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A Trip With Dad

The daughter of one of the country’s leading clinical researchers of psychedelic-assisted therapy visits Amsterdam.
(Illustration: Gary Neill)

(Illustration: Gary Neill)

Drugs were a big part of my upbringing in Southern California, but not in the usual way. My dad, Charles Grob, is the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center; he’s also one of the country’s leading clinical researchers of psychedelic-assisted therapy.

From 1993 to 1995, while I was in elementary school, he studied the physiological effects of the drug MDMA. In 1993 and then in 2001, when I was in ninth grade, he went to Brazil to study the use of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea. From 2004 to 2008, while I was in college, he studied the effects of psilocybin as a therapeutic aid in treating end-stage cancer anxiety.

"And the trees...." The trees had faces. Trees didn’t normally have faces. "They’re people." I felt like I’d untapped a secret.

My dad’s research library is crammed with first-person hallucinogenic accounts, and I’ve read them all. As an only child with a tendency to heroize my eccentric father, I used much of my free time studying up so that he’d find me good company. Over the years, I became a believer in his work. A majority of the cancer patients in his psilocybin study reported more anxiety relief from one low dose of the hallucinogen than from years of anxiety drugs. Psychedelic-assisted therapy, he believes—and so do I—can truly help people.

This conviction made any psychedelic experimentation of my own unthinkable. As a kid, I internalized the fear that any youthful indiscretion on my part would undermine my dad’s scientific credibility and reflect poorly on his parenting—which was all too subject to scrutiny. Once, while speaking at an academic conference on MDMA in 2001, a neurotoxicity specialist asked him, “Dr. Grob, has your 15-year-old daughter tried drugs?” He proudly (and accurately) retorted, “Absolutely not.”

I never dreamed I’d get “experienced.”

Then, in the fall of 2006, my best friend and I went to Amsterdam with some classmates from a study abroad program in Dublin. “Shrooming in Amsterdam is like visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris,” my friend announced. “It’s our responsibility as tourists.” I watched as he divvied up what looked like long-stemmed porcinis, determined not to participate.

“You’re skinny—you don’t need a lot,” I told him, dispensing my third-hand expertise. I broke his mushroom stalk in half, gave him the larger piece and, in a sudden burst of resolve, popped the other in my mouth. Mushrooms were legal in Amsterdam in 2006. I felt safe; I went for it.

From all my reading, I recognized the signs of encroaching euphoria—the light flutter around my heart, the heightened senses. We left our hostel and walked toward Vondelpark. Soon nothing sounded like a better idea than calling my dad.

I dialed, using the school-administered cell phone that only allowed me a certain number of minutes. It took my dad a moment to figure out that it was me on the line; once he did, he immediately asked if I was OK. (He’s a well-practiced alarmist.)

“Dad, I’m great,” I told him.

He said he had people in his office. I could hear irritation tinge his voice.

“Dad: I’m on mushrooms,” I said.

“Oh!” He sounded delighted. I heard him shoo away his colleagues. When he came back on the line his first question was, “How do you feel?”

Amazing, I said. “Good! What do you see?” I told him we were in a park. “Vondelpark!” he exclaimed. “Very beautiful.”

“And the trees....” The trees had faces. Trees didn’t normally have faces. “They’re people.” I felt like I’d untapped a secret.

“Yes! Nature is alive, isn’t it?”

This essentially blew my mind to breadcrumbs. I remember muttering, “Whoa,” and hearing my dad’s idiosyncratic “Ha-ho!” laugh. He was 5,550 miles away, but he felt close enough that I could’ve hugged him. “Listen to the universe, Steph,” he said. “Pay attention.” The line went dead. The minutes were gone.

Later, I asked my dad about the call—whether he was worried. As a dual expert on drugs and young people, he knew what to expect: My cardiovascular function would be fine so long as I didn’t drink or take multiple drugs. Once he felt assured that I was safe, he was happy for my happiness. “It’s all set and setting,” he said, referring to the psychedelic-research shorthand for mindset and environment—the two most powerful determinants of a hallucinogenic experience. “I was helping you out. Being there for you.”

Did the experience whet my appetite? My dad often quotes Alan Watts, the 1960s popularizer of Eastern philosophy: “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” That day in Amsterdam was my only psychedelic experience. I got the message. Then the phone hung up for me.

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