Luminous: Melissa Etheridge on Ayahuasca

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Original Air Date: 
July 08, 2023

Just a few years ago, it was pretty unusual to hear big-time celebrities talk about their own psychedelic experiences. But that stigma is starting to fade thanks to people like the rock star and music icon Melissa Etheridge. 

For her, this psychedelic renaissance has gotten very personal. Three years ago, her son Beckett died at the age of 21 from an opioid drug overdose. When Etheridge heard that clinical trials with psilocybin were showing real promise for treating addiction, she became an outspoken advocate for psychedelic therapy. And she started her own nonprofit organization, the Etheridge Foundation, to support scientific research into the causes and treatments for opioid addiction. 

Melissa Etheridge recently came through Madison, Wisconsin for an evening concert. Earlier that day, she stopped by the Usona Institute — which is running its own clinical trials on psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT — where she sat down with Steve for a short interview. She talked about the death of her son, and her own life-changing experiences with ayahuasca. She explains why she’s fascinated by psychedelics as both a path for spiritual exploration and a source of creativity.


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July 08, 2023
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- [Steve] Hey, it's Steve and this is "Luminous," a podcast series about psychedelics from To the Best of Our Knowledge You know, just a few years ago it was pretty unusual to hear a big time celebrity talk about their own psychedelic experience, but that stigma is starting to fade thanks to people like the rockstar and music icon, Melissa Etheridge. For her, this psychedelic renaissance gets very personal. Three years ago, her son Beckett died at the age of 21 from an opioid drug overdose. When Etheridge heard that clinical trials with psilocybin were showing real promise for treating addiction, she became an outspoken advocate for psychedelic therapy and she started her own nonprofit organization the Etheridge Foundation, to support scientific research into the causes and treatments for opioid addiction.

- [Melissa] All right, let's get that done. Let's do it.

- [Steve] Great. Come on in. Melissa Etheridge recently came through my hometown of Madison for an evening concert, and earlier that day she stopped by the Usona Institute, which is running its own clinical trials on two psychedelic drugs, psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT. And we sat down for a short interview. We talked about the death of her son and also her own life-changing experiences with Ayahuasca and why she's fascinated by psychedelics as both a path for spiritual exploration and a source of creativity. And if you wanna have a seat right over here.

- [Melissa] Thanks so much for taking the time to do this.

- [Steve] Oh, no, this is amazing. Anything I can do for this. Should we just go ahead and get started and you can bring the tea while we're doing it?

- [Person] Yeah, that's great.

- [Melissa] Okay, let's do it.

- [Steve] So just a very basic question. When did you get so interested in plant medicines and psychedelics?

- [Melissa] Oh, my goodness. I would say being a rockstar, I really didn't do much of it until I was in my 40s and I'd gone through some life changes and I accidentally, I call it a heroic dose of cannabis, I had a journey on cannabis and it really changed me. And so I kind of started from there going, wow, that really made a big difference. And then a year later I had cancer. I got breast cancer that's 18 years ago, 18 years cancer free. While I was going through the treatments, I used cannabis instead of painkillers, antidepressants, you know, something from an appetite, something to take care of my body, when the other pills, you know, all the pills that they can give you, they said, "Well, here's all the pills you're gonna need." And I said, "Let me try cannabis first." And cannabis gave me an appetite. So I was able to stay outta the hospital 'cause I was eating. It kept me from being depressed. And it really opened my mind, and I started thinking this is good stuff. And I kept following that trail until I found myself in an ayahuasca ceremony.

- [Steve] Oh, really?

- [Melissa] Yeah, where then I was like, look, and these are not things to be used recreationally at all. You're not ever gonna find anybody going, "Woo, let's go do aya!" These are very intense life-changing ceremonies.

- [Steve] So what happened when you did the ayahuasca ceremony then?

- [Melissa] It is hard to explain, because it is something that you can't teach, you can only learn. My belief is, my feeling is if you are an individual who has lived enough of life to where you have seen reality in a certain way and sort of the dualistic nature of there's good and bad and light and dark and, you know, I've had success and fame and fortune and you know, that's what everyone thinks that the game is here, but it's not. There are plenty of really miserable billionaires, you know, and there are plenty of unbelievably happy people with barely any money. So it's inside, there's much more to this human experience than our sort of Judeo-Christian lives that we have tells us about. You understand, there's an understanding that you get when you come back from this journey, which, you know I could tell you it was almost like a digital download. You'll hear that from people sometimes, but once you know it, you can't go back.

- [Steve] So something changed for you at that point. I mean, you saw the world, you felt the world in a different way. Did it reorient you in some way?

- [Melissa] Well, again I'm gonna try to explain all this without sounding crazy. It's understanding that the world is, I mean, I can use a word like illusion. It's an illusion. It's a creation from our minds. Our minds have much more to do with what we're seeing. We are... The closest I can come to explain it is that we are biological computers. Like really highly advanced. So much so that we have this flow that goes through this energy. And I've studied all kinds of ancient religions, ancient societies that understood this, that there's this flow, the ka, the prana, the qi, people call it the many things, that flows through us. That if we connect to it, if we allow it to make the choices, which then it makes the loving choices, we, our inner beings, make loving choices, then you will see that reflected back to you in your reality. If you watch "The Secret" or "What the Bleep" or any of these more new age books and movies that have been out for the last 20 years about this, it really is. And it's not something that I feel like I need to go teach the world, because you can't. You just have to live it and be an example of it.

- [Steve] So it's one thing to have an incredibly powerful experience like this and it's another to do what you've done with your foundation which is to start funding scientific research specifically for treatments using psychedelics to treat opioid addiction. Can you tell me how you got to that?

- [Melissa] Yeah, well, as I was having these mind opening life-changing experiences, I had a teenage son who was kind of on the opposite path. He kind of always had a hard time in life. He sort of believed the worst in people and the worst in himself. And I could see it just kind of this downward trajectory. And then his one love of life was snowboarding, and he loved it, loved it was practicing with the Aspen snowboard team. And he broke his ankle and it ended his hopes of becoming a professional snowboarder. And he sent him into great depression and he was prescribed opioids for the pain. And once that happened to him, he'd started going down that path. It became... You know, there was lies. And I just saw in the matter of four years a life deteriorate, no matter what I did, you know, no matter what anyone else did, it was his choices. The opioids just really do a number on a human being. And he was not able to ever get out from under it. And he passed away in 2020.

- [Steve] And he went from the opioids that you'd be prescribed to to stronger stuff, right?

- [Melissa] Yeah, well, this is the path. You get prescribed opioids, eventually the doctor's not gonna prescribe 'em anymore. So you have to go look for 'em on the black market, and that's going to be expensive. Well, what's a little less expensive is heroin. Okay. This is all right. Well, my son was always like, "Well, I'm never gonna put anything, I'm never gonna do needles." And of course then next thing I know, he's doing heroin, then the heroin gets too expensive, and fentanyl is the cheapest. And once you start fentanyl, you have about a week, and it will take your life.

- [Steve] So this horrible thing happened. I mean, you lost your son. What did you do with that then? I mean, how did that lead you into the scientific world of psychedelic research?

- [Melissa] Well, he was on his path to exiting and transforming out of this physical life, I was in my own journey understanding that each of us are here to work through this life, to ascend into greater understanding and enlightenment or, you know, words that you would say, and that each of us have that I can attract people to me, I can attract with my own vibration people that understand that, but I can't assert my belief into you, or I couldn't do it into my son. So I saw him fade away. Yet I knew there was hope, because I had such an experience that if a soul, if a person wants to open up to this understanding that certain plants, that entheogens of this earth have to offer to us, it can change a life. I have seen heroin addicts that used ayahuasca and, boom, it was gone. Part of what the Etheridge Foundation and another study, other than this one at Usona that we're doing is, there's an African root called Iboga. And Ibogaine is the medicine they make from it. And Spain is doing research, because they will offer their heroin addicts methadone, but then they're on methadone for 15 or 20 years. And so they're trying to find an alternative to get people off of methadone. One series of ibogaine, and not only did they quit methadone, but they quit smoking and drinking, and it totally changed your life. Now they're working to try to figure out, look, is it the plant or is it the experience? Is it the chemical or is it the experience? And I think, I don't know if you're gonna ever be able to pull those two apart, but it's definitely, it can be a life changing. You can change your mind and that can change your life.

- [Steve] So thinking back to what happened to your son and sort, I mean, this is a what-if, I assume you wish that for other kids, young people hooked on these powerful drugs, opioids, that psilocybin would be available to them for treatment.

- [Melissa] Believe me, in my heart, I wished anything had been available for my son, you know, to legally do. And yes, my hope is that within the next few years there is something that is recognized by our government, is recognized by the medical world, that is an alternative, that is something that we can do to help because there are hundreds and thousands of people and families that are affected by this every single day.

- [Steve] Yeah. So we've been talking about the potential for therapy, I mean, for people really in trouble, you know? Dealing with like hard, hard stuff in their lives. There is another side to psychedelics, and that's for people like you in the creative world. Has it affected your music at all? Has it affected your creative impulses, your own experiences taking ayahuasca or maybe other things?

- [Melissa] Oh, absolutely. I'm a cannabis kind of gal. I live in California where it's nice and legal, and I can use that creatively. And I love it. Again, it's hard to explain, you know, the relaxing of the critical mind. The critical mind, especially in an artist that, "Oh, that's not good. You don't know what you're doing." All that stuff that can really stifle artistic endeavors.

- [Steve] Are you talking about songwriting or, where does it kick in for you?

- [Melissa] Songwriting. Songwriting is a great place for that because that's the part where you write a line and you think, "Oh, that's good." And then the critical mind goes, "That's bullshit. What are you talking about?" You know? And then you're like, "No, I..." And the cannabis can relax that part of your mind. You know, they can tell you scientifically what the certain neuro pathways that are done, but what I know as an artist is it really opens up sort of my heart and my mind to creativity, which I believe is a, you know, there's a consciousness and over consciousness that we have that we can pull from. And we're going to go first for the critical overdosing, depression and things. But I'm telling you, the ancient people sort of had it right when they were they would use it all the time from cannabis to psilocybin to all sorts of antigens that are available to us on this earth since the beginning of time.

- [Steve] You said that you're a cannabis girl. But you've mentioned ayahuasca. I don't know what else you've tried. But I mean, anything else that, coming back to you as a creative person, that's really kind of, I don't know, changed how you do music, how you sort of approach the world creatively?

- [Melissa] I would say the Ayahuasca journey was probably very instrumental in how I sort of went from the rockstar rock artist that was concerned about whether I had a hit on my album or was I gonna be in the charts and was I gonna be this or that. And plant medicine really gave me a place to let that go and to just enjoy my art and to trust and believe that what's coming from me is what I need to share with people, and other people will respond to that, because that connection that each of us have as humans.

- [Steve] One final question. What's your hope, what's your vision of once some of these plant medicines, some of these psychedelics become more available? What might change? What are you hoping will happen?

- [Melissa] I'm hoping for a change in hearts and minds. I'm hoping that people can understand that there is a big, huge difference between pharmaceuticals and plant medicine. Plant medicine is not addictive. It's been tested through thousands and thousands of years. I think that people think of drugs as drugs. They all get thrown in. But to understand there's a big difference and this, the plant medicine, can help with the problems that the pharmaceuticals have in the human body. I'm hoping that'll change.

- [Steve] That is a wonderful place to leave it. Thank you so much.

- [Melissa] Thank you so much.

- [Steve] That's Melissa Etheridge, singer, songwriter, and founder of the Etheridge Foundation, which is supporting scientific research on opioid drug addiction. You're listening to "Luminous," our series about psychedelics from To the Best of Our Knowledge. You'll find more interviews on the science and philosophy of psychedelics on our website at And I hope you're subscribing to the podcast feed. In upcoming episodes, we'll be talking about some really big and complicated questions, like can neuroscience explain psychedelics? Do you need a mystical experience to have a transformative psychedelic experience? Can plant medicines be decolonized? To the Best of Our Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin. Joe Harkey is our technical director, Sarah Hopeful was the sound designer for this episode. And I'm Steve Paulson. Thanks for listening.

- [Announcer] PRX.

Last modified: 
July 10, 2023