I’m a big fan of cozy. Cozy is a lived-in, albeit clean, space that has that cluttered yet organized look about it with deep cushions and colors and frames with the faces of family past and present. Cozy invites the psyche to open up and let go. Cozy has the scent of baked goods and flowers and candles and pets. Cozy beckons with books whose pages are yellowed with age or crisply mint condition new or that fresh shiny magazine gloss smell. Cozy is a yoga mat and bolster with soft music and dim lights. Cozy is a campfire, fireplace, or lava lamp. And now cozy is the Fireside Project for any and all psychonauts to dial into when all the cozies before are not filling the void and there is a need for peer support to make cozy feel safe.
On a Monday afternoon in the hectic month of July I had the wonderful opportunity to take a respite and bring the cozy back into my life with Josh White, the co-founder and executive director of the Fireside Project. We were on zoom. It was not the first time I had met Josh, although I had never met him in person. It was the second time one-on-one. The first time was when I volunteered to do a “Fireside Story”: a recollection of a meaningful psychedelic trip in my life for the Fireside Circle of Elders to be posted on Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CPV0jMyBLaV/
Truly I do not know who was interviewing who this time either. We hear the expression “holding space”, which means being “physically, mentally, and emotionally present for someone”: Josh has this aura that opened me up to talk. And therein is the essence of the Fireside Project and Josh White who is the embodiment of his brainchild.
The Fireside Project is a California non-profit organization whose mission is to “help people minimize the risks and fulfill the potential of their psychedelic experiences in ways such as providing compassionate, accessible, and culturally responsive peer support, educating the public, and furthering psychedelic research, while embracing practices that increase equity, power sharing, and belonging within the psychedelic movement”.
This harm reduction model is realized through a peer support call-in line where the volunteers hold space through reflective listening and become a container for the journeyer in their most vulnerable moments. The idea of being a “space holder” is not new – crisis hotlines or warm lines are abundant throughout the world and although different hotlines may offer support in different ways as each person’s experience and crisis is their own, the common denominator is emotional support. What makes Fireside so particularly unique is that the focus is tailored to the psychedelic experience. And as the world is in the thick of a psychedelic renaissance and a reckoning of immense proportions in collective trauma and drama this support line could not be timelier.
I’m hoping for the day I can hangout with Josh in person. I tease him that I want to “trip” with him but I know that makes him bashful so I won’t say it out loud. But he would be safe and fun and so the compliment stands if not the offer: I consider Josh a friend if not extended family. I met him through my psychonaut daughter, Madison, the co-founder of DoubleBlind magazine, the go-to for all things intelligently psychedelic. So he is part of the larger extended psychedelic and also Jewish circle. All things cozy and familiar.
We started talking about life straight away. I had just recently retired from a day job where I lived a double life: no one knew I smoked weed let alone conversations related to mushrooms or acid. Hence the reason I used my maiden name when Josh interviewed me for the Fireside Story – my paranoia was as extreme as wingsuit flying. The relief for me is palpable now that I’m retired. Josh straddles two worlds as well: law and psychonaut. I asked him how he does it.
JW:“With difficulty. Both take a different set of skills to draw from and to toggle back and forth from one to the other, loving them both.”
JW:“Now that I’m executive director of the Firside Project I’m blessedly out in the open. I’m out of the psychedelic closet in all of the ways. Before that, I’ve been going to Burning Man since 2011. It’s kind of understood if you go to Burning Man you are going to be partaking of a certain substance. I live in San Francisco though, and we are kind of the epicenter, or one of the epicenters of the psychedelic movement. So one of the things I have been encouraged by in a professional setting is if you do your work well, what you do outside of work is really your own business.”
Lately he’s had to let go a little more of his lawyer identity to focus on Fireside. Yet, not working in the role of lawyer does not necessarily mean letting go of being one. I clearly saw the lawyer in him as a driver for the impetus of Fireside: both law and the psychedelic experience require analysis and processing of information by making sense out of the unclear. A leaning toward law could align with a bent toward mind-expanding exploration.
And no doubt being a lawyer lent credibility to the formation of a non-profit and served as an incentive for helping people. White worked for eleven years in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office as a trial lawyer doing what he called “impact litigation”.
JW:“The city would serve as the plaintiff in lawsuits and we would sue businesses and governments that were exploiting vulnerable communities. I definitely loved that part of my job because I felt like what we were doing was pure good, defending people, standing up for the rights of people, who couldn’t have afforded a lawyer, and we made them whole after they had been victimized. So I liked that.”
A big part of his thinking when he was in that role was what was the biggest impact they could have for the smallest amount of resources: each step was looking at things through that prism.
JW:“That was very helpful with everything related to the Fireside Project, at the very beginning when the idea just floated into my head. The question was, what’s the biggest impact I could have for the smallest amount of resources? The reason why the support line can have such an impact is because it’s volunteer driven.”
White realized from his own past experience volunteering at the Zendo Project (psychedelic peer support at Burning Man) that he could marry an opportunity for the Fireside Project: provide something that has never been done before via a support line and offer training to hopeful aspirants who might have an interest in psychedelic assisted therapies.
JW:“I knew from my own experience volunteering at Zendo that this is such beautiful work, it can be such great preparation for a career in psychedelics. So I thought that by creating a support line that was primarily volunteer driven we could provide people with this amazing opportunity to learn about psychedelics and learn about how they feel providing support, training them how to provide psychedelic support and really have it be mostly free.”
Another way he drew on his career as a trial lawyer in creating the Fireside Project was in always thinking about what he wanted to say in closing arguments.
JW:“As a trial lawyer you’re constantly thinking about what you want to say in your closing argument and where am I right now and how do I get to the point, what’s the evidence I have to develop to be able to say what I want to say in closing argument. There is this constant give and take between what you’re learning, what the facts are, and how that affects what you want to say in your closing argument. And keeping your eye on that point in the future when you are going to be standing up in front of the jury. I think with the Fireside Project, really thinking about each step is kind of its own closing argument in a way.”
JW:“Before starting the Fireside Project I was a nobody within the psychedelic space. I would just be a person who would table for MAPS occasionally and volunteer at the Zendo Project occasionally and so I knew if I am going to be a person who anyone is going to listen to, how do I do that? Strategically, I need to get an advisory board with people who are of significance in the space because I knew that down the road when I was talking to someone they would look to see who’s on my advisory board since I wasn’t a person of credibility. So there was this constant, who I am going to be talking to and what I want to say to them. So I do feel like there has been a lot of carry over.”
What makes Josh so perfect for his role at Fireside is that his ego has been left somewhere in the Burning Man desert. He had credibility as a successful attorney when he started Fireside. He understood from his role in the city attorney’s office how to make something out of very little: he married the idea of a global support line with “ground floor education” of aspiring career psychonauts. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, outreach, and community engagement.
Fireside Project provides two things: a support line for folks struggling while under the influence of a psychedelic substance or the aftermath of one with the training of persons to provide such support and for those volunteers who are providing the support to know when it may be time to call 9-1-1. And with the pandemic Fireside has filled in where sanctuary spaces at festivals have fallen away.
JW:“I definitely do think we are in this liminal space right now in the psychedelic community where we are seeing the radical promise and radical potential of these medicines and there really aren’t opportunities yet for people to provide psychedelic support to others unless they are part of a clinical trial. So the Fireside Project to my knowledge is the only opportunity for people to provide psychedelic support to others in a really sustained way.”
JW:“We have been in a pandemic for the past year and half and so sanctuary spaces at festivals used to be an opportunity for that. I think there will be some opportunity for that going forward. But those tend to be much shorter experiences. The next festival isn’t for weeks or months. I think we are providing this unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience with people who are not just having psychedelic experiences but people who want to process the meaning of past psychedelic experiences. That’s where so much of the magic happens and the healing happens to come out of your psychedelic experience in your brain, where you can grow and form new connections in your brain, and explore the meaning of what your experience was, and reflect upon it, and ask how you can live a more joyous life.”
With all that White was clear: this is peer support only.
JW:“We have been very deliberate about what our role is. It’s pure support. We’re not guides, we’re not counselors, we’re certainly not therapists. We are acting exclusively in a peer support capacity. There is this tradition since the 1970s if not before of peer support in so many contexts. The basic idea of peer support is people helping people at the same level and drawing upon their experience, their life experience, and using that experience to help someone else who is going through a similar experience.”
One of the takeaways is that we are all interconnected and equal and peer support is a testament to that equality. We are all having this human experience together and no one is above or below anyone else. That is the essence of peer support.
JW:“Peer support is a complement or supplement to other forms of support. It’s people helping people at the same level. To me that idea is very psychedelic.”
The peer support line was created in a non-hierarchical way. People holding space: people helping people. People drawing upon their own experiences and using those experiences to help others. With that premise in mind I asked Josh what happens on a call.
JW:“Every call is different. Our primary focus is we just want to meet people where they are. If a person is having an intense highly stressful acid experience we want to meet them where they are. If they are holding space for someone else then we want to support the trip sitter. So it’s really just figuring out in the moment what the need is.”
JW:“There are definitely times when a person is tripsitting for someone else and things start to get really intense and then they reach out to us. There may be some more advice related questions for the way questions are asked: such as are you in a safe place right now, is it really loud, how might it feel to put a blanket around yourself? So we’ll ask questions like that depending on what the person’s need is based on what we sense. Advice can often be given in the context of the setting where the person is located. I can certainly see us posing the question whether the person might want to go to a quieter place or a warmer place.”
When it comes to other issues the people on the support line practice a communication strategy known as reflective listening.
JW:“I think when it comes to other issues, the internal issues that the person is having, we really are not there to give advice. I see us as a container to provide a safe foundation for which the person can explore their own experience. For that reason one of the focuses is on reflective listening. For example, it sounds like what’s happening right now is really hard. It sounds like you are struggling a lot with your relationship with your mother. Just reflecting back to someone your perception of what they are experiencing can be so powerful. That’s really a big part of the focus.”
One of the added benefits the support line could provide is a resource for people (sitters) who informally sit for friends while they trip. Should there be a difficult moment the friend/sitter can call in for support – a peer to peer call. Holding space is a great responsibility. I shared that I had the privilege to hold space/be the sober person in the room for someone while they were tripping just a few weeks before our interview. There was a rough patch that I handled but realized the next day I had to integrate the experience in much the same way as if I had done the psychedelic myself. My body and psyche were tired and needed grounding.
JW:“My own experience working on the support line – the benefit redounds to everyone. The people we communicate with get a lot of benefit from it. But also the feelings of gratitude I experience and I hear other volunteers share afterward from their calls is just overwhelming. When in your daily life do you get to have the privilege of supporting someone in their most vulnerable moments? During their most profound spiritual experiences. It’s just such a radical gift to be able to do that.”
JW:“One of the things we teach our volunteers is just like with a trip, there is a process of preparing to hold space for others. That can mean the basics like making sure you’re well rested and well fed. But also, you have your own set and setting as a space holder. That means getting to a point where you feel grounded and feel connected to yourself, where you’re sober. The phrase that stuck with me the most about what it was like to trip sit for someone comes from someone you knew, Ram Dass, being a loving rock. That phrase is so evocative for me, to get to that space where you can be a loving rock and remain a loving rock requires your own deep work. Afterwards there’s a lot you have to let go of, taking on someone’s energy can be exhausting, there’s a letting go that has to happen.”
I asked Josh if he wished we could all be like loving jellyfish? Not as hard as a rock but still strong enough to lean into. I got a good chuckle from that. What I meant was, what if we can’t always be as strong as a rock but we can still be counted on to lean against – a little squishier – like a jellyfish.
The conversation continued to flow as we talked about coming out of the psychedelic closet, Harvard’s Project on Psychedelic Law and Regulation, the stigmas that continue to exist surrounding these medicines, the stigmas that still surround people with mental health issues, psychedelic parenting, and the hope that in time we will be able to have open and honest conversations with young people about psychedelics in a harm reductionist approach rather than the reefer madness style that continues to pervades our public schools.
JW:“I think that’s another one of the aspects of the psychedelic movement that is going to be really interesting. What does rational evidence based education look like at every level? When do schools start educating children about psychedelics in a rational evidence based way instead of “just say no”. There are people who are doing a lot of thinking and writing about psychedelic parenting. What is the point at which you talk to your own kid about your own psychedelic use and the role it has had in your own life. I’m not a parent but it does seem like interesting and challenging questions.”
And of course we talked about the future of the Fireside Project and what’s next for this much needed service.
JW:“We have short, medium, and long term goals. In the short term we are expanding to seven days a week, twelve hours a day from four days a week. We are coming out with an App on August 4 which will be an easy way to call or text us and keep us top of mind. In the medium term we intend to expand to Canada and eventually other countries around the world. We would like to be in every country in the world within a few years and offer our services in multiple languages. We have a vision of empowering our callers with the choice about what type of volunteer they would like to speak to. A Jewish person, for example, processing intergenerational trauma from the Holocaust might prefer to speak to another Jewish person because there could be a feeling that they want to go deeper with someone who has a similar identity.”
Part of Fireside’s long term vision is to create a more inclusive psychedelic movement. One of the key ways for that will be through the creation of the Fireside Equity Fund which will be a scholarship fund to help pay for volunteers from marginalized communities to pursue future studies in psychedelics. Another long term goal will be to offer non-competing sanctuary services at events and to expand educational offerings. Fireside also plans to have a gala for their year anniversary in April of 2022.
As a non-profit, fundraising is the means whereby the Fireside Project can realize their visions and goals to continue to expand and promote these very necessary harm reduction strategies in the psychedelic space.
JW:“Fundraising is about helping people see they can be part of the vision for creating this beautiful future we have”.
The more widespread and mainstream psychedelics become the more essential the Fireside Project will become. As more states and cities decriminalize psychedelics the need will grow greater. The numbers of people who experiment with these medicines outside of a clinical setting are growing. Set and setting is not an exact science and the best laid plans may require the support of a loving rock or at the very least a loving jellyfish to bring the cozy back into what many say change their lives in fundamental ways.
“In 2010, it was estimated that over 30 million people in the United States (US) had at least one psychedelic experience in their lifetime (Krebs and Johansen, 2013). Seventeen percent of those 21–64 years of age have used a psychedelic, and the rate of lifetime psychedelic use was greatest (20%) among people aged 30–34 (total 20%; Krebs and Johansen, 2013). Past-year LSD use grew by 56.4% between 2015 and 2018 (Yockey et al., 2020). Frequent settings for non-clinical psychedelic use include ayahuasca or mushroom ceremonies (Frecska et al., 2016; Lawn et al., 2017; Dorsen et al., 2019), transformational and music festivals (Palamar et al., 2015), and providers of underground psychedelic-assisted therapy (Jade, 2018; Inserra, 2019). This wide variety of available avenues is representative of the population’s increased interest.”.
For our readers who wish to be part of the vision that Josh White and the other co-founders of the Fireside Project created we invite you to the following links:
Most importantly remember the peer support line number:
Thank you to Josh White for being a loving rock in the psychedelic space and thank you to the volunteers of the Fireside Project for your loving hours on the support line and to all the members of the Fireside team for your continued endeavors in bringing the cozy back when needed into the psychedelic experience.
As Ram Dass said, “we are all just walking each other home”.
Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)