How CNN’s Amber Lyon Became an Evangelist for Psychedelic Healing
The investigative reporter tells Substance.com about her PTSD, her transformative experiences with psychedelics, the website she founded—and why her ex-colleagues at CNN seek her advice about using ayahuasca.
Amber Lyon’s life was remarkable long before it reached its most dramatic turning point. Having won three regional Emmy awards reporting for the NBC-affiliated TV station KVOA in Arizona, she moved on to CNN in 2010. There, her exploits included scuba diving under the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on live TV, producing an award-winning report on the sex trafficking of minors on Craigslist, and uncovering government oppression in Bahrain during the Arab Spring in 2011.
After Lyon began suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, partly as a result of the terrifying situations her work had put her in, she took the last-resort decision in 2013 to travel to Peru to participate in an ayahuasca healing ceremony. It changed everything for her.
So transformative did she find her seven ayahuasca sessions in Peru and her later use of “magic” mushrooms in Mexico—and so convincing the research into the medicinal properties of these drugs—that she made it her mission to spread the word. To that end, she launched the website Reset.me earlier this year—a “one-stop shop” of features and resources concerning the therapeutic uses of ayahuasca, ibogaine, LSD, MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana, catering particularly to those “who need a reset button in life,” including people with addiction.
She speaks on the phone in the smooth tones of a TV pro, but Amber Lyon’s passion for her cause is transparent—although she stresses that psychedelics can’t help everybody. “There is no miracle cure in this world,” she says. “But these medicines are close to it.”
Will Godfrey: How have your former colleagues at CNN reacted to your new direction?
Amber Lyon: I’ve had a very positive response from former colleagues, who not only appreciate the work I’m doing, but are requesting advice on where to access these medicines—several of them have asked me for recommendations for ayahuasca centers. A lot of journalists are carrying trauma baggage—it attracts them to the field, gives them the desire to stick up for the little guy. Maybe they were beat as a kid, or they’ve just seen a lot of violence, a lot of negativity, and they’re also in search of healing.
There’s a perceived culture clash between being a mainstream TV journalist and an advocate for the use of psychedelic drugs. Does that bother you?
No, because I’m just telling what I know is the truth, and that makes me very happy, whether or not it fits into the traditional news paradigm. I think that advocacy journalism is one of the most pure forms of journalism, because you’re actually telling people, “Here’s the truth I’ve personally discovered through my submersive journalism.” Instead of just taking someone’s word for it, you can actually tell someone what you’ve experienced.
A problem we’re seeing in journalism now is that people are too scared to take a side when they see the truth, so instead they balance out stories completely equally, which is a disservice to viewers.
What was your previous attitude to illegal drugs?
I was completely against the use of any drugs. I had compartmentalized all of them into the “no” category: dangerous, having no medicinal benefits—following the US government classifications in my own mind. But I did a lot of reporting on drug abuse. I would go out with the DEA on busts in Baltimore, and they weren’t busting people for selling heroin or crack, they were busting people for selling legal prescription drugs, like OxyContin. That made me re-think the entire war on drugs and the entire policy of the US government.
Psychedelics aren’t for everyone, are they? And Rx drugs save many lives. Do you agree that there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” drugs, just a set of tools with both wise and unwise uses?
I agree 100%. There is room for psychedelics, as well as prescription drugs, to be abused—it’s a matter of really paying attention to safety.
I support harm reduction. It’s extraordinarily important when using any of these medicines, whether they be psychedelic or prescription medications, to use them as directed and in the correct setting—you don’t want to be taking them at a club! Part of Reset.me is focused on promoting responsible use.
Your work got you involved in violent situations, which contributed to your PTSD. Reporting from Bahrain during the Arab Spring of 2011 is one example—can you describe what you experienced there?
The US was giving them a billion dollars worth of weapons—tax dollars in middle America were going to support these brutal dictators. I felt the duty to show what this regime was doing to its people. That involved sneaking into villages and filming doctors who had been tortured, and patients who had fled the hospitals when they were taken over by the military, and people who were being asphyxiated by constant tear gassing.
We got this incredible footage, really exposing this regime. But somehow they found out, and before we knew it, we were surrounded by helicopters, and thrown on the ground at gunpoint. That was a time when journalists were being taken hostage in Libya, and others had been killed. For half an hour, we didn’t know if we were going to be shot, or released, or taken hostage, or what was going to happen. We had the footage hidden on our bodies, and we were so scared that they were going to find the concealed disks.
I later found out that my news company, CNN, was getting bought off by that regime—getting paid by them for years to produce content showing them in a positive light—and our documentary showing all these people’s struggles was never aired on CNN International. We believe it was because Bahrain was a paying customer. I was one of the only reporters in the world to see these atrocities, and I felt we needed to get the word out—and then I was being silenced.
How did your PTSD manifest itself?
It came on very gradually, as the culmination of many traumatic events and close calls. I was never officially diagnosed, but now that I’ve done my research, and retroactively talked to therapists, I realize I was going through PTSD.
I was constantly hyper-aroused. Every time there was a loud noise—especially a helicopter, because we’d been surrounded by helicopters in Bahrain—I’d start to get tunnel vision, and almost panic attacks. The same happened when I’d see officers carrying guns, or in uniforms. I would lose my breath and start getting dizzy. It was nearly impossible to sleep. And because I wasn’t sleeping, because my mind was always racing, it became very difficult to write. When I couldn’t even do my career anymore, I knew I needed help.
Before you turned to psychedelic drugs, what else did you try?
I had previously tried prescription anti-anxiety meds, and I’d had such horrific side effects trying to get off the medication. Combined with everything I’d witnessed on the street, I knew there was no way in hell I was going near them.
I tried yoga, I tried meditation, but I couldn’t sit still, and I knew I wouldn’t find the healing that I needed. That’s when a friend suggested psychedelics. I thought she was crazy! I categorized psychedelics as Schedule I drugs—it was as if someone said, “Go try crack cocaine for your PTSD!” But I was out of options, so I started researching it, and I read about people who had had been healed, and it was nothing short of amazing. I read one story of a National Geographic reporter who said her depression was treated, if not cured. At that point I thought, I’ll give it shot.
Your first ayahuasca experience was in Peru, in March 2013. What was it like?
I was terrified—the strongest drug I’d tried was marijuana. You’re sitting in this yurt-style building, on a mat with a big bucket next to you—because ayahuasca has intense “abortive” effects. I went up and drank it. It tasted like coffee mixed with cough syrup, this brown gunge. I got the highest dose possible, because I knew I wasn’t there for a haircut.
Then I lay back. In about 20 minutes, the sounds of the jungle got louder and louder, and then my vision was taken over by geometric patterns and bright colors, and I felt almost as if my soul had left my body. I began to objectively look at Amber and her life—as an outsider, not as me. It was the first time in a long time that my mind was quiet.
The medicine showed me why I was in the position I was in: Slowly, I was watching a movie of my life, reliving these events—but without fear, just re-processing them. It was a very spiritual experience; I’d completely lost my faith in religion, but you feel as if you are communicating with a god or a higher power while you’re on the medicine. Above all, it showed me that my biggest problem was anxiety, that I’d had anxiety issues my whole life.
What was at the root of those longstanding issues?
Childhood trauma. I’d been storing a lot of trauma from my parents’ very tumultuous divorce when I was four years old. I had no idea that that had been guiding and feeding my anxiety for nearly my entire life. So on the medicine, it was like I was re-living my parents’ divorce, reliving them fighting, and taking them out of the fear-holder in my brain and putting them in the space-holder so that they were no longer causing me problems.
Definitely. The man is a genius, and more people suffering from addiction need to read his work, watch his talks. He says the common denominator he sees in addiction is trauma, and one of the best ways to process this trauma is through the use of psychedelic medicine.
For hundreds if not thousands of years, cultures have used these medicines. Now we’re giving people these prescription medicines, which are like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. Xanax is never going to fix the root of the problem. Psychedelic medicines get in there and dislodge that trauma, and they force you—you have no choice—to process it, to re-live it, and to purge yourself of it.
Do you continue to use psychedelic drugs now?
I don’t use them on a regular basis, but I think I will continue to go down to the Amazon once a year to take ayahuasca. It’s very important for many people. These are medicines that many cultures take on a regular basis, be that once a month, or once a year—especially in the native cultures in Oaxaca, Mexico where they use the mushrooms medicinally. People eat them when they need them; if someone is really stressed out, or processing grief, they’ll go to one of these healers and have a mushroom.
For now, these drugs remain illegal in most places. Are people justified in breaking the law to use them?
Yes. Especially when it comes to soldiers. A US veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes, because they can no longer stand the symptoms of PTSD. And there’s incredible medicine to fight PTSD, called MDMA. MAPS have shown in their studies that MDMA is 83% effective in curing PTSD symptoms, compared to 25% effectiveness of psychotherapy alone. So when people have no other options, when they want to die because they can’t stand the symptoms of PTSD, unfortunately they’re having to go into the underground to find MDMA therapy.
What’s worse, breaking the law, or committing suicide? If you have a medicine that can put an end to this suffering, though it is against the law, why wouldn’t you take it? We’re seeing therapists risk their freedom and careers to administer these medicines in the underground because they find it a moral duty to do so.
Of course, psychedelics have also shown promise in plenty of areas other than PTSD.
The science has shown since the 1950s that these are prodigious cures, not only for depression and anxiety, but for addiction. LSD has been used to fight alcoholism in Canada with a 45% success rate before it was made illegal. Psychedelics don’t work for everybody—that’s important to note. These are not miracle cures for everyone. And the healing must be maintained by other therapies like yoga, meditation, psychotherapy—the medicines are not the be-all-end-all. But for many people, they are the only key to unlock that door.
It’s almost a joke now. It’s almost hilarious how ridiculous it is that some of these substances and natural plants are classified as Schedule I. Mushrooms are not neurotoxic—the caffeine in your coffee is more dangerous for your body! They’re non-addictive. Studies show they actually lead to neurogenesis, the re-growth of brain cells. And, for anxiety and terminal cancer patients, for the government to say, “You can’t access that”? So many of us are in need of healing.
Will Godfrey is the editor-in-chief of Substance.com.
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