Psychedelics: the best kept secret in trauma treatment, or an excuse to get high?

I make this point often, but it bears repeating: until the age of 46, I was a drug-virgin.  In my youth I used prodigious amounts of beer.  And okay, yes, still do.  As an art student, getting plastered was what I did on a too-regular basis.  My blood group was Smirnoff.

But I never did anything else.  I never took a hit from a doobie, never swallowed a party-pill.  Heck, I never even smoked a cigarette.  Never even took a puff out of curiosity.  The strongest ‘drug’ I ever used was to prove how brave I was with a few shots of Stroh rum.

The reason for this is because, well, ‘drugs are bad’.  We all know Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign as a result of Nixon’s war on drugs that did, well, absolutely nothing to curb drug use.  Except, it scared the bejesus out of me!  I was ‘high on life’ as the terminally smug like to put it.  Nixon’s big clusterfuck where he chucked anything that wasn’t alcohol or tobacco in one big melting pot of ‘drugs’ and stuck a big sticker on it that just said ‘no’, was perhaps one of the greatest human travesties we’ve ever seen.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves: there are horrid things out there.  I’ve seen firsthand what ‘just say yes’ can do to people.  As a lover of freedom, I think all drugs should be legalised—all victimless crimes should be legalised—but one cannot with a clear conscience make the argument that smoking crack is good for people.  It just isn’t.

But this is my point:  putting psychedelics in the same group as heroin and crack cocaine is a fundamentally stupid thing at worst, and a classification error at best.

Conversational change of course:  I consider myself a ‘seeker’, and not in the Harry Potter sense.  I’m that guy looking for the ultimate truth though I know now it does not exist.  I’m a philosopher at heart and I value truth above all else, even beauty.  I’ve read the books and listened to the poets and the analysts and the gurus and the sages.  How many answers did I get?  Well…  it would be trite to say ‘none’, because a lot of answers I did get, but the more I know, the more questions I have.

Then came the fateful day of 12 December 2020 and I held my wife as she died on a sunny Saturday morning, and suddenly all questions and answers I had became obsolete in one final breath of a beloved.  New questions flooded in.  The big one here was “Why?”.  Duh.

I seriously struggled to come to grips with Andrea’s cancer and subsequent death, and I’m still not ‘over it’, I’ll never be.  But then something amazing happened.  At the urging of one of my buddies, I decided it could be wise to lose my drug virginity.  And I’m doing it balls to the wall.  Go big or go home.  I’m not going to start my journey into recreational drugs with a mere puff of weed, or half a cap of acid…  No, my friends, I went straight into the Marianas Trench and tripped my head off on Ayahuasca.

For those who do not know, Ayahuasca is an Amazonian jungle brew made of two different plants, and when ingested…  well, uh…  let’s just say that the most profound thing to ever happen in my life was not seeing my wife through her last few hours on earth.  Ayahuasca shook me to my core, if you will pardon the cliché, but it did.  It made a radical sea-change in how I see the world.  It was, and arguably will be, the most profound thing I ever experienced, and left me punch-drunk and reeling for months.

Was it a pleasant experience?  Oh hell no.  This is less fun than undercooked chicken.  Mama Ayahuasca was not kind to me.  But boy, was she valuable.  The insights I got not just during the trip, but in the immediate aftermath and for months afterwards are some of the most profound realisations I’ve ever had.  I discuss this experience in my memoir ‘Chronicles of a Reluctant Widower’.

Until they ran dry.

Approximately six months after my Ayahuasca experience, I was ready to do it again.  Round number two.  Only one problem, my shaman, Johan Harlaar, had since died of cancer.  Bummer.  I half-heartedly looked for another shaman, but did not find anyone I was happy with.  But I admit I did not look very hard.

Until I spoke to a lady who was on the Ayahuasca ceremony with me, and we discussed magic mushrooms.  Now about mushrooms I know.  In my days hanging out in the alternative nightclubs of Johannesburg, I know of many people who took ‘shrooms’ and partied until the sun came up.  In my mind, magic mushrooms were a party drug.  Something more intense than hitting the bong and more easily accessible than LSD (Which was also in high supply).  Mushrooms? Ha! For the dope-fiends who cannot put two words together.  ‘Psychonauts’ who enjoyed beating their own brain into submission until their IQs started with a comma and ended in a question mark.

How wrong I was…

Paul Stamets
Paul Stamets – photo pilfered off the internet.

But, me being me, I needed to research.  I’m not just going to ingest any old thing.  First, I discovered Merlin Sheldrake.  I don’t read non-fiction; I just like a good story too much.  But Sheldrake’s ‘Entangled Life’ fascinated me like banned BDSM magazines fascinated me when I was 19.  I could not believe what I was reading, and the claims he made.  Then I went over to Paul Stamets, and from there, the McKenna brothers, Terence and Dennis.  If only 5% of what these guys were saying was true, I’m in.

Merlin Sheldrake
Merlin Sheldrake

So, I bought my first batch of mushrooms.  (In honour of Stamets I will not call them ‘shrooms’).  I started off microdosing.  0.2 grams of dried mushrooms every two days.  The effects?  Well, nothing.

Or so I thought.  I did not feel any different.  I was still me, but I started noting things.  Mostly I noticed people telling me how well I looked and how un-grumpy I am.  (There goes my street cred…)  How my concentration and creativity levels were going up.

Then on a Thursday morning I decided enough is enough, I am confident the microdosing is doing its thing, its time for… dun dun dun… the big one.  What Paul Stamets calls a ‘Hero Dose’ and my pal Frankie calls “A Jesus Dose”.  5 grams of powdered mushrooms and…  erm.  Nothing.  A great big nothingburger.  Much ado about nothing.

I was so disappointed.  I hit the internet.  “Hey Gerry, are you on antidepressants?”  Erm…  Well, there’s your problem.  “And oh, adjust for body weight and do it on an empty stomach.”

Point taken.

A month later I planned carefully, and went off my psyche meds for two days (with my psychologist’s knowledge – don’t mess around with brain meds, folks!) , ate my last meal at four in the afternoon, woke up at 5:00, and took one-and-a-half hero-doses.  8 grams.  I went back to bed, put my sleep mask on and…

Three hours later I was eating breakfast of vegetable soup and a beer, wondering what the hell that was.  Was it the same intensity as Ayahuasca?  Not by half.  But it wasn’t nothing.  Not by a long shot.  Again, insights galore.  I dare even say ‘wisdom’.

Then I wrote 40,000 words of a new manuscript, completing it in four days.  Creativity levels through the roof!

But that is second prize to this absolute sense of wellbeing it gave me.  And not short-lived euphoria, either.  Wellbeing that lasted for… well, it hasn’t gone yet.

A month later, I took another hero dose, and punted my brain into outer space.  Same effect.  Creativity and wellbeing and ‘wisdom’.

But here’s the thing…  Something changed.  Something profound.  Something so incredible I have to blog about it.  My ‘relationship’ with Andrea’s death.  I’ve made peace with it.  I am still incredibly sad, but I’m no longer in a black hole because of it.  I’m still worried about my future, but I’m no longer panicking about it.  All the issues I’ve needed to deal with before the mushrooms are still there, they did not disappear, but I’ve now got a much healthier relationship with them.  My dramas are now just items on a to-do-list, and not something to have meltdowns about.  I’ve not had a panic attack in months.  Things that would have had my veins pumping like Stressed Eric are now just a thing I need to do, and then what’s for lunch?

This is a sea-change.

But is it just me?  Science says no.  Thanks to more liberal outlooks on life, more and more research is being done on psychedelics.  Not just mushrooms, but on the other substances like Ayahuasca, Peyote, MDMA and LSD, too.  MDMA is proving to be hellishly effective in treating PTSD.  What’s more, these studies are not just fringe groups.  Both Harvard and Johns Hopkins are now doing serious studies into the healing capacities of these substances.

And boy, are the results looking abysmal if you are a pharmaceutical company making money selling little blue happy pills…  initial reports state that psychedelics are capable of doing the impossible:  cure clinical depression.  Sometimes with as little as a single dose.  And immediately, not waiting a month or more for it to kick in.

It is such a pity that these substances remain illegal for most of the world.  There is a stigma around psychedelics that it’s a loser’s drug for the hippies from the summer of love in ’67.  (Timothy Leary has a big part to play in LSD’s negative connotations, with his missive to Turn on, tune in, and drop out, but hey.)

Turn on tune in drop out.
Turn on, tune in, drop out.

It’s time to remove the stigma behind psychedelics.  These substances can, and will, change the world.

But with an enormous caveat:  proper use with proper intention.  Getting wasted on acid and watching as the ceiling turns to bubble gum while listening to Pink Floyd with your mates is not the way to do it, no matter how awesome that may be.  You need to take your healing—or enlightenment—seriously.

Used incorrectly, these substances will chew you up and spit you out, laying in a sweaty heap on the other side vowing to never come close to it again.

But used with the right frame of mind and the right motivation, it will change your life for the better.

It did mine.

*Disclaimer:  almost all substances named in this article are illegal.  Possession and distribution of these substances are controlled by law.  The law is an ass here, yes, but it’s still the law, and should you partake in any of these substances and get caught, know that you will land yourself in legal trouble.  This sucks, but it is still the reality.  We can only hope the law will relax and regulation will change, and the world can find the healing it so desperately needs.


Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-of-mushroom-247572/ – Photoshop mutilation by me