My friend Alfred in Amsterdam reports that after 10 month’s use, Magic Mushroooms have so far provided no “cure” as such for his debilitating and lifelong depression.
But his story is perhaps more nuanced and less hopeless than that bald statement may admit.
From a very early age, Alfred was aware that he was different – that something was wrong. Aged 10 he was described by his headmaster as “mercurial”. Up and down – like mercury. Nothing dramatic, not swings so severe that a doctor might diagnose him as bi-polar. None the less, in retrospect, Alfred recognizes that all was not entirely well in his childhood.
It was not until Alfred reached 30 that he began to realize something was very seriously amiss and that his condition might have a name. There had been little in life that Alfred had truly enjoyed, and much that he vehemently did not enjoy. He later realized that he was anhedonic – or that at least his hedonic set point was low. Certainly lower than those other children happily playing cricket on the school playing fields.
It is not that pleasure was entirely absent; just that mostly it was overshadowed by an angst for much (if not the most) of the time. Even at an early age, Alfred realized with a keen and puzzled awareness that his compatriots seemed to find more pleasure in life than he did.
After the age of 30 Alfred had to take his condition seriously. Such was his loathing of his job and his life he had a tendency to self medicate his misery with alcohol – not a wise policy.
With the “help” of much almost useless “talking therapy” Alfred began his search for answers and a cure. Were his parents to blame, did they provide a miserable or deprived childhood? He did not think this to have been the case. Was Yahweh of old testament fame alive and well after all, and torturing him for his badness and innate sinfulness? Was his condition endogenous, the result of a shitty hand in the cosmic genetic lottery?
Alfred looked high and low. He read. And he read, and he read. The Bible, and bible commentaries. Sacred literature from the East. Philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, science, mathematics. No one would ever have accused Alfred of being ill educated or ignorant but the depth of his erudition was dug in the years that followed.
And none of it made a blind bit of difference to his condition. Alfred long worked under the misguided assumption that a change in his external and physical circumstances would provide “The Answer”.
He shifted jobs, careers, continents. He lived here, there and everywhere doing this, that and the other. He sought money – money was the root of all his problems. or rather its lack. If he were rich and secure he would not feel this hollowness inside, this rot from within.
And lo! Alfred did make some money. Enough to satisfy many of more modest ambition, but not Alfred of course. Enough for Alfred to leave the ghastly world of work and bosses and office drudgery.
But Alfred’s curse followed him even there, beyond the world of work and the hideous dull grind which it entails. Alfred was still miserable and the penny began to drop – his was a physiological problem; he was cursed by the cruel genetic lottery of life. The only cure possible would come from chemicals or a re-casting of his very DNA.
Over the course of many years, Alfred gave up alcohol and tried SSRIs. The abandonment of alcohol was undoubtedly a good choice on any number of grounds; as was his disavowal of nicotine. The SSRIs? Pff….he became fat, his interest in the more physical aspects of relationships declined and he remained sad. Very, very sad.
So here he was, old, sad and embittered. A man who could describe himself as reasonably erudite and certainly a man who was acutely “aware”. Not a man who had failed to ponder on the meaning of life, but on the contrary one who had really never ceased (certainly in adulthood) to seek answers to the big questions of existence.
Poverty, cruelty and disease. Why did we have it? Could we not cure it? Behavior – why did we act so badly and did we not have the free will and maturity to mend our ways? Kindness and love, charity and altruism – surely these good men who preached such virtue over thousands of years can not all have been wrong? Even though Alfred came to believe that they were mere mortals after all and not scions of a supernatural deity.
So yes. Alfred could not describe himself as a “bad” person. Or not intentionally and persistently bad anyway. Nor was he ignorant, stupid, unaware or unthinking. He was just miserable. And he came to realize that was no-one’s fault, least of all his own. He simply lived in a world where everything was governed by pure chance. A lottery if you like. And he had drawn a short straw.
Or perhaps Alfred lived in a world which was not governed by chance but by determinism. And from the very beginning it was therefor Alfred’s destiny to live a life of misery because he was little else but a collection of physical matter which would go its own way regardless of what Alfred did or did not do.
Over the years Alfred had tried many remedies for his cursed state. He was always on the look out. And then over the past couple of years he became aware of the brouhaha surrounding research into psychedelics. Alfred devoured everything he could lay his hands on – nirvana beckoned. Surely it could not all be hype? Amongst the hyperbole and the over excited reports did there lie a grain of truth?
In short, Alfred acquired some magic mushrooms and gave it his best shot. For those who are not cognoscenti, the magic mushroom contains psilocybin. Taken in quantity the drug distorts reality – or some would say introduces an alternate reality.
Widespread literature (some from venerable medical institutions) reports that patients administered high doses of the drug experience the most spiritually important event of their lives. They lose their ego, their self, but not their awareness. They become merged with the universe, the universal. They achieve bliss, they see their god. Or aliens or whatever they are culturally attuned to worship. And for many months afterwards, a high percentage of such people feel content and happy. Well! What is not to like about that?
So did Alfred see god? Did he end up on the inside of an alien spaceship perhaps, chatting to infinitely wise beings far advanced from our crude and lowly status? Did Alfred enter nirvana, did he achieve bliss?
Well perhaps Alfred never went far enough; perhaps at the modest doses he contented himself with he got sniff of the godhead, a glimpse of nirvana. But he never actually lost his ego; he never became subsumed in the consciousness of the universe.
More fool Alfred; try harder, do better, take more.
But what if anything did Alfred achieve by his efforts? His daring and culturally alien departure into the realms of the psychonaut. Fields Alfred believed to be inhabited by the louche, the unhinged, the unwashed, the lunatic.
He achieved perspective and some sense of resignation, acceptance of his lot. Under the influence of a modest dose he felt his thought patterns changing – it was an almost physical sensation. Stuff simply rearranged itself in his head. He imagined he could feel new neuronal connections fizzing away, and rutted old paths of destructive thought patterns being dissolved. And his depression simply disappeared. Into the smoke, the ether. Alfred found himself incredulous that it had ever existed or that he had ever suffered from that cruel disease of the mind.
And Alfred did see things; both physically (in his mind’s eye) and metaphorically. He saw cascades of glorious Gothic arches, stained glass windows. He heard music as he had never witnessed it before- even if through his headphones rather than some from some ethereal and heavenly host. Oh and yes – he saw an alien spaceship – very clearly, and several times. Sadly he was not invited inside, nor was he given audience by these wondrous beings.
And Alfred felt gnosis. He felt connected, un-alone. In a way he began to feel that sense of oneness with the universe so often reported by both mystics and pyschonauts alike.
Did it last, this feeling? Did the deep gloom which had cursed his life stay away? No, sadly it did not. A few days or a week later the black hounds of hell were snuffling angrily at his door, their paws scraping irritably, their jaws slavering in an unspoken demand to return back across the Styx. A return to Stygian gloom. At such moments Alfred felt deeply tired – he faced the descent into hopelessness once again, as he had so often before. Was it worth continuing? Could he really ride this roller coaster any longer?
Alfred’s current view is that psilocybin provides welcome relief in his bleakest moments. He has felt his mind change, his personality shift – permanently so. Yet not enough to defeat the cross he has borne for so many years. He has become more patient, more resistant to the temptations of anger and conflict. He has achieved some lasting knowledge – a certainty that we see little of what is out there in our waking lives and that much could await us if we seek it out.
Alfred hopes that psilocybin may eventually rid him of his chains altogether, if he hangs on in there. He is optimistic even. But he is not there yet.