I didn't think I'd share this, but somehow in these strange times it feels appropriate.
20th March 2020
Me, age 1
I wrote this as part of my application to the Karuna Institute’s Foundation in Core Process Psychotherapy, which I completed last week. The prompt was:
Please write between two and four A4 sides on your journey through life. This should include significant life events, both difficult and expansive. Some information on your early years would be useful, as well as details of any psychotherapy/counselling, bodywork, group work and your spiritual journey. If you have a current spiritual practice of any form it is useful for us to know.
I didn’t think I’d share it, but somehow in these strange times it feels appropriate.
It’s a deep practice, and I invite you to consider giving it a go. This could be just for yourself, it could be something you share with a partner/close friend/family member (I did this first), or if it feels right you could share it more widely.
There are a couple of parts of this I might now change, but in the spirit of rawness and vulnerability, I’m sharing it unedited. Here it goes:
I was born in Croydon, London as the first child of my parents Ian and Liz, both in their late 20s, in a small home in the centre of the town. At the time my father, Ian, ran a removals company and my mother, Liz, was a teacher.
Also living in the house in my early years was my teenage uncle James, my father’s brother, who is strongly autistic. He moved in after the passing of my father’s father, and due to the unwillingness or inability of my father’s mother to care for him, which I believe was related to alcohol dependency.
My sister Chloe was born 2 years after me, and my brother Michael 3 years after that. My memories of my very early years are that I was well-cared for and happy. My father studied for a degree in Computer Science and got a job as a programmer, which inspired in me a lifelong fascination with technology. Around the time of my brother’s birth we moved out of the centre to greener parts in the south of the town, without my uncle James, who moved into a care home some distance away.
James would return to our family home for weeks at a time during the period when I was 5-10. His behaviour was often difficult or destructive, and I remember my father often becoming very angry with him and hitting him, which I found greatly upsetting.
During this time I also became aware that my father was drinking a lot on a near daily basis. He never seemed to become angry or agitated around his direct family, rather becoming low/withdrawn. At the same time, he could be an incredibly energetic and creative man - I believe at some point in future years he was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In contrast, I remember my mother having a remarkably stable mood. I had the sense they loved each other and us, their children, very much, despite these challenges.
We moved home again when I was around 11. Around this time, my grandmother, who was a single parent to my mother who had no siblings, passed away from bowel cancer. This was my first significant experience of death, and was a challenging time for my mother.
I started at an all-boys state grammar school where I excelled academically. I had plenty of friends and enjoyed sports. There was a culture of teasing and ‘banter’ at the school which often involved homophobic insults. When I was around 13, I was sexually abused by a peer who pressured me into touching his genitals and having mine touched. For some time after I remember feeling dirty and ashamed. These feelings dissipated after he and other peers came out as gay and attitudes towards homosexuality in my peer group changed.
During my teenage years, I remember my father continuing to struggle with bipolar disorder, and I became aware of his addictive personality, which I believe was a consequence of abuse he suffered as a child. At various times he was addicted to spending, fast food, pornography, tobacco, alcohol and heroin. Several times I found burnt spoons and used syringes in our basement. I remember developing an attitude of anger and disapproval towards him, and sometimes shouting at him to pull himself together, which typically triggered withdrawal and low mood in him. He was a high-functioning addict, continued to hold down a well-paid job in the IT industry, and despite his challenges he continued to show the family a lot of love.
I left home to study Physics at the University of Oxford at 18. My father’s health deteriorated, and when I was 20 he was rushed to hospital with ruptured esophageal varices. He was in intensive care for 2 weeks before the doctors told us he wasn’t going to get better. I remember crying over him in the cubicle before we took the decision to turn off his life support.
His passing was an initiatory experience for me. I felt grief for his passing, also a sense of relief that he didn’t have to suffer any more, and relief for my devoted mother who had had to watch him destroy himself. Becoming the oldest male in the family inspired a sense of maturity and responsibility in me.
Less than 3 months later, my sister and brother returned home from school to find my mother collapsed and unresponsive. I rushed back to London from Oxford and made it to the hospital just in time to hear the doctor explain that she had a massive undetected brain tumour that had snapped her brain stem, and that she was brain-dead. I remember crying over her alone in the cubicle, before again- dreamlike- we made the decision to turn off the life support.
My sister was about to go to university, my brother moved in with family friends and I continued my studies. We would return to live together in our family home during the holidays. Despite being quite different people, we bonded deeply over these experiences and continue to enjoy a profound connection. They both also excelled academically, my sister graduating in Music from the University of Oxford, and my brother in Medicine from the University of Cambridge.
At 22, I moved to Bristol to study a year-long Masters in Complexity Sciences. Whilst I was there I broke up with my partner who I had been in a relationship with from the age of 17. I was upset and somewhat resistant for a time, but soon enough I understood it was the right decision for both of us. I had funding to continue to PhD but decided not to take it up, so that in January of 2010 I had completed my studies and was single for the first time in years. I felt an enormous sense of freedom. Looking back, I see that time as a rebirth/entry into a new phase of life.
I went to study at a language school in Strasbourg, France for some months. When I returned to the UK, I moved back to London and got heavily involved in Climate Camp, an climate activism group taking direct action and civil disobedience. With friends from Climate Camp, I co-founded UK Uncut, an anti-austerity group using civil disobedience to protest the new Conservative government’s austerity programme. This group became very successful, frequently making the news. I was arrested twice in connection with it, the second time for being part of an occupation of the upmarket department store Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly. This resulted in a two-week trial at the Crown Court for aggravated trespass, where we were ultimately found not guilty.
Around this time, I discovered psychedelic substances. I had always been wary of drugs due to the story of my father, but I had some amazing early experiences with psychedelics which inspired a real fascination. I found psychedelic experiences to be an excellent first-person complement to the third-person perspective of science in studying the nature of consciousness and reality.
In 2014, I set up the Psychedelic Society, initially focused on campaigning for the legal regulation of psychedelic substances. At the beginning of 2016, the Society started running Psychedelic Experience Retreats, taking groups of 10-15 people to beautiful properties in the Netherlands (where psilocybin truffles are legal) for facilitated group psychedelic experiences. I co-facilitated the first 6 or so retreats, though I am not currently involved in that part of the organisation, feeling my time and talents have been better spent elsewhere. The Psychedelic Society is now a workers’ cooperative with 7 members and a space in Hackney, London that hosts events including dance, meditation and talks almost every day.
I left London to go travelling at the end of 2017, during which time I drank ayahuasca for the first time as part of a 10-day dieta in the Peruvian Amazon. This helped me to reflect upon and celebrate the lives of my parents, which I realised I had not given myself much chance to do since their passings. I described my experience in a series of blog pieces.
I returned to the UK in mid 2019 and made the decision to move to Totnes, where I am living now. I meditate regularly for 30 minutes each morning; participate in plant medicine ceremonies every few months; keep fit through dance, running and swimming; enjoy playing guitar and singing; listen regularly to podcasts; read plenty of books; and love spending time on the moor and at the coast.