Catherine Oxenberg and her daughter, India, have been through hell. In 2011, Catherine, an actor best known for starring in the 1980s hit “Dynasty,” and India, then 19, enrolled in what they were told was an “executive success” seminar. The sessions made Catherine uneasy. But when India threw herself into ongoing trainings, her mother suppressed her doubt, wanting her child to find her own way.
If you’ve seen documentaries like “The Vow” and “Seduced,” you’ll know that the group that ran the seminars, NXIVM, turned out to be a violent cult. The Times reported in 2017 that a sect within the organization had begun branding some female members and forcing them to starve themselves. The sect used blackmail to coerce members to comply with the leader’s sexual demands. Before her mother’s activism helped liberate her, India suffered these and other abuses.
Recently, both mother and daughter found recovery from their post-cult trauma via the psychedelic drug ketamine. They told their stories at the 2023 Psychedelic Science conference in Denver last month, describing how they created a foundation that plans to offer ketamine in a therapeutic setting to other female survivors of cult and sexual violence. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve two other psychedelics, MDMA (“ecstasy”) and psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) within two years, for P.T.S.D. and depression, respectively.
Psychedelic drugs like ketamine, which is already legal as an anesthetic, are promising new treatments for many psychiatric disorders, including addictions. But these medicines also carry significant risks. Understanding how human connections can both heal and harm is critical to recognizing the potential and the peril of psychedelics — and the links between cults and addiction.
Especially in early life, traumatic experiences like physical, sexual or emotional abuse, parental loss or other disasters can wire the brain into dysfunctional stress response patterns that can increase risk for addictions and nearly every other psychiatric condition. The best way to prevent this — or mitigate harm, if it cannot be prevented — is through social support, via good parenting and other loving relationships, which calm the brain’s stress systems. Effective talk therapy works similarly: the strength of the relationship between client and therapist is one of the best predictors of good results.
Even with the best therapist, however, talk alone doesn’t always help. Adult brains are no longer as receptive to new information as those of youth. But research now suggests that psychedelics may work in part by briefly making the brain as open to certain types of learning as it is during childhood. It’s not yet clear if the colorful hallucinations and perceptual distortions merely reflect this neural process — or if people’s interpretation and experience of them are critical to their ability to make lasting changes.
A study of mice recently published in Nature suggests that psychedelics can reopen what’s known as a critical period for learning social and emotional skills that occurs during the animal’s adolescence. And psychedelics known to produce a longer “trip” in humans seem to reopen the critical learning period in mice for a longer period of time. This ability to specifically enhance social learning is why these drugs may be so useful for helping those who are harmed by cults or early life trauma. But it may also allow toxic relationships or groups to do even more damage.
When India joined NXIVM, she was just 19: a vulnerable time. Her life was in transition since she had dropped out of college. There is no singular personality that puts people at risk for cult membership, but people have a harder time leaving a cult when they are not securely anchored to a job, community or partner. (These factors also increase addiction risk.)
NXIVM did not drug its victims, although other cults have — most notoriously the murderous “family” led by Charles Manson, who gave his followers LSD. Primarily, these groups use intense peer pressure and environmental control to create a similar type of vulnerability. When people are subjected to severe stress in such a poisonous relational context, it can create a closed loop of thinking that constrains choice the way addictions do, even without drugs.
“I was addicted to the cult, to the cult leader, to the way of thinking, to the lifestyle,” said India, “Everybody else didn’t matter to me.” As in addiction, the cult and its beliefs had come to seem central to her psychological survival — and, likewise, she responded defensively in the same way that many addicted people do when loved ones try to help them. When an unhealthy relationship — with a cult or a drug or a behavior like gambling — comes to be seen as the only thing that makes life worth living, addictive behavior can ensue.
After Keith Raniere, NXIVM’s leader, was arrested in 2018, India was finally able to break free. But both she and her mother struggled enormously with post-traumatic stress. They tried various conventional and alternative medicine approaches, including ceremonies with psilocybin. It was not until they discovered ketamine that they finally found lasting healing.
India had come to hate herself for the harm she did to other members before she realized she was in a cult. While on ketamine, however, India’s totalizing shame and self-loathing receded — and her ability to care and feel cared for returned.
The mother and daughter want to offer the treatment to others who had been similarly abused. Together they worked with ketamine experts to develop a free 11-day retreat, where cult survivors — some of whom were born into the groups — could take the medication, both individually and together. India had a major breakthrough at the first such event. Participants were supported on-site by a psychiatrist and several therapists and they also received preparatory care and six months of outpatient aftercare. Future sessions are planned for female survivors of rape in the military and for more women recovering from cults.
The qualities that allow psychedelics to make the mind more flexible, however, also make people vulnerable to being harmed while they are under the influence, because the medications make social experience more likely to rewire the brain. If survivors receive compassionate and therapeutic care while on the drugs, the dysfunctional circuitry created by earlier negative experiences may be reset appropriately. But if they take psychedelics in a coercive environment, this, too, can potentially have an outsize influence.
The Oxenbergs are acutely aware of these risks. Earlier in their desperate quest for recovery, both took various psychedelics in underground ceremonial settings and encountered predatory behavior by so-called healers. “I had to come out of my psilocybin journey to say ‘Get your hands off me,’” said Catherine, with rage and disgust.
Consequently, when planning retreats, India felt a profound responsibility to make them safe. “I wanted a zero-coercion environment,” she said. Because trauma is fundamentally the experience of being helpless in the face of relentless threat, recovery requires exerting agency and feeling in control.
As with ability of relationships to both cause and relieve stress, the healing powers of psychedelics derive from the same properties that allow them to do damage. Prohibiting psychedelics outright has failed. But regulating therapeutic use will require carefully developing appropriate training, accreditation, accountability and oversight processes — to ensure that these formidable tools are used to liberate people from their torments, not condemn them to new ones.