Magical Realism: What I Learnt From Therapy With Mushrooms
Illustration by Mr Anthony Eslick
I am watching myself being born. I cry for my younger self. I observe a warm, orange, misshapen kernel that I understand to be the core of my being. I am stitched into what appears to be a peaceful, rectangular sky, but feels more like some preternatural concept of eternity. Rationalising isn’t really possible anymore, but everything makes sense now.
Behind the nonsense of reality is an infinite space that might be heaven, death or love – but this strange, mortal word doesn’t nearly cover it. Yet I am it, whatever this heroic, miraculous love-like feeling is, and so are you. I am laughing and sobbing at the simplicity of it and shaking my head in disbelief that such ecstasy exists. It was here all along. Oh god, I hear myself saying, shaking my head. Oh god!
If this sounds like AI trying to write a bad Beatles song, that’s because I have ingested 22g of psilocybin truffles. But I don’t know that because the person I once considered to be “me” no longer exists.
A day previously, back in the material world, I met four facilitators and 11 participants of various ages and backgrounds who have all travelled to Castricum, an hour outside Amsterdam, to attend a four-day therapeutic psilocybin retreat in a 19th-century Dutch abbey. Before we arrive, we are told by the team leaders at Inward Bound to set a clear intention for the retreat. A Cambodian woman named Esther* wants to process her harrowing experiences during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Jon, a young musician from Germany, is searching for direction. A kindly American named Andrew is old, but he doesn’t want to die.
I have come to investigate childhood trauma that resulted from some, shall we say, robust and problematic parenting, and to understand relationship issues in my adult life. Traditional talking therapy and other self-work has served me well, but perhaps – I have reasoned – a retreat of this kind could allow me to go deeper.
As participants, our motivations may have been very different, but there is one mysterious, alluring promise bringing us together. We will ingest a macro dose of psilocybin – the magical elixir found in certain fungi – and something will happen.
You may have learnt about the miracles of the mycelium network – the unseen, impossibly vast and intelligent mushroom communication system – on Netflix’s Fantastic Fungi. Perhaps you have read about the wonders of psilocybin in How To Change Your Mind by Mr Michael Pollan, or even watched Nine Perfect Strangers on Prime Video. You might have friends who casually microdose to improve their concentration. Indeed, psilocybin is the socially-acceptable-but-illegal drug of the moment.
But it has been around longer than Western cultural trends. In his best-selling book Entangled Life, Dr Merlin Sheldrake traces psilocybin use back to 2000 BCE in Central America. The stoned ape theory, posited by the ethnobotanist and mystic Mr Terence McKenna, is based on 9000-7000 BCE fungi-themed cave paintings found in southern Algeria and suggests our ancestors learnt self-reflection and creativity after feeding from the magic mushroom-punctuated savannahs of Africa.
“We get emails from people years after saying this retreat changed their life”
My journey to Amsterdam, where ingesting fungi truffles containing psilocybin is legal, is nothing new, either. Travellers have been making such pilgrimages since 1938, when the Harvard botanist Dr Richard Evans Schultes visited Oaxaca to observe mushroom use by the Mazatec people. It was experiences such as this that sparked early research into psilocybin and other psychedelics.
In 1952, Dr Albert Hofmann extracted LSD (which acts on the same brain receptors as psilocybin) from ergot fungi in a lab in Switzerland. A year later, Mr Aldous Huxley took mescaline under the supervision of psychiatrist Dr Humphry Osmond. By the end of the 1960s, Osmond deduced that a single large dose of LSD was an effective treatment for alcoholism. Research like this would have continued and diversified had psychedelic substances not become synonymous with the countercultural movement and, by the 1970s, outlawed as part of President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs.
However, scientific research on the health benefits of psilocybin has been gaining considerable momentum over the past 15 years. In 2006, Dr Roland Griffiths and his team at the Johns Hopkins Psychedelic Research Unit published a study in which two-thirds of participants said their experience with a large dose of psilocybin was the most meaningful event in their life. In 2016, they found that psilocybin significantly reduced anxiety, depression and the fear of death in patients with serious cancer diagnoses.
This research is diversifying a wellness industry that is, according to Global Industry Analysts, set to be worth $1.2 trillion by 2027, and informing the surge in popularity of plant medicine retreat centres such as Inward Bound. The largely positive feedback proves that psilocybin doses do not just benefit those with a diagnosed health issue.
“We get emails from people years after saying this retreat changed [their] life,” says Mr Rob Ó Cobhthaigh, who cofounded Inward Bound in 2018 and is an integrative and Jungian psychotherapist. “We don’t work with people with severe mental health problems. They would be better in a medical setting. We work with what we call the walking wounded. That’s most human beings. We all have issues.”
Ó Cobhthaigh stresses the sacred importance of his work, considering it as a continuation of ancient traditions undertaken by his Irish ancestors. He also says that one of his founding missions was “to contribute to the evolution of global consciousness”. Sounds lofty, but if my experience is anything to go by, why ever not?
Over the course of four days, Ó Cobhthaigh and his team of mental health professionals facilitated three therapeutic days filled with a variety of modalities – yoga, breathwork, group sharing – to prepare you for a high psilocybin dose and integrate the psychedelic learnings into regular life. On the trip day itself, all 12 participants sat on individual beds in a large room.
We solemnly stated our intentions, drank the nutty mixture of truffles and water, put on blindfolds (which ensures the experience is as excavatory as possible), lay back, and… waited, while listening to shamanic music (this induces the trip and contributes to a ceremonial atmosphere). Facilitators were there to assist, if necessary, but over a six-hour trip, it was essentially just the plant medicine and whatever emerges from the psyche.
I had taken magic mushrooms a few times previously, but this was a completely different Dalí-imagined kettle of fish. I quickly began journeying through my subconscious as if in a dream, led by some unseen force. I was shown challenging experiences from my childhood, which I could feel and mourn on a level previously not possible and I was given specific, rational actions to take in relation to them. I understood on a visceral, physical level why I have repeated negative patterns in certain relationships.
“Integrating psilocybin into healthcare offers us the opportunity to try alternative treatments to these mental health imbalances that western medicine has completely failed to fix”
And then there was the experience of ego death – the widely reported feeling of an innate bond to the universe, and stark lessons about love and self-acceptance. After the trip ended, we were asked to give a one-word summary. Teary-eyed and stunned, all I could muster was “blown apart”.
Despite progress and positive data, only certain countries such as the Netherlands, Costa Rica and Jamaica can currently host retreats legally, and scientific studies on the healing potential of psilocybin are still shackled. Professor David Nutt is leading psilocybin research in the UK at the Centre for Psychedelic Research, Imperial College, London. You may know him; he was famously fired as the UK government’s chief drug adviser a day after he published findings that alcohol was more harmful than heroin and crack. His team revealed last year that psilocybin can be more effective than leading antidepressants.
When I return from Inward Bound, Nutt tells me that psilocybin has “enormous” potential to revolutionise psychiatry. However, “The current controls put it in Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971… [According to this] it is very harmful and has no medical value. This adds huge costs and time to all studies and needs to be rectified for research to progress.”
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) was founded in 1986 to end the type of restrictions Nutt mentions. “People think prohibition is the best way to reduce harm, but I think history [has shown] that that isn’t the case,” Mr Ismail Ali, MAPS’ director of policy and advocacy, tells me. He wonders whether the government has the right to stop people ingesting something that grows naturally in many parts of the world.
And what if MAPS is successful with its aims? “Integrating psilocybin into healthcare offers us the opportunity to try… alternative treatments to these mental health disorders or imbalances that western medicine has completely failed to fix,” Ali says. He anticipates we will see psilocybin as part of treatment modalities within the next five years.
So, what does psilocybin do that regular medicine can’t? “It stimulates the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor – and breaks down repetitive thinking,” Nutt says. “There are reasons to believe it will have value in a range of internalising disorders where people get locked into thinking patterns which they know are wrong but from which they struggle to escape. For example, depression, addiction, anorexia, OCD.”
“It’s a valve to what’s going on in the body. It’s helping people process the unprocessed”
And how does this translate to the “walking wounded”? “Psychedelic therapy [works by] giving an individual more access to complex or repressed material in their own psyches that they haven’t had access to for a variety of reasons,” Ali says.
“It’s a valve to what’s going on in the body,” says Ó Cobhthaigh. “Frequently people come on our retreats and feel things in their body they haven’t felt in a very long time – sometimes decades. It’s helping people process the unprocessed.”
Despite costing anywhere from £1,000 to £20,000, retreats are catering for an increasingly broad spectrum, which includes the likes of professionals looking to maximise their business potential, but caution should be exercised. Ali talks of the inherent risks with high doses of psilocybin. Retreat centres have professionals to vet their applicants for underlying mental health issues (I was given a pre- and post-retreat psychotherapy session). Ó Cobhthaigh repeatedly stresses the need for a safe environment.
All the participants on my retreat had groundbreaking spiritual experiences or were shown revelatory aspects of themselves. On a post-trip Zoom catch-up with Ó Cobhthaigh and his team, most reported feelings of greater happiness or were actioning a change in their life. We all remain on a WhatsApp group, which is best described as “good vibes only”.
As much as the psychedelic experience itself, I appreciated getting to know the other participants and our group activities. Ó Cobhthaigh sees a communal atmosphere as essential to healing. “I do feel there is a need [for] a [more intense] retreat setting with a group over time – there is a real power in that.”
Indeed, Ali believes that the inherent community spirit of psychedelics can be an antidote to the pressures of modern life. “Western living… whether that be capitalism or colonialism or urbanisation… contributes or actively creates imbalances in mental health,” he says. “Isolation, lack of community. Having some cultural shift towards home grow [as in growing mushrooms at home] and community sharing would be a beautiful direction instead of relying on the regulated medical framework.” Sounds utopian. But psilocybin will do that to you.
I’m not sure I’ll be growing my own any time soon, but I am looking forward to the next time I can learn about myself in such a forensic and vivid way. In a world constantly seeking new ways to achieve happiness and connection, perhaps we can find more answers in the age-old practice of eating a bunch of mushrooms and getting somewhere sort of close to this quote attributed to the 19th-century priest and scientist Mr Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
*Names have been changed