID I did about five IV ketamine treatments, and I was surprised that it wasn’t a package deal with any sort of psychotherapy. You don’t get to talk to anybody. They literally just shoot you up and send you home.

And that wasn’t nearly as helpful as a peyote ceremony, I gather.
Can you imagine if our healthcare system had clinics that put you through a mushroom ceremony? Let’s say you’ve just been run over by a train and lost your legs. You come in and they say: “Let’s help you heal some of that.” They have a bath for you, and hot towels, and soothing music. They make sure ahead of time that you don’t have a family history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and they follow up with you afterward to make sure you’re not still tripping.

I think things are moving in that direction, but not very quickly.
I would say that the medical community has recognized that the pills they’re giving don’t work. The therapists are hearing more stories. You can go on Netflix and see Michael Pollan’s show. And because of the internet, anyone who would point the finger [at psychedelics] and say, “Those drugs are dangerous, don’t do those”—well, define “drug,” because what they’re giving us is way more harmful.

I know it can be difficult to describe the impact of this experience to somebody who’s never been through it, but how would you put it into words?
There’s something about the medicine and the ceremony that reminds you how strong you are. It helped me recognize and accept that the limb is gone—not only rationally, but also spiritually and unconsciously. When all of those things communicate with each other, it shuts down your default mental response. You can recall a traumatic event and look at it from a distance, and you’re not as emotionally affected. You’re not thrown into a depressive thought spiral. It doesn’t trigger anxiety and raise your cortisol levels. It allows you to take your time with it and catalog how you feel, so you can finally say: “I should probably let that go. I was really too hard on myself there,” or “I was too hard on that other person who was just trying their best.” All of a sudden it’s all in the past, and you can put it down and stop holding onto it.

Another thing that’s really important to mention is that I’m white. If I am at a native ceremony, it is at the grace of the tribe and the leaders and the elders who have welcomed me. And it’s also important to highlight peyote conservationism and make sure people aren’t running around stealing this native plant, because it is tied to the ceremony. There’s no reason anybody other than the Native American church should be pulling peyote out of the ground.

If people are curious about investigating this, what would you recommend?
I don’t think it’s right for people to start party-crashing Lakota ceremonies. You have to respect that boundary. But there are other ways to have ceremony, and it doesn’t have to include psychedelics. You just have to set an intention and then do a ritual. And those things are very loosely defined. You can have a ceremony that’s built around fasting for a weekend. As long as you set intention to something and you attach meaning to it, that’s a ceremony. It can come in many forms. If it’s an experience that you’re supposed to have, you have to trust that it will happen.

Even though you participated in this event nearly eight years ago, it sounds like the effects have not worn off.
The message that rings true to me today is that everyone is worthy of your love. I still go to sweat lodge to get reminders of the lesson. If you learn how to get integrate that afterward, there are profound implications. It goes beyond just the acceptance of the loss of a limb. That level of acceptance is what made it okay for my pain to go away.

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