As Janeen Delaney looked at the capsule in her hand, she thought, ‘Boy, there’s so much promise. I am so ready for this.’ She was about to take a dose of psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound found in magic mushrooms, as part of a 2008 study at Johns Hopkins University. Researchers were investigating whether a mystical experience brought on by the psychedelic would have a therapeutic effect on people with end-of-life anxiety. Janeen had been diagnosed with leukaemia three years previously.
‘I was living in fear,’ she says placidly, in a video interview. ‘My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t find that fullness, that place of contentment in my life before the process of dying.’ Janeen took the capsule, lay down and waited for the ‘magic’ to happen. ‘It was so overwhelmingly beautiful that tears were falling down my face.’ Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ was playing through her headphones. ‘My breath was following this note up, and when the note stopped, I held my breath. I thought, “Ha, it’s okay not to breathe. How could it be that simple? Dear God, it is that simple! Remember that when you get [to the end of life]: it’s okay not to breathe anymore.”’
Janeen emerged from the session feeling totally reassured. ‘I just knew everything was going to be okay,’ she says. ‘This study changed everything: I’m more patient, I take time to be present, I smile and say thank you – because I get to breathe another day. So I have a few years chopped off my life but look at the quality that I’m able to experience now. If I got this for a week it would have been worth it – that I’ve had it for a year is astounding.’ Janeen died in 2015. In the end, she had it for seven years.
Deep-dose psychedelic ‘trips’ as a form of therapy, such as Janeen experienced, is the subject of award-winning local science writer Leonie Joubert’s fascinating podcast, The Psychonauts, in which she explores the science of psychedelics. For the past two years, she’s been keeping an eye on psilocybin trials abroad, and lobbying for the medical community in South Africa to start building a similar body of evidence-based research.
‘Psilocybin is one of many psychedelics that do something in the brain that results in a profound spiritual experience,’ Leonie told the audience at a talk held at Kalk Bay Books. ‘There are a number of medical teams abroad – including New York University, Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University – that for several years have been doing state-licensed research where people are being put through therapeutic processes to treat various mood-related disorders and addictions: treatment-resistant depression, alcohol, and nicotine dependence, and PTSD that hasn’t responded to other drugs or talk therapy,’ she explains. ‘Research is showing that the more mystical the experience, the more likely you are to treat your depression or break your dependency.’
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