Can you can lose your depression without losing your life?
By Chana Nopales
It was ninety degrees and raining when I left Bellevue last August. I’d run out of hope. I’d just been rejected from a drug trial that I had desperately wanted into, which would have involved a year of counseling and three psilocybin assisted therapy sessions.
Sure, I could go into the woods with a bag of mushrooms. But I didn’t want to get high. I wanted to get better.
For three decades I’ve suffered from major depression. Anhedonia, hopelessness, flat out despair. My first suicide attempt was at twelve years old. I’ve tried everything the pharmaceutical industry has to offer—selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, and more. I experienced numbing and flattening. But nothing made the pain go away.
My depression is called “treatment resistant”: the kind of sadness that fluoxetine, amitriptyline, and venlafaxine don’t cure. Many researchers believe that psilocybin, in a therapeutic context, can.
Psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart Harris describes a state called “heavy self consciousness,” when your mind turns on itself in a spiral of self criticism.
That summer, I felt a crash coming. With the suicidal heaviness returned, I found myself facing down the same options that had numbed and flattened me in the past. But what was the point? I found myself asking an uncomfortable question: Could I lose my depression without losing my life?
I remembered that a few months earlier, a friend had alerted me to the psilocybin trial. This made me feel hopeful for the first time in, well, for as far back as I can remember. (Another thing depression does: obliterates the memory of hope.) Maybe this was my chance.
I wasn’t selected for the trial. (It’s one thing to be depressed. It’s another thing to get even more depressed, for getting rejected from an anti depression trial). There was a silver lining. In the process of researching psilocybin treatments, I had discovered micro-dosing: self administering psychedelics in teeny tiny amounts. So, without the money or underground connections to find a psychedelic therapist, I decided to give it a try. Because it’s sub-perceptual, micro-dosing is safer to self monitor. Instead of a professional guide, I armed myself with a book, A Really Good Day by Ayelet Waldman
In 2010, Waldman kept a journal for thirty days, logging both her research and her personal experience micro-dosing LSD. As a public defender, she knew exactly how dangerous the book was to publish. She waited the eight years for the statute of limitations to expire, and then published it anyway. Micro-dosing had changed her life. I thought maybe it could change mine.
I didn’t have access to LSD, but a friend was able to get me a bag of dried psilocybin mushrooms. The protocol I followed comes from James Fadiman’s trials with micro-dosing—the same source Waldman used.
With all the different options available, the dosing amount can be very, very confusing, so I’m including the protocols from James Fadiman and Sophia Korb’s research site, microdosingpsychedelics.com, here:
> LSD – 8 15 micrograms (start with 10)
> 1P LSD – 10 15 micrograms
> Psilocybin (the refined chemical) 0.4 1.6 mg
> Psilocybin in mushrooms (many varieties) . Dried: 0.1 0.4 grams . Fresh: ~ 7 grams (highly variable) . Psychedelic “truffles” – 1 2 grams
> Iboga – 4 6 mg.
> Other psychedelic substances – 5% 10% a normal recreational dose.
You take a dose only once every three days. That’s one day on, two days off. There are therapeutic benefits for two full days. The third day is an important control. If you are experiencing visual effects, you have taken too much.
It didn’t happen all at once. Here’s how it went:
Day 1: About an hour after I take a dose, I feel a slight tingle in my temples. (By slight, I mean slight: tiny enough to question if it’s really there at all.) I feel creative, and curious.
What I don’t feel is unstoppable despair. I am still aware of sadness, but I can do something I couldn’t the day before: I can choose not to dwell on it.
I don’t feel elated or manic. I feel clear and present. After a lifetime of depression, this is startling.
The first time it happens, it reminds me of the day in second grade when I got my first pair of glasses. Instead of a green blur, when I looked at a tree, I suddenly saw leaves. Thousands of individual leaves! Being able to see didn’t make me feel wild or trippy, but it did feel like it could change my life. With glasses, I experienced a newfound clarity in a previously inaccessible and blunted world.
When I am in a major depression, my thoughts are similarly blunted. They are too heavy to lift and examine. There is no joy or curiosity in intellectual pursuits. (This is heartbreaking. I am a teacher.)
The good news: I can now describe it, because for the first time in months, I am no longer inside it.
Day 2: No one knows exactly why, but many people report that Day 2 can be better than Day 1. This has been the case for me.
The psilocybin has left my body, but I don’t fall back into old patterns—not yet.
One of the benefits often reported with psilocybin is the ability to re pattern. When I am depressed, the cycle of self criticism is locked in, and there is no key. The Groove of Despair gets deeper and deeper with each echo.
On a micro-dose, I can still see the grooves, but I’m not locked inside. I’m outside, feeling the gravity, but thinking: I don’t want to fall for this today. I have far too many other things I’d rather be doing with my time. Like interviewing an artist. Marking my students’ papers. Writing this article. (And sometimes I do them.)
I feel optimistic and capable; I feel present.
Day 3: This is the control day, when the old anxieties can seep back in. On Day 3, it’s harder to skip the well worn groove of self hatred and criticism. I sometimes end up back in the Groove, caught up in the echoes. I’ve begun a process of breaking those patterns. But on Day 3, their gravitational pull is harder to escape.
This day is important for something else, though. This is a control day. Psychedelics don’t accumulate in the body, which makes them anti addictive. You don’t need more and more. (If you don’t take days off, however, you can build up a tolerance.). You also won’t go through withdrawal, if you suddenly quit. Each Day 3, I make a sober decision about whether I’d like to continue. This is not the case for SSRIs, SNRIs, or tricyclic antidepressants.
It’s been about two months now. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that .07g of dried psilocybin mushrooms is a good dosage for me. If I take much more than that, the emotional pain will still lift, but it’s hard for me to focus on certain tasks, and I’ll also go through spikes of paranoia, especially in situations that trigger my social anxiety (which happens to be one of the few conditions that can be aggravated by psilocybin — can everyone tell I’ve taken mushrooms?).
My therapist suggests I think of my new normal as Day 2, rather than Day 3. They want me to think of the return of “heavy consciousness” on Day 3 as just the memory of a past normal. And I try. And sometimes I succeed.
Changing my mind isn’t simple, but it is possible.
Something else that’s interesting: Depression treatments rarely work the way their advocates say they will. In my experience, however, psilocybin does. In fact, this is the first time what’s supposed to happen to me is anything close to what does happen to me. This is the first time how it goes tracks with how it’s supposed to go.
Is it just me? I don’t think so. Not if you believe Ayelet Waldman, or the many recent articles (penned by pseudonyms, or people pretending they are in Germany, where psilocybin isn’t a felony). Not if you believe the testimony of researchers at NYU and Johns Hopkins.
Most micro-dose experiences are self reported, while drug trials funded by Big Pharma are designed to generate the kind of results that allow them to sell a drug for a particular DSM IV entry. (Which might explain why one matches reality, and the other makes doubletalk promises it can’t keep.)
The scientific and medical benefits of psilocybin assisted therapy have been overwhelmingly positive. But trials are expensive, and the usual funders aren’t interested. Psilocybin is naturally occuring, and LSD is out of patent. But the bigger story is that the current mental health industry is working fine—for Big Pharma.
According to Time Magazine, an astonishing 13% of Americans take anti-depressants, generating $210 billion a year. Very often, these drugs don’t relieve depression, but they do create numbness, lethargy and other side effects that are then treated with other pills, like Adderall, Ritalin, and other forms of prescription speed. But people like Ayelet Waldman, Michael Pollan, tons of community bloggers and, well, me, are doing their own trials with psilocybin and other psychedelics. We’re sharing the results in community publications like The SHADOW.
It’s a bit of a risk, but I’m sharing my story. Stories don’t fill space, like water fills a pitcher; they unfold it like a promise. Not long ago, I thought I couldn’t lose my depression without losing everything that made life meaningful.
For the first time, I believe something miraculous. I can fight my depression without losing my life.