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The documentary From Shock to Awe takes an intimate and raw look at the transformational journey of two combat veterans suffering from severe trauma as they abandon pharmaceuticals to seek relief through the mind-expanding world of psychedelics. In an online conversation with documentary co-creator Janine Sagert, we explored how the transformative power of psychedelics and meditation helped combat veterans heal from their complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from their wartime experiences.   

What drew you to this work? 

I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and anthropology looking at altered states of consciousness. Also, I grew up in the military. So I have a long-standing academic, spiritual, personal, and anthropological interest in these medicines.  A good friend of mine, Luc Côté, is an award-winning filmmaker who directed Operation Homecoming/Crash Landing, a film about post-traumatic stress disorder within the Canadian army. We realized we’re both advocates for the respectful use of psychedelics so we joined forces. 

Matt in front of his medicine cabinet/Photo Courtesy From Shock to Awe

How did you choose Matt and Mike as your subjects for this documentary? 

In 2013, we started hosting focus groups with veterans to discuss their attitudes toward psychedelics and cannabis. Then a year later, we were in Colorado Springs where we connected with Ryan LeCompte. He had gone to Peru with Lisa Ling to report on ayahuasca and now had vets coming to him to find out how they could participate in a ceremony. He had a list of a dozen or so veterans that we interviewed. The two couples that we chose to film had strong stories and stood out as very articulate, relatable, and willing.

What did you learn in this documentary about how traumatic experiences impact combat veterans? 

I think our film does a beautiful job of showing what PTSD is actually like. We start with Mike and Matt while they’re still in the throes of PTSD. Then we go with them to the ayahuasca ceremony and follow up with them after 15  months. Many people have said to us, “I always heard about PTSD. But I never really got it until I saw your film.” 

As your film points out, the research is just beginning to understand the connection between psychedelics and trauma.  

While psychedelics have been used in many indigenous cultures for centuries, from a Western scientific point of view it’s new and novel so these days most research being conducted is from a clinical/medical perspective There are some exceptions to that but the loudest voices, with the most convincing points for the medical, psychological and legal communities and lawmakers are the ones that present evidence in a medical model.  So far, I have not seen much research that specifically talks about combining somatic therapies with psychedelics.

Mike drinking ayahuasca/Photo Courtesy From Shock to Awe

What did you observe as Matt and Mike underwent their ayahuasca ceremony? 

They were deeply transformed. The research is not yet conclusive but it appears that within the brain there is a region that stores memories and keeps our identity intact called the Default Mode Network. Under the influence of psychedelics, the DMN is deemphasized and there’s a possibility for laying down new stories. Even though their eyes are closed, they are seeing memories and reliving memories. It’s very real and allows them to see the events of their lives from a new perspective.

How can a costly retreat like this be accessible to all those suffering from PTSD? 

A big gap exists between the need for the resources that are available legally and well-trained ethical therapists and practitioners. Support is needed both before and after the ceremony because the after integration is so important. Like everything else one has to be careful that these people know what they’re doing because it’s very powerful territory that people enter spiritually, somatically, and clinically. 

There’s a push towards democratizing the use of psychedelics to lower the cost and make them more accessible. Currently, I’m working as a consultant with a VR firm to help create programs to prepare people for psychedelic journeys, and ultimately to help them integrate. VR will not replace a therapist but it can do a lot of the education that’s repetitive so the treatment becomes more cost-effective.

In the meantime, there’s a range of clinical trials going on in major medical centers throughout the world for those looking to access psychedelics to treat their trauma. A good starting point is to research the various clinical trials such as those offered on the MAPS website

What are the future plans for this documentary? 

Since it premiered in 2018, From Shock to Awe has had a life of its own. For example, It’s been used internationally to educate policymakers in Australia and it was translated into Ukrainian because a group of psychologists there wants to use it to educate their trainers. Also, the Trauma Research Foundation has shown this documentary in their film festival to demonstrate how psychedelics can be used to treat trauma.

Currently, From Shock to Awe can be viewed on iTunesGoogleAmazonVimeo, and DVD & Blu-ray (US & Canada only).

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As a freelance writer with dual MDiv/MSW degree from Yale Divinity School and Columbia University, I focus on the rise of secular spirituality, religious satire, spiritual health & wellness, faith...