A note to new readers: I have recently applied to be included in a Health-Canada-approved study into the use of psilocybin in the management of treatment-resistant depression (TRD). I have survived the first few stages of the screening process and I really hope to be admitted to the study. How I got to this point will be the subject of this series of blog posts. By the time I’ve written a few of them, I should have learned whether or not I am admitted to the study. If I am, I intend to share the experience with interested readers here.
From There to Here
Despite my normally adventurous (some would call it “foolhardy”) spirit (e.g., I’ve skydived… once. Never again… and travelled to India on my own), if I had seen an invitation to join a study into the use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression even five years ago, I might not have submitted an application. Then, I probably would have been worried that: 1) the treatment would do nothing, and I’d be further demoralized, and/or 2) (at the other end of the spectrum) my mind would change so much that I wouldn’t be “me” any more (specifically, that I wouldn’t feel the need to write any more), and/or 3) that my friends and family would disapprove.
It is not that my fears have gone away – in fact I’ve acquired some new ones since I first contacted the study administrators, and I intend to write a whole post about them when I get closer to the actual experience. But my knowledge about mind-altering substances has increased considerably in the past five years. This learning journey started in an effort to find a meditation program that was suited to my needs and I’m recounting that experience here not because I think other people should learn to meditate, but only to explain how for me, that investigation led me from where I was in regard to psychedelics to where I am now.
Several years ago, a person who is close to me said that he was giving serious attention to the practice of meditation, and he’d found it was giving him some relief from the uproar of the world in general and daily life in particular. He was telling me about it because he thought I might be interested. Even though many people I know have found meditation helpful – most notably my sister, who is actually a meditation guide – I have always resisted it. I used to say, “I’ll have time to sit and do nothing when I’m dead” (totally ignoring how much time I spend sitting and doing nothing even without meditation). But since I was deep in my blue ocean at the time, I decided to give it a shot. He’d been reading Dan Harris’s Ten Percent Happier so I started there as well: first with the book and then with the app, and I used the app fairly consistently for several months.
I loved a lot about Dan Harris’s wildly popular program (which thousands if not millions have found helpful) but I had some issues with it: the spiritual dimensions and something about the tone just weren’t right for me. I was grateful for the introduction to Joseph Goldstein and a few other leaders in the field, and I admired the “heart” and generosity at the foundation of Dan Harris’s meditation program. But I was not interested in becoming a buddhist or a saint, and I decided to investigate what else was out there. I tried Headspace for a while, then Calm.
In the meantime, I had become a regular listener to Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcasts. (Sam Harris is totally unrelated to Dan Harris, by the way.) I know there are people who love Sam Harris’s outlook and some who absolutely do not, but I have always appreciated his (usually) rational approach to issues, his intelligence, and his wide range of interests. I don’t always agree with him, but in recent years particularly, I have found him a reasonable and interesting voice in this increasingly distressing – and often downright frightening – world.
Sam Harris had often talked about meditation on his podcasts, but I’d mainly skimmed or skipped those until now. I went back and started listening to his interviews with others in the field (including Dan Harris and Joseph Goldstein), and I learned that Sam now had his own meditation app. Entitled Waking Up, it was pricey compared to other meditation apps, but it offered a lot of other resources I was interested in as well (more talks by interesting people on psychology, philosophy, etc.). I decided to give it a shot.
In the immortal words of Goldilocks, for me Waking Up turned out to be “just right.” It was not too mystical and “oogie-boogie” on the one hand; nor, on the other, was it too bare bones, intended only to relieve my daily stresses and help me learn how to fall asleep. It went deep and made demands of me. I now meditate several times a week and after quite a bit of practice, I’m finally getting the hang of it to the extent that I do feel better when I do it. I’m seeing the world in a new way, and the possibilities continue to intrigue me.
In the meantime, I continued listening to the Making Sense podcast. I realized that several of the guests Sam Harris interviewed, as well as Sam himself, had begun talking seriously about psychedelic experiences they’d had in the past and, as time went on, ones they’d had more recently. They frequently talked about these experiences in terms of what they had learned from meditating. By now I had a high degree of trust in Harris, and I found the guests he was talking to (Tim Ferriss and Michael Pollan, for example) equally sincere, intelligent and rational. I knew they were respected in their fields, and so my ears perked up when they started talking about recent findings regarding the use of psychedelics in the treatment of addiction, depression, and PTSD. They also reported that psychedelics were showing great promise in alleviating end-of-life fears among those with terminal illnesses, freeing them to more fully engage with the world in the time that they had left.
Of course, psychedelics are not available for therapeutic use in Canada, and many of Sam Harris’s guests had cautioned against using them without a knowledgeable and honest guide on hand (there are sleezeballs out there. More about that in another post). So, even though I found several places online where I could apparently order “magic” mushrooms or the spores to grow my own, I was not about to try something that could actually cause me damage.
Late last year – increasingly frustrated to know that they might help but that I could not access them – I began to look more seriously for someone in my geographic area who might be using psilocybin or other psychedelic substances for therapeutic purposes. When a close friend of ours was dying, someone suggested he check out a CTV W5 program on psychedelic healing. As it turned out, our friend didn’t need it (he was not afraid of dying), but I watched it carefully. Twice. I was amazed to learn that treatments using ketamine to treat depression are available in Canada and the U.S., and that clinics that combine ketamine dosing with psychotherapy are opening in many cities. Soon after that, with the support of my family, I registered to attend a ketamine clinic in Toronto.
Ketamine has been showing astonishing, almost overnight, results for people with depression – estimates of those finding relief after using it have been as high as 70%. As you may have noticed, suddenly this approach to treating PTSD and depression is being written about and broadcast everywhere. However, it wasn’t until after I had been accepted into the program that I started reading the scientific literature about ketamine, and a few weeks ago, before my treatment program had begun, I decided to withdraw.
I’ll write about ketamine next time.
P.S. I welcome your comments on this blog! Please note that I have settings that permit me to approve comments before they are posted (I went viral on another blog once, and I don’t really want to re-experience the downsides of that kind of attention again!) so your comments may not appear until the day after you have posted them.