How Psilocybin Released My Mother’s Tears
Waving goodbye to our husbands, my friend and I flew off to Jamaica where ingesting magic mushrooms — psilocybin — is legal. Yes, psilocybin is a psychedelic. And no, neither of us had ever tried magic mushrooms before.
Why would two women in their early seventies do such a thing? I can’t speak for my friend but as a born and bred neurotic, I sought to heal more. I’d already found relief from taking medication prescribed by a psychiatrist since 1985. That medication (along with talk therapy in the beginning) continues to take a major edge off of my formerly panic-ridden, reclusive self. After 28 years of panic attacks, I haven’t had one since 1985.
But like the leftover mayonnaise in a jar, I needed something more radical to eliminate the viscous remains of anxiety and depression.
Taking mushrooms is not any easier than picking up the phone and making that first therapy appointment. Both take a tremendous amount of courage. After all, either action means you are willing to open up the dark corners of your heart, brain, and soul. If it isn’t pain that compels one to take action, it may be the curiosity of knowing oneself better.
There is a lot of pain in the world, and I’m willing to bet a lot of people are suffering needlessly. I also suspect that most everyone has experienced trauma, sometimes even unconsciously during our preverbal lives or in utero. Our culture, too, encourages us to repress our emotions, and that repression can have physical and mental consequences. These are all good reasons to seek therapy.
I spent a week at MycoMeditations, a retreat specifically designed to gently coach people through the highs and lows of three trips, and to integrate what they learned from their trips into their everyday lives.
Facing a bay on the Atlantic Ocean where waves crashed onto the shore night and day, 13 participants and seven facilitators gathered, along with cooking, cleaning, and custodial staff. This wasn’t meant to be a recreational joy trip like the hippies of yore: turn on, tune in, and drop out. No. This was to be a tripping in, tuning in, and dropping into your inner self, and facing whatever arose. The facilitators were there to listen, soothe, or help you breathe through any challenges you might face. They were also there to ensure your safety.
The mushrooms themselves are grown on a nearby property, then are dried and encapsulated.
Once we arrived and settled into our rooms, our group gathered under a large thatched roof with the wind off the shore keeping us cool from the hot and humid Jamaican climate. We told each other why we’d come and what we hoped to gain. We all had read Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
During the following afternoon, again under the thatched roof, the primary facilitator and founder of MycoMeditations, Eric Osborne, listened carefully and helped each of us individually determine a dosage we’d be comfortable taking. The mushrooms themselves are grown on a nearby property, then are dried and encapsulated. Each capsule contains one-half gram of mushrooms. I liked that the dosage was regulated. The regulation allowed me to take ever-increasing amounts — starting out slow and ending on a higher dose. The nifty thing about psilocybin is that it is not toxic. There are caveats though.
· Take them in a safe and supportive environment
· Do not take them if you are under 21
· If you have schizophrenia or are bipolar, check with your doctor first
· Stay hydrated
· Do not drink alcohol the day of dosing
· Do not take them alone — be with a sober sitter
· Eat lightly several hours before dosing
Note: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is not known whether psilocybin is addictive. There are no FDA-approved medications to treat addiction to psilocybin or other hallucinogens.
Upon arrival at this beautiful space, I was initially disappointed that nearly half the group were men. From listening to them introduce themselves and tell why they were there, I intellectually knew they were a kind and caring bunch. Yet a disdain brewed in me. I wished they’d go away. In the end, we all stayed, and I’m glad we did because the men, in particular for me, served as a catalyst for my growth during two of my three trips.
On dose day one we were each given the number of pills we’d decided on earlier, and together, drank them down with water. I took four grams. Everyone dispersed to their pre-chosen spots. I’d set up a chaise-lounge mattress under the thatched-roof shack. In fact, several of us did — some sat on lounge chairs just outside the shelter, facing the sea. Others took up positions on the porch of the kitchen house, called Blue Marlin, or in the living room of the open-air house named Coquina. Of course, we were free to move around and change our choices whenever we wanted. We were given eyeshades that blacked out all light from the outside, including the searing sun. Some people chose to wear them while others did not.
Since we hadn’t dosed until 2:30 p.m. and the anticipatory anxiety I live with daily had spent all my energy, I immediately laid down and took a two-hour nap. Anxiety, for those who aren’t familiar, is exhausting.
After the nap, I got up, looked around, and saw that the others were still under the mushrooms’ influence. I went to the bathroom, escorted by one of the facilitators, and came back and sat in a chair watching the sunset. I’ve always loved this time of day, from four to six o’clock. The ocean was beautiful, but neither more nor less beautiful than usual.
I checked on my friend. Her husband had been worried about her going on this trip — and going to another country, no less. I remember promising him I’d keep an eye on her. When I saw her come out of her trip and drink some water, I finally relaxed. We’d been told the trip could last from four to six hours and four hours had passed. I figured we were both done — either the mushrooms were much ado about nothing for me or they couldn’t touch me.
Watching the tide come in, I formulated a sentence to report my “trip” to the others in the group later: “My armor is made of steel. Nothing can shatter it. I am a strong woman!”
But then, my eyelids drooped. For the love of Pete, I couldn’t keep them open. “Holy crow!” Colorful shapes had taken form! I was tripping! There were neon purples, pinks, and blues, and they moved toward me like a herd of coils. Surprisingly, the hallucinations didn’t scare me as I’d expected. However, a sudden rush of profound sadness washed over me. I started to cry.
Meanwhile, some of the other participants had tired of being stationary and started horsing around, loudly laughing. When tripping, the silliest things can seem hilarious. Since all of our senses are heightened while under the influence, the others sounded like a bunch of 13-year-old boys acting out. I remember thinking, “How can they laugh when I’m so sad? How mean. That’s why I didn’t want to be around men.”
Eventually, I gathered up my things and walked up the browned lawn to the house where four of us women were staying. I marched right upstairs to my room. I not only wanted privacy — my mother had taught me not to cry in public — but also I had to get away from that awful, discordant laughter. A female facilitator followed me upstairs to make sure I was okay.
Once I laid in my bed, I put the eyeshades back on, and the colors and shapes continued. I ignored them and focused on my emotions. A sadness weighed in the center of my chest like none I’d ever experienced before. I saw my mother’s face. She’d died in 1996 but a particular expression of hers had imprinted on me. There it was: a pinched look, a sour puss. She looked forever angry. For the first time, I saw that that look wasn’t so much sour as controlled. I’d always thought she was angry with my father, but that wasn’t it at all. Now I saw that she was straining to control something. Oh. A thought bulldozed into my head: She wasn’t controlling anger. She was controlling her own sadness.
When my mother was 12, her hardworking mother died of a heart attack one hot summer day after working in the stifling kitchen of Marshall Field’s in Chicago. She was 38. My mother’s father, an alcoholic and ne’er-do-well, was considered unfit to parent her and her younger brother. Their three older siblings were old enough to take care of themselves. My uncle, the youngest of the five, was sent to Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska.
I’m not sure what kind of life he led there but it had to be better than my mother’s. She was sent to an orphanage where the caretakers were mean and the punishments were harsh. She told me that if she didn’t eat her oatmeal, she was made to kneel on stones.
Later, as a ward of the state, she was transferred from one foster home to another during her teenage years. She never talked much about this time of her life other than to say she was like the servant Cinderella, made to do all the housework and tend the foster parents’ children. She warned me never to tell anyone that she’d been orphaned. Being naive, I didn’t understand why — I had no idea what caused her secretiveness.
It wasn’t until after her death, and after reading White Oleander by Janet Fitch, that I put the puzzle together. At least one man in one of the households where she lived had taken advantage of her. And whatever form the abuse took, it generated a compelling need in her to control everything. Many times she’d tell me to keep my emotions under control. She showed me how she managed to swallow her tears by holding the palm of her hand in front of her face and taking a deep breath. I remember her using the word “control” in multiple circumstances. Before a vacation, she’d announce, “Our packing is under control.” As she readied the house for company, “Everything is under control.”
I understood why she’d never let go of her tears. She was afraid they’d never stop.
I felt the sexual repression, too. But growing up in the 1950s, I had no words for it. I just knew that my body was tightly wound. And then, a week after the mushroom trip, I seemingly connected more dots. This may just be an overactive imagination but I often describe myself as being “tightly wound.” That image seemed to connect to the brightly-colored coils I’d hallucinated in my first trip.
There are a dozen more examples of my mother’s need for control but I came to see that the point of this mushroom trip was to cry my mother’s tears. And as the afternoon rolled into evening and evening rolled into night, I understood why she’d never let go of her tears. She was afraid they’d never stop.
In my mind’s eye, I understood my mother, ashamed of what had been done to her, and my father, ashamed of his brutal case of acne and being the son of an immigrant. I understood how these two wounded souls had come to fall in love with each other.
During the mushroom trip, I recalled the time a few days before she died, when she and I sat alone at the table after dinner. She looked off into the distance. With her face contorting, fighting for control, she whispered of my late father, “He was so gentle.”
“Psychedelic therapy holds a great deal of promise for treating some very serious mental health conditions and may one day offer new hope to vulnerable people with limited treatment options.”
Robin Carhart-Harris of the Centre for Psychedelic Research, Imperial College London
After my shower at 8:30 p.m., I sat on the balcony of Coquina, the house where I stayed. I wept into the night. I noted how I’d been the good girl, keeping control through most of my life. How even when I was in labor in the hospital and started to cry, the nurse said, “Now, now. Tears aren’t gonna help ya any now.” So I stifled them but oh, how I yearned to weep. Now I understood how my face must look when I’m holding back sadness or pain. I saw how disagreeable it was, more disagreeable than if I’d let go of all the tears I stuffed back.
On this trip, I needed to visit sadness.
At breakfast in Jamaica the next morning, I kept my head down. I did not make eye contact and tears continued to threaten the storm within. I choked down the food.
From what I’ve heard, if you let the mushrooms be your guide, if you do not play director or try to control what is happening, they will take you where you need to go. On this trip, I needed to visit sadness.
To my amazement, I eventually stopped crying. Losing control of those tears and that sorrow was exactly what both my mother and I needed. I felt such relief!
Hopefully, with the help of clinical studies now being performed by such reputable institutions as Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Imperial College of London, psilocybin will be legalized (with strict regulations, I hope). Then it will be more affordable to those in the United States who cannot fly off to Jamaica. Already there are cities in the U.S. that have decriminalized the substance (i.e., Oakland, California and Denver, Colorado); however, using psilocybin continues to be a federal crime.
People say there are “good” trips and “bad” trips. Yes, back in the ’60s and ’70s when people were tripping without guidance, bad and dangerous trips did occur. That’s why you want to make sure you’re in the hands of a professional. That’s why I vehemently believe that taking psilocybin should be strictly regulated.
Personally, I don’t even believe in labeling trips. Until I hear or experience otherwise, I believe that even the so-called scary or threatening ones can, in time, be worthwhile. To some, my experience might be considered “bad.” But for me, it was extraordinary.