I was convinced that I had died. In this surrender, I feel like I did die, but in hindsight, it was the psychological death of the person I was convinced I was.
It’s taken me years to try to write this story and impostor syndrome has stopped me several times for many reasons. I am no expert on psychedelic experiences, nor is my experience a great example of how one should use psychedelics. That being said, I feel like my experience, and the shift I have made in my mind and my life as a direct result of the experience, is a testament to the monumental power of psychedelics. Given the subject matter of psychedelic use, I was wary to write about it, but I feel like if one person reads this that truly needs to then any risk that I’m taking is worth it. Recently I heard the following quote which sparked me to start typing:
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”– Vincent van Gogh
A few years ago, I had everything I thought I wanted and at my core, I was still miserable. It was a tale of two lives, the one that I outwardly lived and the one that I inwardly lived. Outwardly, my story seemed to be one of success and I pushed that story to friends, family, and social media. I was able to get into veterinary school and realize a difficult, long-held dream. I graduated, got a well-respected internship, a series of great jobs, and even some accolades. I found a woman who loved and respected me and we were able to get married and start a life together. By most accounts my life was ideal, yet my inwardly lived experience was one of constant anxiety and depression.
I lost my grandmother at fourteen to a plane crash. I lost my mother to aggressive pancreatic cancer when I was 21 and never forgave myself for not spending enough time with her near the end. I spent most of my time trying to run away from myself with drugs and alcohol, as any significant sober time spent with myself was unbearable. At 25 years, I lost a best friend and fervent lover of life to a motorcycle accident. And two weeks after my wedding, a dear friend who was my best man died in a car accident. I recall sitting at his funeral and hearing what I had heard at the other funerals: “It's all part of God's plan” and “Everything happens for a reason.” I clenched my fists and it took everything in me not to storm out of the service. Having heard something similar following my Mom’s death, I had stopped any belief in a higher power and had decided that if this was the plan then I wanted nothing to do with the planner.
At my core, I told myself that anyone I loved would leave or be taken away from me. That I wasn’t meant to be happy. That I was not worthy of being happy. That nothing ever goes right. That I was a victim. That life is the blink of the eye between birth and death. No real meaning. Certainly, no God. All of my loved ones that were gone would never be seen or heard from again as I had no belief in a soul. I was left with the purpose of trying to help others and make others happy, which I found would give me a brief respite from my pain. I had empathy and compassion for almost everyone I encountered except myself. This inner monologue ran my life. I “doom predicted” what would happen over the course of every day. I would create a list of theoretical problems that might occur during the day while I was in the shower to “prepare myself”. This would lead to me dry-heaving most mornings before I left my house. I could not escape from my negative thought patterns and had become completely identified with them. When something bad happened, I would say “See! I knew it. Today was going to be bad.”
All this came to a head after a very bad stretch at work, an unexpected patient death, and increased pressure from hospital management. One day, in an attempt to escape and have fun, I took psilocybin mushrooms with a friend. Now this is a terrible mental place to be for a positive experience and I would not advise anyone in a similar situation to use these potent healing medicines in this way. The subsequent psychedelic experience, or trip, would be described as “terrorific” in the words of Paul Stamets and nearly resulted in both my arrest and divorce. Due to my extremely negative mental state and no preparation for what might come, my experience was made extremely difficult and created unnecessary suffering for those around me.
After taking the psilocybin-containing mushrooms, it wasn’t long until the full weight of my trip came crashing down on me and I ran out of the building in a spectacular fashion. I lost my glasses in the escape and my poor vision compounded the other-worldly nature of my experience. After some touch-and-go public moments, I was whisked into a car while the trip continued to devolve. I was reliving previous tragedies I had experienced, the negative thoughts I frequently dwelled on, and past mistakes. This went on until the world got very still and I was convinced that I was dying. A voice within me told me that all I needed to do was let go. So, I did. At that point, everything went black and fell away, and I was convinced that I had died. In this surrender, I feel like I did die, but in hindsight, it was the psychological death of the person I was convinced I was.
During this “death” I had a life review, which gave me a third-person perspective view of my life. This type of perspective in psychedelic experience is triggered by a profound disruption in the flow of normal consciousness – the default mode network (DMN). This experience of “separating” from the ego (sense of self) allowed me to see my psyche from a distance, freed from the constraints and emotional baggage of my daily existence. I was in a prison of my own thoughts, but it’s hard to break out of prison when you don’t even know you are in one. Once I saw the illusion, an outpouring of love emanated for all people and creatures, as I saw them as myself and me as part of them. I saw that all people and things are not just interconnected, but truly one and the same. The intelligence that exists behind all things: universal consciousness. From a seed knowing how to become the tree, to a person in all their complexity of physical being and emotional complexity. I understood the intelligence and beauty that exists between and in everything in the world. I felt that there was nothing outside myself. I was a wave in the ocean, a part of the whole that would exist for a time and then return to and become part of that larger ocean when I died.
“You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the ocean in a drop.”– Rumi
After a few hours, I came out of the experience and was forced to take a hard look at myself, my mental health, my habits, and my overall worldview. I started fervently reading and watching documentaries about philosophy, psychedelics, and consciousness from such minds as Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Paul Stamets, Aldous Huxley, Sogyal Rinpoche, Eckhart Tolle, and Don Miguel Ruiz. All of this became part of my psychedelic integration. Integration is the process of understanding and incorporating the insights of the experience into your life. Integration is an integral part of processing any experience – it is the process by which your body is able to shift into changes, where mental patterns can be rewritten, and body systems begin to reflect that change. I went back into therapy (my experience should be a cautionary tale as to why psychedelic-assisted therapy is much safer and more beneficial than an unprepared, unguided experience).
Even though I lacked an understanding or appreciation for the power of psychedelic substances and entered an experience with a powerful medicine with the worst possible set and setting, something amazing still happened. A crack formed in the well-tread mental paths that I had lived in over the majority of my life. This allowed me to make choices in new directions I had never thought possible. Research has shown that psychedelics enhance neuroplasticity, the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli, which can empower individuals to break free from rigid thought and behavior patterns and thus catalyze transformative shifts. My egoic sense of self was always unfulfilled and unsatisfied and always resisting the present moment. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t in conflict, or grasping for some future moment, where I would have the thing that would then satisfy me. I have found that the only real way to enjoy this world is when you no longer need it to make you happy. In the years since my experience, I have come to learn and truly understand that everyone goes through pain and tragedy but suffering is a choice, not always made consciously, but a choice nonetheless.
“When the ego weeps for what it has lost, the spirit rejoices for what it has found.”– Eckhart Tolle
After living most of my days in a constant flight or fight response, causing constant stress, this new sense of spacious presence allows me to find my inner calm and control my thought patterns, or at least the ones I choose to listen to. I lose that inner calm multiple times a day, and sometimes for days or weeks in a row, but it never truly leaves me. My mind just obscures it for a time like storm clouds can obscure the sun. I now know that storms do not last long if you don’t let them. I understand that difficult experiences help shape us into the people we are and are needed to catalyze important shifts. I guess maybe everything does happen for a reason.
This experience fueled a complete shift and caused me to change my thoughts, my habits, and my life. I am very fortunate to have had my awakening and already find myself in a loving marriage and a career I consider part of my life’s purpose. In my grasping to figure out exactly what had happened to me, I have found a love for the study of consciousness, a fervent drive to help better the mental health of the veterinary community, and a potent love and respect for the power of psychedelics. If you are interested in psychedelics I recommend avoiding my mistakes and researching extensively prior, learning harm reduction techniques, and strongly considering working with a psychedelic-assisted therapist. I think that psychedelics like psilocybin-containing mushrooms are a potent therapeutic tool when used appropriately and that legalization/research in this field is essential. The more of us who share our story of psychedelic use, the more we may shift the public narrative about these substances, help reduce the stigma, and lead to policy reform to eventually tear down the psychedelic prohibition.
“What you think you become, What you feel you attract, What you imagine you create.”– Buddha
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