I’m lying on a mattress on the floor, watching the ceiling turn into a doorway of thighbones. Outside, trees grow into monsters, but I’m not scared.
How can I be? I don’t even know who I am – I’ve just ripped up my name and thrown it into the fire.
I was at the end of a journey that began a few years ago when I decided I wasn’t going to take antidepressants any more.
I’d been taking pills from the same family as Prozac for 15 years to help with panic attacks, and they had worked, but I no longer wanted to be a slave to the daily dose.
Yet each time I came off them I’d been plunged into the depression that forced me back on to them. Finally, two years ago, I made it through the awful side effects of withdrawal.
Meanwhile, I had been noticing studies into the medical possibilities of psychedelic drugs – LSD, MDMA, ketamine, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and so on.
They may be illegal in this country but one study at Imperial College London had shown remarkable changes in the brains of people with depression, while researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US last year called for psilocybin to be reclassified from a dangerous narcotic to a treatment for depression.
What’s more, it seemed these results could come from even single doses taken in controlled, therapeutic conditions.
And the great weight of evidence suggested that psilocybin was safe.
I’d never taken psychedelics and it was easy to be scared by them. But could it really be worse than the prescription pills I had found so excruciating to come off? No.
I wasn’t depressed, but I’d still had spells of anxiety since kicking the pills, and the psychedelic research excited me so much that I wanted to see what it might do.
Which is how I came to meet 10 fellow participants and a Psychedelic Society therapist in an Amsterdam “smart shop”.
We were, we discovered, regular people from all over the world. We bought the drugs – two boxes of High Hawaiian truffles each in plastic tubs costing €20 a pop.
Later, at a rural retreat centre, 60 miles away in the Dutch countryside, we introduced ourselves as part of a programme to create a safe-feeling environment.
The following day we pummelled the truffles and made a “tea” to drink. It tasted nutty. We drank and refilled twice more with water.
Others laid back to enjoy the experience but I couldn’t relax. I asked for an extra half sachet of truffles. It did the trick.
Two cups later and it appeared the wall opposite me wasn’t actually there. I put on my mask and got lost in a blue fantasia of swirling, interlocking, expanding patterns.
Sections of the trip were like a sudden lift on a rollercoaster. The first was alarming – the world elongated, moving away from me.
But after seeking reassurance from a therapist, I allowed myself to become joyously lost in the music being played, which had been specially sequenced to trigger a variety of emotions.
Suddenly I wanted to move, so I got my phone and headphones and went outside to dance.
I came back to my mattress, ripped my name tag up and threw it in the fireplace. “I ripped up my name! Who am I?” I write in my notebook. “I am my own child.”
There were periods when I had profound feelings about people in my life, periods when I thought of painful episodes and periods when I chatted lucidly. But at no stage did I feel out of control.
After five hours people were coming down, but I was still tripping and had stomach cramps.
“I get it now… and I would like this to be over,” I wrote in my notebook, then I was sick, felt better at last and my seven-hour trip came to an end.
Yet I was still feeling strange the next morning when we shared what had been a unique and profound encounter for all of us. This day was invaluable to help process the trip.
Some had revelations about how they wanted to live, or to change the way they treated their children, for instance.
None of us, even those who’d had tough parts to their trip, emotionally or physically, regretted the experience.
The therapists say it can take many months to feel all of the effects, but several weeks on I know it has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life, with profound insights.
I have since had extraordinary moments of total joy that have come out of nowhere. I’ve also had no problems with anxiety or low mood, but only time will tell.
There has certainly been no difficult comedown – and that certainly couldn’t be said for those never-again prescription pills.
- The Psychedelic Society (psychedelicsociety.org.uk) has retreats for £850. Truffles (£35) and taxi fares cost extra. Eurostar return from London to Amsterdam starts at £45, eurostar.com