Friend and co-creator for 5 years

I have been a close collaborator with Stephen Reid in the Find the Others community (SR and FTO herein respectively). I am a disabled, non-binary, neuro-divergent Muslim performer and sacred practitioner who is a 2nd generation Iranian migrant to Britain, living currently in Berlin.

In the interests of full transparency of motive, I will state that I am writing this testimony because:

- SR is a dear friend within a small group of dear friends who have been my close companions and allies in life, work, play and resistance since October 2015.

- I am loyal to these people because I love them and they love me, despite our interpersonal challenges and conflicts over the years.

- This text is written truthfully and loyally, while I try to regulate my feelings of anger and fear because my dear friend is being publicly attacked by people who seek to cause suffering.

I first met SR at an event in October 2015 to which I was invited by someone I had known during my postgraduate studies in Leeds. This event is often considered to be the first of the Find The Others gatherings, and I met some people there who are now my literal family. When we met on the first morning, SR said, “I’ve heard so much about you”, to which I replied, “I don’t know who you are, but that’s nice, thank you.” At some point later that day, I approached SR with a personal criticism about something I found exclusionary about the opening circle. He was defensive, and then suggested that if I thought I could do better I was welcome to try. So I did, and he welcomed and appreciated my contribution, and we started to become friends.

This first meeting indicates the general shape of my productive interactions with SR over the years - he’s charming, I don’t take the bait, I criticise him, he is defensive to varying degrees while also inviting me in to improve the situation, I accept his invitation, we’re both pleased with the outcome, life grows on. It’s not always easy, sometimes it’s frustrating and antagonistic for us both. I like that the interactions are always eventually generative.

From 2016, due to my professional experience and personal dedication as a performer, event organiser and sacred space holder, I began to contribute significantly to organising FTO community events, and continue to do so as much as I am able. I find it disrespectful when people continue to choose to believe that SR is the “leader” of FTO, despite shared lived experience, documents and data proving otherwise. My perspective is that this is a projected patriarchal framing, that people are determined to find a wizard behind the show, pulling the strings, even though there isn't one. I find this projection frustrating because it undermines the hard work towards gender equality that does take place by active co-creators of FTO. These projections erase the contributions of mine and other non-white non-male agents in the space.

Myself and many of my closest pre-FTO friends are neurodivergent, ranging between ADHD, ADD, ASD, childhood brain damage survivors, dyslexia, dyspraxia and people who live with various types of mental health challenges, including C/PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, BPD, OCD, Anxiety and Depression. After getting to know SR, I recognised some potentially neuro-atypical traits, though never thought to ask him if he was aware of this, as I felt it would be disrespectful to foist my amateur psycho-analytic diagnosis on a new friend. Instead, I chose to receive him just as he is, to work with what is there rather than holding his so-called "shortcomings" against him. When I wanted to engage him in conversations about emotions and emotionally-driven experiences, I would explicitly ask him questions that made it clear that this is the kind of topic that I was raising, using phrases such as, “please can we talk about our emotions?” Or, “please can we stop talking about work and talk about what’s going on with our feelings?” Or, “there’s a problem within the community because people feel hurt, please can I talk to you about what is going on?” Whenever I made my desire for empathetic emotion-themed communication explicit, SR was very willing to speak with me about these matters, with kindness, compassion and care, for me and for the community. My impression was that SR felt relieved and grateful to be invited into this kind of interpersonal interaction, and that he was sadly conditioned to expect that people were only interested in talking to him in order to network with him, or to get something out of him. My guess was that he had been dehumanised by past experiences, though I do not know what these were, and so I took care to interact with him as a human being first, and then as co-creator and colleague second. Our emotion-themed interactions deepened our friendship over time.

Our friendship was not always easy for me. Like many female-bodied and female-socialized people, I am highly sensitive to and angry about patriarchal power structures in society. As our friendship deepened, I observed that I was consciously and unconsciously seeking SR’s approval and support in my work, in projects that had no connection to him. I recognised this pattern of seeking male approval as being related to my childhood trauma, that I was projecting this pattern onto my relationship with SR, and then undertook some personal development work to break through this pattern. A few weeks after I had successfully stopped projecting onto SR in this way, I spoke with him about the personal journey I had been on. To my relief and gratitude, SR congratulated me with warmth and humour, celebrating with me that I had broken this pattern, and encouraging my continuing liberation from childhood trauma and into personal authority. From then on, implicitly from his actions and explicitly from what he said to me and others, I understood that SR’s ideal is that no one be dependent on his authority for anything, but for everyone to be mutually autonomous and co-liberated within their own capacities. This ideal is obviously problematic in the context of intersectional social inequalities, and is also nonetheless admirable to me.

My friendship with SR continued because we share a determined altruism, especially on the themes of a fair society and a healthy planet, and also a strong commitment to public, community and sacred service. Within and outside of FTO, we collaborated closely to create benefit for others, including but not limited to: contributing significantly to the establishment of wellbeing infrastructure for a major direct action political movement; organising and facilitating an awareness raising event that challenged racist and colonialist norms at a large Burner festival; protecting the FTO and Psychedelic Society (PS herein) communities from a known sexual assailant who was attempting to infiltrate the communities; developing and trouble-shooting inclusive structures and methodologies for co-organising co-created gatherings.

One very difficult experience with SR that I still feel has not been fully healed goes like this: I discovered in mid-2018 that I have epilepsy, that I have had it since I was child, and that it had gone undiagnosed. Once I realised that my significant suffering in life was mostly due to this neurological condition, I focussed a lot of my time and energy to understanding how I could adjust my life so that I could be less debilitated less regularly, and more well more often. At the time, I was providing a regular workshop for PS, and so considered the organisation to be an employer, and considered it my responsibility to inform them about my disability, and to ask for them to cooperate with me to develop reasonable workplace accommodations. I did not receive any response from SR, or the other member of the PS team that I included in my correspondence. After two weeks, feeling very hurt and full of condemnation for my friends, I wrote to them again and resigned from PS. I do have compassion for the reasons why SR and the other staff member did not respond, and also can see that since the incident they have both done a lot to include me in PS and make provision for my needs in other spaces that we share. Still, it hurt to have my needs ignored by my friends, at a time when I really needed my friends to care. The timing of this incident was especially unfortunate, and led to a general bifurcation of mine and SR’s paths, which I lament.

Even so, our co-creation in FTO and the wider world continued. At various times, with a to-be-expected mixture of grace and frustration and defensiveness and respect, SR took my criticisms about the whiteness, elitism, heteronormativity, ableism and spiritual bypassing culture of PS on board. He also arranged a place for me to stay within the PS community space when I was in London for a protest action, an act that helped contribute significantly towards my reconciliation with PS.

In general, I feel like SR doesn’t understand me easily. We enter the same arenas with very different backstories, and my interests and expertise sit outside of his conditioning. I am aware that I can seem too unpredictable for him, so he doesn’t always include me in all of his plans as much as some other of our friends - I also don’t believe that he owes me inclusion for the sake of inclusion. He is his own man. Nonetheless, we are friends, we share the songs we have written with one another, we have check in calls, we get excited about community news, we dance together at raves, we shelter each other through storms, we trust one another to look out for one another. Even though I have made life hard for him sometimes by being outspokenly critical about his actions, he continues to nurture our friendship and my goals with honesty and integrity, he values me and my perspectives, and he supports my unfolding with encouragement and interest.

— Beloved Sara Zaltash