Trigger warning: At the time of this writing, and for the foreseeable future, psilocybin and LSD are illegal in the US. This is a personal story and should not be taken as advice.
It’s a mild, rainy, and lushly green day here in my northeastern city. I’ve been musing about friendship, writing, and psychedelics. I realize that’s an odd thing but the mind flits from subject to subject and we either follow it or try to rein it in with meditation or some concentrated activity, like writing. That may be why I’m writing this piece this morning.
I don’t keep a journal. It may work for others but I already write so much that storing my thoughts in one just seems superfluous. Between my work and writing for myself, including the novel I’m working on, it’s not unusual for me to write thousands of words daily. For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with writing frequently here on Medium, and that has upped the daily word count considerably. I think it is improving my writing.
I live a flat life and I’m starting to feel a need to break with that. At 64, I’m older than most Medium contributors, but I work in tech and lead a different work life than most of my peers. The flatness comes from a daily regimen that is predictable, and that predictability is wearing me out. At the same time I don’t experience a lot of the angst I see people writing about. I’d like to believe that my meditation practice, and experience, have made me less susceptible to creating drama out of day to day things. But maybe I need a little drama.
Ever since I read Michael Pollan’s book How To Change Your Mind, about the current wave of psychedelic research and experimentation, something has been nagging at me. Pollan theorizes that while most people experience psychedelics during adolescence (today adolescence can extend into your twenties, a demographic shift that some ascribe to overexposure to screens and overprotective parents), older people would probably benefit more from the experience. The reasoning is that when we’re developing we tend to seek out peak experiences and we have more of them. We’re learning from this experimentation in many areas of our life, including sex, intimacy, work, goals, relationships, etc. Tripping was one peak experience among many.
Fast forward to my age and that flat life. Pollan thinks the rewiring of the brain that seems to occur with a psychedelic experience would be more life-changing for a person my age who has settled into life and, dare I say, become complacent (horrors!). This makes sense to me on a logical level. But what about on an experiential level? I’m about to find out.
The last time I tripped was 40 years ago. I was 24 and did mushrooms with an ex-girlfriend because we had them stashed away in the kitchen of the home we shared. When we went our separate ways we decided to seal the deal by taking them. Either that or we were just bored. It was a mild experience, totally unlike the bombastic LSD experiences I had as a teenager, including witnessing a deadly motorcycle accident and having to give the police a report while stoned as hell (true story). But I digress.
After those teenage years I lost interest in drugs, mostly because they started to feel repetitive and boring. I was not self-destructive, mostly because I did not have a traumatic childhood. Those friends of mine who did, often went down a road of self-destruction. Most of them are dead, homeless, or have disappeared. That’s why I think it is really important that any discussion of psychedelics include a warning to those with damage. Don’t try these things without professional help. They open up doors you may not want opened.
Fast forward to the present and Pollan’s book. Recently, the city of Denver voted to essentially decriminalize psilocybin. Oakland soon followed. Pollan has an op-ed in the New York Times that sounds a cautionary note but he can’t bring himself to be totally negative because his own experiences, detailed in his book, were so positive.
I coincidentally ran into a friend with access to psilocybin, around the time I was reading the book, and I acquired some dried shrooms. I am going to take some with another friend. We’re just waiting for the right place and time, as the setting is very important.
Microdosing was interesting
After I wrote this I decided to try a microdose of the dust in the little bag of dried mushrooms. I don’t have a scale accurate enough to measure a fraction of a gram, so I guesstimated, ate a little, and went off to meet a friend for dinner and a drink. I thought I might be feeling a little different but realized it could easily be my imagination or a placebo effect. The stuff is supposed to suppress your appetite in larger doses but it had no such effect and my dinner was delicious. We had a big jazz festival going on all week here and I had a pass so I went to see a concert by a Scandanavian jazz guitarist in a big old church.
This proved to be the test. I found myself admiring the elaborate stonework and stained glass while the music washed over me. No hallucinations, just a sense of heightened awareness and a dropping off of analysis. I was a professional musician for twenty years so I don’t really have an open mind for music anymore- I’m typically thinking about how they are doing things. That tendency to analyse had stopped and I felt the pure enjoyment that I had lost over the years. There was definitely something going on but it was very subtle and relaxing. And it made me want to go deeper.
But first a little housekeeping
My major motivation in pursuing this idea is change. Yes, changing my life. Why not? In the past, reinvention was almost too standard with me. If something interested me I’d do a deep dive. It resulted in a fairly successful music career and a pile of non-fiction books, all published by national publishers, with some getting translated into various languages. I went into marketing, specifically tech marketing, and eventually rose to senior management in some fast growing software and tech companies. A far cry from my teenage stoner days! And I finally wrote the novel I’d been trying to complete for years (too many self-imposed distractions?), with a second one making progress. But back to the housekeeping.
I am a drinker, what they call a functional drinker. It started young and being in late night clubs after gigs reinforced the habit. And I enjoyed it for a long time. But I had the nagging feeling, which turned into a certainty, that this thing was a weight around my neck that was holding me back. And it reached the point where it was taking priority, which I did not and do not like at all. And friends were quite aware of this. It has to go but letting go of an addiction is no minor thing, especially one so ingrained in a life for so long. Which brings me to psychedelics.
Rewiring that part of the brain that limits openness to new experience
Without going into the neuroscience (and if you know me, you know I did), there is evidence, backed by research, that psilocybin may affect a part of the brain that insulates us from new experiences by creating reasonable resistance to things that might be dangerous, likely as an evolutionary safeguard. The drug appears to temporarily block those resistance mechanisms, leaving you open to the intense experience it provides.
This is obviously not without risk. But prior to the early seventies, when societal fear lumped these drugs into the same category as physically dangerous drugs like heroin, making them illegal, there had been over a thousand peer-reviewed studies of them and one conclusive finding was that they are not physically harmful.
Recently, and this was a driver behind Pollan’s book, science tentatively began doing research again. The goal has been to investigate their value in treating illnesses like depression and PTSD, and to help those with fatal diseases cope with end of life. The research has been promising and the FDA has been surprisingly supportive. This could result in useful treatments coming on the market relatively quickly, since safety was proven by the large number of early research projects. But, until that happens, we have to go to the underground. I say ‘have to’ because of my age. Waiting ten years for a legal prescription isn’t very appealing at this point.
But before I take them, I want to clean my system up by quitting alcohol for the foreseeable future. I need the clarity that provides and I don’t want to muddy the waters, as I did in the past. That’s my current project.
For more about inducing altered states, without psychedelics, try solo travel. I took a 3500 mile train trip recently. I’ve written at length about my trip and the unexpected things that took place.