A Journey, Not An Escape

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

Long time reader, first time writer. Forgive the somewhat trite pseudonym, as I’m writing from a dead-drop e-mail account that’s not linked to my real identity. I’m sure you understand, given the somewhat more controversial nature of writing about psychedelic mushrooms than smoking the occasional joint.

Like many who went to college in Central California, I ate mushrooms a handful of times. Nearly every time, I either learned something new about myself or had some core principle of my consciousness upheld. The first time I shroomed, I was moved to tears watching a spider weave its web, perfectly framed between two swaying redwood trees. This renewed my appreciation for the everyday miracles of nature. To this day, I’ll often stand on the sidewalk of my busy DC-area street and watch a leaf drop to the ground with a similar sense of wonder – something that no doubt vexes hurried commuters.

Perhaps my most profound experience came during a trip that was by all accounts transcendental.

I was walking along a path in my favorite stretch of forest, and as I broke out into a meadow, all of the trees seemed to bloom simultaneously. I wondered if this is what Heaven was supposed to be like. That led to another thought: what if I was already dead, and that this was my paradise? I began to think of how I hoped my life had meant something, and that I’d gotten to say what I wanted to say to my friends, family and loved ones before I passed. I then began to think of what exactly I would say to  these people if I knew my death was imminent. Far from being a negative or morose experience, I made peace with my eventual death, and I often revisit those thoughts.

I used shrooms two weeks before 6423235_c04495719e_bundergoing major reconstructive surgery after a skiing accident, steeling myself for the pain and rehab as I stood on a beach and watched the pounding waves from a winter storm. I used them after my recovery was complete, relishing being able to run, jump, climb and roll around on a secluded, sandy beach on a early fall afternoon. I used them to come to terms with ending a relationship, and another time, to begin a new one.

Not every trip was a good one, but even the bad ones taught me things. I learned I’ve got the psychological stamina to turn around severe fear. I once was nearly bitten by a black widow spider after finding myself covered in ticks after my sober buddy (don’t trip solo!) convinced me that crawling through a dense thicket was the best way back to a trail.

It wasn’t all just feel-good hippy stuff, either. Shrooms helped steer me on my current career path. Some thoughts I had during a trip compelled me to check out all the books my university library had on Middle Eastern politics and history, which informed my decision to study the M.E. in graduate school and spend another year traveling through several Arab and Muslim countries while studying Arabic and gaining a first-hand appreciation for the region and its culture. In turn, I’m now employed in a position that pays me to read, write and study the Middle East, and I couldn’t be happier.

It’s been over six years since my last trip, and I don’t know if another one’s in the future. Professional considerations make it unlikely, and I honestly don’t know if I have the right mindset for it anymore. At the time when I used them, it was right for me. Psilocybin is a powerful and potent thing that can’t just be abused whenever you’re looking to escape. I made that mistake a couple of times, and I didn’t gain the profound lessons that my more memorable trips gave me.

If used with caution and an open mind, psilocybin can show you things about yourself and the world that you’d never considered. I’d never say that EVERYONE must try it at some point in their life. But if it’s something you’re curious about it, try it and see where it takes you. You’ll always remember the journey.

(Photo by Flickrite underbunny)

A Journey, Not An Escape, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

I'm happy to see the debut of the (yet-to-be-named?) "Mushrooms Closet." I was an avid reader of "The Cannabis Closet" and bought the book, mostly to show my support. This kind of reality-based dialogue is invaluable for the cause of sanity during this pivotal moment in the drug war.

I hope I'm not being nongermane, but for me to write about psilocybin, I also need to write about LSD, because they are inextricably linked for me. I realize LSD isn't natural like mushrooms, but save for that one facet: the way these two drugs fit into my experience (and, frankly, society) is very similar. I'll try to spare you my life story, but my formative years were key to my later drug use.

I grew up in a tiny Nebraska town, and although there was pot there, I never had the opportunity to try it. (I probably could have gotten ahold of meth more easily.) Instead I spent high school engrossed in every activity I could possibly squeeze in: band, drama, sports, speech, and relentlessly preparing for college — getting ready for "the real world."

Well, in college, shit got real. On the first day, my new roommate pulled out his little wooden box. We spent the night giggling and I was hooked. I know they say pot's not addictive, and generally I agree, but for the next year and a half I got stoned several times daily, choosing it over class, studying, exercise, family, activities, and worst of all, my girlfriend. I lost her and my full-ride scholarship, I went on academic probation and nearly flunked out, and I almost had a nervous breakdown.

Is this because of marijuana? Of course not. These were my own decisions, caused by naiveté, laziness and fear. Pot simply helped me not think about them.

Shortly after my first marijuana experience, I tried LSD and mushrooms. I skipped class a couple of times to day-trip (4/20 anyone?), but in contrast to pot, the most endearing quality of these hallucinogens is what I once heard called "the progress-checker." While I now love the occasional joint for relaxation, it took me far too long to realize that I shouldn't make decisions while high. The opposite is true of hallucinogens. Trips were the most lucid and honest evaluations of my life during those two years. In fact, I can attribute at least in part my eventual modest success in college to the times I realized with horror while tripping how badly I was screwing up my life. Pot is for checking out; hallucinogens are for checking in. Way in. I was forced to think about school, about family, about my life. It was terrifying, but in the way I imagine therapy can be.

Your contributor mentioned the journey. During a (good) trip, the vastness and beauty of the individual journey is simply staggering. Acid is the only time I have actually wept with joy; it is also the only time I was convinced I was about to die and accepted my fate. They helped me through the existential muck – I made peace with impermanence and insignificance. Hallucinogens helped make me who I am: They opened my eyes to the intricate depths and fantastic surrealism of nature (psilocybin while hiking the Zion Narrows – I'm an atheist but that's the closest I've been to god); they've helped forge deep, permanent friendships through shared, unique and utterly insane experiences.

Not to mention the staggeringly beautiful visuals. I will never forget a young Sean Connery speaking plainly to me from his James Bond poster on the wall, or a brick wall flapping in the breeze.

Sometimes I think the world would be a better place if everybody would trip hard just once.

Dissent Of The Day

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

I used to take psychedelics often, and I understand the appeal of them. I’d probably still be using them if I knew anyone who sold them. But the pro-drug posts on the Dish, with the exception of the marijuana posts, feel like they were written people who don’t have that much experience with drugs. While it’s true that most people just have fun and move on, it’s also true that a lot of people get into pretty serious trouble. Most people who have spent time around drugs know people who have had their lives ruined, or who have been turned into really awful shells of their former selves.

What that means, as a practical matter, is that when I read pro-drug posts, I think of a cocaine addict I used to know who would fly into violent rages at the drop of a hat, or the heroin addict who got hepatitis, or even just the drunk who looked 70 when he died at 50. I’m not saying that those people’s stories ought to drive policy for everyone. Again, most people don’t end up in those places. But if you really know about drugs, you know those people. And since their stories never seem to inform your posts, I wonder where you guys are coming from.

Andrew always says the same thing – people who hate drugs are anti-pleasure. He never addresses any real arguments against drugs – the damage they often do to people.

I love acid. If I had some, I’d take some and hole up this weekend, watching old movies on TV. But the idea that it gives you some deep insight into the world is bogus. It *feels* like it gives you deep insights into the world, but it’s very hard to bring anything back to your day to day life. It’s sort of like after you’ve had a vivid dream, as you are waking up you can feel the events of the dream slip away. People who do real work — who pray or meditate over extended periods of time — have an aura about them. They seem calm, centered. You don’t really get that same feeling from acid heads.

And the idea that you can take drugs and grab ahold of some easy wisdom is really misleading. Maybe I sound like a Puritan, offended by someone finding a shortcut. That’s not where I’m coming from, though. I really wish it were true. But wisdom is hard to come by. it takes effort, and time. People wrestle with their faith their entire lives, in good times and bad. It’s hard, but it makes them deep. The idea that some molecule is going to give that to you over a weekend is similar to the idea that the right penny stock will make you rich, or that some pill will let you lose 50 lbs without exercising or dieting.

I agree with you guys that if you look at our prison population, or at what’s going on in Mexico, or in Afghanistan, our drug policy is really messed up. And it’s not just sub-optimal in some abstract sense. It’s ruining lives and communities, and in some cases, nations. It’s really wrong, and it has to be changed.

But if you’re going to have a real debate about it, you have to get all of the various perspectives to sit down together and hash it out. Simply ignoring all of the negative stuff, and talking about how much fun it is to take ecstasy, or how medical marijuana really helps people, and wow we’d really be living in the age of Aquarius if only those uptight people would take the sticks out of their asses, isn’t going to convince anyone. It’s such an unconvincing (and self-satisfied) argument that it makes people think you don’t have a good argument at your disposal. If you did, why would you deploy such a weak one instead?

If you talk about medical marijuana, and you don’t talk about the rampant fraud among people who lie about symptoms to get prescriptions, then you’re not having a realistic discussion. Some people are helped, there’s no doubt about that. Sometimes the help is life changing. But there’s a lot of fraud out there as well. It’s all part of the bigger story. And it all has to be balanced out.

For the record, the Dish has run a long series of posts on the horrors of crystal meth – here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for instance. We’ve also aired many dissents over marijuana use – here, here, here, here, and here, for instance.

The Mushroom Closet

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

To add to the mushroom closet: My wife was traveling in Mexico at a transition period in her life. She had been accepted into a graduate program to study archaeology, but wasn’t sure if she wanted to go forward with it. While walking with another traveller outside the ruins at Palenque, a little man appeared out of the jungle, waving a little baggy like some kind of Mayan drug gnome, saying “Hongos, hongos, hongos!’ She bought the mushrooms from him, ate them, and wandered through the ruins.

While tripping, she had a powerful realization that the jungle was overtaking the ruins, that the plants were alive while the ruins were dead, and that true power, or at least the power that she could feel and respond to, was in the plants and landscape rather than the architecture. She decided to study landscape architecture and horticulture instead of archaeology, and now, ten years later, she has a masters in landscape architecture and is becoming a somewhat prominent figure in the field. No regrets or second thoughts about making to a life decision while under the influence of a hallucinogen.

Another writes:

When I was in my late teens I was introduced to psilocybin mushrooms, and it was a revelation.

Aside from enjoying my beer, I’ve never been much of a drug user (I don’t really ‘get’ the appeal of marijuana). Psilocybin helped me to understand and take control of my ‘ego’ (“ego death” is a common – temporary – effect of psychedelic drugs).

In my 20s, I went on something of a mushroom bender for about a week, and it changed my life. Sitting on a perch at a nightclub by myself, I sat and people-watched for hours, several nights that week. As I did, the influence of ‘ego’ on peoples’ behaviours became crystal clear to me, as if they were walking around with illuminated ego-meters on their shirts. I watched as people posed, strutted, and searched for admiration and affirmation in the shallow waters of a dance club. I thought deeply about myself in my daily life, and realised that I was one of those people. Every day. I guess you could say I didn’t like what I found.

That realisation stuck with me, and from that point forward, each day I made a conscious effort to be more at home in my own skin, and less worried about feeding my ego – but without losing my ambition to do things and achieve things for their own sake. But not to impress people.

Another thing that happened that week was that I fell in love a little bit. A girl whom I’d previously dismissed as a bit of a groupie came and joined me on my nightclub perch one of those nights. All of a sudden I was really hearing her, understanding her, listening to the musical sound of her voice. She turned out to be an amazing young lady. There’s no happily-ever-after ending to this story, but she remains one of my most warmly-remembered ex girlfriends.

Since 2005, when fresh magic mushrooms became illegal in Great Britain (and thus difficult to buy, since I’m not someone who knows any drug dealers) I’ve taken up cultivation for personal use, and in the process discovered a fascinating hobby. Mycology can be an extremely addictive and challenging pastime. Nowadays, I probably spend less of my time growing my favourite drug, and more studying and growing gourmet mushrooms.

Medicinal Mushrooms

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

I take small (no more than a pinch or two) quantities of psilocybin every day. Not to get high, not to unwind, but to try to heal my body. For 5+ years I've had an autoimmune problem that's demyelinating my peripheral nerves – it's called neuropathy. I do take a monthly treatment of gamma globulin to try to stabilize it, but the prognosis is for a long slow decline. Since "western medicine" doesn't really have a clue and basically has the equivalent of sledgehammers to treat this thing, I've tried a host of non-Western modalities, including acupuncture and Chinese herbs, homeopathy, bio-energy balancing and strict diet. Not entirely no dice, but my condition is still declining. I suppose my fail-safe maneuver is to visit Lourdes or John of God in Brazil.

Anyway, fortunately I've also got contacts in the spiritual community of "medicine", who have given me the idea of using what folks in Mexico call "the little healers". I have a scientist friend who used it in small quantities daily to recover from bad asthma. It is reputed to help with the immune system (as well as anxiety and depression).

I am as yet too scared to undertake a full trip, which evidently can be like 6 months or a year's worth of therapy in a few hours, but someday I will work up to it. I am befriending it right now, and I feel the mushrooms are helping my condition. You could call it merely a result of magic thinking, but what harm can it possibly cause? It's natural, and I am determined to use whatever I can to heal.

Take care, and please don't print my name.

Medicinal Mushrooms, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

Look, I know psilocybin is probably not going to hurt in small doses, but this logic is really really terrible. Natural does not mean good. Natural does not mean safe. Natural does not mean that it’s going to fix you. And it’s really dangerous to believe any of those things.

Another:

When I saw the reader’s description of their use of psilocybin to treat a demyelinating condition, I immediately googled it and came up with only papers about mushroom use leading to demyelinating episodes.  Here’s a link (PDF) to a scary one, where the demyelination occurred in the brain and not peripheral nerves. I just thought I’d pass this along in case people who have a similar condition might see that and think, “Ooh, I ought to try that!”

Medicinal Mushrooms, Ctd

A reader writes:

I thought that I would weigh in on the mushroom debate. I am a private practice neurologist who treats patients with neuropathy.  Neuropathy is a debilitating and often painful condition in which there is no cure. There is only maintainence therapy that often is insufficient to alleviate pain. I am neither an advocate for nor am I a critique of psilocybin as a treatment for neuropathy – I simply do not know whether it is effective.

What I am critical of is the multitude of errant information on the Internet.

A reader referenced “The Journal of Neurology” on a study that purports psilocybin causes brain damage.  I am unaware of this claim, although I know there are a lot of mushroom species that are toxic to our bodies.  As a board certified neurologist, I am also unaware of “The Journal of Neurology.” The website references a publishing company rather than a peer-reviewed society that publishes the journal such as the American Academy of Neurology which publishes “The Neurology Journal” – a subtle difference in name.  I would challenge the reader to research the claim of the article that psilocybin causes brain demyelination in the National Library of Medicine database – Pubmed.  There are no references in this database to support the claim.

Another writes:

I was intrigued to read this dissent regarding the horrors legalized drugs can unleash. The reader had me until this line: "The idea that it gives you some deep insight into the world is bogus."

I've done psychedelics a handful of times. Each time, I have come to know myself better. I've come to understand a lot about where I view myself in terms of humanity, the world, and the universe. I finally was able to come around to understanding, for example, that the debate I'd been having with myself for a long time – whether or not I believe in God – was less important than what I think of the life that exists either because or in spite of God. I know that sounds like old stoner claptrap, but these are insights I either couldn't comprehend formerly or had spent most of my life fighting.

Honestly, the reader's worry about "wisdom" achieved through drug use is well-founded; there is no substitute for gaining knowledge through experiences. Neither is there a shortcut around mediation or healthy living. Psychedelics, I believe, should never be used as such. To me, a trip is more a chance to reorient oneself – to gain a specific kind of perspective while having a ridiculously wild ride. But let's be honest about it, too: taking mushrooms or acid a few times a year is very, very different than holing oneself up in a bedroom for a week and devouring a double hit ever twelve hours.

Your reader is right to say that ignoring the negatives is never going to convince anyone. However, with all the fear-mongering and misinformation about drugs already out there, I don't feel that discussing the positives of drug use (be they marijuana, psychedelics, or something else) is glossing over the negatives; it's simply providing a counterbalance. So long as we are honest that, yes, some drugs (heroin and meth chief among them) are completely evil, and that, yes, some drugs have both negative and positive effects, we can have a real discussion, rather than neutering it with "Drugs are bad, mmmkay?"

Medicinal Mushrooms, Ctd

A final bit of housekeeping on this thread. A reader writes:

The fact that your correspondent is unfamiliar with a journal is hardly damning (and it’s amusing that he or she misnamed the other journal, which goes simply by “Neurology.”). The Journal of Neurology is actually a perfectly respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal. And the funny part is that The Journal of Neurology is a society journal (European Neurological Society); it is increasingly common for society journals to be handled through commercial publishers. Its publisher, Springer-Verlag, is one of the largest and most respected scientific publishers in the world; good journals can be found among commercial publishers as well as scientific societies.

I do agree that the originally cited article, an isolated case, doesn’t amount to much in isolation, and that a PubMed search doesn’t show much in the way of harmful physical side-effects of psilocybin.

P.S. I even have neuropathy! And I’ve published in Neurology, but not in the Journal of Neurology.

A Journey, Not An Escape, Ctd

A reader writes:

My inaugural psilocybin trip happened with a cast of fellow actors under the guidance of one of the last surviving Merry Pranksters.  Tom Wolfe described the particulars better than I ever could, so I’ll skip them here to comment on the larger discussion of Journey v. Escape.

Psilocybin3dAfter I came down from my Oregon sky odyssey, I felt a brief urge to return – to escape back – into the third-eye pleasure-dome.  But a new feeling from the same trip quicklycountered that reflex. Put simply, the trip left me with a new sense of reverence for the trip itself.  No, not in an evangelical you-must-try-this sense, but reverence in the sense that this experience was to be remembered, treasured and only repeated with certain people, landscapes, music, skies or stages in life.  In other words, I wouldn’t want to spend every waking minute on psilocybin because I value what I brought back from the trip too much.  The potency of the trip commanded a strange new spiritual respect, not bottomless desire.  Sure, I’d love to go back “on the bus” some day, but I’m not organizing my life around that goal.  The experience was too beautiful to make it an earthly goal.

This kind of reverence is categorically different from the fixations of addiction, where the drug-taker only reveres the drug.  I suspect it’s why few people talk of shrooms with the same vocabulary as heroin, cocaine or cigarettes.  Dependence, tolerance, toxicity – these have nothing whatever to do with it.  As with marijuana, our drug policy places shrooms at level of criminality that is inversely proportionate to the personal and public health risk it poses.

(Illustration: A Molecular spacefill of Psilocybin.)