How Magic Mushrooms Made Me a Better Therapist
By Denise Rue
Crawling across the sand on a Jamaican beach, it had been around four hours since I ingested 10 grams of psilocybin mushrooms. In that time, I had been catapulted from bliss to terror, through shame, guilt, and despair, with a few blessed moments of hilarity along the way. How did I, a 58-year-old mushroom novice, land on this beach? Why did I sign up for this?
This story begins many years ago, in my therapy office in New Jersey. As a therapist working with survivors of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, I had witnessed the intense suffering of my clients. The slow pace of healing trauma using conventional therapy and psychiatric medications often left me feeling frustrated and saddened. Was this really the only option for my clients?
With a strong desire to explore different healing modalities, I began to read the promising research on the use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD. I was excited and hopeful to see study after study demonstrating the incredible potential of psychedelic medicines to alleviate the suffering of trauma survivors. Psilocybin, in particular, seemed to address mental illness with amazing efficacy, and I wanted to bring that healing to my clients.
I knew it was incumbent upon me to experience the mushroom myself, before I even considered how this medicine might be shared. After researching legal psilocybin retreats, I filled out an application to attend MycoMeditations. I came for my own healing in order to process grief, reconnect with joy, and taste the divine. But I also came with my therapist hat on, open to how psilocybin might address the suffering of my clients.
Little did I know that my experience at MycoMeditations would change my life forever. As I crawled across the beach that night, the mushrooms worked through me in ways that I could never have fathomed. Not only did this sacred medicine lead to personal healing and transformation, they helped me become a better therapist in ways that no textbook or teacher could ever have done.
One of the essential qualities a good therapist possesses is an abiding empathic presence—a consistent, non-judgmental sensing of the feelings, needs, and perspectives of the client. As a therapist, I strive to understand my client’s predicament, feel deeply into their suffering, and walk beside them on their healing journey. What the mushrooms gave me on that 10-gram dose was an experience of the dissolution of boundaries between myself and others. I was immersed for four hours in the bodies and psyches of my clients. In feeling their pain as my own, suddenly the notion of an empathetic presence took on new meaning.
PTSD and suicidal despair were no longer abstractions. In that mushroom trip, I felt myself transported into the body of the rape victim scrambling away from her assailant. I went numb like the little girl whose father creeps into her room each night. I writhed with the guilt and despair of the man who watched his best buddy walk into enemy fire. This was not heroic on my part. I asked the mushroom to help me heal others and this is the gift I received. Does this make me a better therapist, a more compassionate human? You bet. As my empathy for my clients deepened, so did the quality of my therapeutic work.
The Importance of Silence
The immense therapeutic value of silence was communicated to me through an unexpected source—lizards. During my retreat, lizards were everywhere: eyeing me from the branches of the ackee tree, basking on a near-by rock, observing me in the outdoor shower. They possessed a kind of preternatural stillness, a necessary patience. While on mushrooms, I was struck by the power of their silence, and intuited that the lizards were there as teachers. I asked a local craftsman, Errol, to carve a lizard for me. Back in New Jersey, I placed it on my office desk to remind me of the importance of silence and stillness in therapeutic work.
Too often in therapy sessions, I found myself eyeing the clock anxiously, focusing on tackling treatment plan goals and “getting the work done.” I had forgotten the power of silence—how suppressed feelings can bubble up when given the space; how healing it can be for the client to weep or rage while the therapist simply allows the necessary emotions to flow, without need to explain or make it better. A comfortable silence can provide what psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott referred to as a “holding environment,” in which the client feels safe and is given time to reflect. This pause also allows me to better tap into my own healing wisdom and intuition. My wooden lizard reminds me to pause, to observe, to let the client’s process unfold in that rare oasis of silence.
Faith that All is Unfolding as It Should
One of the challenges for me as a long-term therapist was compassion fatigue, also known as secondary stress reaction. Listening to heartbreaking stories of trauma all day can take a mental, physical, and spiritual toll. Although I was rigorous in my self-care routine, too often my heart was heavy in trying to comprehend why some individuals carry such heavy loads. How do we remain buoyant when the scope of human suffering threatens to capsize us?
One of the greatest lessons I have learned through the mushroom is that the world is unfolding precisely as it should be. Although it sounds like a cliche, I have seen the Universal Web of Existence. Energetic threads bind us to one another and to all living things. There is an undeniable wisdom, intelligence and cohesiveness in this web, in which we all play a part. And in each moment we have a choice—will we contribute to the healing of the world, or the suffering?
There is peace in this for me. I don’t have to beat my fists against the heavens, demanding How? and Why? Trungpa Rinpoche wrote, “There is no cure for hot or cold.” Things simply are. The mushroom has allowed me to accept that an innate wisdom is in charge. That allows me to better maintain equanimity, roll up my sleeves, and with as much grace and good humor as I can muster, get on with the work.
Healing My Own Wounds
It is essential that therapists tend to their own healing. The experience of having been in therapy allows us to empathize with our clients’ struggles and to understand how challenging it can be to lay oneself bare to a stranger. Therapy helps us to heal childhood wounds, examine our blind spots, and learn how to accept feedback. I have been diligent over decades in “tending to my garden,” but the healing I have received through the mushroom has exceeded my wildest expectations.
As I have continued to work with the mushroom, my trips have taken on a recurring pattern. The first half is often quite painful, a descent into childhood, ancestral, or collective trauma, filled with grotesque and horrifying images. I fondly call this the psilocybin “smack-down,” and it is in these experiences that I receive the greatest healing. It is as if the mushroom is excavating layers of trauma, many of which I never knew existed. With each successive journey, I have learned to relax into the experience, no matter how painful or confusing. I trust that the mushroom has a higher wisdom and all is unfolding as it should. As we say in therapy, you must feel it to heal it.
The second half of my journeys is more difficult to put into words. After I’m wrung out and scoured clean, I tend to receive “downloads” of information. Some are energetic in nature, some symbolic, and some are very clear directives. I credit my mushroom use with empowering me to work less from my head than from a deeply embodied wisdom. Where there was confusion, now there is clarity. My intuition has grown keener, my compassion deeper.
It is the healing and insight I have gained from magic mushrooms that has empowered me to work more skillfully as a therapist. I am profoundly grateful to be doing this healing work, both in the traditional setting and in the psilocybin trip space. As I reflect on the past two years of working with the mushroom and the extent of the healing I have witnessed, both in myself and in others, I am both humbled and hopeful. It is my deepest prayer that this medicine will be made more widely available in order to heal our deeply wounded planet.