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'Microdosing magic mushrooms helped me overcome the grief of dad's death'

 (Sarah Duguid )
(Sarah Duguid )

I’m locked in the toilet of a five-star hotel in central London, stuffing £10 notes into a padded envelope before heading up to Mailboxes Inc. where I write out an address and company name. The name sounds more like a weird sex emporium than a perfectly respectable psychedelics dealer and the woman behind the counter, spotting the cash inside the envelope, gives me a wry look that seems to suggest she knows I’m up to something. I squirm, pay the postage, and leave.

I usually stay away from drugs. I have a greediness for sensation, an unquenchable desire for more and more and more, so after a few bad experiences, I stopped. But then, after a period of feeling incredibly low, I was searching for something to bring me back from the edge, and psychedelics presented themselves almost by accident.

Over the course of three months, my dad wasted away in front of me...I became a dab hand at changing soiled sheets, learning how to wash and turn the skeletal body within them so that he didn’t howl in pain

Two years previously, my terminally ill father expressed his wish to die at home but Covid had left a nation-wide shortage of carers. I remember the look on one of the cancer nurses faces when I offered to step in. "I’m trained to care for the dying," she said firmly, "but when I cared for my own terminally ill father, it was really traumatic. It took me a long time to get over." I cast the net wider, phoned more care agencies, but still nothing. I didn’t like the idea of my father not being granted his dying wish, so I ignored the nurse’s advice.

Over the course of three months, my dad wasted away in front of me. As the cancer spread, paralysing him, I became a dab hand at changing soiled sheets, learning how to wash and turn the skeletal body within them so that he didn’t howl in pain. When finally he died, I framed the event neatly within the sentence that he ‘died peacefully at home’ – which was true – but the moments before the peaceful bit had been anything but.

He fought to get out of the bed, to forget all this, live his old life.  He was so terrified of dying that three people had to hold him down for the doctor to administer the painkillers. He yelled as if they were murdering him. It was like watching a wild animal being taken down. He shouted at them all to “f*** off” which, it turned out, were his final words.

Months of sadness drifted into a year, then two. I began to get strange smell hallucinations – without warning the distinctive scent of the soap I’d used to wash him would return. Images of him would keep repeating on me. I couldn’t feel pleasure or joy. A light had gone out and no matter what I did I couldn’t switch it back on. I googled for ideas. Maybe meditation or EMDR? But then a couple of old friends invited me to a festival: three days, no kids.

On our first night, my friend handed me a star-shaped chocolate, and told me I’d thank him in twenty minutes. I assumed it was cannabis, but it turned out to be magic mushrooms and sure enough, twenty minutes later, I was giggling and happy, asking him for more and more and more. I danced all night fuelled by an immense sense of euphoria and love. I didn’t experience anything close to a trip, I just felt really, really happy.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The next morning, I bought my own supply of mushroom chocolates, started the day with one for breakfast alongside an oat milk chai then went to a talk about human connection. I crept out before the end, weirded out by an exercise where we had to approach a stranger to discuss the deep feeling of love that joined us. I carried on with the mushrooms though, chasing the feeling of headiness, the beautiful thrum of euphoria and warmth, and by the end of the weekend (and the end of a full box of mushroom chocolates) I was semi-naked in a tent full of women I’d never met before, in tears at the pure joy of female solidarity as we listened to the things our vaginas were telling us: and the really weird thing was, my vagina was actually speaking.

By the end of the weekend I was semi-naked in a tent full of women in tears at the pure joy of female solidarity as we listened to the things our vaginas were telling us: and the really weird thing was, my vagina was actually speaking

I felt happy in a way I hadn’t for years, which made sense when I got home and started reading up on psilocybin, the active component of magic mushrooms. Psychedelics can encourage neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rewire itself which, managed therapeutically, is said to help patients overcome fear and anxiety associated with past trauma.

Then I spotted that in 2010, a researcher called Dr. James Fadiman who began collecting reports from people who micro-dosed psychedelics – that is they took a tenth of the amount required for a trip – and, in contrast to some studies (which found microdosing was nothing more than placebo effect) Fadiman’s “citizen science” found universally positive mental health benefits. His findings triggered a new fad with everyone from tech entrepreneurs to suburban housewives micro-dosing to encourage creativity and good feelings. There’s even a 12.9k strong Instagram community called Mums on Mushrooms, where you can watch a clip of its founder on Dr. Phil’s CBS show explaining that for mothers “our healing is done between car lines and ballet practice and doctor’s visits and homework.” Whereas in the US mushrooms are illegal but decriminalised in certain States – thus they are talk-show material – in the UK, they’re class A, meaning seven years in prison for possession, and life for dealing.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Microdosing sounded like a safer option for someone like me, whose natural tendency is towards excess, so I decided to give it a try. A friend gave me a contact for a microdosing service that alongside the mushrooms, included support in case things became overwhelming. I sent off my cash and surprisingly swiftly three boxes of chocolates arrived. Packaged luxuriously, with a note inside to say that each vegan raw chocolate had been lovingly crafted and prayed over before being sent out – this was the kind of drug deal I could get behind.

I sent a message to the number inside and soon after a bot replied with a welcome message and some instructions for my three month ‘medicinal protocol’ promising that by the end my brain would have forged new neural connections and I’d be changed. Each chocolate contained 0.1mg of mushrooms, as opposed to the 1mg needed for a trip – although the actual dose of psilocybin was likely unknown as mushrooms vary in strength. I should take a dose four days in a row, then nothing for three days. I might not feel anything instantly, rather I should expect a cumulative effect over the course of a few weeks, perhaps a month. It won’t feel miraculous; if it’s working, you’ll just feel a certain spring in your step, you’ll feel less “triggered”, less anxious, be more creative.

I followed the bot’s advice to start slowly – half a chocolate after eating before building up to a whole chocolate on an empty stomach – and felt the effects almost immediately. It was as if I knew exactly where I ended, and others began. I felt absolutely, cheerfully myself. When someone scowled at me on the tube, I didn’t wonder whether I’d stolen their seat or knocked their bag, I assumed they were thinking about someone else.

At home, my husband lost his temper and rather than get into an argument, I found myself thinking, ‘Oh, he’s worried about money’ and let it go. Every time, there was a potential for conflict it was completely defused with this rational and clear-headed view of someone else’s perspective. By the end of the day, I didn’t feel drained and exhausted, I felt normal.

Packaged luxuriously, with a note inside to say that each vegan raw magic mushroom chocolate had been lovingly crafted and prayed over – this was the kind of drug deal I could get behind

As the days wore on, I carried on my medicine, and life carried on sliding off me. Over coffee, a friend was bad-mouthing a school mum and I told her: "it sounds like you’re cross because you’re feeling left out." She bristled with irritation and swiftly changed the subject. I began to wonder whether this moon-faced positivity, this pertness, was a good thing, or was I just really, really annoying?

I also noticed that my work was going well. I was productive, efficient, creative, able to churn out words at a rate higher than I had without the mushrooms. My ability to problem-solve seemed enhanced. I took criticism in my stride. I had this sense that everything would be fine. I also had wonderful dreams. I hadn’t dreamed properly since having children which felt like another thing – along with my figure and my freedom – that I was robbed of by motherhood. The return of my dreams felt like the return of a part of my old self.

 (Mathew Schwartz for Unsplash)
(Mathew Schwartz for Unsplash)

But around week three, things felt less settled. The moon-faced positivity had vanished. I found myself ruminating on the past, thinking almost obsessively about the times things had gone wrong. Then, by strange paranoia-inducing coincidence, the bot sent me a message to check-in, explaining that micro-dosing isn’t all happy, happy, it can sometimes unbalance you. I texted back HUMAN, as I’d been instructed to do if the bot was no longer cutting it, and explained I was having a bad week. I received a voice note: "it’s normal on the protocol to go through wobbly stages. We say it’s not a straight-line medicine, it stirs what’s at the bottom of the pot which can take a bit of stillness and sitting tight. It normally passes within a week or two."

But Richard A Fieldman, a professor of clinical psychiatry wrote in US magazine The Atlantic that the passing isn’t guaranteed. No one can be sure the enhanced neuroplasticity that psychedelics offer isn’t going to damage you, won’t stir the pond and bring on a bout of depression as he’d seen happen to a patient. For the potential benefits, a patient needs therapeutic support alongside the medicine otherwise they’re just moving through life in a heightened state of vulnerability.  "Limitless drug-induced self-enhancement is simply an illusion," he wrote.

The unsettling thoughts about my past carried on for a week or so, gently insistent, and then they passed along with the initial good feelings and the vivid dreams. Things settled into a less extreme state. I had days when the pond felt stirred – and those days were difficult – and others where I felt happy and productive. As the bot had said at the start, it didn't feel miraculous, I felt like me, just a little better, although, admittedly, on some days, I felt like me, just a whole lot worse.

Sarah Duguid (Matt Writtle)
Sarah Duguid (Matt Writtle)

Towards the end of my ‘protocol’, I had a week where I felt nothing. I began to wonder if the whole thing was indeed a placebo effect, one giant exercise in self-trickery. But then, I had a strange experience. I passed a church, felt an urge to enter, to light a candle for my father. I felt overwhelming emotion knocking within me, demanding expression – and it wasn’t pleasant.  But I was running late, so I swallowed it down, continued with my day. That night, I couldn’t sleep and lying in bed this emotion knocked once more. Tears poured down my cheeks and I just lay there, awake and crying, until the sun came up and I felt buoyantly happy and at one with the world.

Like Fadiman’s citizen scientists, I am certain that what I felt over the three months wasn’t the mother of all placebo effects but rather something real. It was intensely emotional, not always enjoyable but very real. Only time will tell if the buoyant happiness persists. For now, I’m glad I tried the microdosing but it was so intense, I’m not sure I’d do it again. I wonder if a once-a-year macrodose with a bunch of pals might be the best option for a care-free happiness boost, which was the reason I turned to psychedelics in the first place.

Sarah Duguid’s second novel, The Wilderness, is out now, published by Tinder Press.