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Melissa Etheridge: A Journey From Grief to Advocacy With Psychedelics

How the Etheridge Foundation is spearheading research on plant medicine for opioid addiction

Sara Russell

Melissa Etheridge is a Grammy and Oscar-winning musician and cultural icon who has remained one of America's favorite rock stars for three decades. As a mother and activist, Melissa founded the nonprofit Etheridge Foundation following the tragic loss of her son Beckett to opioids in 2020. Through the Etheridge Foundation, Melissa has continued her advocacy and public education with a mission to support the development of transformative plant medicine treatments for opioid use disorder.

What is the Etheridge Foundation?

[Q] Today we're talking about the Etheridge Foundation, your nonprofit that supports groundbreaking scientific research into effective new treatments for opioid use disorder. Why does the Etheridge Foundation support plant medicine research for opioid addiction?

[A] Well, my experience with plant medicine myself started in 2004 when I had breast cancer and was given a handful of pharmaceuticals to take home to help with the pain and the depression and then the side effects of those drugs. And I just shook my head and said, 'No, I'm not going to do that, I'm going to use cannabis.' …It helped me so much. It became a part of my life. It would help me sleep at night. It really helped me find balance and harmony in my life. 

As I saw my son in the last couple of years of his life, he broke his ankle snowboarding. He was actually trying out for the Aspen snowboard team and broke his ankle and that broke his dreams and broke his spirit. And from there he just went down this really difficult, scary hole of pharmaceuticals.

I had done a couple of ayahuasca journeys. He was around 17 or 18 and I didn't have full custody of him. And had I maybe had full custody of him I might have taken him to some of these situations with ayahuasca that I know helps with opioid addiction, through the underground knowledge that I had of it. I felt really helpless not being able to use that. There was no alternative other than to put him in a program, which I had put him in three or four programs and they never worked…Often the root of addiction is a dis-ease. Plant medicine targets the person and how they perceive the world and their own life, their whole being, rather than just a symptom that so often pharmaceuticals go to. So after he died, I said, 'Wow, we really need to speed up the research, the information that we have that can help legalize and set up centers that people can have the option of using.' And so I set up the Etheridge Foundation.

[Q] There are all these misconceptions about where opioid addiction starts— which is often with a prescription from a doctor. Can you talk about the realities of how addictive prescription pain medicine is and how that contributes to the opioid epidemic?

[A] Plant medicines and these ancient remedies are a way of thinking about the body holistically, that any symptoms we experience are just that: they're symptoms of a greater dis-ease. The way that modern medicine, pharmaceutical medicine, looks at the body, the way they're taught in medical schools is—this is the symptom and this is the drug that helps with that symptom. And that's why you get these people with bags of pharmaceuticals that are helping with every little symptom, and then they've got the side effects of that. Whereas plant medicine is a holistic belief that the body can heal. The body is created to heal. It's created to find homeostasis, to find harmony and balance. And it's more work, maybe? Someone might think of it as more work. It might seem easier to take a prescription medicine when you're struggling to breath sometimes. But no, I'm having trouble breathing because my life is crushing me, because my job is crushing me, because my mother thinks that I'm whatever and I'm stressing myself to the point of 'I'm going to die soon.'

Your body is going to keep giving you hints that you need to change. And there are people who don't want to change and people who truly believe that hard, hard work and sacrifice is the way to get what you want in life. When you look at the body holistically, when you look at our own immune system and the amazing things that it can do, then you understand you want to help the immune system. You want to do everything you can to get the immune system working and doing what it's supposed to do. And that's what holistic, plant medicine does. So it's not just take this instead of that. It's a different way to approach health and life.

Why Focusing on Mental Health is Key When Treating Addiction

[Q] I know you support organizations that consider and treat mental health issues in conjunction with substance use disorders. Can you talk about why that intersection in particular is important and the success you've seen in treating mental health issues alongside addiction?

[A] It's kind of the unspoken, difficult part of addiction. Having lived a few years with someone who was addicted and seeing what it does to the family—seeing his own development as a human being and growth into a young adult, seeing the issues that he gathered along the way, and also seeing what was available to help with that.

Every program I would put him in said, 'Oh yeah, let's talk about your feelings. Let's talk about that, let's bring everything back up again.' And in that sort of talk therapy way, you're not going to be allowed anything to help your own pain and what pain the emotional pain causes.

It takes a really, really, really intensely focused person to walk through that. And many do. Many have sobered up, and good for them. And that's amazing. And you can hard white knuckle it all the way through and well done. But the spiritual toll, the soul toll, is unmeasured. We can't measure that. 

There's no way anyone can ever say 'Look, if you just take some psilocybin your life's going to completely change. You're not going to feel pain anymore, and that's it.' Because that's not the journey. The journey is to understand your pain and let it go. You don't have to fix it. You don't have to talk about it and figure it out. You just have to acknowledge it. You have to see it and go, 'Oh, I'm stressed about this.' Stress is killing so many of us. And to change your life with plant medicine, it’s a process. The reason why so many people turn to pharmaceuticals is because it's easy.

It's like, 'Oh, you you have a pain in your back? Well, here's a pill. Then you won't feel the pain anymore.' It will absolutely wreck your whole life, but you won't feel the pain anymore. And getting to the root of the emotional issue versus not figuring out the problem is a fine line.

It's not like now you have to figure out why your mother was like that to you and why that happened. You just have to realize, 'Wow, I had some things that I'm still carrying with me. I'm still carrying this luggage.' Now this entheogen, this psilocybin, this journey of ayahuasca, can help me let go of that luggage and can help me realize, 'Oh, wow, all reality is really based in love. And wow, if I start loving myself, I can change my life. I can take a new path.' And it's hard to sell somebody that. But there are those who find our way here. We stumble and are led in some ways and find our way into the plant medicine world.

And when you are open to it, yes, you're not only going to relieve your pain, your physical pain, but you are going to understand and leave behind your emotional baggage that is causing that physical pain.

[Q] I know you have grief around this issue. I know this is personal to you. And through the loss of your son, you were somehow able to find determination and now hope to support other people in their struggles. How did you do that? What made that possible?

[A] I had been using plant medicine for many years, and it was helping me already understand that my son was making choices that I had no power over. And even if I locked him up in a room, I couldn't keep him locked up in a room forever. And families, they go through so much, you know. Do I give him money and help, or do I take everything away? Or you think, 'What did I do? Is it my fault?' Just over and over. The guilt can just bury you and make you sick, especially for mothers in these situations.

And I had just gone through breast cancer and I had built up my own health and my own happiness. It was a constant journey of, wow, this is his path. These are his choices. And I did all I could to the point where the last couple weeks of his life, I just told myself every day, 'It's his choice. You can't save him. You can't give up your life to go save him because then you both don't have a life.' And he had to make the choice. He had to do that or not. So when finally I got the call that he was dead, I was like, 'Okay, he made that choice.' And I had already done the work beforehand. I'd had that opportunity to do the work so that when he passed, that was the grieving. And I turned that grieving into understanding that he's in nonphysical now, where we all go, we're all going to die. I mean, I know some people don't really realize that, but everybody's going to die at some point. And all we have is the now. He is out of the physical now but he's nonphysical and he has all the spirit that has always been here. We're still connected to them and we will always be connected. Even though we don't have a full understanding of that, I know that. And I also know that he wouldn't want me to stop or grieve myself into sickness or into a hole. He wouldn't want me to be unhappy. He would be horrified. And he was. He always knew the pain that he would cause and that caused him more pain and he never wanted that.

So if I want to serve and be of service to his memory, it's to find the joy, find the great lesson in this. My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon. I can now have a great view and that's the way it works. I've had enough loss in my life to know all the beautiful things. This is the summer into the winter, into the dying and the rebirth. And that's what this life is all about. If I can help others with pain of all kinds, it feels like he is guiding me to do this. I feel like he is my partner in this. It's something he believes in very much.

Melissa Etheridge Wants Everyone to Know That They Aren't Alone

[Q] If somebody listening to this is out there struggling with addiction, is struggling with mental health issues or is watching a loved one struggle, is there something you would like to offer them?

[A] You might feel like you're alone, but you're not alone. We’re all connected in this experience. I would like to say to the ones who are experiencing addiction or who are finding themselves in out-of-control situations and looking for help that where you look is where you're going to go. So look for and find health, happiness and sunshine. Find these things because if you keep looking at the problems and you look at the pain, you're going to get more pain. Try to in whatever way you can, whether it's on a leaf on the ground or a breeze or a bird singing, whatever it is that can slowly take you to a path of less conflict with yourself.

No, you're not going to cure yourself in a day, but you're going to start making different choices and then there will be help. And those of you who are watching loved ones and are suffering the pain and guilt and shame of having a loved one who is in a situation of addiction and the choices that they're making you don't understand? You must do for yourself what you're hoping that they will learn to do.  If you aren’t an example of it, they can’t find it. You cannot save them. You cannot save anybody in this world. Nobody was put in this world to save anybody else. We’re all here to walk through everything, and we can, and they can. And yes, people come and go and some say, 'Oops, no, I didn't quite get it right this time.'

The cycle comes back and life is ongoing. Know that you’re a divine, energetic being, and all you can do is in every moment find the better thought, find the better way. And before you know it, you will have day after day after day of joy. And that light that you will shine is the only thing that heals everyone else. And it's something that you can only learn. You can't teach it.

Visit the Etheridge Foundation’s website to learn more about their support of the development of plant medicines, including their root relationship contribution to Indigenous-led biocultural conservation projects.

Sara Russell is the host of MUD\WTR's Trends w/ Benefits podcast.

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