'I left my life to work at a magic mushroom retreat'
Denise Rue felt she'd lived small...then left her comfortable life to work at a magic mushroom retreat in Jamaica
Who was this woman, rising at dawn, belting out show tunes in the ocean, conversing with dragonflies and egrets? This woman who quit her secure job as a psychiatric social worker, rented out her cozy home, and locked most of her earthly possessions in storage? How did it come to pass that this woman, who had always played so small, left home at 60 to begin her new life as a therapist at a legal psilocybin retreat in Jamaica? Had this woman lived within me all along?
Perhaps she had been knocking inside all those years, trying to get my attention. Maybe she waited patiently as I married, raised children, switched careers. Maybe all those years of loss—my husband’s and brother’s deaths, from cancer, my mother’s descent into dementia, my beloved father succumbing, finally, to a failing heart, my brave children leaving the nest to begin their lives in distant lands—had so unmoored me, it was easier to set sail.
Had it not been for a humble mushroom, Psilocybe cubensis, I doubt I would have had the courage to re-invent myself. At 59, still reeling from the revolving door of loss that had been the last 10 years, I took the plunge and booked a week at a legal psilocybin retreat in Jamaica. After reading studies documenting the promise of psilocybin in the treatment of mental health conditions, I became convinced psychedelic-assisted therapy was the wave of the future. I wanted to be part of it.
Since I, a good Catholic girl, had never dabbled in psychedelics, I felt I needed to experience this ancient medicine first-hand. So, I packed my best hippie pants and boarded a plane to Jamaica, where I would experience three doses of magic mushrooms. That retreat week, quite literally, changed my life.
The mushroom reached into my cells and wrung out decades’ worth of grief, pain, shame and regret. I howled and wept, great rivers of snot running down my face. I recounted my story of loss to a compassionate facilitator whose tears glittered like diamonds, whose tattoo seemed to weep blood. I shook my fists at the heavens and cried, “A little help here!” A star-glistened staircase descended from the skies. When I spoke of grief, my feet seemed to sink into mud and the branches of the almond tree grew gnarly and reached for me menacingly. When I spoke of gratitude the same tree burst into blossom. I felt deep compassion for my mother, who had visited her unresolved childhood trauma on her daughters. Most importantly, I experienced a deep self-cherishing. I acknowledged all I had lost and overcome, and for the first time ever, acknowledged what a badass I was.
I also got offered a job.
In the months that followed, as I grappled with drastically changing my life, the wise words of my friend Elliott and my son Jake echoed in my ears. Decades earlier, Elliott had given up his lucrative and prestigious work as a physician to become a meditation teacher and author. He suggested I look at the lives of all the people who were warning me not to give up my secure job and pension, my lovely home, my friends.
“Would you want to be living their lives?” he asked. The answer was a resounding “No!” And my son, my dear, brave son, who at 21, after his father died, moved to Tanzania to make his mark on the world, listened patiently while I listed my fears. “Mom,” he said quietly, “those are whispers. Listen to the shout. Your soul is crying out for what it needs. Go for it!”
And so it came to pass that in September of 2019, with two suitcases to my name, I moved full-time to Treasure Beach, a small fishing and farming village on the south coast of Jamaica. The first few weeks were idyllic. I was housed in a lovely villa with a view of the Caribbean, complete with pool and a sweeping veranda, where I set up my “office.” My landlord, Paulo, brought me home-baked bread and honey from his backyard hives. The gardener plucked the season’s first mango and left it on my doorstep. Red, the magnificent African parrot caged next door, shrieked with delight during late afternoon downpours.
I woke early, journaled while sipping Blue Mountain coffee, did yoga, meditated and took a morning dip in the ocean. There were names of flora and fauna to learn: frangipani, bananaquit, doctor bird, lignum vitae. And new cuisine to sample: oxtail, goat curry, mackerel run down, ackee with codfish. I relished living outdoors, lost my East Coast pallor, slept deeply.
I could listen deeply to my soul’s calling. I could choose.
Inevitably, challenges arose. Psychedelic-assisted therapy is tremendously rewarding, but the 12-hour retreat days initially left me semi-comatose. I was by far the oldest member of the team. Could I keep up? I missed talking with old friends who got me. Although I spent great swaths of time living alone, a variety of facilitators cycled through the villa. Most became my island family; others reminded me how prickly I could be. I found myself falling reflexively into caretaker mode. Sometimes I felt like Wendy, tending to Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, when all I wanted was to lounge in a hammock sipping a Red Stripe.
I indulged in loneliness and homesickness at my peril. Yes, I missed my dog-eared Rumi, Sunday Sangha, my monthly poetry group. But there was something undeniably liberating about traveling light.
No dry cleaners, oil changes, vacuum repair. I finally had the time to examine the woman I had become, through years of early conditioning by teachers/preachers/parents. What roles had been thrust upon me, which had I embraced? How had loss hollowed me out, made me a better mother, friend, therapist? What did I value, what relationships sustained me?
As I continue to evolve, I water the seeds of all that sustains me: my work, nature, writing, relationships.
Like an archaeologist at a dig, I sifted through my life. What were the artifacts worth keeping, the gems, the debris? This is the job for all of us in midlife. I began to feel the elation I experienced when I left for college. I was not beholden to others’ expectations. I could listen deeply to my soul’s calling. I could choose.
As the German poet, Rilke wrote, “I live my life in widening circles.” As I continue to evolve, I water the seeds of all that sustains me: my work, nature, writing, relationships. I feel the responsibility and privilege of doing this most sacred work with the mushroom and I, far from the younger me who hid her light under a bushel, acknowledge my place as a healer.
I am never lonely in nature. I thrill to the kamikaze dive of Old Joe, the pelican. I marvel at the wise geometry of a spider’s web. I feel my husband’s caress in the tropical breeze, see my father’s coppery arms in a dragonfly’s stained-glass wings. Maybe someday a widower will wander down the beach, we’ll share a rum punch and my life will shift again. Maybe I’ll write that memoir, finally publish my book of poems. I don’t know where I’ll land but I hope I’m as dogged and flamboyant as the Frangipani. I am not done with my changes.
— Denise Rue
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