While traveling in Italy and Greece in 2006 I developed a sinus infection that got so bad that once back in the US it ruptured the lining of my sinuses and allowed a strep infection to travel unchecked into my brain and spinal column. Bacterial meningitis ravaged my brain as a 107° fever raged out of control. I spent a week in the hospital unconscious and on life support before my folks whisked me off to their farm for lots of rest and lots of organic food from their gardens. Years of challenging recovery led to more and more medications and to the eventual realization that all the doctors were ever going to be able to do for me was prescribe more medications or up the dosages of those I was already on.
In the years that followed the meningitis, information about psilocybin mushrooms kept coming across my radar. A couple of friends even offered them to me; not as modalities for healing but as gifts they thought I might enjoy. My only experience with shrooms had been in the late 80s and I experienced nothing other than some warmness in my body with them at the time. Twenty years later however, the magic kicked in.
On the night of the summer solstice in 2013 I finally learned for myself what I’d heard so many people talking about for the past many decades. I was camping with some friends on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah in an area that I have a particular love and affinity for and where I have photographed so many of my models over the years. It’s a sacred place for me and one that always allows me to connect deeply with the earth and with myself. The time and the setting seemed right sfo I ate a good handful of the mushrooms, not really having much idea what to expect.
The distinction between recreational and healing is a tough call because in my experience it’s all one and the same.
I sat there transfixed for most of the night, seeing and experiencing things differently and more vividly than I ever had before. I was hyper-aware of my thoughts that seemed to be wandering in and out of various aspects of my life without judgment. My body was vibrating with a sensation that was mostly foreign to me and at times a little unsettling. Notwithstanding the unusual feelings going on in my body, my thoughts were lucid and calm. I waited for epiphanies, for some breakthroughs that would suddenly make everything in my life clear to me. Instead it was the absence of judgments about my relationships and the difficult experiences in my life that seemed to be the most revealing parts of the journey that night.
I thought about a particularly difficult relationship that had upended my life so completely. I’d been really hard on myself for letting it go as far as I did into the abyss of chaos and ugliness. With the mushrooms on board I felt like it was okay to forgive myself and let it go. I thought about the meningitis that had been so tough on my body and felt nothing but gratitude that I’d survived it and had arrived at this point of being able to explore the world of psychedelics, which is something I had longed to do for most of my adult life but never gotten around to.
Instead of feeling beaten down by so many difficult experiences over the years I started feeling at peace with them, as if each had given me something to grow from. Without the heavy judgments weighing my thoughts down I started to see how everything had worked together to get me to where I was in that moment in the tent beneath the stars.
Now naked out in the salty water I felt a wonderful calm; a feeling of being connected to myself and to the earth and to everything around me.
When I closed my eyes brilliantly colored fractal patterns would form, filling the entirety of my mind’s inner sight. Sometimes in the center of the constantly changing patterns I’d see the faces of demons or strange beings that kept morphing one into the next. They didn’t frighten me because I figured out that all I had to do was open my eyes and they’d be gone. So I let them be. I let them appear and morph and do their thing while enjoying the colorful and fascinating patterns that surrounded them. Many months later while tripping at home these same demons would appear once again in my mind’s eyes and this time they had a tough lesson for me. But that night in the tent they didn’t have much to say. They were just there along with all of the wildly colorful fractals that shifted fluidly from one thing into the next.
With my eyes open I would see the magnificent beauty of the moon, sky, clouds and water out in front of me and the subtle shifting movements of all of them in concert. With my eyes closed I saw the hallucinations that I had long heard of but never experienced for myself. Eyes open or closed I felt a constant vibration in my body; a low level humming that underscored everything that was happening visually. It was all so new and unusual that I had no idea what to make of it. There were brief moments of fear as I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But the fear quickly passed and I was back in the wonder of everything that was happening; uncertain at times but fascinated and calm and grateful for the experience.
Even though I was mostly alone in the tent that night it felt good to have Alan checking in on me from time to time. The oldest of many siblings, he was accustomed to taking care of those around him and gently extended that caring in my direction. In the early hours of the morning before dawn I finally fell asleep with the moon still hovering in the sky above the lake. When I awakened several hours later the warmth of the sun had heated up the tent and I was eager to get out of it and into the water.
Alan and I spent several hours that morning wandering out in the shallow waters of the lake where we’d discovered a bed of gypsum crystals hidden in the mud beneath our feet. In almost complete silence we dug them out and made piles of them that we’d later retrieve and take home. Our only words were ones of exclamation as we found one beautiful crystal after another and shared our finds. The sarong I was wearing eventually came off so that I’d have something to carry all of the crystals in. Now naked out in the salty water I felt a wonderful calm; a feeling of being connected to myself and to the earth and to everything around me. The sun was warm on my skin and in the vast, open quietness of the lake I began to feel that something was different. I just didn’t know what it was.
A few weeks after that first mushroom adventure I was sitting at home writing and realized that for the first time in many years I was feeling really good. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but it felt like something heavy had been lifted. I looked at the bottles of pills sitting on the kitchen counter and it struck me that I was overly medicated; the side effects having become almost as debilitating as the brain damage from the meningitis had been. I went back to my laptop, looked up psilocybin mushrooms and began to read. What I learned that day changed everything – I realized that several studies suggested that psilocybin had the potential to repair brain damage and stimulate the growth of new neurons. Those studies resonated in me and I began devouring everything I could find on the subject.
As the effects of the medications left my body they were replaced with a feeling of well-being – of a brightness, calmness and contentedness that I hadn’t felt in seven years.
The deep sense of peacefulness that I had felt out on the Great Salt Lake the morning after my first mushroom trip had stayed with me. It was a persistent feeling of openness, clarity and calm that had become quite undeniable. If one trip could make me feel this good for several weeks afterwards, was it possible that the psilocybin had actually repaired something in my brain? And would it be possible with regular use that I could repair the damaged brain cells altogether? I decided to give it a go, found a reliable source for the mushrooms and began taking them every few weeks in the privacy of my home.
I had been on this schedule of regular shrooming for a few months when a wonderful woman came into my life who was both a doctor and an expert on the use of psychedelics for healing purposes. A true psychonaut, she held my rapt attention as she talked about brain chemistry and psychedelics, quickly leading me to realize that the universe had handed me an amazing gift with her. I had already been considering reducing or eliminating some of the medications I’d been on and with her insight I slowly began to wean myself off the one medication that I knew had the most debilitating side effects. I was cautious but I wasn’t afraid. I trusted that my body would let me know if I was making the right decision.
Over the course of a few months I weaned myself completely off the one medication and significantly reduced the amounts of two others. Instead of slipping back into depression and anxiety I found myself feeling better and better and better. In the back of my mind I was prepared for the possibility that this might not work and that if necessary I’d have to be willing to go back onto the medications. But that’s not what happened.
As the effects of the medications left my body they were replaced with a feeling of well-being – of a brightness, calmness and contentedness that I hadn’t felt in the seven years since the fever of the meningitis had attacked my brain. It was obvious to me that the psilocybin was doing what the studies and anecdotal evidence had suggested it could do: it was repairing some of the damage in my brain and allowing me to return to a quality of life that I had assumed was gone forever.
For almost a year now I’ve been completely off the three medications that had enveloped my life in such a fog. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is over because the obviousness of my recovery is undeniable. My partner and I take the mushrooms together regularly now as a part of our spiritual, personal and healing journeys. Sometimes the trips are rough and sometimes they’re pleasant and wondrous. There’s no predicting how it’ll go so I always have to be willing to go for the ride no matter how it unfolds or where it takes me.
Sharing the experience with my partner has been wonderful as it’s allowed both of us to explore things in conversation that we likely wouldn’t have gotten to alone. We laugh, we cry, we tremble, we delight and we keep going. If one of us is having a hard time the other is there to help. The journey is never the same twice but each and every time it opens us up to something new and valuable.
Eating the mushrooms is anything but recreational for me, even though it would be silly to deny that there are times when the visuals and physical feelings are highly enjoyable. Sometimes though the enjoyment is tempered by the difficult lessons the mushrooms have to teach me and I’ve accepted that there is a broad range of possibilities whenever I put them in my mouth and begin to chew. The distinction between recreational and healing is a tough call because in my experience it’s all one and the same. Psilocybin mushrooms offer such an extraordinary diversity of experience that separating out any one part of the trip from another seems to be nothing more than an exercise in semantics.
It would be misguided and probably irresponsible to suggest that anybody else follow the path I’ve taken. Weaning oneself off of medications is a major decision that requires lots of careful thought and research. It worked for me to slowly taper off the medications while faithfully eating the mushrooms every few weeks, but how that might apply to anybody else is beyond my desire to suggest. It’s important to me to share my experiences though and add to the ever-increasing body of evidence that psilocybin mushrooms have a great deal to offer in the arenas of physical and psychological well-being.
Lawrence Bouse is a photographer who continues to explore the relationship between people and the natural world around them with his cameras. Aside from his photography, Lawrence is a writer, garden designer and hands-on dad and grandpa.
Liked this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed to get much more!