How Magic Mushrooms Heal the Brain (and What They Taught Me about Self-Love)

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Disclaimer: use of psilocybin is illegal in the United States and many countries. This post is for educational purposes only and not an endorsement of illegal drugs or illegal activity.

When I told my fiance that I spent my entire eight hour shroom trip staring into a mirror, he was horrified. “You WHAT? You know that’s usually like the biggest no-no right? You’re not supposed to do psychedelics and look at yourself. People freak out.”

“Well, that’s what I did, and I didn’t freak out.”

I didn’t. In fact, I loved it.

I’m just saying, maybe Narcissus didn’t really just fall in love with himself, maybe he just ate a shitload of shrooms and found a pond. Or maybe he found some shrooms and did fall in love with himself. I mean, is that such a bad thing?

For years, I was 100% opposed to doing psychedelics. The one time I psyched myself up for it was in 2008 at Burning Man. We rolled into camp and the first thing I saw on the playa was a girl projectile vomiting against a tent. She had too much “special chocolate” and freaked out. I decided to pass.

With a history of anxiety and depersonalization, I was convinced my mind on psychedelics would take me somewhere dark and unhappy. The most terrifying thing I could imagine was losing control of my mind. I knew what that felt like already. I battled it all the years I spent struggling with mental illness. My mental illness had already taken me down Alice’s Rabbit Hole. I didn’t need to go any farther. I spent years learning to pull myself out of that hole. I kept myself sane by staying on the surface. Why would I even risk going back under?

So what changed my mind? First, professional experience. As someone entering the mental health field, I can’t deny the impressive body of research supporting psilocybin and other psychedelics. They stand as clinically significant treatment modalities for trauma and depression.

Psilocybin’s Neuropsychology

Most modern therapists use cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which helps individuals recognize negative thought patterns and replace them with different thought patterns. Example: every time you don’t go to the gym you think something like, “I’m so lazy, I’ll never stick to this routine. I’ll never get in shape. Why do I even bother?” Usually, these thoughts are automatic–you say them to yourself and don’t even realize you’re doing it! CBT helps you replace that thought with something more positive and helpful like “I didn’t go to the gym today, but I know I’m committed to my fitness goals. It’s okay to take a day off.” These small changes in how we talk to ourselves make very large shifts in our behaviors, our self-esteem and our mental health.

Automatic thoughts aren’t the only things that get stuck. Our brain is a connective network of billions of pathways. Our brains are constantly building pathways and developing loops. This is how we develop habits, learn new things, remember things we learn. Sometimes our brains can learn bad things, like depression, anxiety or trauma. To reduce it to very simple terms, once our brain builds these pathways, they sort of continue like a song that’s put on repeat, until something from the outside interrupts them. Unfortunately, it’s very hard for a person to “consciously” interrupt these repeating circuits by themselves. Therapies and mindfulness practices can certainly help (and there’s plenty of evidence to show that they can actually change brain activity quite significantly.) However, for most people, this takes a lot of time, motivation, patience and work. So where do psychedelics come into play? Well, science says they might be able to do some of that work for you.

When your brain is on psilocybin, it suddenly starts making new connections. This is part of why your senses intensify and some people experience something like “synesthesia”. Your feelings, your memories, your senses, your desires all suddenly start crossing paths and making new paths they’ve never made before. Parts of your brain that weren’t friends suddenly become friends! Once the trip is over, some people might have new paths, and some of the old paths might not ever activate again. This could be why some people with addiction report they no longer have a desire for drugs or alcohol after doing psychedelics.

The concept of using these drugs in clinical, therapeutic environments means that people and facilitators might be able to help influence which “pathways” get broken and which new “pathways” get formed during a trip. I always think it’s important to remind people that when you read about the therapeutic benefits of certain drugs (MDMA, psilocybin, LSD etc) they are also being coupled with an active therapeutic facilitation and environment. The substances themselves are a tool, not a cure. How you use them and how you approach them will determine their benefit.

My Personal Experience

I became interested in psychedelics after watching Vice’s Kentucky Ayahuasca documentary. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, controversial as it is.) Years ago, I went to Peru and had the opportunity to do ayahuasca, but was too scared to try it. I also knew nothing about it. This was the early days of the internet, and long before it entered the American public consciousness. I couldn’t exactly do research, and all I had to go on was the beckoning of some guy who said he was a Shaman and also tried to sell me a shotglass in the shape of a penis.

Years later, after seeing the healing others were able to do with this powerful medicine, I became determined to try it. I was tired of being afraid of my own mind.

Still leery, I thought magic mushrooms would be a good “introduction.” Ayahuasca is considered the most powerful psychedelic on earth, so I wanted to start small. As fate would have it, someone generously gifted me a large box of mushroom chocolate. Soon after, I had an intense family experience that brought up a lot of old, painful feelings. I was ready to purge. I came to the plant ready. I was so exhausted by all those emotions that I didn’t have room left to be afraid.

I had only a vague idea how much the chocolates were dosed, and the first time nothing happened. The second time, I ate twice as much and still nothing happened. Becoming impatient and frustrated, I convinced myself I was one of those people who is “too cynical to trip.” I’m also one of those people who can drink a lot and never seem drunk, so the possibility seemed reasonable. Sometimes the gift of “apparent sobriety” is useful, and sometimes it just pisses you off. So I went all in. I ate the whole box.

I planted myself in front of the mirror in my little meditation corner. As soon as I looked at myself, something finally started to happen. My face and hair began to move and change in a hundred different ways. Each time I looked at myself, I was different. Sometimes the changes were ugly, sometimes beautiful. But in the moment my face became the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I loved it. I was like a baby seeing Christmas lights for the first time.

At one point, I sort of “went into the mirror”. All the water spots turned into stars and I saw myself as some sort of “goddess of the galaxy”, which was rad as hell.

In the trip, everything about my entire self was beautiful, alive, visceral, wonderful, kind, fascinating. I was able to celebrate my entire person. This experience of self-love was like self-worship. It was so intense it almost felt shameful. So much in our cultural programming tells us that self-love is toxic and narcissistic. In this experience, I also confronted my own religious upbringing that taught me I was to see myself as an ugly, flawed, sinful, unworthy thing. But in those hours, I did not feel like that at all. I felt so worthy, so perfect, so amazing. And the love was not simply directed inward, it was directed towards my humanity, and therefore, every single other person’s humanity as well. The experience was so powerful that I cried.

About half way through, I began to reflect upon the “almost” person I was in my early 20s, how I had started taking steps towards self-discovery but then stepped back out of fear. I recalled how I had limited myself out of an undeserving faith in “normalcy”, that the “box” I could force myself into might protect me. Through this trip, I tiptoed through past relationships with men who I let tone me down and talked me out of searching deeper. I tiptoed through childhood traumas and feelings of neglect and self-hatred. I tiptoed through all the self-doubt and fear I experienced through my twenties, that I clawed myself away from finally. But I also mourned for all the years I lost to that fear, all the experiences and joy I never had because I still let it take so many moments and opportunities away from me. I saw myself as two women: an old woman full of wisdom, and a terrified child hiding under her bed. Through psilocybin, the two women were able to meet and embrace, and I was able to find myself in between them. 

I say I tiptoed because what I discovered was that I had only scratched the surface. I came out of my experience understanding how psychedelics like psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca can be amazing teachers. I also understood why therapeutic experiences with these substances require several different sessions, how you could go deeper each time. I came out saying, I’m ready, I’m ready, let’s go, I’m not scared anymore. 

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