Narrating the Unspeakable: Making Sense of Psychedelic Experiences in Drug Treatment

The use of psychedelic substances has been described as an ‘unspeakable primary experience,’ one that is personal and ultimately indescribable. The ineffable quality of such an experience, however, does not prohibit or invalidate attempts to explain it. The struggle to narrate one’s experience is instead an important endeavor. But, how does narration work if the psychedelic experience is truly unspeakable? What kind of narratives are possible? What kinds of narrative work do psychedelics foreclose? This article addresses these questions by analyzing narratives generated about the use of psychedelics for drug treatment. Drawing on 16 months of ethnographic research at drug treatment centers in Baja California, Mexico, this article examines what narration looks like in the context of a psychedelic-based drug treatment modality. It pays particular attention to how people in treatment retell – or struggle to retell – their experiences with psychedelics to make sense of them and then articulate them for the researcher. I argue that psychedelic experiences pose a unique challenge for the anthropological study of these substances, particularly their therapeutic use. I show how these experiences resist narrativization in multiple ways, presenting both ethnographic and epistemological obstacles to the production of anthropological knowledge.


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