Disclaimer: This post discusses the personal experience of one Boulder employee. It doesn’t reflect or imply the views of Boulder Care, and should not be construed as medical advice. Boulder Care doesn’t offer, recommend, or make any representations regarding the safety or effectiveness of treatment with psychedelics. Treatment with psychedelics may not be legal in your area, and should not be attempted or used without the medical advice of a licensed clinician.
Last year, Oregon passed a ballot initiative creating a pathway to legalizing psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms) for “personal development.”
Psychedelics like psilocybin show overwhelming promise in helping people manage addiction, depression, PTSD, trauma, and anxiety. In a promising recent study of people with PTSD who didn’t respond to traditional treatment, after therapy with psychedelics, 67% saw such improvement they no longer met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. 80% of people with depression in another study showed improvement six months after their treatment. One of the biggest research departments in the world, Johns Hopkins University, has dedicated an entire new center to studying psychedelics and their benefits for treating depression and has started finding excellent results.
As a person with a long history of depression, I couldn’t help but be thrown by these numbers. How could it be that a single treatment could “cure” a lifetime of depression?
More importantly, if the effectiveness of this treatment is even partially true, why doesn’t everyone know about it?
So I decided to try it and see.
I’m not a doctor or a lawyer; I can’t speak to the medical or legal risks, and I’m certainly not in a place to recommend an unregulated therapy to anyone else. I’m also not a researcher; I’ll make no attempt to speak to anyone’s outcomes but my own. But I can share my individual experience, and ask the doctors and lawyers and researchers out there to set aside existing stigmas and prejudices to work to better understand and advance this hugely promising treatment.
People who know me would describe me as a rational, analytical person. I manage Boulder’s product and engineering teams. I have a degree in Computer Science. I’m inherently skeptical (sometimes bordering on cynical), and have never tried chiropractic care, acupuncture, or alternative medicines.
I’ve also had mild depression for as long as I can remember. My first memory of being depressed was in 5th grade, when I would spontaneously cry at school and they’d have to call my mom to come get me. As an adult, I don’t typically get sad – I just get ambivalent – and can’t muster the energy to do much more than sitting on the couch. When it’s bad, I can easily waste a week just watching TV 18 hours a day. It’s usually a show I’ve already seen.
It was always manageable; a rough month or two here or there, but then it would pass and I’d get back to my still-not-great-but-acceptable norm. But COVID changed that. 15 months of being alone was too much. My month of depression became 6 months and then 12 months, and my normal tools to drag myself back stopped working.
My doctor put me on Cymbalta, which helped, I think. Things got a bit better, but missing a dose could throw me into 2 weeks of crazy dreams and lying under the coffee table because getting up to the couch felt too ambitious.
September brought my 40th birthday. My original plan to escape abroad with friends was canceled because of COVID, so I found myself home with little to do.
Since last year’s legalization measure, I had been curious about treatment with psilocybin. A round-numbered birthday felt like the time to try something new, so I called a friend who I thought might know more. She referred me to her friend who does “medicine work.”
We talked for a while. I told him my story, and he told me his. He said if I was interested, he could help facilitate a session, and it might be useful for me. I agreed.
I showed up at his house a week later. As instructed, I brought comfy clothes, my pillow and blanket from home, and some soup for dinner. He greeted me warmly, and we talked for an hour. I told him what had brought me there, and what I was hoping to get out of it.
He showed me the medicine I’d be taking – a strong dose of mushrooms brewed into tea, and a half pill of MDMA (aka molly or ecstasy).
We talked about what to expect – that it could bring up hard memories or trauma. He compared it to rafting: you can watch the shore and steer a little with your oar, but the river’s going to take you where it takes you. He reminded me that he’d be there the entire time, so if I did get my raft stuck behind a rock, I could just ask and he’d help me get moving again.
He gave me a sleep mask and headphones. I drank the tea and swallowed the pill.
I don’t think I can describe the experience itself without venturing into language that’s opaque unless you’ve done it.
Some people who take a stronger dose describe losing their sense of place or self, but I was fully present and fully aware of what was happening. I didn’t confront any demons or unpack any trauma.
I listened to the music. I thought about myself and who I am. More importantly, I stopped thinking about myself and who I am, and I just was.
In that stillness, I came to realize why I felt depressed, and how to change it. I saw my relationships and how to fix them. I saw my purpose and how to fulfill it.
I felt whole and connected and at peace.
When it wore off, I had a snack and went to bed. The next morning, we had breakfast and talked about the experience, what I had learned, and how I might integrate that learning into my daily life. We promised to check in every few weeks to make sure I didn’t fall into old habits. I hugged him goodbye and drove home.
It’s been a month since my treatment. I’ve been waking up early and doing yoga. I stopped eating junk food and getting meal delivery every day. I hung the art that’s been leaning against the wall for the last year. I made jam.
The profound impact of my experience hasn’t faded.
I haven’t taken the antidepressants again – perhaps I will again in the future, but I’d be surprised. If someone asked me today, I’d say I’m someone who used to have depression, but no longer does.
I know this halo of peace and gratitude won’t stick with me forever, but I also know that the experience has given me new ways to think about the world that have changed my perspective. When things get bad, I can access this memory of how things are meant to fit together, and hopefully find my way back more quickly.
I suppose I was surprised by the outcome. I knew going in that my expectations were too high – having read about people whose lives were changed by a single treatment, I was nervous I’d leave exactly as I arrived. I couldn’t have possibly anticipated leaving so at peace and so fully past my depression (at least for now).
There is a medicine that grows wild that, at least from personal experience, can dramatically change the course of depression, and according to other studies, can reportedly do the same for addiction, PTSD, anxiety, and trauma. So why in the middle of a national epidemic of these horrific diseases aren’t we throwing everything we can at researching these substances to develop safe and legal therapies?
I grew up in the DARE program, so I’ve seen part of the answer. In our middle school gym, we learned that all drugs are bad, and touching any substance even once would lead down a dark and inevitable path towards chronic drug use, jail, and death. This is the legacy of the anti-Black, anti-left crackdown against drugs in the 60s and 70s that intentionally stigmatized all drug use and drug users, and shut down the clinical research into the therapeutic value of psychedelics that could have helped millions of people.
It’s time to dismantle this legacy – to base our medical practice on science instead of stigma, to rethink our drug policies, and to restart and revitalize research into clinical applications of psychedelics.
Until we do, this life-altering experience will continue to be available only to the liberal and privileged, while the millions who could potentially benefit are denied access.