Can a Psychedelic Trip Reboot Your Brain and Cure Depression?

A Midlife, Menopausal Mom Seeks Medicine in Magic Mushrooms

Treasure Beach, Jamaica, home to MycoMeditations, a psilocybin-assisted retreat. (Photo by Lizbeth Finn-Arnold)

There was a moment at the airport as I waited for my flight to Jamaica that I wondered have I lost my freaking mind?

I was riding solo this trip, reeling from an unholy midlife trinity: menopause, empty nest, and marital separation. As I looked around at my fellow travelers, feelings of isolation and unease grew. I was surrounded by joyful honey-mooners, intact vacationing families, and Christian missionaries in matching pink T-shirts. One of these things didn’t belong, and that thing felt like me.

I wasn’t embarking on a fun-filled vacation in the sun. I was flying to Jamaica, where I would take part in a psilocybin-assisted retreat.

That’s right — I was going to Jamaica to get high.

Only a couple of people (including my children) were fully aware of my plans. I didn’t want to worry anyone or endure their judgment or misgivings and told most people I was going on a wellness retreat (which wasn’t a lie). The decision to attend a psychedelic retreat was not an impulsive one. I had thought this through for close to a year, listened to Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind audiobook, and studied the research coming out of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research.

Menopause and a major depressive episode a year earlier had created turmoil in my life. I was desperate for relief, and I was ready to travel fifteen hundred miles to trip with nine strangers to see if I could get it.

Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic substance often lovingly referred to as magic mushrooms. Along with LSD, it was popular with hippies in the 1960s, but I came of age in Ronald Reagan’s conservative America. Unlike the Baby Boomers or Millennials, us GenXers got the raw deal. Forget about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Our first association with sex was AIDS (and death), and we were hammered with anti-drug JUST SAY NO messaging. On top of that, my normal adolescence was derailed by my father’s death. Instead of partying on Friday and Saturday nights, I babysat and saved up money for college. And I became depressed.

I am clearly not the poster child for psychedelics or illegal substances. Other than drinking alcohol, I’ve said NO to drugs my entire life. I never even smoked weed in college. It was only after years of chronic, debilitating pain brought about by late-stage Lyme disease that I sought out medical cannabis. After about six months of micro-dosing high CBD strains several times daily, I no longer needed to take Valium, Vicodin, Codeine, muscle relaxants, or other prescription anti-inflammatories. Cannabis seemed to relax my overly-tense muscles and calm down my overactive pain receptors.

That’s when I decided maybe it was time to JUST SAY YES to other plant medicines, including magic mushrooms.

Psilocybin capsules. (Photo by Victoria Rodriguez)

Was I looking for a quick fix? Absolutely. I had spent six years in constant debilitating pain, endlessly seeking relief. And I had spent tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Depression plagued me since my teens, and I had been in therapy on and off for 20 years (ever since I experienced post-partum depression). I spent years taking antidepressants and experiencing all kinds of adverse side-effects (dry mouth, insomnia, weight gain, fatigue, constipation, nightmares, ringing in ears, dizziness, loss of libido). I had investigated every nook and cranny of my psyche and come to realize that my father’s chronic illness (and subsequent death) left me with PTSD. Adverse childhood experiences had undermined my immune system and wreaked havoc with my mental and physical health.

However, knowing the root causes of my trauma and recognizing my triggers were not enough. I could not release the shackles of my mind, especially not since my midlife hormones had gone haywire two years earlier. I wanted to experience pleasure and be happy. Yet, no matter how much I meditated or embraced positivity and gratitude, I could not turn off the intrusive thoughts that overpowered my brain.

Researchers now believe that people who suffer from depression or severe PTSD have a hyperactive Default Mode Network in the brain, which is correlated with excessive rumination. In 2016, the Imperial College London used brain imaging to study volunteers on LSD. The results showed a decrease in communication between the brain regions that make up the Default Mode Network, thus quieting the overactive mind. Meanwhile, other parts of the brain showed increased connectivity. In 2017, when the Imperial College London studied psilocybin and the treatment of depression, patients described a feeling of having their brains ‘rebooted.’

David Nutt, director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College London, states: “In the depressed brain, in the addicted brain, in the obsessed brain, it gets locked into a pattern of thinking.” He goes on to say, “Psychedelics disrupt that process so people can escape.” And because psychedelics commonly make people feel more connected, it may also make them feel less isolated and alienated; less depressed. Nutt says, “With a single administration, we can help people see the world in a different way.”

After years of chronic illness that defied traditional medical treatments, I learned to be open to new and experimental healing options. Yet part of me remained skeptical. Could getting high three times during one week REALLY reset my brain?

Jamaica was a long way to go from my home in New Jersey. The retreat was fairly pricey, even though it was no-frills (no hot water, no AC, and unreliable wi-fi). And, of course, there were no guarantees I’d get results. That’s why I sat in the airport and wondered if I was losing my freaking mind.

I ventured to the psilocybin-assisted retreat with excitement, but also quite a bit of trepidation. However, once I arrived, that trepidation went away. I felt completely safe. So much so, that I didn’t lock the door to my room. The staff was incredibly professional and also extremely compassionate, kind, and intuitive. They worked with each of us to ensure the best possible outcome for our individual trips. They helped us temper our expectations, set our intentions, explore our unconscious minds, and, afterward, integrate our experiences.

When it came time for our first trip, we each received a low dose of psilocybin. I was hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. I had resigned myself to the fact that, as a control-freak, I would probably hate being out of control, and might even have a panic attack. None of that happened. I didn’t feel anything other than extreme relaxation. And I did not trip at all.

My quiet tripping space by the orange gate. (Photo by Lizbeth Finn-Arnold)

During the second attempt two days later, I received an increased dose. I reclined on a lounge chair under a tree, put on my eye mask, and listened to the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Study playlist on Spotify. I experienced heightened senses, and the music brought me to tears and made me feel temporarily ecstatic. But still, nothing magical or mystical occurred. I didn’t have any visual disturbances or hallucinations, and I never felt high. For years, I often listened to music through headphones as a way to escape my chronically-ill body. This trip felt like that — just another relaxing guided meditation.

Now instead of feeling fear, I felt frustrated. I didn’t travel to Jamaica to play it safe. I wanted to have an authentic wild and crazy psychedelic experience. After conferring with the retreat leaders (and agreeing that the antidepressant I was on could be dampening the effects of the mushrooms), we decided to up my dose considerably. I privately decided to skip the antidepressant for a couple of days, as well. I trusted the process and the people and knew no matter what happened — I’d be safe and supported.

The third time proved to be the charm. This trip kicked in fast. I was listening to the same psychedelic soundtrack; only this time, I was experiencing all those indescribable visions people talk about when they are high. I was strapped on a thrilling roller coaster ride. Mesmerizing geometric patterns pulled me into the music and out of my body. I became disengaged and detached from my overly-analytic brain.

It’s cliché to say it, but here goes — I felt at one with the universe.

Rebooting my brain at Treasure Beach. (Photo by Lizbeth Finn-Arnold)

I felt light. Content. Connected. Mushy. Whole. I was utterly beyond my body, and yet, my awareness remained intact. Light and love were right there available for all of us. Why didn’t we choose this option more?

When it started to rain, I moved from my lounge chair to a small covered porch. I put my pillow on the ground and laid down on it. I took my facemask off and watched our group going about their trips. It was like watching a surreal reality TV show. I grinned and chuckled and even shed a few tears. I loved these people so much. We were brave pioneers who traveled to a foreign and distant land to confront our demons. And after baring our souls to one another, and sharing in the mushroom’s medicine, we were no longer strangers. We were brothers-and-sister-in-arms.

The sound of the rain, mixed with the chatter of our group, felt like a lullaby. I fell in and out of a light sleep. I had no idea how long the trip would last, but I told myself — go with it and enjoy this ride. Any resistance slipped away completely. I wasn’t in a rush. I didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything. I just had to be. And BEING felt fantastic.

That’s when it hit me. For the first time in six years, I did not feel one iota of pain or discomfort in my body. Immediately, years of resentment, rage, and grief tied to my chronic illness dissipated.

I grabbed my journal and wrote: I don’t know why I expected my trip would be one of horror and pain. The mushroom whispered — you have endured enough horror and pain. This trip is about release, love, acceptance, and peace.

Not all my insights were profound (even though they felt so). As I opened and closed my eyes, I kept seeing an intricate beehive pattern over and over again. It was as if the sky was glitchy, and I could see behind the matrix. Then the beehive pattern formed a giant soccer ball, and I had an epiphany. Soccer balls are sacred geometric symbols! This must be why soccer is so internationally-revered!

Even this silly insight brought me relief. It was so unselfconscious — and so unlike me. There was liberation in surrendering entirely to the process.

After years of pain and wanting to escape my physical being, I suddenly loved being alive in my body. And I loved my brain. It had protected me for so many years and kept me functioning against all the odds.

But it was time for a reboot. And that afternoon, my brain was rebooted.

I can say that my first official psychedelic trip was immensely enjoyable. Even so, I cried for five hours straight, and it felt as if my entire body was weeping. I was purging something heavy and dark. It was something ancient that I had been carrying around for centuries — something that was never mine to carry.

Luckily, I didn’t feel pain, have disturbing visions, or relive any trauma. It was as if my brain was defragmenting itself while I enjoyed a spectacular show of light and sound. It was pure bliss.

I should mention, psychedelic experiences are highly variable. Not everyone in my group had purely pleasurable or positive experiences. Still, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins, even after bad trips, 76% of the respondents in their study said that the experience “resulted in an improved sense of personal well-being or life satisfaction.”

However, bad trips can be terrifying and destabilizing. Therefore, for optimal therapeutic benefit, it’s best to work with professionals who can assist before, during, and after the hallucinogenic experience. Integration and follow-up are also crucial.

A week after my experience, I still feel the glow from my psychedelic sojourn. When I chat with my fellow mushroom travelers and talk about our re-entry into the real world, I get emotional. Deep in my bones, I know I will never be the same. How can I go back to the way things were when I have peeked behind the curtain and seen how things could be?

My Default Mode Network has gone quiet for the first time in my life. I keep joking that ‘they broke my brain in Jamaica.’

Who am I without the persistent rumination and over-analyzing?

How long will my Default Mode Network remain offline? I don’t know, but at the moment, a quieter mind is helping me get through an extremely stressful and emotional period of my life. Instead of spiraling into anger, hate, or despair, I feel a calm resolve. I find myself singing spontaneously in the shower. I smile at strangers on the street. I feel the most intense and magnanimous love for everyone — even those who have hurt me — and whom I have hurt.

I am going through a dark and challenging transition, perhaps the darkest of my life, but at the moment, the darkness does not consume me. I see how much easier life can be when I listen to the wisdom of the mushrooms and stop resisting. I’ve spent my entire life fighting to hold onto things. Maybe, now, I am supposed to surrender and let go.

As the mushroom whispered to me in the gentle rain — you have already endured enough horror and pain. Now is the time for release, love, acceptance, and peace.

*******

I believe my trip to Jamaica was highly successful (and well worth the money). However, I also believe this is only the beginning of my story with psilocybin. I’ve peeled back one layer, but there is more work to be done. Now that I see what is possible, I am eager to experiment and explore and continue to heal my mind and body. It is my hope that research will continue and psychedelic medicine will eventually be decriminalized, legalized, mainstreamed, and destigmatized. Nobody should have to suffer needlessly for years (or decades) when effective, safe medicine exists in nature.

For more information about the MycoMeditations psilocybin-assisted retreat in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, go to mycomeditations.com.

Other resources:

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan.

A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life by Ayelet Waldman.

Centre for Psychedelic Research — Imperial College London https://www.imperial.ac.uk/psychedelic-research-centre/

The Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins https://hopkinspsychedelic.org/

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Experiences (MAPs) https:/maps.org

I write, create, instruct. My curiosity is expansive — health, happiness, relationships, spirituality, TV/film, psychedelics, feminism, neuroscience, life.

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