The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (August 28th 2022)
Psychedelics, holidays and changing YOUR mind!
Bit of a change of pace this week as I am off on holiday! And given my excitement about nipping off to Greece for some serious R and R it made me think of possibly the best holiday I ever had which was when I went to Jamaica with a friend on a therapeutic psilocybin retreat. I’ve been thinking about this experience particularly because I’ve been binge-watching the brilliant Netflix series How To Change Your Mind– based on the bestselling book by Michael Pollan. (If you haven’t watched it or read the book, do, it might change your life! It did mine). I’ve talked about taking magic mushrooms before on a podcast but I’ve never shared this experience with all of you – so here goes!
In the Pollan documentary he talks about how many people say that taking psilocybin was up there with the most moving experiences of their lives; I think it changed mine irrecoverably. And it really helped the friend I went with who was suffering from depression and PTSD and is now remarkably improved – given the epidemic of mental illness, particularly anxiety, OCD, anorexia etc, the amazing results from scientists working with psychedelics really give me hope. My more minor hope is that reading this might change YOUR mind…
“The sunlight glittered on the sea and the coconut palms waved beguilingly as the facilitator handed all eight of us a handful of brown capsules. They looked a bit like vitamin pills and the taste as we munched them down with water and chocolate was earthy. The atmosphere on the shady veranda in Jamaica was charged; we were in the process of taking the first of three large doses of psilocybin, or magic mushrooms. It was like a scene out of the TV series Nine Perfect Strangers, but we were all there because we’d chosen to take hallucinogens, we weren’t being conned into it by a Nicole Kidman Svengali-style character.
I had come on the retreat – advertised as ‘25 years of therapy in a week’ – to support a friend who hoped psilocybin might alleviate the trauma of her husband’s sudden death. Having read Michael Pollan’s bestselling book How to Change Your Mind: The new science of psychedelics (which details the life-changing capacities of psilocybin particularly in terms of how it can relieve depression, addiction, trauma and PTSD) she had decided to try it.
I was initially trepidatious – I have always been suspicious and scared of LSD/Acid fearing bad trips or that my mind might be permanently damaged. But the retreat promised safety, enforced by qualified ‘trip sitters’ or ‘psychedelic ninjas’ (facilitators who baby-sit participants at all times during the dose). And having read Pollan’s book and some of the latest science myself, I became convinced the psilocybin might not only help my friend but possibly open my own mind.
I have always been resolutely unreligious, but I grew up on the Romantic poets and reading Aldous Huxley and somewhere inside me I longed to have a ‘doors of perception style’ experience of the divine.
Such journeys are no longer only the preserve of hippies and seekers. The latest study conducted by Kings College London into psilocybin builds on the last two decades of research which shows that some psychedelic compounds, particularly psilocybin, can be equally effective – in some cases more effective – than traditional treatments for intractable depression.
That was certainly what I saw in action on the retreat.
The way it works is over the week is that three doses are administered and between each one there is a day of ‘integration’ – basically group therapy where retreatants explain why they have come and what they saw in their trips. Over the week the changes in the participants were extraordinary.
The most striking example of the transformational power of psilocybin was a young man I will call John. In the opening session, John, 30, from San Francisco, explained he was severely, suicidally depressed. His face was so white and his demeanour and eyes so absent it was hard to look at him; I’d never witnessed such totally embodied misery, he looked like a speaking corpse.
Before our first trip John said that he had come on the psilocybin retreat because he had tried everything else to cure his depression and nothing had worked. This was the last chance saloon. If this retreat failed, he said, he would kill himself. He couldn’t go on. There were many nods and sympathetic glances from the rest of the participants. The leader of the retreat said that his situation was not unusual and they had helped many like him.
“Trust the mushroom” the retreat leader opined.
Looking us all in the eye, he continued: “There is only one rule: don’t leave. While you are here with us, in our care, you will be safe.”
I looked down at the brown capsules in my hand. Could magic mushrooms really help John or my friend, or indeed me, when a welter of carefully researched clinically proven drugs and treatment programmes had failed? A flicker of anxiety went through me; was I mad to be taking a significant dose of such a strong hallucinogen? I thought back to the liability and damage waivers I had signed. I hoped I wasn’t about to lose my mind. I had avoided taking acid as a student, terrified by tales of people jumping out of windows because they believed they could fly. I valued my brain – it was my living, my livelihood, my very self. As the capsules churned in my stomach I wondered what the hell I was doing?
I asked the leader tremulously, about the possibility of a bad trip.
He smiled. “Whatever happens, trust the medicine and don’t resist. Follow where it takes you even if it is frightening. Submit, surrender to it and all will be well.” These words were followed by a meditation in which we were told to imagine ourselves full of white light. “If in the trip you feel uncomfortable, come back to this place of light and calm,” he said.
I held my friend’s hand tight.
I needn’t have worried.
Half an hour later the medicine began to work. The leaves above me in my hammock began to swirl and glitter. The red petals of bougainvillea all over the sand glowed and moved. My body felt heavy and a bit nauseous and I burped loudly and embarrassingly but as the hours passed a huge feeling of joy and contentment filled me. As I looked at the sun on the sea, the golden light without became a golden light within, my heart opened and was filled with love; for my family and friends, for the beauty of the earth, for the incredible miracle of being alive.
It was as if everything that I had formerly worried about or thought mattered was revealed as completely irrelevant compared to this huge, golden sense of love and connection. I felt reborn, recharged by the universe. Connected to all things in all times. Even as I write this if I close my eyes I can go back there. It was one of the most powerful, moving, important experiences of my life.
I am not alone.
According to the Kings College London research, building on a decade’s worth of work from prestigious universities worldwide, including John Hopkins, UCLA and New York University in the United States, the answer to whether magic mushrooms can treat depression and PTSD is an unequivocal yes.
That did not surprise me because over the week I spent on retreat I saw with my own eyes the incredible effect this ancient medicine can have. Produced not by a chemist but by a little brown mushroom, teonanacatl or ‘flesh of the gods’ as the ancient Aztecs and indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America termed the magic mushroom, it has been used as a sacrament for hundreds of years. Indigenous peoples see these mushrooms as an entheogen, a substance which provides a gateway to the divine. That was certainly how it felt to me.
As that day, and subsequent days, unspooled the changes in my fellow retreatants made that far-fetched claim credible. By the third dose miserable John was a different man, smiling, colour in his face, meeting our eyes, laughing, engaged with the world. Two years later he is still well.
My friend too, after a first difficult and painful trip (which she described as worse than chemotherapy), finally regained a sense of joy. As we sat hugging on a ledge over the blue sea after our final trip the song I can see clearly now the rain has gone started to play. It was a moment I will never forget. A moment she says re-lit her emotional pilot light. The ancient medicine had worked.
Modern medicine is finally catching up with ancient wisdom. A plethora of studies all over the world, show that under supervised conditions psilocybin, the active ingredient in the mushrooms, can help alleviate intractable, drug-resistant depression and PTSD.
There are even brain scans which prove how psilocybin helps the brain make new connections. One neuro-scientist described a depressive’s brain as being like a skier who keeps descending a mountain in the same tracks, the habitual deep grooves and repetitive patterns create a circle of negative thinking. Psilocybin is like fresh snow has fallen. Rather than following the old grooves, the mind has a chance to create new ones, new paths, new patterns – in essence breaking out of the old depressive rut. That is certainly what seemed to be happening on the retreat.
Of course the science is still young and the problem with psychedelics – now as in the 1960s when the hippies first started to turn on, tune in and drop out – is that everybody reacts to them in their own way. For that reason, set and setting (where you take the drug and your intention when taking it) are crucial.
Taking psilocybin will never be like taking paracetamol, it opens doors to perception which must be carefully and skilfully managed. Once in the trip you see yourself from the outside, old patterns or ways of seeing the world drop away. But that sense of being porous, of sitting on the astral portal where anything can happen and the walls between worlds become thin is also dangerous. You don’t want any surprises there, or anything coming into your space to disturb your own thoughts. On one of my trips two big dogs bounded into the garden – they appeared to me as threatening wolves, I cowered behind a door. Luckily our psychedelic ninja baby-sitter whisked them away.
It is crucial that someone straight is in charge and in control to ward off heading into a downward spiral. Additionally, the dose is hard to get right; while 8g of mushrooms was ample for me, others needed 20g for the same effect.
It is also the case, as Michael Pollan writes that, “People on psychedelics are liable to do stupid and dangerous things… bad trips are very real.” For this reason, it is incredibly important for safety that psilocybin is taken under controlled therapeutic conditions with a qualified ‘trip sitter’. Even under these circumstances trips can get pretty wild; in Jamaica there were points where people screamed that they were dying, gave birth to dragons, or pawed the ground. One man bellowed for four hours. The facilitators were made of stern, sympathetic stuff.
Interestingly though, the trips themselves were only half of the experience. The integration sessions, on the days between the trips, where we all sat around for hours taking it in turns to discuss our experiences, were some of the most profound, truthful, moving conversations of my life.
This therapeutic discussion was as crucial as the doses themselves and is a key part of all psychedelic treatment. The King’s studies show that participants who were able to integrate their insights and make the behavioural changes in their real lives subsequent to the trips were the ones who saw the most profound changes six months to a year afterwards. The mushroom is not a panacea, it is a gateway to a new way of being.
If I am honest, the psilocybin trip changed my life. I don’t think I would have navigated the huge changes in my life that led to the creation of Noon and this newsletter if I hadn’t had that certainty of being connected to a beautiful, bigger whole; somewhere everything truly was perfect.
On my final trip, I felt that legendary sense of unity with all things beloved of famous psychonauts from Aldous Huxley to Timothy Leary. Most of us by the time we hit midlife have some emotional baggage to shed, it certainly helped me shift mine. And the experience has gone on unfolding inside me ever since. I had never been a religious person, but since that magic mushroom experience I am convinced that we are part of something bigger, that the life force, the consciousness within all of us and the planet is connected. When I meditate in the morning, I feel connected to that bigger essence. It is supremely comforting. It gives everything else perspective.
So far in the UK, it is illegal to administer psilocybin because magic mushrooms are deemed a Class A substance, like heroin or cocaine. But in the US Oregon has legalised psilocybin, Holland has also decriminalised mushrooms, and it is not illegal in Jamaica (where I went). In a decade or so a psilocybin retreat for depression or trauma could be as accepted a treatment as a handful of pills. Certainly for my friend it was way more effective. And for me, it was a gateway to a new, braver, more golden life.
So far the science is promising. In a 2006 John Hopkins university experiment two thirds of participants rated the psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a first child or death of a parent. Fourteen months later participants still said that was true and additionally reported significant improvements in their ‘personal wellbeing, life satisfaction and positive behaviour change’ effects, which were also correlated by their family and friends.
In the meantime, there is a gold rush of investment swarming into psychedelics, with all sorts of charlatans and crazies trying to get in on the act alongside start-ups and big pharma. There is a long way to go and there are dangers too, but I am delighted that the academic trials are showing such progress. Used carefully, psilocybin truly is an entheogen, a substance that can show us the divine, for some it really is a miracle cure for the mind and soul. I just hope that soon more of us will be able to access it safely and legally in the UK soon.
I’m not taking any psilocybin on my holiday this week, I will be in Greece, eating ice cream, swimming in the turquoise sea, reading books and hanging out with my family. But if you fancy a little taste of the divine, watch How to Change Your Mind, the director and executive producer is a fellow amazing Queenager and contemporary of mine at uni Lucy Walker. Big congrats to her too.
Have a lovely week!
By Eleanor Mills