In the resurgence of psychedelic research in recent years, one of the areas that has been examined with successful results is the treatment of anxiety-related issues.
It’s also not uncommon to hear of people who have used these substances to the same effect, but on their own rather than in the context of therapy. This sort of use underscores something very important: for many people, their experiences with psychedelics have empowered them to take charge of their own well-being, often in times where it previously felt out of their control.
This week, I had the opportunity of interviewing someone who was willing to share their experiences with just this type of use. He is a psychonaut currently studying education. He elected to conduct this interview anonymously, so we’ll call him Alan for the purpose of this article. Over the course of several years, psychedelics functioned as a tool that allowed him to work through anxiety issues that he’d had from a young age, which were exacerbated by traumatic events during adolescence.
As you read this, keep in mind that people’s experiences with psychedelics vary widely, and the type of effects and results talked about here are due not only to properly conducted psychedelic sessions; they are also due to the work that the individual puts in outside of their experiences to reflect on and integrate the material that emerges during such experiences.
Gonzo: Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me about your issues with anxiety when you were younger?
Alan: From a very young age, I was an incredibly anxious person. I was an insomniac, I had a lot of trouble sleeping, I had a lot of trouble making friends. For a kid, I thought way too much about everything and my parents didn’t understand or realize the extent of it, like the amount of nights I was staying sleepless in my bed thinking and panicking about world issues that I actually had no control over — things like 9/11 or a world war breaking out.
Then, when I was 17, there was a pretty traumatic event that happened in my life: my mother tried to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of painkillers. Luckily, I came home the morning she had planned to do it completely by fluke, found her and stopped her before they could kick in. But that event shook me to the core… I can’t help but feel that it was a selfish act, but how am I supposed to know what she was going through at the time? I just couldn’t understand why anyone would try to kill themselves. I just felt despair, like my passion for life was taken from me by that event. The question of why she would do it was all I could think about, to the point that I dropped out of school and ended up going on medication.
To add to this, a couple months later I was in my first semester at Dawson when the Dawson shooting happened, and that really compounded my feelings of ‘why is life so shitty?’ The following semester I did very poorly and I dropped out within two weeks of my third semester.
Gonzo: What led you go on medications?
Alan: Well, after all of this, I was diagnosed with a major anxiety disorder. Due to this diagnosis, I was put on a mood stabilizer called Effexor for six months. It took away the peaks from life — I didn’t feel sad or stressed or unhappy or anxious, but I didn’t feel happy or excited either. With that, and the shooting having pushed me over the edge, I just couldn’t deal anymore, so I escaped instead. I didn’t leave my home, I became very unmotivated, smoked pot and played video games all the time, and I lost contact with all of my friends except my best friend who made the effort to come see me. It was a very dark period, very solitary. I had very much given up.
About the fifth month in, I realized the meds were having no effect on me except that they made me an absolute zombie. Luckily, my psychiatrist was okay with it when I decided to go off them — she had studied behavioural therapy so she would teach me little exercises to start dealing with anxiety and panicking and other things.
Gonzo: And when did you begin to use psilocybin mushrooms?
Alan: The following summer, I took mushrooms for the first time and in the several weeks after I was left with a lasting feeling of contentment and happiness. I really didn’t expect this from taking drugs, but this drew me to try them again and it became very much a sort of self-medication. That first year it was like every two to three months, and then the next year it was like every month and a bit, and then maybe by the third year I started doing mushrooms closer to weekly.
I don’t know how [else] to describe it but to say that those experiences slowly rewired my brain. I slowly just started being less and less anxious, all of my friends started coming back into my life; I started taking photos that became my new passion. I became passionate about life again! That’s what it gave me back; it gave me back my passion that I’d lost.
Gonzo: What was it about those mushroom experiences that left you feeling so positive in the following weeks?
Alan: One of the things that used to be an issue for me was worrying about things that are completely out of my control. And I think that’s something that mushrooms helped a lot with too, the feeling of loss of control. When I’m on mushrooms, I feel very much in control, and it even comes across in my speech — I don’t stutter, I speak very clearly, I almost speak in poems sometimes, it’s very weird. It just feels like my thought process is on point the whole time, like my mouth can finally keep up with my brain, or like I’m not inhibiting myself between what I think and what I say. It feels like I’m able to speak from the heart without holding myself back. In contrast, when I’m sober, my speech just doesn’t flow out in the same way.
As an anxious person, death was also something I thought and worried about all the time. That wasn’t healthy, you know, it stopped me from doing a lot of things I might’ve done, but I was so scared that it inhibited me constantly. But through my experiences with mushrooms, my fear of death also decreased over time.
Gonzo: And how do you think these experiences with mushrooms affected you over a longer period of time?
Alan: I feel like mushrooms let me reinvent myself to a certain degree. I was at that point in my life where anxiety was going to consume me and burn me up from the inside. I was at a point where I wasn’t leaving home anymore, and that was very unhealthy, but I had no disability, I had nothing holding me back except my own mind. But in these experiences, it was like I got to step outside of that headspace for a little bit and really take an almost third-person view of my own life. For a long time I had felt very powerless and… scared, but with mushrooms there was this feeling of oneness with nature, with the people around me and with the universe at large that made me feel so connected instead of feeling scared and powerless.
Instead of seeing myself as tiny and insignificant in a vast, vast universe, the feeling that began to seep in was that my life did matter, and my experience did have value — the value I assigned to it. What value is there to anything if you don’t assign the value yourself? And I think that’s what I just didn’t understand about the human condition until after, is that you decide how happy you are, you know? You really do, and mushrooms let me get to that point where I could decide how happy I was.
Of course, that took time. It took many, many years of working at it, learning to stay calm and not letting my emotions take over, and not letting my anxiety take over, but I really think that mushrooms were the deciding factor in getting myself there.
Gonzo: And did your use of mushrooms stay as frequent as you said earlier?
Alan: I started off very seldom; built up to fairly often, to the point where I was doing them weekly over the course of spring to fall one year; and then retracted to the point where now I do them like maybe twice a year… So now it’s more infrequent and much more of a recreational thing because, having gotten what I did out of those experiences, I no longer feel like I need to rely on them for that anymore.
Something that’s important to recognize from Alan’s story is that he relied less and less on going back to the psychedelic state as he integrated the lessons and changes that were coming to him. As he did this, he found that the changes in perspective that would be felt during the psychedelic experience were slowly brought out of the experience, until they were more present and grounded in his daily life.
Interestingly, psychedelics appear to be the only class of drugs whose use tends to regularly decrease over time among a majority of its users. And with that, I’m reminded of the saying that one should only seek out teachers that seek to render themselves obsolete.
This article first appeared on The Link.
Gonzo is a Montreal-based writer. He writes a regular column called Turning Inward for The Link newspaper in addition to writing for Reset.me. He holds a degree in Psychology & Behavioural Neuroscience from Concordia University. You can check out his blog at gonzonieto.ca.