Why more people are seeking out "ego death" via psychedelic drugs

Meet the people who are attacking their depression with psychedelics, hoping to reinvent themselves completely

Published October 22, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

Ghost figure in bedroom (Getty Images/PhotoStock-Israel)
Ghost figure in bedroom (Getty Images/PhotoStock-Israel)

As a last resort, Graham placed four tabs of LSD on the tip of his tongue. Then he waited. It didn't take long before he was watching his body from the ceiling of his bedroom. He flew through the sky, up into the space and stars, where he was simply a bundle of thoughts and a scared, ecstatic mind. During the trip, time was immaterial. He continued on his journey through space, exploring the meaning of existence and dichotomy of life's constants: light and dark, pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, life and death.

"A theme that often arises in report[s] is that of feeling as if one were "dying" (hence the term 'ego death'), and having to let go of one's self and identity in that process."

"I felt like the last of the species, or the first… I wept and asked God why," Graham, a 29-year-old law student who prefers his last name not used for privacy reasons, told me. He said goodbye to his old thoughts, mind and motivations, and he killed his ego.

Ego death, alternately referred to as ego dissolution, is a loss of one's sense of self, usually due to psychedelic use; drugs that cause ego death include psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), LSD use in high quantities, or ketamine. We are normally conscious of our selfhood, our role on Earth and general facts about how we are, which in turn make up who we are. However, ego dissolution challenges these absolutes.

"Experiences of ego dissolution can be scary, but they can also be reported as blissful or cathartic," Raphael Millière, philosophy lecturer at Columbia University and author of numerous papers on ego dissolution and self-consciousness, says. "A theme that often arises in report[s] is that of feeling as if one were "dying" (hence the term 'ego death'), and having to let go of one's self and identity in that process."

And some people actually seek out such experiences, including Graham — who had previously struggled for years with alcoholism, jumping between rehab and medicine in rapid succession. He found refuge in psychedelics, which he experimented with every two weeks when he had a pass to leave his sober living home. He saw others having trips that entirely changed them — so he kept increasing his dosage until it could change him too. 

"It wasn't scary," he says, "probably because I was so ready to die already."

Tabula rasa

The morning after Graham's trip, he woke up disoriented, but changed. The adjustment was difficult: life didn't seem real and he didn't feel real. Even his thoughts and his own mind were alien inside his body. Most shocking of all, he believes it cured his alcoholism — he left the experience a new man.

Graham's case, and his motivations, are not unusual. There are communities devoted to those who are chasing their own ego death experience. Some congregate on Reddit, a network of thousands of online interest group forums. On any given day, Reddit's Psychonaut forum, which has over 415,000 subscribers, features numerous posts on the topic — speculations on how to best achieve ego death via drugs, and the implications of doing so. Experienced psychedelic users often answer, recommending philosophy deep dives and careful deliberation before one attempts to undergo ego dissolution.

"[Ego death] is, by all accounts, a powerful experience that may have a lasting psychological impact — but not necessarily a negative one." 

Millière, and many in the Reddit community believe there is value in seeking out ego death. Many use psychedelics to pull themselves out of mental stagnation by breaking down rigid expectations they have for themselves and the world. Ego death allows them to come to terms with both their past and approach the future differently. This application of psychedelics — for therapeutic use — is gaining more acceptance in clinical settings. 

"[Ego death] is, by all accounts, a powerful experience that may have a lasting psychological impact — but not necessarily a negative one," Millière says. "People report feeling more at peace with themselves, and with their own mortality, after undergoing this kind of experience. This is partly why these experiences may be valuable for psychedelic therapy."

However, it can be a double-edged sword.

Tales from the trip

It is a brisk Tuesday in Brooklyn in September, and thirty people sit facing Bill Winter, host of the Brooklyn Psychedelic Society's weekly "Trip Tales'' event. He opens the meeting with his mantra: "People are discovering the life affirming, growth promoting, soul restoring, potentials of psychedelic medicine."

Winter talks like a preacher, doling out sound bites about the therapeutic qualities of psychedelics. He speaks carefully, calmly; Winter is lord of his dominion, and his gospel demands attention. Some in the crowd stir their coffees in the cafe's warm glow, others sit eyes forward, soaking in every word.

One by one, society members go up to the middle of the cafe to recite personal psychedelic accounts and triumphs. An elderly man in a fisherman's vest stands up and rests his cane on the table. He explains he doesn't smoke marijuana because he's worried about his lung health. However, he triumphantly exclaims to the crowd that despite his age, he can score some acid tabs or weed gummies (which he prefers!) whenever he likes. 

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Some at "Trip Tales" say they use psychedelics to deal with past trauma. Others use psychedelics to accept death. One such attendee describes her experience with cancer. She uses psychedelics to reconcile herself with the trauma of her previous diagnosis — that she would die in six months. She sticks out her tongue, which has a significant chunk missing. "The missing part is named Stella," she explains.

Just what the doctor prescribed: kill your ego

Rorick, a physics student from Baltimore who prefers to not use his last name due to privacy reasons, considers himself an expert on psychedelics and an avid acid user. He is nearly 20, and has tripped more times than the number of years he has lived. He's also experienced ego death, which he describes as a frightening ordeal that didn't just end when the trip did. 

"Ego death can be really humbling and really important for some people," Rorick says, "there's some people that need to have their egos killed," adding, "but at the same time, it's a scary thing to go through." He's had friends who have experienced ego death and never returned to drug use.

However, "I can see people seeking out ego death," Rorick says, "it can be a powerful tool for change, you go through it and there's absolutely things you take away from it..."

But Graham sees ego death only as a last resort. "I would only recommend ego death to people who have tried everything else," he says. "It really feels like the old me died that day."

Ego death may just be the beginning

While some of those who seek out ego death find themselves happier after the experience, the scientific jury is still out on the topic. 

"In the case of psilocybin, we must remember that the initial data reviewed above on psilocybin's effects generally — and on personality in particular — is still preliminary," write William R. Smith and Dominic Sisti in a Journal of Medical Ethics research paper on ego death and psilocybin. The co-authors "emphasize that more research is required and that ethical conclusions must be tentative." 

But their research did turn them into believers, at least: "Nevertheless, we believe [in] enhanced consent  for psilocybin — at least precautionarily until further evidence suggests otherwise."

"Science is us discovering the properties of this thing, this universe, and the more we learn, the more we experience, the happier God is," Graham, who is not religious, says. "[The experience was] scary but beautiful… If it hadn't happened to me I wouldn't believe it."

By Natalie Jonas

Natalie Jonas is a writer and a former editorial intern at Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Drugs Ego Death Lsd Mental Health Neurology Psilcybin Psychedelics Research Reporting Science