As soon as I arrived in town for the festival, I hit the ground running. From 3PM to 6PM that Thursday, I had training with the harm reduction team. Before the meeting, I didn’t know much about the subject. Three hours changed that. A lot of information was thrown at the trainees because we would be put to action 24 hours later, with limited supervision. After the training, we went directly to the festival site. From 8PM to 4AM, more training sessions, this time with the entire festival staff. There were over 1,000 people representing different teams. With so much information and time spent in 90 degrees, I had to ask myself “what did I get into?!”
The next day, day 1 of the festival, had a 4PM report time. With the sun firing its triple-digit rays down our backs, my festival team finished our event prep and awaited the rush of the crowd. And rush they did. I was quickly put into action. Helping people find water stations, restrooms, and food vendors. Casual chats about drug and sex education. I met amazing individuals, all rocking some of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. Their excitement for the start of the festival made me excited too!
As the sun set though, the problems started to rise and my excitement quickly faded. That night, I was assigned to work in the chill zone. It wasn’t the biggest area, but with bean bag chairs, air conditioning, and free water bottles, it was THE place for relaxation and shelter from the heat. It also served as a safe space for those who had a little too much, well, you know, banned treats. As you can imagine, the place reached capacity quickly and it didn’t take long for distressed individuals to come in asking for help. I was put to the test.
In the past, I’ve helped people who were dehydrated or exhausted, both mentally and physically. But, they were usually my closest friends. Those instances were nothing like this. With no medical background, and a combined 11 hours of classroom training the day before, I helped people who couldn’t quite handle the effects of the substances they consumed. I had to help those experience bad psychadelic trips. My training taught me how to guide substance users through these negative trips, a skill I never pictured myself learning. Well, I had to put this weird, new talent of mine to use early and often. Some of these encounters were frightening. Bodies shaking, people falling to the ground, screaming, crying, twisting and contorting. There were so many distressed people that my team was outnumbered. We needed more help and we weren’t going to get it.
On many occasions, we would walk people to the nearby medical tent, only to be turned away because the tent was too populated. The tent itself was a house of horrors. The screams I heard each time I stepped inside it still haunt me to this day. I thought people were dying in there. Painful deaths. Some patients had to be strapped down to makeshift gurneys. It was scary. “Take them back and let the drug run its course,” the medics told my team, and I, most of the time. Thing was, there were people resting in every nook and cranny in our chill zone. It looked like a war zone. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference at all, as the number of visitors kept increasing. That changed on day 2.
With word spreading throughout the festival about the chill zone, and the services provided inside, many took the time to show appreciation. I met people who took the time to stop by and say thank you. Not just casual “oh hey, thanks!” either. There were so many hugs shared and heartfelt discussions with people from all over the globe. In my life, I never received so much love in one setting- it fucked me on an emotional level! I found that doing the littlest things, like handing out a water bottle, might not seem like a big deal to me but is in the eyes of others.
During training, one of the instructors told me “you’ll make a difference in one person’s life.” I was skeptical at first, but it turns out she was right! On night 2, someone came crying to me because he lost his cellphone and wallet. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, he didn’t care about his lost money and IDs. He just wanted his phone back because it had pictures of his puppy. He told me he asked around for help, and no one wanted to. At this point, he was shaking in anger- tears flowing down his face. He was ready to lash out at people, violently too! He told me that verbally. Once I was able to calm him down, I walked him to the lost and found- worth a shot, right? No luck. The tears and anger came out again. He went on to talk about his love life, and how his current boyfriend abused him. I’ve had people open their hearts to me before, but not like this. Not a complete stranger. How do you comfort someone you don’t know? How do you comfort a stranger who wants to fight everybody?
After taking him on a walk, not finding his phone at the lost and found, I told him to use my cell to call it. He was skeptical at first, and doubted me. I told him that it never hurts to try. He called and, well, someone answered: another festival goer! Overcome with joy and relief, my new friend broke down in tears and gave me my phone back- unable to talk to his savior on the other line. I set up a meeting point and we got his phone back. After we got the phone, this wonderful soul would not stop thanking me. I was about to cry too! We never found his wallet but he didn’t care. He was reunited with his puppy. Days, and months, later, he said thank you- using his cell phone history to find not only my phone number but my Facebook page as well. It weirded me out, at first, especially after getting thank you texts at 3 in the morning. To have made such an impact in his life though. That experience led to self-reflection.
For me, I keep a sheltered heart. Being vulnerable makes me uncomfortable. At this festival, for the first time in my life, I had to open myself to strangers. I had to have one heartfelt conversation after the other. I had to nourish and protect. I had to be vulnerable myself. The keys to helping people who are experiencing bad psychedelic trips is to do all the above, amongst other things. You have to be their safe space and not look down on them because of their decision to take substances.
By the end of day 2, I was emotionally exhausted- trying to process everything in my head. I’d never felt this worn out. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and just cry.
To this day, I ask myself “was that experience worth it? Would I ever do something like that again?” I flip-flop with that answer because I don’t know if I could handle being that emotionally drained again. One thing is for certain: I achieved my goal of helping others. Now, I want to do more of that. Educating about harm reduction inspired me to pursue a career in teaching and leadership. Two months after the festival, I quit my job at Amazon to take on a leadership position at the University of Washington, here in Seattle. Currently, I lead a team of nearly 20 college students- many from other countries, and many who have never worked a day in their life. To teach and provide guidance to these students has been the most gratifying career I’ve ever had. Like working at the festival, I feel I am making a difference in the lives of others. And I’ve never felt happier.
Ever thought about volunteering at a festival? Do it. It might change your life too! Have you volunteered at a festival? Why did/do you do it? Let know in the comments below!