During the hot lockdown summer of 2020, I applied to take part in the trial of a 'new' psychiatric drug. The drug on test was Psilocybin, the psychedelic ingredient found in magic mushrooms.
The trial, undertaken at Kings College Hospital in London, was to study the potential benefits of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. This is a condition I have struggled with for decades and wondered if psilocybin could cure my seemingly incurable condition. But first I had to be accepted onto the study. This was a challenging process of form filling and questionnaires, frustrated further by constantly changing covid restrictions.
The list of comorbid conditions that would have excluded me from the trial was extensive. I could not have taken part, if, for example, I’d suffered from psychosis, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Neither could I have participated if I’d contemplated suicide in the recent past. I forwarded copies of my medical history and the long list of psychiatric medications I’d been prescribed over the years. The team behind the study use this information to assess whether a potential participant has had at least two failed attempts at reducing their clinical depression through the use of traditional psychiatric drugs. Luckily, they did not consider my high functioning autism to be a deal-breaker.
I was finally accepted onto the trial in October 2020. This happily coincided with a temporary relaxing of covid restrictions.
The trial consisted, initially, of five weekly sessions at the hospital with therapists trained in this new psychedelic approach to mental health. A dosing day would follow, and then six weeks of integration therapy, where I would discuss the experiences I had during my psilocybin trip.
From the start, I was impressed by the research team. They were young, forward-thinking psychiatrists and neuroscientists. They were into meditation, Holotropic Breathwork, and the ideas of Carl Jung. Their ethos rested on the edge of new scientific thought, which often appeared to touch on spirituality, in its broadest sense. However, they were also highly trained medical professionals collating fact-based evidence in a multi-million dollar drugs trial. They would, therefore, following my trip, gently steer my mystical interpretations towards something more tangible that could be entered onto a database.
The Dosing Day
I arrived at the hospital at 9 am by taxi and made my way to the appropriate floor. This five-minute walk along bustling corridors felt significant, due to a string of strangely synchronistic events. This I shall explore more fully in another article. Suffice to say, that by the time I’d arrived at the department where the trial was taking place, I already felt as though I was halfway down the rabbit hole. But first were the practicalities. I had my blood pressure and heart rate tested, then taken to a room lit softly by candles and salt lamps. At the foot of the bed were two chairs where the therapists would sit quietly for the entirety of my trip—only intervening if I needed support, or a bathroom break. I made myself comfortable on the bed and was given three or four ordinary looking white pills and some headphones. I was also given a large, colourful book to look at. It was filled with wonderful illustrations of plants and trees. But I could no longer focus on the book. The music in my headphones had begun, and so had the magical, consciousness-changing effects of psilocybin.
I describe my trip as being in three distinct phases. During the first of these, the music was medium-paced with a regular dance beat; something you’d have heard at sunset on a beach in Ibiza, circa 2005. During this initial phase I felt somewhat overwhelmed, physically, even slightly nauseous. My eyes were closed behind my mask, yet I could see colourful, cartoon-esq cogs, and shapes twisting and turning and clicking into place. The shapes were hard left and hard right in my mind’s eye, and in the middle was darkness. It was if the various parts of my brain were being reordered—reassembled in a bizarrely comical and highly symbolic fashion.
I remembered the therapist saying how, during the trip I should explore every emotion, every experience unconditionally. For example, if I saw a door, I should go through it, or if I saw a staircase, I should see where it led. This, I tried, but during that first stage of my trip, I could only go where the psilocybin took me. It felt as though the drug understood what I needed and was determined to reconnect my neural pathways in wonderfully important ways, regardless of my preconceived intentions.
After possibly a couple of hours, I entered phase two of my trip. The music became gentler, less beat-driven, and I was able to interact with the experience in the way my therapists had suggested. The colourful, zipping shapes disappeared—as had the nausea.
Suddenly, a girl I hadn’t seen since 1976 emerged powerfully. We spoke at length about the past, and in doing so, I arrived at that somewhat fluffy concept referred to as ‘closure’.
Gradually, I entered phase three of my trip. The music became even softer, like the slow, reflective dance at the end of a party, and my thoughts turned to the metaphysical nature of things. I realised that my life-long struggle with depression was an important aspect of my spiritual growth. And was the reason I could not be cured by Lithium or SSRIs. The answers lay elsewhere. Although, I have not yet discovered where that elsewhere actually is. Perhaps another dose of therapeutic psilocybin would shed light on that particular destination?
During phase three of my trip, I was reminded of the strangely synchronistic run of events that occurred when I’d arrived at the hospital that morning, and I was able to replay those events as though watching one of those Hollywood blockbusters when you only see how all the bits are connected at the end of the movie. That’s when you see the bigger picture. And in many ways, that’s exactly how I view my psilocybin experience, as though I’d glimpsed briefly at the bigger picture.
As I said earlier, I shall spare you the details of the synchronistic events that took place before my trip that morning, as their significance is difficult to describe. However, I will share what happened the following day.
The morning after the dosing day, I returned to the room where I’d had my trip. This was for the first of my integration therapy sessions. Whilst I waited for the therapist to arrive, I noticed the illustrated book of plants and trees I’d looked at whilst waiting for the psilocybin to kick in. It was on the table next to the bed. I picked it up and saw that it was written by someone whose first name was Kathy, and co-authored by someone whose first name was Katy. For me, the synchronistic significance of this was truly mind-blowing. Because Kathy was the name of the girl who’d come to me during phase two of my trip. She was the girl I hadn't seen since 1976; the girl who, aided by psilocybin, I’d spoken with and gained a degree of ‘closure’. But there was more. In my autobiography Looking for Normal, I have changed Kathy’s name to—yes, you’ve probably guessed it—Katy. And, by the way, that illustrated book of plants and trees was published by a company called Big Picture Publications!
Kathy… Katy… and seeing the big picture...? This was all too much of a coincidence, and confirmed my belief in some form of overriding cosmic consciousness that connects all things.
It has been four months, at the time of writing, since I took my psilocybin, and although I still have the odd day when depression forces me back to bed, these relapses are generally less intense. I will say, however, that I am far from being fixed, and it’s possible that the positive effects of the drug could be waning. But consider this, a single dose of psilocybin has freed me from the ravages of major depression for months. This is extraordinary when compared to traditional medications that are often of marginal benefit and come with a range of negative side effects.
For the first time in my life I am hopeful that one day an antidote to treatment-resistant depression will become widely available. It seems that we are on the cusp of a breakthrough. But not until the thorny problem of legality is addressed. For now, psychedelic drug therapy can only be accessed legally in a few locations around the world. It’s also important to add that psychedelic therapy is not just about the drugs. There is a range of perfectly legal techniques that fit within the ethos. These include yoga, meditation and breathwork.
The lead research psychiatrist, who I spoke to on my final session, told me that although my psilocybin trial was over, my psychedelic journey had only just begun. He suggested I try Holotropic Breathwork (developed by the Czech psychiatrist Stan Grof in the 1970s). I shall write more about this technique when I have more knowledge of it, however, my initial experiences have been positive and definitely worth exploring further.
I have been exposed to the expansive field of psychedelic therapy, and now that my exploration of this brave new world has begun, I cannot go back. No longer can I be satisfied with the antiquated scope of my local mental health team when I know the solutions are so far beyond their reach. And I cannot be lured again onto those mighty, mental sledgehammers: Lithium and SSRIs etc.
For now, I can only hope that the worst of my depression remains at bay until the inevitable new era of psychiatry arrives to permeates the medical mainstream.