In February of 2018, Laurie Brooks, a 51-year-old nurse in Abbotsford, B.C., learned she had colon cancer. Next came radiation, chemotherapy and a surgery that removed an -longeight-centimetre-longtumour. But at her one-year surgery follow-up, her oncologist found that the cancer had metastasized. She had anywhere between six months and a year to live.
Brooks and her husband, Glenn, who runs a home-renovation business, have four kids in their 20s. After the check-up news, she couldn’t sleep and cried constantly. She became withdrawn and felt anger at both the situation and at herself. At times she was gripped by an unshakable feeling that she had personally done something wrong. She feared having to inform her kids, for the second time, that their mother was dying. Soon she found that she couldn’t move her left arm—a psychosomatic side effect of her emotional distress. “I didn’t deal with any of the emotional stuff,” she says. “I just shoved that down inside while I got through the physical challenges of cancer.”
Then a family friend suggested a way she could find a measure of peace and deal with all that emotional stuff: take magic mushrooms.
In the last few years, an underground network of Canadian psychotherapists and medical practitioners, inspired by successful clinical trials, has helped patients gain access to psychedelics such as magic mushrooms, the gnarled fungi containing the naturally occurring chemical psilocybin. Many of those patients are terminally ill or are suffering from chronic depression or anxiety. They believe that psychedelics alleviate their suffering and help them get more in touch with their emotions. Psychedelics have been called the new cannabis—at least in Canada.
Brooks contacted a B.C. therapist who has helped other cancer patients experience magic-mushroom trips. Although she had never dabbled in mind-expanding drugs before, and was nervous, she wanted to spend what may be her final months living “authentically,” finding the self that was so often lost in her identification as a wife and mother and cancer patient.
Lying in a comfy bed and flanked by the therapist and a close friend, Laurie took three grams of magic mushrooms—a high dose guaranteed to send her on a trip. She’d prepared a mantra to guide her through the psychedelic experience. “Trust, be open and let go,” she told herself.
Before long, her mind opened into a realm of kaleidoscopic colours that she first found entertaining and then just a bit annoying. She next found herself pitched into a cold darkness. As she wrote in the notes she compiled post-trip, “It was like I was floating around in space but there weren’t any stars. It was just pitch black.”
At one point during her trip, while her hallucinations were peaking, Laurie visualized herself as a prisoner. “I saw myself in jail, with shackles on my wrists, and the shackles fell off, and the jail door slid open.” Brooks was free.
As the hallucinations subsided and she settled back into our shared, everyday reality, she realized she could move her left arm again. She swung it in wide circles.
In the recreational culture of psychedelics, users often talk about the “afterglow.” It’s a feeling of clarity or emotional well-being that persists after the drugs themselves have worn off. It’s like the opposite of a hangover. The sun seems warmer. You notice dew on each blade of grass glistening anew. Many patients only need to experience a magic-mushroom trip once to feel like the treatment was a success.
A year after her trip, Brooks was still glowing. “Everybody looks at me and says, ‘You don’t look sick at all!’” she reflects. “I don’t have all the fear and anxiety anymore.”
BEFORE PSYCHEDELICS like magic mushrooms gained notoriety in the 1960s as the preferred drugs of the Woodstock generation, ancient and Indigenous cultures prized them for millennia for the experiences they produced. Psychedelics induced states of consciousness with deep mystical and spiritual dimensions.
So-called “classical psychedelics”—a category that includes psilocybin, LSD, mescaline and a few configurations of dimethyltryptamine, or DMT—are psychologically powerful and spiritually potent. At the same time, they pose no real risk of addiction. Medical researchers believe that these drugs function by affecting the serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects everything from mood to memory. The ceremonial and prehistorical use of these compounds has much to do with them being readily available in nature. That includes the bulbous and prickly peyote cactus, to DMT-containing “pink carpet” perennials native to South Africa, to the formidable Psilocybe azurescens mushrooms that peek up from the fertile soil of Oregon’s Columbia River Delta. LSD, meanwhile, is a chemical derivative of ergot, itself a fungal growth common on rye plants.
Scientists are now reassessing psychedelics as a promising therapeutic. In 2006, a team at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University led by neuropharmacologist Roland Griffiths demonstrated that psilocybin stimulated spiritual and deeply emotional experiences (comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent) in 30 volunteers. The resulting paper gave scientific heft to what generations of recreational users already knew: that psychedelics could facilitate profound (or “mystical-type”) experiences and lead to a shift in a user’s perception of themselves and their place in the world.
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