I indulged only in an occasional beer, glass of wine, or cocktail for close to 50 years, until my recent participation in a psilocybin retreat. In college, I had taken psilocybin several times and smoked a bit of marijuana. However, any illegal substances would have endangered my husband’s education and physician’s license, and likely wouldn’t have helped me as I pursued a DrPH. I let illicit substances go. Fifty years later, my routine reading included articles in the Baltimore Sun and the New Yorker on psilocybin, but I paid only moderate attention until our Annus Horribilis.
On December 26, 2015, Fred and I were driving to a week-long English Country Dance Camp. We spent the night in Morgantown WV to break up the trip, and were rested and caffeinated. Traffic was light and the sky was overcast; a perfect day for driving. We were travelling 70 mph south on Route 79 out of Morgantown for about a half-hour when the car in front of me pulled into the left lane. I made a mental note that I had plenty of distance to the next car. Then I hit it. BANG! Air bags exploded, windshield shattered, car was totaled. I could not believe we were alive. I got out and ran around to Fred’s side. He staggered to the guard rail. Medics were there almost instantly. His chest hurt. I climbed in the ambulance carrying Fred and we were taken, not to the local hospital, but back to Morgantown to the University Hospital. Fred’s sternum was broken and 5 ribs. For me, one rib broken and a knee banged up. Blessings to all automotive safety engineers.
The car we hit had been stopped dead in the right lane. The young ladies who had been driving it said “we were standing on the side WAVING to warn the traffic.” Why were they parked in the middle of the interstate? Why didn’t they pull over, or coast to the side? I have no idea. At least they had the common sense to get out of the car. According to WVA law, I was at fault.
We lay low for a while. Spent a lot of time staring at fires in the fireplace. Bought a new car. Kept our regular visits with Fred’s Parkinson’s doctor at Hopkins. Fred had a couple of cataract operations. I was seeing a doctor for what felt like water in my ear and was given antibiotics, steroids, ear lancing, and so on.
Then this thing began to grow on Fred’s chest: fast. He went to visit his friend the bone surgeon…Fred is recently retired from diagnosing bone cancer for a living. Next was our Die Horribilis. In the morning Fred was diagnosed with a rapidly growing cancer requiring intensive treatment. In the afternoon, we learned that I needed my head opened up. There was a hole in my skull between brain and middle ear. The “water” in my ear was really cerebro-spinal fluid.
One step at a time. Fred was treated with inpatient chemo. For three months he endured one week of helpful poisons followed by two weeks at home getting strong enough for the next batch of lovely poisons. I got to sit and watch him get chemo, recover, chemo, recover… and unspool the plans for our trip with daughter and son-in-law to Hawaii…and take myself off for MRIs, lumbar punctures, visits the neurologist, hours of eye exams and hearing tests.
As we head into autumn…well, first I count my blessings every day from morning to night. They are many, many, many. Then I think, “next year’s got to be better.” I turn 67 and Fred 70. I am scheduled for surgery at Hopkins on December 21…almost exactly one year after our crash.
Sometime in November, I call to mind those articles on psilocybin, and it crosses my mind that it might help Fred deal with the cancer. He’s a stoic Midwesterner, and they are not inclined to breast-beating or grandstanding, so I’m wondering if he’s really coming to grips with the CA and Parkinson’s. I print out everything I can find about psilocybin research and we read it together. I ask Fred if he’s interested in seeing whether the Hopkins study needs subjects. “Nope.” Eventually he asks, but they don’t need subjects.
I’m pondering, and thinking, gosh, if I didn’t have my 95-y-o mother to care for, and we didn’t have all of this illness mucking up our retirement, I might go somewhere psilocybin is legal and start a health spa…you know, massage, meditation, psychedelic drugs. Then a lightbulb goes on: If I can think of this, someone’s doing it, and Google knows who that is. I look on line and find Eric’s psilocybin-based retreats…YES! I ask Fred if he’s interested. “Nope.” Then he asks his neurologist about participation and is cautioned that there is no clinical data on the effects of psilocybin on those with Parkinson’s, so this is not advisable.
Well shoot, I’m interested. As I head into surgery (please note lame pun), I hope and expect to come out reasonably whole, but I’m aware that I’ve signed a paper acknowledging death as a possible outcome. I want to hold a carrot in front of myself: plans to go a place so different from the Annus Horribilis—a total re-boot.
It’s nice to share this kind of experience with a companion, so I call friends, adventurous sixty-somethings fresh back from a couple of years serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. Who would be more open to an unusual adventure than a couple who had spent the past year living in a room so small only one could get dressed at a time? They do some reading, call Eric and ask a lot of questions to make sure he’s on the up and up and knows what he’s about, seem excited, then one decides against coming, so they’re not joining us. I ask Fred if he’ll travel and sit with me, and he’s kind enough to say “yes.” Our trip is scheduled exactly at the end of my surgical recovery.
I come out of surgery, and find I’m still about evenly matched with Fred playing Bananagrams, so my brain isn’t gone. My hearing returns after a few weeks and eight weeks after surgery we are good to go.
A little over three hours flying and we’re in Jamaica looking for our ride. We hang out for about three hours, drinking Red Stripe and talking about how we found this retreat with other members of the group as they arrive. Already waiting is A, a quiet, almost diffident young African-American 20-something man who looks a little nervous. Then comes B, a super-energetic and friendly 50-something man with an infected thumb. Next C a cheerful woman who says she has Stage 4 breast cancer, which had leveled her with depression. She hadn’t moved from the couch in months until a friend gave her some psilocybin, and she felt her depression lifting. Her companion D is a life-long friend; these women have supported each other through some hard times. Next are E and F, a loving couple consisting of a middle-aged man with a younger Vietnamese companion. G arrives, a vivacious southerner. It would be rude to guess her age, but she would probably tell you…she is very open about her life, and is just coming out of a dangerous and painful marriage. H comes in from Europe. She says she has been fighting psychic pain for so long she’s exhausted. She and B trade experiences with ayahuasca in Peru. Finally, J ,who’s stayed overnight near the airport, arrives completing the complement of retreat participants. There is not one person on this retreat for kicks; all seek healing. We hop in a van, except for J who has a claustrophobia-induced panic attack and hops right back out, grabbing her luggage on the way.
A long bumpy ride later, we arrive at our hotels, are provided with a meal by our hostess, and go to bed. We awake to find ourselves in a spacious, Spartan, but pleasant room with a bath and a couple of porches. It much reminds me of the deliberately-simple summer camp I attended as a child, except that we appreciate the indoor plumbing. When applying for this retreat, I specifically chose simplicity over comfort—I wanted to be away from our normal routine. Others in the group have chosen upgraded lodgings. Between Fred’s balance issues and my bum knee, we are pleased to find that our simple room does not require the short hike the others take several times a day. We are housed where meals are served and near the beach where the ceremonies take place. This is a non-tourist locale, the weather is perfect with a sea enticing me to take several swims a day. I am so content with the interesting company, new ideas, tropical breezes and foods, and warm sea, with lots of rest and reading time, my expectations have already been met.
Days are taken with conversation, meals, swimming or walking, herbal sweats, massage therapy, and a short presentation by our guides, while ceremonies are held during three evenings, with a rest day between ceremonies. The presentation highlights the history of people’s interactions with psychedelic mushrooms. We are also given instruction for approaching the ceremonial experience. Most important instruction is “don’t run.” Don’t run physically, and don’t run from whatever you encounter. We will be exploring our inner selves, and many of us have been holding on to, often nurturing, our sources of pain. We may have difficult experiences, but these often give the greatest gifts. Best to respond to what we encounter openly and directly. The guides talk of experiences their daemons, and with the divine when they let go of their “I,” their ego. It is likely that we will be given some kind of new perspective on the issues troubling us.
We all share our stories. These are deep conversations; there is very little small talk. We are fortunate that, although we each need healing, there are no whiners and no one with negative attitude sucking the air out of the tropics.
Our guides are seasoned, knowledgeable, intuitive, and cautious. Like the ten of us who have travelled to Jamaica for this experience, all three guides have come to mushrooms for healing. Their dedication is extraordinary—they have sacrificed to this calling—that’s another whole story. This is not easy work, but the benefits they have experienced and witnessed keep them involved.
Our first ceremony will establish a baseline of tolerance to the medicine. The amount each person takes is based on their weight, the experienced judgement of the guide, and a conversation between guide and participant. Fairly small doses are given, and responses used to gauge the dose at the next ceremony. We’re told that the second ceremony is typically the highest dose, as we will need to travel the day following the third ceremony.
Ceremony 1—2.5 grams
We walk down to the beach, where a tent is set up, carrying chairs or pads to rest on, music if we wish, and water bottles. I take the medicine (capsules of dried psilocybin), chat for a while with the others, and settle. The guides quietly walk among us throughout the ceremonies, ensuring all is well. I close my eyes and repeat the mantra I was given 50 years ago when my sister introduced me to Transcendental Meditation.
I briefly see a luminous blue spikey sea urchin.
This is followed by a samurai in shining solid gold armor encrusted with gems that cast a rainbow of colors. I approach him wondering what he has to teach me. He fades.
Then, off to the left, I see an image of Maria Sabina. I weep for her pain…not the pain of her starvation and death, but the pain of being rejected by the community where she had been a beloved shaman. I also weep for the pain of her community, angry when their culture was appropriated by non-tribal people who did not respect their traditions.
Off to the right, I see an image of the serpent in the garden and am given to understand that God’s anger was not because people received knowledge, but because people split things that were one into “good” and “evil.”
After a time I am asked if I am willing to jump into a “well.” The top of the well (above ground) is made of coiled rope, but I have no sense of how deep the well goes. I respond “sure,” but the well fades away.
I return to the beach. After we are mostly back from our journeys, we sit around and share, and I find out my husband has traveled all the way to Jamaica only to watch his wife lie on a beach hallucinating. He is quite unusual in having felt no effects of the psilocybin.
Two days later, Ceremony 2—4.5 grams
I sit in a chair listening to an oboe concerto while waiting for the medicine to take effect. I close my eyes and see a field of oboe bells in grey tones. I ponder whether the Hindi coiled snake, Kundalini, is related to Native American digestive tract imagery.
I feel a strong urge to lie down, which I do. I briefly acknowledge a thirty-foot high African king made of colorful wooden rings, like those that very small children delight in stacking on posts.
Then I am pinned to the ground…immobilized rather aggressively, as though my back had many times normal gravity. This is not gentle and goes on for a long time. Eventually I communicate that if the mushroom needs my breath too, it can take it…it can take whatever it needs.
After some time the pinning relaxes and I am in a tug-of-war for my “I,” which looks like a luminous disc. I realize it is a mistake to be clinging to my “I,” and try to push it away. But then I realize that I am acting with agency trying to push now rather than pull, and that neither is helping me to release my “I,” so I start laughing at myself for being so foolish and missing such an opportunity.
A few other brief images come to me…from the left a female whose head ended in a brightly colored rainbow crown. She asks if she can come into my head and I embrace that. From the right there a small king whom I am to walk through, but that image fades.
I come out of the first wave of the medicine, and watch a satellite cross the night sky. I get up and sit in a chair expecting to wait for the others to emerge from their experiences. Instead, I close my eyes and a second wave comes over me.
I am given to understand that “we are going to a difficult place.” We travel there together. Visually it is not much…the corner of a low wall, but I am weeping and my nose is running, because it is such a very difficult place. I consider how I/we shall address this difficult place and am given to understand that it must be faced directly, completely, honestly, and that it must be addressed with compassion, including compassion to myself. I weep a lot and emerge with my face wet with tears.
As I sit and recover from this very intense experience, I know that I have a lot of difficult places to go to…my close friend Walter is very sick, my mother is 95 and her memory is fading, and Fred has a degenerative neurological disease, so the understanding that I must look these difficulties in the eye and address them with compassion, including compassion for myself, is helpful. Again, Fred reports no effect of the medicine. None of us knows why; are the effects of his chemo interfering, is the Parkinson’s, is it genetic?
Two days later, Ceremony 3—5 grams
Earlier in the day, I learn that my friend has died. We knew he was sick, but he thought he had several years, and I had hoped to take other family members to visit. I sit for a while and then close my eyes. I see three dolphins up on their back fins. They invite me to play so I become a dolphin and swim with them. Then I swim alone for a while and get a clear message that this will be a gentle voyage, a kindness acknowledging my loss. I swim again with the others. The waves make me need to go to the bathroom, so a guide escorts me there and back and I sit down.
I am given to understand that I should lie down, so I do, and have a dialogue with Walter. I am weeping and telling him goodbye, and wishing him god-speed to the arms of his beloved Jesus. I tell him I must go and do some other work, and a red curtain slowly covers the sky and me.
I brush off a bug on my leg and slap at a mosquito by my ear. Then a very large moth, maybe 25 feet high hovers over me. She has the kindest, most loving, smiling face. She wraps me in a cocoon which is warm and safe and holds me there for a long time until I feel comforted, grateful, and relaxed. Then she sets me down and I lie still for a time.
I get up from my pad on the beach and sit in the chair. I rest for a bit and wait. After a while, the mushroom sends me three large slug-like creatures, each maybe the size of a small loaf of bread. They eat at my stomach for a long time. I am not afraid, I am grateful. This is not painful but also not particularly pleasant. Toward the end of their munching, a neon green dagger is thrust under my breastbone. It cuts out something which is also a luminous lime green.
I come up from this experience, and open my eyes. I spend some time watching the guides try to light a fire. It has rained several times during this session, so the wood is wet, but I find it hilarious that they are struggling so hard, and love them for trying. I also really am done with slugs, so I stagger over to the fire pit and explain that I am done. I go back and get my chair to bring near the fire in case Fred wants to come over. On my return, I realize that the guides are helping H through grave difficulty. I ask Johnathan to please check on Fred, and sit down in the sand near H. She says she needs female energy and expresses gratitude that I am there. The guides work with her, supporting her and providing things she needs, as she works through her pain. I keep in constant physical touch with her. At first I am present to her, on my side facing her, up on my elbow but then I am called to lie down with my head on one of the fire pit rocks. As she works through her difficult time, sometimes I am present for her, and at other times my I is gone, and what is left is a conduit for the female energy she needs, it simply flows through me to her. It is a great gift and honor to have served as conduit for healing energy. We do not have much conversation after this ceremony, as the work with H takes quite some time and most have gone to bed. I am glad to hear that Fred has had a mild hallucinogenic experience…words coming out of him like string and making themselves into a knot, which he watched until he got bored!
What to make of these experiences? I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I believe I am very susceptible to images, as I had seen things similar to many of the hallucinogenic images shortly before the experiences. For example, I had purchased a gift of a wooden dolphin dancing on its back flipper shortly before seeing that image.
The guides tell me that there are often guards at the gates of these experiences, which could explain the spikey entity, the samurai, the king. The pinning down also felt like a challenge…was I prepared to let the mushroom call the shots?
The image of Maria Sabina has given me a lot of empathy both for those who are ostracized and for the pain that causes people to be cruel to one another. Other participants reported frightening images which, when faced, were followed by gifts. The comforting moth was very powerful, and I am comforted yet. The message from going to the difficult place has also remained; I approach difficulties, such as the death of my friend, by facing them head on with compassion for others and for myself. It would be lovely if the entities eating my stomach help me manage my nervous appetite; we shall see. As for channeling energy to help another, that was a transcendent experience which I can not describe except to say that it was an honor and a privilege for which I am boundlessly grateful.
As I ponder our incredible week, I can only mourn the wasted decades when research into this powerful medicine was curtailed. Fred and I are old enough that we could not wait the decades that are now needed for solid scientific research into many aspects of psilocybin. What ailments, both physical and mental can psilocybin help? Which varieties of mushrooms are best for what types of issues? Much of that type of knowledge based on thousands of years of usage has been lost. Would research help us understand more about appropriate dosing—for example whether it is genetics, chemotherapy after-effects or Parkinson’s that made Fred so resistant? What characteristics make a good guide, and what training is useful? Our guide is doing follow-up questions, but carefully controlled double-blind studies are in order.
And then there’s the quiet concern that, if a powerful healing agent is lying on the ground, costing nothing, what will Big Pharma do?