I’m A Mom Microdosing Magic Mushrooms. Here’s How It’s Changing How I See The World.

by Joseph K. Clark

It’s not the ’60s, and I’m not a hippie. Neither am I in my experimental teens or 20s. Yet here I am, a mom on mushrooms. Not the cremini I put in my morning omelet or the dried shiitakes I rehydrate in warm water before adding to fresh ramen, but precisely the kind of mushrooms we all know as “magic.”

How does a modern mom, between work, carpools, and book clubs, get her hands on magic mushrooms? That’s an interesting question, but there’s a more important one before it: Where does a modern mother get the idea she wants to get her hands on magic mushrooms?

Because drugs, especially psychedelics, have never been my jam. I’ve passed around a sketchily-sourced joint on the deck outside a high school party. I was also quick to disappear without goodbyes, wandering down the street back home — my brain at 17 was already overactive enough not to have my teenage paranoias exaggerated.

And there were those repeated the late ’80s “Public Service Announcements” on TV with that guy with the rolled-up sleeves and bad-cop act, holding a hot cast iron pan, cracking an egg with one hand like a head-on cement, leaving viewers with a death stare and the sizzling snap and sizzle of “your brains on drugs.” I was a rule-follower by nature, and these images left their impressions.

So why now? Why, at 44, am I regularly waking up and taking a mid-morning nibble off a stem of Psilocybe cyanescens? My first impulse is to blame Michael Pollan and his book “How To Change Your Mind” because only a science nerd could have led me to the dark side. But if I’m honest, the “dark side” was always my favorite side, and it’s just taken me 44 years to come to terms with that.

Mushrooms

Dark, I’d argue, gets an undeserved bad rap. I would go so far as to say that human society is obsessed, even with some absolute bullshit positive psychology — but that’s another essay. When I say “dark side,” I mean, for example, the dreams we venture into every night and then entirely neglect by the light of day. I mean the night sky in which we occupy a single planet of eight around a sun, belonging to a solar system beyond which there might be — according to astronomers — billions of worlds. I am discussing the undiscussed darkness of our impossible existence — and why.

Can I similarly approach my existential distress if cancer patients can make peace with their deaths? Not that it isn’t our first instinct to ask these questions. I field them daily from my children: “Mom, who had the very first baby?” my daughter asks. “Mom, what happens when you die?” my son wants to know. “Mom, what do YOU think God is?” they inquire as they roll their forks in spaghetti on the kitchen island.

These questions seem the most important in our one-of-billions world, yet I cannot figure out why my 5- and 8-year-old children are the only people I know entertaining them. Except that we are always in a rush, and I am just as guilty of pushing these questions aside.

Because these questions require me to stop chopping carrots, stop feeding the dog, and stop looking at my phone for texts from my husband when he’s coming home, these questions require a blanket, couch, hammock, or sleeping bag under a night sky. These questions need my full imagination’s extension, trust, and embrace. My quickest cop-out with the kids? “No one knows love.” And then I keep on chopping carrots.

Slowing down might be the very point of my magic mushroom stem-nibbling. And let me be clear, I’m pretty sure “nibbling stems” is a very unprofessional methodology. I started hearing about microdosing or taking tiny doses of a drug or substance, while psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) became decriminalized around Colorado and legalized in Oregon.

I have friends on both ends of therapy (treating and receiving) who chat excitedly about the early trials showing psilocybin’s symptom relief for depression and anxiety. I’ve even heard of a local girl who does things “properly.” She encapsulates the mushrooms according to precise calculations with particular devices and then organizes very-gentle “guided experiences” for novice experimenters like me. But as I have worked as an experiential education guide for over 16 years, I am sick of guided experiences. So I continue to nibble the psilocybin in my quiet rebellion.

Now, if you are one of those who pull over their car when my 8-year-old walks the six blocks between my husband’s office and our house to ask, “Where is your mother?!” then let me assure you, I am not tripping on these mushrooms. And though the noticeable immediate effect is for me less than a cup of caffeinated coffee (which I do not drink because it makes me shaky and sleepless), I reserve my nibbles for the slow days after the kids have left for school, when I have hours to drop into my writing (which I feel the psilocybin serves).

It’s difficult to define the exact effects or goals of microdosing psilocybin because the science is still in progress. Researchers have taken up the task only in the last ten years, and the results aren’t all in. The goal of microdosing, after all, is not to trip.

A microdose is generally considered “subtherapeutic” with no adverse side effects. But anecdotal accounts show there may be a cellular response that affects mood and health similarly to larger dosages (for which there is plenty of science with startling results). But in my entire psilocybin career, including the last six months, I have been regularly microdosing; I have experienced no hallucinogenic effects. (Not yet, anyway. Because a microdose is, in fact, my long-term plan.) But if I have learned anything in my 44 years, it’s to slow down.

Under this title, Pollan writes about cancer patients who use psilocybin (in hallucinogenic dosages) to approach impending death psychedelically. And according to preliminary studies, it works: “In both the NYU and Hopkins trials, some 80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression.”

So here I’m wondering: If cancer patients can make peace with their deaths, can I approach my existential distress about the impending sixth mass extinction on Earth similarly? What would happen if I could look deeply into the eyes of my death? Is there a realm where I can make some peace with the quality and quantity of the human years my children and their descendants face in the oncoming climate crisis?

When these little things sparkle at me, I’m not hallucinating. I see the world. And I suspect the insights, the new neural pathways forming in my brain, are also healing me from some anxiety ruts.

If you do not have a child, please imagine for a minute going to bed with this elephant weight on your chest each night. Because this is how it is for me every night: I tuck my daughter in, and she closes her eyes and smiles because she thinks she knows peace. And with her eyes closed, with the blankets pulled up to her chin, I think: What have I done? What have we done? This future is coming at her… and I don’t know if it’s worth living.

I don’t know where my daughter’s instinct to become a mother came from (because it was not mine as a child), but she repeatedly says that of all the things she hopes for her future, she wants “to be a mama.” How and when will I tell her the Earth is not stable and is already overtasked by the number of humans living on it?

I know she feels the peace shifting. She felt a tremor in the plumes of black smoke from wildfires she watched burn from the roof of our house last fall. She felt tremors in the cancellation of her 5th birthday because of a global pandemic that has killed 3.8 million and counting.

And then there are the tremors she feels through me. The shift of Colorado weather to “new normal” permanent drought. Hive collapses of the bees threaten the tenuous future of the avocados and raspberries so she favors pollinating the fruits. Her mother’s tears for the songbirds that fell out of the sky in their migration south last fall. Yellow warblers, violet-green swallows, and flycatchers with bold wing bars fell dead in starvation by the thousands. They fell in Arizona after their flight across Colorado skies. My daughter’s skies.

I recently received my newest batch of mushrooms from a trusted friend who grows them for therapeutic purposes in Oregon. My husband wanted to crush and encapsulate the cluster, but I would not let him touch them. It’s a family of mushrooms: An impossibly large grandmother mushroom three inches in height with her wavy umbrella cap reaching over and protecting 13 or smaller stems and hats, all of varying flowers and bendy stems. This family of stalks shares a porous root system — which I am unsure is even edible.

My current microdosing method is to pull off a mushroom after asking for permission from the fungus (because I was born with that bit of hippie-ness) and nibble the stalk. I like to think we — me and the little forest — have already established a kinship because I love their smell like the pheromones of a first crush: woody with a touch of sweetness and a powdery nuance. I remember kids in high school choking their mushrooms down or cringing over infused mushroom tea, but that has not been my experience. Maybe it is my adult palette or intentions, but I savor my nibbles.

I begin with my incisors, pass the little morsel around my mouth, grind it with my molars to take in the deeper flavors on the back of my tongue, and swallow. Then I go about my day. The effect, for me, is so subtle I often forget my nibble entirely except when I notice a shimmer in the tall bluestem grasses laced with snow on my hike. Or suddenly hear, at once, all the calls of wintering birds across my path. Or catch me watching a black-capped chickadee hopping from branch to branch of blue spruce for five minutes before I snap from the spell. Or notice a pattern or swirl in my prose.

When these little things sparkle at me, I’m not hallucinating. I see the world. And I suspect the insights, the new neural pathways forming in my brain, are also healing me from some anxiety ruts.

Since I’ve begun nibbling, the highest frequencies of my existential fears have subsided. And though I do not know if this is normal, I often, in the day after a nibble, experience the briefest flash of alignment. In that second, I do not feel sad, overwhelmed, angry, alone, or impossible. In that second, I am at once forgiver and forgiven. The flash ― it’s gone as quickly as it came. But it leaves a faint footprint — like a snowshoe hare on snow.

Dr. Robin Carthart-Harris, head of the psychedelic research group at Imperial College London, likened the effects of psychedelics on the brain to shaking a snow globe: “You shake it, and there’s disorder there. But then the snow will settle again.” He explains that a brain that has fallen into pathological patterns can benefit from reorganization.

It’s those new paths I’m after. A rite of passage. Not a ritual that folds me further into the human culture but a course that folds me into nature. A sacrament. A spiritually significant experience — the way Indigenous peoples of Central America and Mexico have been using psilocybin for centuries.

I’m not advocating drugs, per se. “Do not do them,” I say (with my sleeves rolled up) if that needs to be said. I’m advocating a seismic shift in what we hold meaningful, a conscious exploration of the dark that surrounds us, and an embrace of anything that gets us closer to our nature as nature.

I’m advocating a seismic shift in what we hold meaningful, a conscious exploration of the dark that surrounds us, and an embrace of anything that gets us closer to our nature as nature.

I have, in my study of psilocybin, learned many new words. Other names for psychedelics include entactogen (“touching within”), empathogen (“generating a state of empathy”), and my favorite: entheogen (”that which causes God to be experienced”). I do not think psilocybin is the only method to achieve these effects, but I believe our neural ruts, chafed by lifetimes of capitalistic conditioning, require a seismic shake.

One NYU study volunteer said of her psychedelic experience, “It is like I know another language,” and I have a feeling that as a species, out of touch, out of empathetic connection, out of mystical alignment with all other species on this planet — that a new language might be precisely what we need.

Carl Jung wrote, “The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning.” Searching for meaning is essential when we are young and accumulating experience, but just as ripe, as necessary and needed, when we are older.

I would argue that the search for meaning is even more essential, more expedited in pressing need in the face of the impending ecological death we will witness in the next five, 10, 20, and 50 years. Jung further concluded that we are meant to do things in the last half of life for ourselves, society, and our souls’ sake.

Jung’s afternoon light feels collectively upon us right now.

As the kids opened the door to leave for school today, I noticed the entire world shimmering behind them. I was not under the influence of any psilocybin. I hypothesize this rare occurrence happens more in Colorado than elsewhere because it is sunny and snowing. The sky was that shock of blue that happens only in dry high altitudes where nothing muddles color or distance. And yet, it was snowing. Large flakes, blowing, I suspected, from some black sheep cloud, may be hiding behind the house. I went out on the deck, stood under the falling cubic crystals, and looked for the cloud but could find no source.

I went inside and steeped my tea without taking my eyes off the window, and then I sat and watched. The effect of snowflakes in the sunshine is something to behold if you have not seen it. Imagine every angle of an ice crystal reflecting that blazing most prominent star in our solar system. And then multiply it by billions. The effect is dazzling.

It felt like the first time I had sat down since becoming a mother. And it made me wonder if I could hold it all. Light and dark, grief and gratitude, sun and snow. I came up with no answer. I just wondered.   

Christina Rivera Cogswell is a writer from Colorado. Her work can be found at Catapult, Bat City Review, Beautiful Things at River Teeth Journal, and elsewhere. She’s currently finishing a collection of ecofeminist essays about motherhood in a climate crisis, and you can follow her on Instagram at @seekingsol. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here, and send us a pitch.

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