Editor’s note: Psilocybin mushrooms are classified by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I substance, which it defines as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” This category includes marijuana and heroin. Penalties for possession and sale of psilocybin vary by state, as this essay demonstrates. Readers who are experiencing substance abuse issues in the U.S. can call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
Neurologists say it’s some of the worst pain known to medical science — right up there with kidney stones, childbirth and amputation without anesthesia. It’s so bad that as many as 25% of sufferers report suicidal intentions during the course of their ailment.
I was 33 and living in Portland, Oregon, when I first started getting them. They came like clockwork every night at 1, dragging me out of my dreams and onto my feet. The pain was unbearable — like a dental pick raking the inside of my skull. Tears streamed from my left eye, my eyelid sagged, my nostril clogged.
Invariably I found myself on the floor, clawing carpet tendrils, sucking air through clenched teeth. Noises I didn’t recognize as my own came gurgling out my throat, as if by their own accord. Sometimes during a particularly bad episode, I was reduced to sobbing. I wished for any kind of relief, even death.
But there was no escape. For an hour or sometimes more, there was only the pain. And after the pain, the terror of anticipating the next attack.
Always, the terror of the next one.
Online, I quickly self-diagnosed. I learned that attacks occur in metronomic precision, with cluster “cycles” lasting seven days to one year, separated by remissions of one month or longer. I learned that irregularities within the hypothalamus, the brain region responsible for circadian rhythms, are thought to play a role in the disease’s pathology. I also learned that high-flow oxygen can abort attacks. I didn’t have health insurance, so I searched frantically for an alternative remedy. Friends recommended cayenne pepper, hot steam, ibuprofen. Only ice helped — sort of.
Nestled at the bottom of the Wikipedia page on cluster headaches were a few sentences on psychedelic therapy: “Some controversial case reports suggest that ingesting LSD, psilocybin [a hallucinogenic compound found in some mushrooms], or DMT can reduce pain and interrupt cluster headache cycles.” According to a survey of 53 cluster headache sufferers conducted at Harvard McClean Hospital, 22 of 26 psilocybin users reported aborted attacks; 25 of 48 reported cluster cycle termination. Eighteen of 19 psilocybin users and 4 of 5 LSD users reported extended remission. To abort an attack, a sufferer only needs a small amount — a tenth a hit of LSD, or one medium-size mushroom.
I was skeptical. I’d done shrooms in my 20s. They made me feel like I’d been poisoned. I was nauseous, manic, vertiginous, and torpid — often all at once. How would psychedelics do anything other than exacerbate an already hellish situation?
The only way to find out, I told myself, picking up the phone and calling one of my shroom-loving friends, was to try.
The next morning while doing laundry, I was struck by a momentary sensation like the beginning of an attack. Because the headaches had been coming only at night, I wrote it off as paranoia. But the sensation persisted, and was soon accompanied by a sagging eyelid and clogged nostril. A daytime cluster headache: my first.
Remembering the mushrooms I had bought the night before, I hurried to the kitchen. They resembled small, gnarled pieces of driftwood — bone-white with bluish splotching ― and not something you’d want to put inside you. For several long minutes I stared at the bag. Maybe the Harvard McLean study was bogus. Maybe they’d make me sick.
“The mushrooms hadn’t made me feel poisoned or sick... So complete was the relief it seemed mushrooms actually were cluster headache’s antidote... I wanted to stop traffic and shout magic mushrooms cure cluster headaches! at the top of my lungs.”
I fished out a half-inch stem and chewed it quickly, washing down the bitter taste with water. If there was any consolation, the recommended dosage was small; side effects should be small, too — subtle visual distortions, mild anxiety, heightened awareness. Some cluster headache sufferers who shared their experiences on webboards likened the side effects to a strong beer buzz. Others claimed significant psychedelic experiences. The truth was, I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew one thing: the pain was so bad I would’ve tried almost anything to stop it.
I got an ice pack, went to the bathroom, and closed the blinds. It wasn’t long before I was on the floor, rocking back and forth, mashing the ice against my throbbing eye. No stimuli was unhurtful: A distant passing truck; the dripping faucet; my neighbor’s radio ― like knife strokes, all of them.
A wash of warmth flooded my gut. The mushrooms. Almost immediately the pressure behind my eye began to subside. My clogged nostril loosened. The tearing stopped.
The pain was gone; the attack, aborted.
Dumbstruck laughter bubbled out of me. I tossed the ice in the freezer and went outside. It was a beautiful day, three tiers of clouds layering the sky. The mushrooms hadn’t made me feel poisoned or sick. The effect was mild, like caffeine, only cleaner. I wasn’t tripping — just pleasantly buzzed. Brighter colors, sharper sounds, and an overall sense of well-being. So complete was the relief it seemed mushrooms actually were cluster headache’s antidote. It was almost as though the disease were the result of a psilocybin deficiency. I wanted to stop traffic and shout magic mushrooms cure cluster headaches! at the top of my lungs.
From then on, I was never without a small stash. I brought them with me to work, on social outings, and camping trips. Cluster headaches are like storms: you can sometimes see them coming, sometimes not. Without mushrooms, I would’ve been afraid to leave home. Every time I felt an attack coming on, I’d take a small stem and cap, and 20 minutes later, I’d be good as new.
Mushrooms even gave me the confidence to attempt a cross-country bike tour. In the summer of 2011, I sold my stuff, quit my job and left Portland for Walden, Colorado, a small town in the northern Rockies where my brother lived. After spending the winter there, I planned to resume the trip in the spring, with any luck making it to my hometown — Lansdale, Pennsylvania — before the following summer.
I made it across the Cascades, through eastern Oregon’s deserts, and over Idaho’s mountainous interior without an attack. But then one afternoon in Wyoming, I felt a twinge behind my eye. I all but dumped my panniers on the highway in search of my mushroom stash. What was I thinking, making this trip? Here I was, on the side of a desert road, 15 miles from the nearest town, the air like a kiln. Luckily, the pain remained a dull throb — what we cluster headache sufferers call “shadows.” And 20 minutes later, after the mushrooms worked their magic, I was on my bike.
I made it to my brother’s place in Colorado without another attack. But at an elevation of over 8,000 feet and with the shadows unremitting ―factors that can help trigger attacks ― I was on borrowed time. Within weeks, the headaches were back. I blew through my stash of mushrooms in days, but my brother put me in touch with a local who grew his own. My replenished supply and a make-shift oxygen rig I secured from a welding shop in town got me through the cluster cycle.
I spent the winter in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, working as a bellhop, prepping for the final leg of my tour. To make it through the Midwest before tornado season, I left in April. Not the brightest idea: April in Colorado is still very much winter. The bitter cold and unrelenting winds turned my adventure into a nightmare. As I crossed the Missouri River into Iowa, my knee gave out. I walked my bike to the nearest town, where a local woman put me up at her farm. After a week’s rest with no improvement, I had to cancel the tour. I rented a car, threw my bike in the trunk, and started the long, sad final leg of the journey to Pennsylvania.
Halfway through Ohio on Interstate 80, I got pulled over by a state trooper. A windstorm was ravaging the Midwest that day: 25 mph sustained winds, gusts over 50. The trooper — short, stocky, with a congenial face and ice-blue eyes — explained I’d been veering repeatedly into the adjacent lane.
“I’m sure it’s just the wind,” he said, “but we just wanted to make sure.”
After running my license, he asked about my bike, the rental car, about what I was doing and where I was going. Another guy interested in bike touring, I thought. And then he asked me to step out of the car.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just so we can have you stand off the side of the road. So we can talk.”
When I got out, he nodded at the K9 unit which had pulled in silently behind him. “We’re going to have you sit tight while the dog gives your car an inspection.”
He led me to his squad car, waved me inside and shut the door. I watched as the second trooper led a wiry German Shepherd out of his vehicle. Reflexively, I tried the door handle of the squad car. Locked. A wave of hot panic fanned through me. Oh, if only I’d taken a bus. Or ditched my stash. Or used back roads. Within seconds, the dog was panting and jumping up and down.
“Because the dog has detected the presence of drugs,” the ice-eyed trooper explained, “we are legally required to search your vehicle.”
The troopers worked with a deliberate slowness, examining every square inch of the interior and exterior. They even searched inside my bike frame, removing the seat and shining a flashlight in the down-tube. I suddenly understood why the arrestees on the show ”Cops” were always thrashing around in the backs of squad cars, spitting, kicking windows.
“Mind telling us what you’ve got here?” the K9 trooper asked, holding the travel case in which I kept my stash of mushrooms.
“My mind would not stop racing. Was I going to be shipped off to jail, as the troopers had insisted?... And what would I do if I had a cluster headache? Did mushrooms show up on pee tests?”
“Psilocybin mushrooms,” I said, figuring they’d go easy on me if I was honest. “About two grams worth.”
The ice-eyed trooper wagged his head. I got the feeling he’d been privately rooting for me, but that I’d just committed a fatal blunder. The mushrooms had been finely ground. If I’d said “Valerian,” they might’ve believed me.
“Under Ohio law, psilocybin mushrooms are a felony,” he explained. “So we have no choice but to bring you in.”
After a sleepless night in jail, I was arraigned and charged with aggravated possession, a fifth degree felony. I tried to plead guilty — again assuming cooperation would be rewarded with leniency — but the municipal judge couldn’t legally accept felony pleas. The case was bound over to the county courthouse. I was lucky. An accepted guilty plea would have meant the revocation of my driver’s license. All I could think of was getting home. I didn’t know the first thing about the criminal justice system. I would’ve said anything to get out of there.
Later that afternoon, my dad posted bail. After boxing and shipping my bike, I caught the first Greyhound to Philadelphia. My mind would not stop racing. Was I going to be shipped off to jail, as the troopers had insisted? If I was given probation, could I serve it in Pennsylvania? Or would I have to move to Ohio? How long would I have to wait to find out? And what would I do if I had a cluster headache? Did mushrooms show up on pee tests?
Not knowing — that was the hardest part.
The first hearing was not until a full five months later. My lawyer explained that I was eligible for “intervention in lieu of conviction” ― probation, basically ― that would entail random urine tests and check-ins with a probation officer. To qualify, I had to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the Court Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Toledo, Ohio. After asking about my childhood, medical, employment and social history, the psychologist concluded I had a drug problem and recommended I check into rehab and attend 12-step meetings. I did neither. As I understood it, rehab was to be a condition of my probation, not a prerequisite.
By the next hearing, nearly a year had elapsed since my arrest. The judge agreed to probation, and asked the prosecutor if she had any objections.
“Your honor,” she said, leafing through a stack of papers, “Mr. Tucker was ordered to complete an outpatient rehabilitation program and begin attending 12-step meetings. But I don’t see any record of his having done either...”
I almost screamed. I wasn’t an addict. I didn’t belong in rehab or 12-step meetings. Hi, I’m Jeremy and I’m addicted to… mushrooms.
“In that case,” the judge said, “this hearing is adjourned. Mr. Tucker, before we move forward, we need to see proof that you’re serious about getting help for your addiction.”
Begrudgingly, I completed a six-week outpatient rehab program and started attending 12-step meetings. Everyone I knew who was familiar with first-time possession cases assured me I was looking at six months probation, a year tops. Six months of Narcotics Anonymous meetings and piss tests I could handle. If the clusters returned, I could source oxygen from a welding supply shop, as I had in Walden, and hope it would be enough on its own to stop an attack. Or, since I now had health insurance, I could use mainstream medications like steroids or Imitrex.
Mainstream cluster headache medications are chock-full of dangerous side-effects — Imitrex has been implicated in heart disease and stroke; steroids can cause everything from ulcers to osteoporosis — but they were better than nothing. I told myself I could deal with six months without mushrooms. Even a year.
Yet when my sentence was finally rendered on May 9, 2013 ― 13 months after my arrest ― the judge gave me two years of probation.
Two years. Two summers, two winters, two autumns, two springs. 730 days. The halfway point alone was one year away.
And to think: slightly more than a year earlier, I was riding my bike cross-country. The road was mine, the wide-open sky was mine, the canyons and the cornfields, the morning dew. At times it felt as if the entire country was mine.
I’d never been a depressive type, but now I found myself indulging suicidal fantasies. More than once, I considered getting a carbon monoxide tank, hiking up into the Pennsylvania wilds and never coming back.
About a year into my sentence, my probation officer mentioned something called “early termination,” an annulment of the probation for good behavior.
“Unless you really screw up,” she said, “it goes out automatically at the halfway point.”
“Really?” I asked.
“And then I’m done?”
“If your judge approves it, yes.”
I was as elated as I was outraged. Why was I only being told about this now? If someone had mentioned early termination — even as a remote possibility — I might’ve been spared those hours of dark thoughts.
Most of what I did during that time was work. I was the office manager at a small, organic farm. On an average week, I put in 50 hours. The job offered a refuge from the feelings I didn’t want to feel — the despair and the indignation. When I wasn’t working, I was either sleeping, running errands or at a 12-step meeting.
I always felt like an impostor at those meetings, sitting amid people with true addiction issues and real stories of ruined lives. I didn’t dare mention mushrooms or cluster headaches — in the world of rehab, any attempt to justify one’s drug use is considered denial. Eventually, after several long, attritive conversations with my sponsor, I conceded to a cannabis “addiction.” (Prior to my arrest, I’d been a weekly weed-smoker). Resistance of any kind, I worried, would jeopardize my probation. It was just easier to play along.
I kept waiting to get hit with cluster headaches, but they stayed away ― a grace that did not go unnoticed. On top of everything else, I could’ve been dealing with that, too ― and this time, without psychedelic medicine.
The halfway point came and went. I hounded my PO, texting and calling her, getting no response. I did my best to put it out of mind, to get along with living my life. But every morning when I awoke, every evening before bed, and all throughout the day, I thought about my status.
“When you’ve had years of your life snatched away from you... you never really get over it, especially when you were only seeking relief from one of the worst pains known to medicine.”
Finally, three months after the halfway mark, the request was approved. I felt like I was made of helium, like I could just float away. I’d gone to hundreds of 12-step meetings. I’d been back and forth to Ohio eight times. I’d spent over a year at my dad and stepmom’s place. I’d had to pay $530 for court costs, $5,000 in lawyers fees, $1600 for outpatient rehab, and $400 in towing/late charges for the rental car. I’d been threatened with a felony conviction. At times, I’d been depressed, suicidal.
All for magic mushrooms.
Little by little, my life again became my own. I moved to Key West, Florida, and joined a band, realizing a dream of becoming a professional drummer. Eventually, the PTSD-like symptoms associated with the arrest — recurrent nightmares, hyper-vigilance of traffic laws — began to fade. The mere sight of a cop car no longer made me anxious. My cluster headaches would return, but without the threat of drug tests, I was free to use psychedelics. Friends kept me supplied with mushrooms and LSD, which, along with oxygen therapy, kept the pain at bay — without the nasty side effects of mainstream medicines.
Driving with psychedelics, however, was still terrifying. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was just one traffic stop away from jail. Only by disguising the shrooms as herbal supplements — grinding and encapsulating them — was I able to overcome my fears. After a while, I was even comfortable bringing them on flights. To me, the greater risk wasn’t getting busted again. It was having to endure the hell that is a cluster headache.
As of this writing, I’ve been in remission from my cluster headaches for three years and four months. Every year around autumn when I feel shadows coming on, I take a few, larger, preventative mushroom/LSD doses. Rather than aborting individual attacks, these stronger sessions — enough to produce a mild trip — have been shown to forestall entire cluster cycles. A few days after dosing, the shadows invariably clear, often only returning after weeks or months. Known as the Clusterbuster Method, this simple protocol has spared me hours of torment.
Still, scars remain. When you’ve had years of your life snatched away from you, when you’ve been made to fork over your meager savings to lawyers and institutions, when you’ve been repeatedly told — sometimes by your own flesh and blood — that you deserved what you got, that you are a drug addict, that you need the help of a Higher Power — you never really get over it, especially when you were only seeking relief from one of the worst pains known to medicine.
In the future, we cluster headache patients may be able to walk into our neurologist’s office and walk out with a script for psilocybin. We may be able to legally cultivate mushrooms in the comfort of our own home. Ballot initiatives like the one recently approved by Denver residents last month and Oakland’s City Council earlier this week may sweep the entire nation ― city by city, state by state ― liberating the healing power of magic mushrooms. But until that time — until I’m assured that no one else will ever go through what I did — the sting of that windy Ohio day will remain, like a headache that never quite goes away.
Jeremy Tucker is a freelance musician/writer living in Key West. He is working on a memoir about his experience treating cluster headaches with psychedelics. In his free time, he enjoys meditating, swimming and reading. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.