I had a pretty traditional midlife crisis. Over the course of the year that I turned 40, my marriage fell apart, my career imploded, and my dad had a major heart attack that required me to take a medical leave and left me with everyone’s mortality on my mind.
Also: This all happened during the height of the pandemic, of course.
I commando-crawled out of 2021 in a pretty terrible state of depression and anxiety. For the first time since my wedding 13 years before, I had no idea what my future looked like at all. It was just blank space. I was suddenly a single mom who didn’t really understand what happened to me and didn’t understand where I was going, personally or professionally. At the same time, I was dealing with the regular issues of midlife: weight gain and wrinkles, being called ma’am far too often for my liking, and starting the inevitable slide into feeling invisible.
I celebrated my 40th birthday alone during quarantine, feeling pretty pathetic.
Also during this time, though, I read Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind, a book about the science behind psychedelics, why these substances were initially banned, and how magic mushrooms were helping people with a range of issues, from addiction to depression to coping with terminal disease. I had a couple of friends working in the psychedelic-assisted therapy space, helping people get mentally healthier via ketamine and something called integrative therapy — specialized therapy sessions where patients set intentions before psychedelic experiences and process them afterward.
I don’t have a huge history of drug use (occasional recreational marijuana and a couple of psilocybin microdoses with friends), but I was intrigued by what I heard and read — that a large dose of mushrooms, given with safety measures and bookended with integrative therapy sessions, could have lasting, positive impacts, as proven in multiple studies. The first impact: an actual rewiring of your brain that allows you to break free from patterns of thinking and processing and that fights anxiety and depression. The second impact: an experience that can permanently change the outlook you have on the world.
I contacted Adam Boomer, who runs Good For Human with his wife in my city of Missoula, Montana. He’s a licensed therapist and life coach who specializes in helping people overcome trauma and improve their mental health, and his services include psychedelic-assisted therapy and integrative therapy.
Boomer explained to me that while psilocybin is beginning to be decriminalized in areas across the United States, it’s still illegal here in Montana. So while he could provide integrative therapy to me before and after my experience, I’d have to discretely find an underground professional who would guide me on my trip by myself. I did so, and before I knew it, I had my therapy scheduled with Adam and my trip scheduled with someone I’ll call Noah.
I scheduled it for the day before my birthday. My first birthday after starting over. My present to myself.
During my sessions with Adam before the big day, we discussed what had happened to me during the pandemic and how I was dealing with it, mainly focusing on my divorce, which was about as amicable as they get, but still pretty life-shattering. I was determined to figure out what went wrong and why, to get to the bottom of the issue. Same with my career and my new middle-aged status. I needed to figure it all out and fix everything about my life.
On the day of the trip, Noah appeared at my house with more stuff than I was expecting. He explained that the trip would last four to six hours. During that time, he would help me set intentions, lead me through a couple of guided meditations right after taking the dose to keep me in a positive headspace, and then check on me throughout the day — getting me water, leading me back if I was getting too far out there, playing calming music, and making sure I was safe.
The intentions I set about my divorce and aging ended up never coming up, because it turns out that my brain did not think they were at all important.
I took the dose, went through the very nice guided meditations with Noah, and then snuggled into my bed when I started to feel the medicine taking effect. I ended up having a pretty clichéd experience — ego death, visit from dead person, unity with the universe — and I understood even when it was happening that this is what the drug has a history of doing. But to me, it was so real and one of the most special events in my life.
With Noah sitting nearby reading quietly, I started to have an out-of-body experience in which I realized how unimportant our bodies are and how we really are part of one giant organism, the universe. I know I sound like a boring hippie right now, but I truly realized that it is OK, and actually pretty wonderful, to be a small part of a large, beautiful thing. Huh.
While this was happening, I was crying. And I cried for probably four hours of my trip. Not wailing or anything, but just kind of silent weeping. This was totally fine with me, because one of the big things I thought about a lot in the first hour or two was how all emotions are basically the same. Joy, anger, laughter, and sadness are all “equal” emotions that we put unfair value judgments on. There is only one real emotion and that emotion is WONDER! Wonder at the beauty and experience of living in the universe.
It feels silly to write that, and yet, a year later, I still think about it all the time. Even when I’m experiencing overwhelming or negative emotions, I think about wonder — and just how special and unlikely each moment of our lives is. This is especially true of crying, which I had a lot of trouble doing before. Crying is OK; it is good; it is wonder!
Throughout this time, I was still trying to focus on my intentions, but my brain was clear: Your intentions are dumb. They are insignificant to what is going on here.
At this point, I saw what I can only describe as a visual representation of my mRNA, all of my maternal ancestors. My mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and so on. I felt how much love each individual had for their kids, and how that mother-love compounded exponentially through the generations, all the way down to me.
And then I saw my two daughters.
I realized that the most important thing to me was to give all of this mother-love — this huge sum of mother-love that has been collecting for thousands of years — to my kids. We are all the product of mother-love, and anyone can give and receive mother-love (like: it’s not feminine or masculine). We all have the capacity to choose to be loving mothers.
It still makes me happy today, and I still think about it so often, especially if I’m feeling down or feel like I’ve lost my direction or focus.
At this point, a few hours in, I needed to go to the bathroom. Opening my eyes wasn’t super pleasant. I had the full-on thing that you see in cartoons depicting psychedelic drug use where everything was moving and warping around me.
Once I was in the bathroom, I looked in the mirror, hoping that I would accept myself and feel self-love, even in my middle age. But instead, it was really creepy, and my face was aging forward and backward. I stopped looking in the mirror. I would not have an epiphany about how beautiful I am during this trip, oh nope.
I got back in bed and looked at the ceiling, which is textured. I was amazed when it transformed into a crocheted lace bedspread from my Aunt Carolyn’s guest room when I visited her when I was a child. I didn’t even know that information was stored in my brain! It was beautiful and so detailed. And then I realized my Aunt Carolyn was with me (she passed away several years ago). Not with me in any sort of ghost sense or any sort of religious afterlife sense, but in the way that her love (mother-love?) was in me, and her spirit was instilled in me forever from the time we spent together.
My aunt meant a lot to me and was a consistent, positive, hardworking, fun, and loving person in my life. She collected antiques, first as a hobby and then as a business, and when she saw something she loved, she always said, “Isn’t that darling?” in her soft Southern accent.
In my room, looking up at the bedspread ceiling, I heard her say that, as clear as anything. And then, “You’re darling.” It was as if my brain pulled a perfect recording of her voice for me, out of some far corner of my consciousness.
And I had the nicest thought: I am darling. Just like this, just the way I am. And we are all darlings, really. That we all need and deserve love, and that we are here to give it to each other. I have so many darlings in my life. I am a darling. I should be a darling to myself, because I am one.
I slowly came down from the trip. The room normalized and stilled. The ceiling returned to being a ceiling. And I could smell Noah making fresh bread in my kitchen. He had sat for enough people to know just when I would finish my trip and exactly what I needed: a vegetable and rice bowl and homemade flatbread fresh from the oven. My first thought? Noah is giving me mother-love!
I wanted very badly to go outside and be in nature. It was cold and snowy, but I sat on my back porch, wrapped in a big blanket, filled with joy for everything around me. Noah put a fresh piece of bread in my hands, and it was so warm in contrast with the cold air. We talked about my experience and sat quietly and ate.
After Noah left, I called a lot of family members (and I’m not a big phone person at all, ever). I talked to my brother and my sister the longest, and we had such great, open conversations. We talked a lot about my aunt and how meaningful she was to us. Both of them teared up when I told them about the “visit,” even though, like me, they aren’t really believers or criers.
I felt euphoric. I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time. I felt released from anxiety.
The next morning, I still woke up feeling great. Filled with wonder — the one emotion, as you know. As Adam had said, the mushrooms felt like they had knocked the wheels of my brain out of the deep ruts they were in, allowing me to make new connections and observations. The world felt really fresh. I could see opportunity around me. It was still easy to cry, something I’d really needed to do since my divorce.
For the next few weeks, I found myself having a much easier time navigating and appreciating the world. I remember one moment a few days afterward when I was putting my garbage out at 6 a.m. before work. I hauled it to the end of the driveway, as always, but when I got there, I thought I’d like to go for a little walk. So I did, just for five minutes or so. Why don’t we all go on little walks more often?
The next week, I met with Adam and we processed everything I saw and felt. Instead of talking about the tiny, nit-picky details of my divorce, which I had been fixated on before, I talked about my plans for spending more quality time with my kids, slowing down to enjoy the world around me, and my excitement to make new plans. I also talked to him about how much my anxiety levels had dropped. He said some of this chemically “elevated mood” can last four to five months. He also said that my mindset/takeaways (mother-love, wonder, darlings!) could likely be permanent. And so far, they have been.
Adam says that smaller doses can help continue the elevated mood and reduced anxiety, but honestly, I haven’t felt like I’ve needed it in the year since my trip. I do go back and read my journal entry about it from time to time, which helps me remember exactly how I felt on that day and my big takeaways.
Side note: This is not your opportunity to try to take an epic dose of mushrooms all on your own, or with friends. I very much only recommend undertaking it with a specialized therapist and a professional guide — without those two things, without your Adam and your Noah, your experience won’t be optimized or effective (best case scenario), or it will be downright unpleasant and dangerous (worst-case scenario).
I can completely see how some people — maybe a lot of people — would not like or benefit from this type of experience. I can also see how doing epic mushroom trips constantly could land you in some sort of commune with very long braids and an appropriated poncho, talking about the wonder of the universe a little too much. But those things aside, I see so much potential in this being used as a therapy to help people’s brains work better and to help them live better, happier, more fulfilling lives.
In the end, it turns out I didn’t process my divorce at all during my mushroom trip — at least not how I thought I would. And I think the entire time Adam knew that I wouldn’t process it in a traditional way either; that’s not how this medicine works. I didn’t suddenly understand why my relationship failed, or find an easy way to move on from it. But I did realize that I don’t have to figure it all out in a neat, tidy way in order to be happier, start over with optimism, and begin experiencing a more grateful life this very second.
I have my daughters to shower with mother-love, and all the other people in my life, too. There’s warm bread to bake and little walks to take. We’re only here for a bit before we re-join the universe, darlings.