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 omelette or the dried shiitakes I rehydrate in warm water before adding to fresh ramen, but exactly the kind of mushrooms we all know as “magic.”
How, exactly, does a modern mom, between work and 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. Sure, 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 already overactive enough not to need my teenaged paranoias exaggerated.
And there were those repeated 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 hot 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 being honest, the “dark side” was always my favorite side, and it’s just taken me 44 years to come to terms with that.
Dark, I’d argue, gets an undeserved bad rap. I would go so far as to argue that human society is obsessed, even, with some real bullshit positive psychology — but that’s another essay. When I say “dark side” I mean, for example, the dreams into which we venture 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 talking about the undiscussed darkness of our impossible existence — and why.
“If cancer patients can make peace with their own deaths, can I approach my existential distress in a similar way?”
Not that it isn’t our first instinct to ask these questions. I field them every day 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, to me, the most important in our one-of-billions world, and 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 and stop feeding the dog and stop looking at my phone for texts from my husband as to when he’s coming home. These questions require a blanket and a couch or maybe a hammock or a sleeping bag under a night sky. These questions require the extension, trust, and embrace of my full imagination. My quickest cop-out with the kids? “No one really 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 very small doses of a drug or substance, around the same time 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 chatter 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 precise 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 entirely sick of guided experiences. So I continue to nibble the psilocybin in my own soft rebellion.
Now, if you are one of those people who pulls 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 actually 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).
The goal of microdosing, after all, is not to trip. It’s difficult to define either 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 10 years, and the results aren’t all in.
A microdosage is generally considered “subtherapeutic,” with no adverse side effects. But anecdotal accounts are showing there may be a cellular response that affects mood and health in similar ways as 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 macrodose is, in fact, my long-term plan.) But if I have learned anything in my 44 years, it’s to slow down.
So what is my goal? My goal was inspired by the subtitle in Chapter 6 of Pollan’s book, “Dying.”
Under this title, Pollan writes about cancer patients who use psilocybin (in hallucinogenic dosages) to psychedelically approach impending death. 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’s what I’m wondering: If cancer patients can make peace with their own deaths, can I approach my existential distress about the impending sixth mass extinction on Earth in a similar way? What would happen if I could look deeply into the eyes of my own extinction? 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’m just seeing the world. And I suspect the insights, the new neural pathways forming in my brain, are also healing me out of 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 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 already overtasked by the number of humans that live it 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. The tenuous future of the avocados and raspberries that she favors, threatened by hive collapses of the bees that pollinate the fruits. Her mother’s tears for the songbirds that fell out of the sky in their migration south last fall. Yellow warblers and violet-green swallows and flycatchers with bold wing bars that 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 of 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 literally a family of mushrooms: An impossibly large grandmother mushroom three inches in height with her wavy umbrella cap reaching over and protecting 13 or more smaller stems and caps, all of varying heights 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, of course (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 my adult 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 ― 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 myself watching a black-capped chickadee hopping from branch to branch of a blue spruce for five minutes before I snap from the spell. Or notice a pattern or swirl in my prose that I wonder if I’d have seen otherwise.
When these little things sparkle at me, I’m not hallucinating. I’m just seeing the world. And I suspect the insights, the new neural pathways forming in my brain, are also healing me out of 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 or overwhelmed or angry or alone or impossible. In that second, I am at once forgiver and forgiven. The flash ― it’s gone as quick 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 rite that folds me further into human culture, but a passage that folds me into nature. A sacrament. A spiritually significant experience — the way Indigenous peoples of Central American 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. What I’m advocating is 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.
“What I’m advocating is 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 do think our neural ruts, chafed by lifetimes of capitalistic conditioning, are in need of 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 exactly what we need.
Carl Jung wrote, “The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning.” I read in this that the search for meaning is important 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, 50 years. Jung went further and concluded that we are meant to do things in the last half of life for ourselves, for society, for the sake of our souls.
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. It was this rare occurrence I hypothesize happens more in Colorado than anywhere else because it was sunny and snowing. The sky was that shock of blue that happens only in dry high altitude where nothing muddles color or distance. And yet, it was snowing. Large flakes, blowing, I suspected, from some black sheep cloud maybe 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.
The effect of snowflakes in sunshine, if you have not seen it, is something to behold. Imagine every angle of an ice crystal reflecting that blazing largest star in our solar system. And then multiply it by billions. The effect is dazzling. I went inside and steeped my tea without taking my eyes off the window, and then I sat and I watched.
It felt like the first time I had sat down since becoming a mother. And it made me wonder if I could, in fact, 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 time of climate crisis, and you can follow her on Instagram at @seekingsol.