Contrary to what the fearmongers of recent decades have told us, psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin don’t damage the brain, they often enhance it.
When I was coming of age, I was a “good girl,” doing what was expected of me, at least in the public sphere. I did my homework, obeyed the rules, didn’t get sidelined in adolescence by drugs or alcohol. I was, in short, the proverbial “goody-goody.” I followed this course primarily because I was afraid of the consequences of behaving badly. Punishment. Humiliation. Doing something that might alter my life irrevocably. Looking back, I don’t admire that timid, law-abiding child, though I do understand her, and I appreciate that the habits I learned have been very useful in my writing life.
However, in my private, non-school world my approach was a bit different. A rebel simmered, and I loved playing the provocateur. As with my mother, no practical joke seemed too outlandish to me. I loved doing mystery phone calls and sending fake “singing telegrams” to my friends in which I impersonated the nasal-sounding Western Union operator. One April Fool’s Day when I was in college, I spread the toilet seat with Vaseline and smeared peanut butter on the phone receiver, jokes that were met with more dismay and annoyance than laughter. I don’t know what impelled me to do such things, but I took great delight in them. As my mother often said, I was a bit of a devil.
My point is: I took calculated risks. But one thing I never did in those days, when I easily could have, was take psychedelic drugs. They were readily available and many of my friends were partaking but, having smoked some pot and found it made me paranoid, I was afraid that I might “freak out” or that psychedelic drugs would do irreparable damage to my brain.
In the last few years, after years of a ban on research into psychedelics, attitudes have changed to allow promising research from forty or fifty years ago to be revived and expanded. Contrary to what the fearmongers of recent decades have told us, psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin don’t damage the brain, they often enhance it, creating new synaptic connections and insights and lasting change, particularly when these drug experiences are guided by a professional.
I first became aware of this when I read an article about a psychologist who was depressed and fearful in his practice. During a guided psilocybin trip he came to the insight that all he had to do was show up and be open. This simple realization lifted his depression, and he was able to move forward without being immobilized by fear. I was so struck by his experience that that phrase became my mantra too. Then I read Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, in which he describes the history of psychedelic research and its revival, and recounts various personal narratives, including his own, of guided psychedelic drug trips. So many people—some with cancer and depression, others facing death, as well as ordinary healthy people—described these experiences as among the most transformative experiences of their lives. I began to see that such a trip might be in my future.
Then, in February of 2021, after a year of gradually losing my voice, I was diagnosed with bulbar-onset ALS. Doctors, wisely, would not predict how long I had to live, but I knew my time was—is—limited. The time for a guided psilocybin trip had come. Maybe I could witness death in advance of going there; maybe I could lose my ego as I had read so many people did; maybe I could experience some kind of deep transformation before leaving this earth.
I was excited, picturing the “enlightened me” who would emerge at the end of my drug trip. I cleared the idea with my doctor and went about locating a guide. I found a lovely, experienced woman who was willing to come to my house.
I had another motive at work too. I have been working on a novel that has been interrupted numerous times, and I was having trouble reentering it each time I returned to it. I had finally stalled as I approached the ending. The writing seemed stale, the plot predictable. I hoped the psilocybin trip might jumpstart some new ideas, recharge the project, and guide me to the completion of a first draft that I could get behind.
Was I scared? Damn right I was! The goody-goody in me was terrified. What if I had a truly bad trip? Or an emotional breakdown? What if I encountered death and didn’t like what I saw? But the devilish part of me was willing to take the risk. I felt this was a last chance opportunity for a unique and transformative experience—it was time to set the fear aside.
My guide, A, was a gentle, soft-spoken woman with intense blue eyes. She arrived equipped with a boom box, drums, feathers, and a basket full of potions (mushrooms and MDMA). The plan was to start with MDMA to relax me, then move on to the psilocybin mushrooms which would be made into tea and inserted into my feeding tube. Cognizant of my “virgin” status—as well as my disease—she planned to administer small amounts of the drugs initially, gradually increasing the dose if things were going well and I wanted more.
My husband was present, as was a filmmaker who was documenting my experience living with ALS. The four of us settled in the living room, bathed in afternoon sunlight. MDMA was inserted into my feeding tube. Then I reclined on the couch waiting for the drug to take effect, as A invoked spirits from all directions of the compass. Soothing music played on the boom box; A drummed along; occasionally she blew fragrant smoke around my head. Meanwhile everyone watched me for signs of change.
I observed myself keenly. Was I relaxing? Did I feel drugged? I wasn’t sure. Nothing seemed to be happening. Eager to experience something strong and identifiable, I turned to A and said, “Am I doing this right?” Everyone laughed (the good student dies hard). After a while, perhaps to distract me from being so hypervigilant, A got me talking on my voice-to-text device, asking me questions about how I felt about my weakening body. She wanted me to explore my grief, to cry maybe, but that is not how I’ve been feeling about having ALS. I’ve had a lot of time—a year and a half now—to think about what it means to vanish as I’m doing, and I can honestly say that, while I wouldn’t have chosen my condition, I feel more curiosity than grief.
A second dose was administered, and we continued to wait and talk and listen to music. A strong camaraderie developed among us, but I still didn’t feel drugged. After a couple of hours, I suggested a group hug to initiate the move to the bedroom for the psilocybin part of the journey.
I lay propped up in bed, and the others staked out places around the room that would be theirs for the next few hours. The mushroom tea, that resembled churning fecal matter, was inserted into the tube in my belly. A spoke words of invocation again then another period of waiting ensued, accompanied once more by music and drumming and fragrant smoke. Time passed. Why was nothing happening? After a second dose was inserted—by this time my attitude was Bring it on full force!—I closed my eyes, and the swath of pulsing green I saw told me I was high.
Keeping my eyes closed I sped through a kaleidoscope, traveled to the tops of Escher-like skyscrapers then found myself underground. Leaving my body behind, I lofted to a cathedral ceiling. At some point I went to the bathroom and spotted my husband’s toes which riveted my attention: They seemed to be sprouting hair! I was back on the bed, and A was stroking my face with feathers. What ecstasy!
The evening culminated in dancing—me, A, and my husband (the filmmaker felt compelled to record it)—then we stepped outside to see the shreds of a pink and purple sunset. After we listened to one final song, A intoned some words of benediction.
It was a memorable day, a bonding experience among the four of us we won’t readily forget. And yet—I wasn’t transformed as I’d hoped I might be. I didn’t encounter death, despite the time underground. I didn’t lose my ego. Nor did I emerge with any writing ideas at all. It was an enjoyable experience, but not one I would count as my top five or ten in life.
In the days following my trip, I tried to reap some understanding from what had happened. Was it only fun? It suddenly occurred to me: I had taken a risk, invited an experience I was scared of, and I’d survived it. I could—and would—take such a risk again. And it made me remember how it’s always been like this. Something terrifies you, but you do it anyway because you wouldn’t respect yourself for backing down. You take on the scary thing. You confront the elephant in the room. And when all is said and done, and whatever mess you’ve created has been cleaned up, you wonder what scared you so much in the first place.
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