During his 16-month deployment to Iraq, Jonathan Chia experienced his fair share of horrors. But upon returning home in 2009, the pain compounded. Chia witnessed the mental health crisis among veterans unfold, losing dozens of fellow soldiers to suicides and drug overdoses. Since then, Chia has dedicated his time and voice to supporting nonprofits that help veterans access jobs and healing experiences.
Chia had long been a consumer of cannabis and psychedelics, even though so-called “alternative” therapies aren’t wholeheartedly supported by organizations like Veterans Affairs. So, knowing the potential of plant medicine, he sought to partner with organizations like the Veterans Cannabis Group, to lobby for improved veteran cannabis education and legislation.
Now, Chia is one of four co-founders of Reality Center, a Santa Monica-based wellness clinic that uses “digital psychedelics”: light, sound and vibrations that can induce a psychedelic reaction in the brain. Participants lay on a padded table that sends vibrations through their body, while an overhead light pulses blue and red strobes set to sound. Veterans are among Reality Center’s clientele base, and Chia works specifically to make the experience affordable and accessible to the veteran community.
Speaking to Trends w/Benefits in summer 2022, Chia lays out his vision for Reality Center and how the organization is working to promote alternative therapy for veterans.
How did you know cannabis and psychedelics had the power to heal?
“I've been using cannabis since I was probably 15 years old, so I've always been an advocate. I've always tried to move the flag up the hill within that community: advocating, legislating, lobbying. Whatever bills that come down the pipeline that are going to benefit veterans or that community, we sign on to as sponsor from the Veterans Cannabis Group. Right now we're working on the SAFE Banking Act, which will allow small cannabis farms to use the banks, [along with] the Safe Harbor Act that will allow veterans to take their medicine across state lines, so we'll be the first people federally allowed to do that. These are the things that we work on behind the scenes with a bunch of other veteran cannabis-focused nonprofits.
“I [experimented with] psychedelics at a younger age. You're really using it for experimental purposes. Then, when you get back [from deployment] and you've gotten through all that stuff, you're actually down to try anything. So when you first take it for healing once you're an adult, you're like, ‘Well, I remember taking these when I was 18.’ It's just quite a different experience when you're ready to use [psychedelics] to heal.”
Why are alternative therapies important to the veteran community?
“When you're in the military, all these alternative therapies aren't really known. People know about cannabis and psychedelics, but [they are] very demonized. When you're younger, you aren't using psychedelics for healing purposes.
“When specifically speaking for the veteran community, a lot of the stuff they tried to get us to do, whether it was take pills or go talk to therapists, that really was really, really bad for our community. That's why the veteran community is 7% of America, but it accounts for 20% of the suicide rate. Whatever they were doing was not working, clearly.
“Not saying we don't need doctors or therapists—it's quite the opposite, I think—but as far as treating post-traumatic stress, there are not too many things out there that are tried and true, except for these [medicines].”
How has Reality Center served the veteran community?
“I've been advocating for psychedelics for a very long time, and I know it works, but the fact of the matter is that not everybody can go do that stuff. Not everybody wants to walk through the fire or experience that all the time. So we've encapsulated the same kind of healing properties that psychedelics do in a 15-minute, 30-minute [or] hour experience that's totally safe, drug-free, [and] doesn't give you anxiety.”
Who are the people who would get the most use out of Reality Center?
“Everybody. Everybody deals with bad sleep, anxiety about life, and everything that's going on these days. We have high-functioning people in the world coming here, from Olympic athletes to top gamers to everybody in between, but also [people on] the mental health side that we tackle with the veterans and the post-traumatic stress.
“We see great traction on both sides. When you're on that bed, it gives you that same spiritual journey that psychedelics do, and you feel connected, [you feel] this ‘oneness’. Oftentimes, people speak or see their loved ones. Probably about 50% of the people are in tears [by the end].”
What other reactions have you seen?
“[I asked a Navy SEAL friend of mine to try it out.] He instantly goes, ‘Billy, is that you?’ It was his buddy who he lost in Iraq on a mission that he was supposed to go on. I put two and two together, and he's got extreme survivor's guilt, and that's part of his PTSD. He was sobbing, talking to his friend like he's right there in front of him. He sat up and said, ‘Jonathan, that was more powerful than my trip down to Mexico to do ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT.’”
How does it feel to get those reactions from people?
“We have people dealing with deep, deep trauma. Most people come in here talking about the same things stemming from our childhood and fucked-up parents, or loved ones, or jobs, or drug addiction—all of the things that you are going to constantly worry about in life. If you constantly worry about them, it's going to be a problem for you.
“That’s why most people have anxiety. We get people to focus on all of the great things in life, all the possibilities, what their gift to humanity is. Maybe they don't know what it is yet, and we get them to realize that there is something in there. It's just not your time to know it yet.”
Is Reality Center something you wished you had when you got out of the service?
“When I got out of the military, I really didn't like the military. I was mad at them. I felt like they sort of screwed me, and so I didn't want to be around military [people] in the beginning.
“Then I started finding actual veterans who are like me, who experienced the same things, then you start going down the rabbit hole with everybody. When you're in a position of public service, it's weird to be not in that life. When that's taken from you or you don't do it anymore, it has an extreme impact, which creates a lot of stress in your life. You used to be Superman … now you can't fly anymore.
“Most veterans that I know are thriving, are in a position where they're helping the community, they're helping their family, they're helping themselves, they're building something, and they're giving back to the community—those are the people that I know that are dealing with some of the biggest trauma.”
Allie Volpe is a journalist based in Philadelphia. She has contributed to the New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone and more. Follow her on Twitter.
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