Editor’s Note: Previously Frank Armstrong reviewed Michael Pollan’s journey through the use of psychedelics. Here ‘Desmond O’Brien’ recalls a recent psilocybin treatment at a clinic in the Netherlands, which he found ‘a hugely emotional and profoundly beautiful experience, interspersed with frequent moments of absolute hilarity.’
‘my life had come to an end’
I recently went on a psilocybin (so-called magic mushroom) retreat in the Netherlands – a form of psychedelic therapy for anxiety and depression. To the uninitiated this may sound like quackery, but there’s a good deal of solid scientific evidence pointing to its potential for treatment of mental illness, especially long-term depression.
Prior to going through with it, I had concluded that I was doomed to an endless cycle of frustrated unease and pessimism. What I went through has made me more optimistic that I have a lot more time left, and that chapters remain to be written. But it is still early days, and I am not saying it will be easy.
The retreat was quite a journey. Three days, with a trip in the middle day, bookended by powerful group therapy conducted by trained professionals, all in a tranquil setting with access to a garden.
I found it a hugely emotional and profoundly beautiful experience, interspersed with frequent moments of absolute hilarity. At no point was I scared by what was a wild ride that brought tremendous catharsis, and involved deep bonding with fellow participants.
For a long time beforehand I was at the bottom of a dark, deepening well, clawing helplessly at the walls. I am still in that pit in practical and material terms, but the light at the top doesn’t seem quite so far away. It’s as if a rope has been dropped down for me to climb towards the opening.
By the end of the experience I felt more relaxed than I have done in years. Only time will tell how capable I am of integrating what I have learnt into my day-to-day life.
I must persevere with therapy, meditation, writing, communicating, yoga and just breathing. Contending with horrific, insidious and relentless anxiety, as I have done, I need constant reminders to slow down so as to avoid those terrible spirals.
The ‘trip’ began with geometric patterns emerging from the darkness, creating quite a pleasant show. It brought neither anxiety nor nausea, as affected a few other participants.
Indeed, one poor fella’s vomiting cut through the air in Dolby Surround Sound reminiscent of The Exorcist! But he was gently taken care of by the facilitators, and emerged after a while into the bliss we all felt, and was utterly untroubled by that phase in retrospect.
Slowly, the doors of the library of memory opened and I was brought on a tour, over which I had considerable control. This featured many moments of my past, such as running out to play in my grandparents’ garden, and being tucked into bed by an au pair.
It was all from a first-person perspective. I never saw myself. There was an overwhelming feeling of love as I observed these scenes, and many friends and family appeared – or perhaps it is more accurate to say I had chosen to bring them to mind – all enveloped in this infinite affection.
“Love is the glue”, I said to myself after discovering a wonderful sense of oneness with the universe. I had the sense of us all, young and old, alive and dead, as helpless babies in the eyes of an omniscient presence, tumbling in eternal clumsiness through space, bouncing off each other while she, and it did seem a nurturing, reassuring maternal figure (the “Cosmic Pocahontas”, as the other Irish fella there referred to her in his Cork accent), observing us all with a benign smile, having seen it all before.
Most of the time, rather than looking around and getting my jollies with visuals – and especially during the first few hours – I wore eye covers to heighten the inward therapeutic journey. This deepened the tour of the unconscious.
I experienced tears of joy, sadness and laughter that ran down my face for a great part of the journey. Emotional inhibition was lost and at one point with the prompting and hug from a facilitator, I sobbed uncontrolably and breathlessly like a child.
Returning to a pleasant normality
At a certain point I removed the eye covers. After that, at all times, I knew exactly where I was, and who I was with. I experienced no auditory or visual hallucinations, but amplified senses, a curious fuzziness to everything, changes in texture and a mildly swirling fractalization of surfaces and objects; no pink elephants!
Looking around, we resembled infants in a crèche, smiling warmly at each other, in mutual knowing. Towards the end we sat up, ate the sliced fruit and pieces of chocolate provided for us, and began to reflect in pairs and small groups on our experiences.
Finally, we took off our jackets and shoes, creating another amusing kindergarten-scene-of-chaos, and then strolled and chatted in the garden. Returning to a pleasant normality, we endeavoured to articulate our individual experiences.
The analogy that came to my mind is this: that we are, as adults, swimming in lanes defined over time by the influences of our environments. The psychedelic experience lifts up those lane dividers, allowing us to roam freely in the pool. By the end of the experience, we had developed an awareness of how we are stuck in those lanes, but that they are not as fixed as we had perceived. And that is freedom.
The experience brings us back to our younger, more joyous and playful selves, peeling away, at least for a while, the rigid constraints of our adult selves, to reveal the child that we were, and still are.
And little kids, as I’m sure you are aware, trip up all the time.
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