I’m planning a trip – not to Paris or Rome… not that kind of trip. This will be a journey to explore my inner world with the help of psilocybin (magic mushrooms). Let me explain – last summer a friend mentioned that she had a friend who was taking psilocybin as end-of-life therapy. Last fall and winter I did some online research and reading as I knew nothing at all about psilocybin; although I came of age in the 1970s, I never dabbled in hallucinogenics.
Psilocybin is a hallucinogen that works by activating serotonin receptors, most often in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain affects mood, cognition, and perception. Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is the professionally guided use of psilocybin in combination with psychotherapy.
This will be a therapeutic journey for me, in other words, the intent is not recreation. The treatment involves pre-session therapy, therapy during the psilocybin experience and an integration process afterward. I am working with a local psychiatrist who is experienced in treating with psilocybin.
I’ve learned a lot about the potential of psilocybin in therapy, especially ‘end-of-life’ therapy, and found Michael Pollan’s book quite useful (How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence). He states that, “existential distress is what psychologists call the complex of depression, anxiety and fear common in people facing a terminal diagnosis.” Apparently, there have not been very successful ways of treating this existential (or end-of-life) distress which contributes to a sense of demoralization and hopelessness.
In studies at NYU and John Hopkins, “some 80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression”, leading to an increased quality of life, life meaning, death acceptance and optimism. Pollan further states “…the great gift of the psychedelic journey, especially to the dying, is its power to imbue everything in our field of experience with a heightened sense of purpose and consequence.” In the two studies mentioned, most patients rated their psilocybin experience in the top ten experiences of their lives, which is remarkable.
So how does it work? My understanding is that psychedelic drugs don’t ‘add’, they ‘clear away’ what is unnecessary. The drugs are not the healing, rather, they help the patient do the healing themselves.
We all have habitual ways of thinking; psilocybin helps to break these habits of thinking and offers opportunity for a reset – of feeling more in the present and more connected. Patients in the two studies mentioned above typically described the experience as mystical and spiritual.
Pollan writes that “the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious realms of the mind and the boundary between self and other… (when) these boundaries fade or disappear, as they seem to do under the influence of psychedelics, we can let go of rigid patterns of thought, allowing us to perceive new meanings with less fear.” I have included a link to TheraPsil’s website which has content about psychotherapy using a psilocybin and links to research.
However, psilocybin is illegal (since 1974 in Canada); a federal exemption is required to access the drug for therapeutic purposes. B.C.-based non-profit TheraPsil last August helped a cancer patient secure the first exemption under Canada’s drug laws to use magic mushrooms for psychotherapy. Since then, Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has used the power she has under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to grant 35 patients and some health-care professionals limited exemptions from the law. The process for applying and proving a medical need to use psilocybin is not clear, and the criteria used by Health Canada appears arbitrary (see link to Tyee article below). This is an inconsistent process; some people have been given exemptions and others have not, with no clear reasons for the decisions. Furthermore, the process is dependent on political party positions, elections or change in ministers. There is a need for government to come up with reasonable and transparent regulations for making psilocybin legal and available for medical purposes. TheraPsil continues to assist and advocate for patients wishing to access the drug.
I have received an exemption from Health Canada, and I was surprised to learn from Therapsil that I am the first Canadian with ALS to receive an exemption.
So why would I want to have this experience?
I try very hard to stay positive and be proactive concerning all aspects of my health including my emotional state. But it’s hard, and it’s getting harder. It is a struggle to stay upbeat when my body is incrementally losing function in a way that greatly impacts quality of life. Simple tasks like dressing and moving around are becoming exhausting. Since losing the ability to speak it has become a challenge to stay connected to others. Now I can only type with one hand which has further reduced my ability to communicate with a keyboard – it is slow and tiring to peck away with one finger. Loss of connection, isolation, feeling left out – these are constant struggles, along with trying to get the #%&* mucus out of my mouth. These challenges can easily feed into depression.
Even though I may think and believe in a particular point of view that is positive and hopeful, as I try to do, unfortunately my feelings may not always align with that perspective. While I make these constant shifts as my body weakens in phases, my emotions fight against these changes. So why wouldn’t I want to access a treatment that can improve my emotional sense of wellbeing for my remaining time? I believe that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help me to gain perspective regarding my future and create greater self-awareness and sense of connectedness. The research is solid and feedback from participants is extremely positive. I am grateful for TheraPsil for providing this opportunity.
My ‘mushroom trip’ is booked for early September – I will report back after, but don’t expect any souvenirs.
My photos for this post are from my trip to Scotland two years ago with my daughter Rachel. These are the Callanish Stones, older than Stonehenge, located on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, my ancestral home on my father’s side of the family. It is an otherworldly place that had a real impact on me. Many thanks to the wonderful Kara Smith for taking us there at dusk..
(https://therapsil.ca/ TheraPsil – non-profit that works to provide access to psilocybin for therapeutic purposes. Excellent website with loads of information
https://thetyee.ca/News/2021/07/05/Fight-Medical-Use-Magic-Mushrooms-Moving-To-Court/ Good article from The Tyee that sums up current status of psilocybin
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence” Michael Pollan. Penguin, 2018.