Sandra Statz is a beauty executive, chronic pain navigator, and psychedelic medicine advocate. She’s the founder and CEO of A.P. CHEM®, a science-forward age decelerating skincare brand. As a business leader and creator, she has more than 15 years of experience working with beauty brands including La Mer, Guerlain, Sol de Janeiro, and Clinique.
An advocate for psychedelic medicine for mental and physical health, Statz actively contributes as a board member of The Ketamine Fund, a member of the marketing committee for the Women in Psychedelics Network, and as a confidante for those exploring treatment.
We were grateful to sit down with her as she discussed her unique experiences with psychedelic therapy and its impact on her life. She talks about the cultural influences on her personality and her journey towards self-advocacy in healthcare through her challenging autoimmune condition.
As we made our introductions, a few interruptions before we settled in led us into a conversation about our tendency to apologize.
Sandra Statz: I’m doing [psychedelic] sessions with this amazing woman in Brazil, and when we first started getting to know each other… she said to me, “Goddess, you need to stop. You keep apologizing for everything.” I was like, “I’m sorry.” [laughs]
It’s just natural [for me] to be deferential to people. It’s an auto-response. [But her words] really stuck with me. [And with psychedelics] you become so much more open-minded and considerate of yourself.
Vivian Kanchian: I’m curious if you think it’s a cultural thing… being deferential? I’m Armenian. And I grew up with a mother who even ironed our pajamas! Very proper and accommodating of others. I can’t help but wonder… is it a little bit of that for you, too?
SS: A hundred percent. The best way to describe my ethnicity is that I’m ethnically Indian, and culturally Caribbean. My parents grew up in a former British colony called Guyana in South America. So, that came with a mixture of British etiquette as well as being an immigrant coming to a country in the late 60s-early 70s, as a person of color.
You find yourself being a little timid, a little nervous. But going back to your question just about cultural influence, absolutely. I think for the most part, it’s a good thing. You’re learning manners, you’re learning respect, you’re learning your place when it comes to your age and what’s appropriate. Nothing annoys me more than an overly precocious child that interrupts adult conversations [laughs].
I think that [my upbringing] very much shaped my values and my respect for people. I’m always trying to make sure that I’m being polite, I’m being respectful, [and sometimes that includes being] deferential to people. But you kind of forget as you get older, that you don’t have to be deferential to everybody.
That was something that I learned going through ketamine treatment and microdosing. You learn there’s a difference between being apologetic, and being deferential and respectful.
VK: One of my favorite sayings these days is by the Welsh poet, David Whyte. He talks about arriving at an age in life when you “stop smiling politely and pouring tea for everybody,” a very British reference. The point is that you start living more authentically to yourself.
As a child of first-generation immigrants, I was taught to be accommodating. For example, if an aunt or an uncle wants to go in for a hug, you just do it.
SS: We share a lot of commonalities. They should do a study on first-generation Americans. I think there’s a lot to unpack! I’m not saying that the way that our parents raised us is negative by any means. They want to assimilate.
At the same time, they want to preserve their culture and their values. But it’s also, in some instances, contrary to assimilating. It’s complicated.
VK: So, we’ve talked about the cultural aspect. But I think that a lot of this tendency to apologize can sometimes be connected to being a woman, right?
I was talking with a retired OBGYN who had lost his wife to Parkinson’s. And he was telling me how they just felt completely brushed off by the medical system. And that even he, as a doctor, found himself hurrying his patients through their appointments because of the system in which he was a part of.
So I wonder, based on the experiences that you’ve had with your autoimmune condition. Can you tell us a little bit about some times that you’ve had to self-advocate, and what would your advice would be to somebody who’s facing a similar situation?
SS: Yes, absolutely. I felt dismissed a lot. I will also say, I was very apologetic. I think certainly, that my impulse to be respectful is something that was ingrained in me.
But I also think the doctors or the experts may not even realize that they’re dismissing you. For the reasons that you mentioned with your doctor friend, they might end up seemingly dismissing you because of the system or because they’re overworked and have 25 other patients that might (from their point of view) be in worse condition than you.
The big turnaround for me was when the symptoms I was experiencing rapidly got worse. I had to quickly change gears and start advocating for myself. And for me that meant well, okay, I’ve seen every specialist I can think of. And the rheumatologists were throwing medicine at me. They were just giving me the usual stuff, and it wasn’t working. So, I would ask them if we should try something else.
What I would get in response was, “No, it takes a good six to 12 months before you really start to feel any better.” And from my perspective, it was like, “I’m in a shoulder brace. I have compression gloves on. I have a knee brace. I’ve got ankle braces. I can barely walk”. I mean, this happened in the span of six months.
I didn’t have time anymore to wait for the medication to work. I didn’t have the patience anymore to be in that much pain. So, when the medication wasn’t working, I just started seeing other doctors. And I learned very quickly to ask questions.
And if you’re not getting answers that make sense to you, or you’re getting the same answers that just aren’t helping. Ask more. Ask for second opinions. Ask for third opinions. If your doctor’s not answering your questions, then I don’t think that’s the right doctor for you.
I also would look at all of my medical charts. For better or for worse, [I would] search Google to learn the different ranges for blood tests – to see if I was inside or outside the average.
But I think learning to speak up and really push back… gosh, that makes me think it could be a cultural thing too. Because it’s not actually pushing back. You’re asking questions, and you should be able to ask your doctor questions.
So, I was pushing back finally and asking, “But, what does this mean? What do you mean it’s gonna take six months for this medication to kick in? I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to get out of bed. I can’t function this way. I can’t work. I can’t take care of my family. I can’t take care of myself.”
And I wasn’t afraid to offend doctors anymore. I don’t mean that I was being rude, but I finally just said, “Can you refer me to somebody else?” It’s my job to take care of myself, so I’m just doing me.
One of the things we emphasize with A.P. CHEM is to know your options, and that encompasses a lot of things. Simply put, there are different types of medications that you can take, whether it’s classic or what we refer to as Alt-Pharma™.
And you have options when it comes to the doctors that you see – within the confines of insurance, of course. There are also different types of doctors you can see, whether it’s traditional medicine or alternative.
When I talk about self-advocacy, it’s not just about speaking up for yourself. It’s also about that curiosity or that drive to do the research – and to empower yourself. So, I can very much resonate with everything that you said.
VK: Are you at all familiar with the Flexner Report? I think you would be fascinated by it. Rockefeller, Carnegie, and JP Morgan, got together in the 1930’s and basically decided to do away with the North American medical model which, up until then, focused on keeping people healthy. They realized that by complicating things, and keeping people dependent on the medical system, that they could really make a profit.
Since then, doctors have mainly become researchers and they’re no longer able to spend much time with patients. A lot of their funding comes from them spending time in the lab and researching stuff rather than actually giving patients TLC, so that’s part of the problem.
Then, the other problem is that we have this feeling that we have to be deferential to doctors. As you said earlier, that “The doctor is an expert”.
However, what you figured out pretty quickly is that you are the expert of your own body.
And so, that’s some pretty significant experience that the doctor couldn’t possibly have, right?
SS: Right. Yes, it’s funny. I wrote this down – you have to trust yourself. Whether it’s something as literal as “you don’t feel the pain that I’m feeling right now”.
I don’t want to say that I’m anti-system, by any means. [In fact], the one medication that finally broke through and really helped (within the span of a couple months) pull me out of what felt like physical paralysis is a biologic. But the system is broken. My current insurance doesn’t cover this medication, and it’s $14,000 a month. So I’m working with the Co-Pay program. So, we’re not anti-pharma. We’re Alt-Pharma™.
There’s no one prescription for everybody. It is empowering to self-advocate, and to learn there are other things out there that can help you, like functional mushrooms or psychedelic medicine.
VK: Yes, and I think one of the big things that psychedelic therapy does is that it helps us see that we’re not seeing the whole picture. It kind of just lifts this veil of perception that we’ve been seeing the world through for the longest time, right? And it opens up these new windows of perception that get us thinking that, hey, there might be another way to go about this.
I actually think that’s very descriptive of our medical system – it knows what it knows. And you have to have that curiosity because the alternative information is probably not going to be put in front of you by a rheumatologist, or by your primary care physician unless you’re super lucky. That’s kind of the leg work that you have to do for yourself, right?
So, can you tell me a little about how ketamine therapy may have helped you advocate for yourself, or to see other options, and maybe even to see the light at the other end of the tunnel when things seemed to feel so dark with the flare up of your condition.
SS: So, when I first started experiencing symptoms, and then they got worse very quickly… it impacted my mental health tremendously. I was used to working 18 hour days, weeks on end. I was used to being in charge of everything.
So, to be physically debilitated and to have difficulty working [in that state] was really tough for me. And I couldn’t understand how, in the span of three to six months, I could have gone from being completely physically healthy to being stuck in bed in such excruciating pain. So, when I say it took a toll on my mental health, that was a really hard reality to come to terms with that quickly.
I didn’t seek out ketamine treatment specifically for my inflammation. I sought it out for helping reset my mindset, because it was such a tough journey to be on. It still is. Not nearly as bad as at the beginning. But the depression just became so heavy, and I didn’t want to be on more medicine.
At that point, I’m looking at the figurative pill case like, oh my gosh, I guess I could go on antidepressants too… but I didn’t know if there were contraindications. I just didn’t want to take another pill. And that was what led me to ketamine treatment.
I was researching it, and I learned about its potential benefits for inflammation as well. I learned that there are patients that pursue ketamine treatment for inflammatory conditions, and for nervous system conditions.
So, at the time I was deliberating on whether to pursue ketamine therapy, it was primarily for my mental health. But when I saw that it could potentially help with my systemic inflammation too, I thought that was a great bonus.
How it helped me was by pulling me out of this very dark cloud of depression, because I just wasn’t myself anymore. I needed something to kick me out of it, and that’s what ketamine did. It certainly gave me a whole new perspective and my experience with psychedelic medicine has certainly changed my approach to a lot of things, including my outlook, and how I manage people. But in the short term, what it did was it brought me back to myself.
VK: How did your husband feel about you exploring ketamine going into this? Was he opposed to it in the beginning?
SS: We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it, to be honest.
I was introduced to it by a good friend of both of ours. He’s somebody I consider a best friend, and he had done ketamine treatment a few years before… sometime around 2015 or 2017. So, it was really unheard of at that time.
I consider myself very open-minded, but when he first told me about it, I wasn’t sick. So, I was just happy to know that it helped him with a variety of things that he had been struggling with.
By the time he brought it back up to me, he could tell from our conversations that I was really struggling with my autoimmune condition – the physical state that I was in, but also the mental state that I was in. And obviously, my husband seeing me every day knew that I was in physical pain as well as a lot of mental pain.
So when I said to my husband, “I’m gonna go do ketamine treatment in Miami, and [our mutual friend] is gonna be there with me” My husband just said, “If it’s gonna bring you back, go do it”.
If it weren’t a friend of ours that we are both very close to, I think he would have been a little more skeptical. Or, if he felt like I was just getting desperate and searching things online and looking for some mystery solution, he might have been a little bit more reluctant, but we were really fortunate to have a friend that had already done the treatment himself and had become an advocate in his own right for ketamine treatment.
Another big bonus is that psychedelic medicine can really open your mind to things that you can’t see, especially if there’s trauma you’re suppressing. It’s also just mind-expanding. I found that one of the biggest things psychedelic medicine has done is that it has made me so much more compassionate to myself and to other people.
VK: I love that. On that note, you talk about how ketamine helped you to both accept and feel your vulnerability during this difficult time. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by that?
SS: To be candid, the ketamine treatment helped me to see and address some trauma that I had suppressed. Even before I got sick, I was fighting through a lot. I was always working a million hours a week, at a million miles an hour – in charge of my life. But I didn’t realize all the mental blocks that I had, the trauma that I wasn’t able to see or confront. Ketamine helped me with all that.
When I got sick, I felt vulnerable for the first time and I couldn’t find a way to help myself. I didn’t realize that part of the vulnerability was not knowing how to be okay with it. I was just so angry and so sad that I was in such a terrible physical and mental state, that I wasn’t allowing myself to be okay with not being 100% physically and mentally there, like I thought I was before.
VK: You have said that ketamine also helped with your inflammation. Do you think that some of what it did potentially was to help you let go of this clenched feeling of always needing to be in control, and of always having to fight through stuff – and maybe helping you to surrender?
SS: One hundred percent. First of all, your mental health impacts your physical health, and your physical health impacts your mental health. Ketamine certainly allowed me to let go of the need to control.
It’s interesting because when I went in for my first infusion, the best advice my friend could’ve given me was to let go. I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant. But because he knows me so well, he just knows that I’m used to being in charge. I know how to get my work done. I’m on top of everything.
But the best way to experience the benefits of a treatment like ketamine is to try not to control the experience, and to try not to anticipate what you’re going to experience. If you let yourself go in, you’re going to see so much more and it’s going to help you release whatever’s been holding you back. Fear, depression, anxiety – it’s going to help you release that.
You mentioned that sense of feeling clenched – that’s a mental feeling too. The ketamine certainly helped with my physical inflammation and clenching of my body, and ultimately that improved my mental health too. And, when I was able to feel my vulnerability and be okay with it, my physical health improved.
I would never say that ketamine treats inflammation, though there are certainly studies out there showing a connection between the rapid anti-depressive results [it produces] and how that can improve inflammation of various kinds. But yes, it certainly gave me a new perspective on how to unclench my mind and my body.
VK: Amazing. So, it’s one thing to have lived your life a certain way…in control all the time. And then, for your friend to give you a little piece of advice to let go. Easier said than done. Did you do anything to prepare?
SS: No, my gosh. It’s so unlike me, but I just got to the point where I was so desperate. The team at the facility that I went to were fantastic. They reassured me, they answered all of my questions. They had a medical staff as well as mental health professionals on board.
So, there was a process where they reviewed all of my medical history to make sure there were no contraindications to any medication or any conditions I might have. They also connected me with an advocate on their team to answer any questions that I might have, and gave me some details about what to expect, and addressed any concerns I might have had about a week in advance of my treatment.
VK: Can you tell us – are functional/medicinal mushrooms also a part of your protocol these days? Are you dabbling in those as well?
SS: Yes, one of my favorite mushies is reishi for its anti-inflammatory benefits as well as its calming benefits.
At A.P. CHEM, we have a moisturizer called Microdose Magical Moisturizer that has eight adaptogenic mushrooms in it. And we didn’t do it just to be superlative and have the most mushroom extracts in our formula. We did it because each one serves a unique purpose.
It’s a nice balance of what we stand for as a brand – we’re very science forward. When I say that, it doesn’t mean that we’re experimenting with your face. We’re using a combination of classic and what we refer to as Alt-Pharma™ ingredients. They’re all clinically proven, and some are maybe just a little bit unexpected or something that you may not have tried before.
VK: You refer to the people on your team as “cool nerds”. So, what makes a cool nerd?
SS: Well, it’s not just the team that works with us. It’s our whole community!
The connotation for the word nerd is kind of a tongue-in-cheek reference to someone who is curious, and open to trying something that may seem a little bit off the beaten path or unconventional, or maybe just not popular at the time.
It’s also a nod to our target customer – the Gen Xer. We want to speak to them. As a Gen Xer myself, we remember the use of the word “nerd”. We’re flipping the term on its head and saying, “You might have been nerds then, but you’re cool nerds now. You took all that knowledge and look at where you are now”.
VK: I love that you kind of based your whole skincare line around the idea of bringing down inflammation. Where does that inspiration come from… was it from your personal health experience?
SS: I worked in skincare for the last 15+ years and while I was working at Clinique, I was introduced to my co-founder and business partner, Dr. Sherwin Parikh, who is a leading dermatologist in the city.
At the time, I was going through IVF. I was suffering from post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and had developed a ton of dark spots on my face. Somebody recommended that I go see him. I had never seen a dermatologist before, except for one occasion in high school when my mother took me to see a dermatologist for my acne.
So, I was introduced to Dr. Parikh as a patient originally. And what I immediately loved about him out of the gate was his holistic approach to skincare. He’s not just looking at what’s happening on the surface. When I told him I was going through IVF treatment, he started talking about how a person’s state of mind can impact their skin condition.
And one of the things that he said that really stuck with me is that inflammation is the root cause of virtually every skin condition, if not most health conditions. This was years before we decided to start a brand together.
When we decided to start working on A.P. CHEM together, I began to get sick with my inflammatory autoimmune disease. So, these two things sort of came together. It’s like the universe was calling us. We already knew we were going to focus on inflammation, because your skin needs to be in a homeostatic state for optimal skin health and renewal. When I started to get sick, he was helping me on my search for the right doctor. And we thought, “How can we integrate this experience I’m having into our skin science?”
So, we formulate all of our products with a variety of anti-inflammatory ingredients, including adaptogenic mushrooms, to make sure that we’re both calming the skin and helping maintain that balanced state. We also use a high concentration of actives in our formulas, so we want to make sure that you’re able to reap their benefits without irritating your skin.
VK: What do you mean by actives?
SS: These are ingredients that are doing their job based on the concerns that we’re treating. For example, helping with lines and wrinkles, or with uneven skin tone.
In addition to formulating with both classic and Alt-Pharma™ ingredients, we look at skin from a holistic mind-body perspective. So, we use neuropeptides, nootropics, and adaptogens in our formulas. We would never claim that they have mood enhancing benefits by virtue of putting them on your skin.
We are using them as a nod to that connection between physical health and mental health. While they’re commonly found in mood-enhancing oral supplements, they have also been shown to have clinically proven benefits that similarly uplift or calm the skin.
So our hero neuropeptide, for example, is GABA, can be found as an oral supplement store. And it is known to promote relaxation and sleep. In topical form, it’s actually known as nature’s Botox. Botox works by relaxing the tense facial muscles that cause wrinkles to form. GABA applied topically does the same – without any needles.
VK: Plus, you’re not putting anything toxic into your body, right?
SS: Right. All of our formulas are vegan, fragrance-free, gluten-free, cruelty-free, and dye-free.
I think the community that we’ve created with the brand also supports our mind-body approach to wellness. And that term community can be overused, but I think with A.P. CHEM, it’s so important because both my co-founder and I are members of the BIPOC community.
He’s also a part of the LGBTQ+ community. And our brand values represent our personal values, and we demonstrate that with the people that we feature in our campaign. We cater to the Gen X consumer, so we’re not going to show influencers with contoured makeup in their 20s. We really do represent our community by showing men and women within the Gen X age range, with different skin tones, sexual orientations, and gender identities.
VK: Tell us what’s next. Anything exciting coming down the pike for A.P. CHEM?
SS: Yes. We’re just a year old, but we have achieved so much in the first year. So, we really wanted to focus on being D2C first, because we had so many powerful messages behind the brand to communicate.
We’re excited to announce that we have started to partner with retailers and we just launched on Shopbop. We’re also in talks with other retailers for spring launches.
VK: Fantastic. Thank you so much for taking this time to share your story with us, Sandra.