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Return of hallucinogenic drugs

The miracle mushroom

A DIFFERENT TRIP: The drug psilocybin found in the psilocybin mushroom can help cancer patients regain a sense of existential meaning in the face of their disease;(right) Rex had breast cancer

Hallucinogenic drugs showed great promise as therapeutic treatments before they were banished from the clinical scene in the 1970s. They are now making a comeback.

A symphonic note lit three strands of deep-red light trickling like water in my right visual field. Deeper tones were huge blue clouds in the middle distance, pouring from above. A prolonged violin solo turned the sky yellow, and brought with it a comet's tail of body parts flying from the upper left of my visual field to the lower right, disappearing behind me.

This happened within the first hour of my swallowing a capsule of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in "magic mushrooms". I'd volunteered to be a scientific research study subject at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Behavioural Pharmacology Research Unit (BPRU) as part of a clinical trial to test the hypothesis that psilocybin can help cancer patients to regain a sense of existential meaning in the face of their disease. This study is designed to measure how well the drug does in alleviating anxiety and depression associated with cancer.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. A year on from a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, now on aromatase inhibitors, my prognosis seemed good. But rather than cheerfully getting on with life, I was spending most days at my desk crying. I began searching the web for a way to kill myself that wouldn't be either messy or too painful.

Both in the UK and US, where I had my surgery, medicine excels at finding cures for disease and saving lives. All that excellence has created a kind of void, wherein treatment of the disease has trumped the human needs of those being treated. My demoralisation is common among cancer patients. We obsess about survival and what the future holds for us. The system isn't structured to help doctors to help us.

As a result, it's a good thing for me that after a long banishment from the clinical scene, hallucinogens are making a comeback. Prior to their 1970s prohibition, psilocybin and LSD were prescribed to around 40, 000 research subjects, among them people with cancer, alcoholics, and those suffering from depression and OCD. The results showed remarkable promise in helping people to overcome pain, fear, compulsive behaviours and psychological isolation. Following a dose administered in a clinical setting, hallucinogens diminish symptoms and improve therapeutic outcomes for months, even years, afterwards. Many patients undergo a psychospiritual epiphany, wherein they feel a union with the Universe and sense life has meaning beyond what's happening in the physical body.

"Set and setting" are key factors in the hallucinogen-assisted therapy equation. "Set" refers to "mindset" - the patient's mental and emotional attitude towards the hallucinogenic experience. "Setting" is the physical and social environment - the room or space itself, and people who are present with the subject during the experience.

"Set" must include a willingness to move towards repellent or frightening thoughts and images, rather than trying to flee from them. Part of the "set-and-setting" equation includes complete trust in the guides, trained psychotherapists who remain throughout the entire session. The images and feelings can be beautiful and transcendent, or terrifying and disgusting - or all of these over the course of the day.

When my session day arrived, I was brought into a softly lit, comfortably decorated lounge, invited to lie down on a sofa and listen to music. Then I swallowed a purple capsule of psilocybin.

Some time later, when I was deeply within the world of the drug, I found myself inside a steel industrial space. I became aware of my animosity towards my two living siblings. A woman sitting at the end of a long table, wearing a net cap, white clothes, and working busily, turned and handed me a Dixie cup.

"You can put that in here, " she said. So I did. The cup filled itself with my bilious, siblingdirected feelings. "We'll put it over here, " she said, and placed it on a table at the back of the room. Then she went matter-of-factly back to work, along with now-numerous busy women. At that point, my guide Fred asked me what was happening. I recounted the scene and then I began to laugh out loud. My own laughter appeared to me in a midnight-blue, cloud-dark sky as an effusion of twinkling gemstones. I was in two places at once, both in the session room, talking to my guide, and in the other world of the drug, with its own aesthetics and its own logic.

Not all subjects have an allencompassing transcendent experience during their sessions, wherein they feel a profound oneness of all things, a union with the Universe or with God. I did not - and was at first disappointed. But as the months have passed, I realise what I did gain is immeasurable. Since my session, my mood has improved, and my sense of myself, as a person occupying a certain space in the Universe, has altered. Later on, when talking about my hallucinations with the clinicians and my guides, I found they provided me with some profound truths about my life, my feelings and my sense of myself. My tendency to judge myself with a kind of murderous harshness has ebbed. I'm now able to feel more compassion towards myself. I no longer spend days worrying about the future, and about whether I'll have a cancer recurrence, or whether I'll die alone.

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