A Trip of Wonder
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a hip neighborhood in Amsterdam, De Pijp, in the bedroom of a 30-something hot lawyer friend. A beautiful, funny, brilliant young woman. And in her bedroom I experienced the most amazing love of my life. It was a kind of love I’ve never felt before. A kind of euphoria I couldn’t even imagine was possible, let alone to experience.
Yet, she wasn’t there. Although Mark was.
Mark and I had met online a few weeks earlier. After a few brief email exchanges, we decided to meet in person and set this date. So here I was, having just flown in the day before, where my lawyer friend and her fiancé (another beautiful soul) offered to put me up.
My hosts left for work in the morning and I kindly asked them not to come back until at least late afternoon, even if the neighbors complained of strange noises! About an hour later, precisely at 10 o’clock as agreed, the bell rang. While waiting for Mark to climb the stairs with the door open, my heart stepped up a gear. Once he was in the apartment and shaking my hand with a firm grip, my heart skipped another beat. I was extremely excited and a bit jittery as well since I hadn’t been able to sleep well due to all the excitement.
He was tall but less than I’d imagined him to be (for no reason other than his nationality — he was Dutch after all). I also expected him to be on the skinnier side, again, for no particular reason and again not true. Instead he was of sturdy build and had thick arms and legs, and his clothes definitely seemed to have been bought before he had started working out! He had a big face, topped with curly hair, big brown eyes and a beaming smile.
We didn’t waste time on pleasantries. We directly sat down at the corner of the table in the living room and started talking to get to know each other as quickly as possible before entering into the bedroom.
After he gave me his short bio, I took him on an accelerated personal history tour during which I underlined my past traumas and fears. After 90 minutes of intense conversation, it finally came down to expectations. My expectations of the day ahead of us. He took note, then reached into his pocket to take out a small box, and said:
“You’d better take his already”. The package label read:
15GR- GALINDOLII - AREA 51, MUSHROCKS, COSMIC CONNECTORS.
What Mark handed me was Psilocybe galindoii, a type of psilocybin mushroom, commonly known as “magic mushrooms” or “meat of the Gods” - which fit the occasion perfectly because the whole reason for my trip was to experience something otherworldly.
Not to lose you this early to a “Ohh fuck, not another Amsterdam mushroom story please”, let me tell you that I was not here for a let’s-have-a-good-laugh trip but for a therapeutic one. I was here for my first (succesful) psychedelic experience and Mark was my tripsitter (a term I had no idea existed until a few weeks before) and guide.
(If you don’t know anything about psychedelics, I will try to sum it up here, but I also encourage you to do your own research. These articles are a good place to start:
Psychedelics serve as an umbrella term for different “drugs” and plants, such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, iboga, mescaline and a few others. Man-made molecules like LSD and MDMA are also considered to be psychedelic since their chemical structure is very similar to other psychedelic plants.
They have been known and used by ancients societies for thousands of years, for many health reasons, both physical and mental. However, the Western world discovered them only in the 1950s, yet it was instant love, and LSD and psilocybin (which were legal back then) went kinda mainstream.
There was also lots scientific research into psychedelics, with Harvard University at its epicenter, until the beginning of 1970s. Then, with the anti-Vietnam movement and Richard Nixon’s “War On Drugs”, a shit show began, psychedelics (among others) got banned, research stopped and psychedelics went back underground. Until, well, 2010s. Now, psychedelics are making a comeback.
OK. Now I hope you’re still with me. And if you are, allow me go on another tangent here and tell you a bit more about my personal history before circling back where we are: 15 grams of mushroom in my belly, eye shades on my eyes and Bach in my ears.
Back in the early spring of 2014, I was not in a good place mentally, to put it mildly. A severe depression had hit me that I hadn’t seen coming at all. My crippling condition featured all the classical symptoms: not feeling like getting out of the bed in the morning, as if a cow was sitting on my chest, no energy whatsoever, getting lost in constant dark thoughts, paying visits to the basement in the office so I could cry freely.
Long story short, I started finding myself picturing an exit from this life: with a gun to my head, and after the shot, falling down smiling.
This last bit, daydreaming about myself as a happy corpse, really freaked me out. This whole episode took me by surprise too – how could it not! Only until a few weeks before, I was that asshole who gives a wink at his reflection in a shop window, saying “How you doin?” to himself like Joey from Friends. And in the space of just a few weeks, I was wearing sunglasses to the office to hide my teary eyes. WTF world?
Well, it turned out, I was going through something called SSRI Withdrawal Syndrome. You see dear readers, I’d just decided to taper off of antidepressants (i.e. Cipralex 10 mg) and it turns out, there was such a thing as SSRI withdrawal and its medical explanation goes something like the south of hell a person goes through after quitting antidepressants — those little pills advertised by shrinks, family members and friends alike like candy.
After the self-diagnosis (which was also confirmed by a shrink), I started digging into how to get out of the mess I’d found myself in, and simultaneously went down a rabbit hole, which looked much like a Q&A session with myself:
Q: Why the hell did I start using antidepressants in the first place?
A: Severe insomnia, don’t you remember?
Q: Yeah but what was the root cause of that?
A: The shrink had said “anxious personality”.
Q: What the fuck does that mean?
A: No idea.
Q: You didn’t ask?
A: Nope. He said it so matter-of-factly, like it was my eye colour, like there is nothing to do about it. He said these pills is a wonderful cure, so I didn’t bother asking more questions about my fuckedupnessness.
Q: He didn’t tell you about this withdrawal?
A: Nope. In fact, he said it’s really easy to quit. I remember him saying that some of his patients had quit by simply forgetting to take their pills on vacation.
Q: Then let’s file a complaint for this asshole!
A: Dialing already.
I took this self-talk as quintessential proof of me going full-blown mad, so I kept digging further, for more questions and answers. Along the way on my quest, I stumbled upon the works of many brilliant people [*please refer to the end notes for a short list]. I don’t wanna bore you with all that I’ve read, heard (podcasts) and watched about a healthy mind and body (oh yeah, those two are inseparable). But here are a few tidbits:
✔ Depression, anxiety, addiction, insomnia, panic attacks – most mental ailments are different colors of the same shit. And that “shit” is not a chemical imbalance.
✔ The “chemical imbalance theory”, the idea suggesting that depression, anxiety, manic-depressive disorder, or Stockholm Syndrome stem from an imbalance of certain brain chemicals, which is the underlying model for the anti-depressants, is a bit of a hoax (and I’m trying to be a gentleman here).
✔ Remember the word “evolution”? That smart, handy word we usually throw at fundamentalist assholes but somehow neglect to use it as a useful perspective when it comes to our own health. We live our modern lives almost entirely in contrast with how we evolved for hundreds of thousands of years and yet, we find the diseases/ailments we face as isolated incidents or just as bad luck and reach for a pill to fix it.
✔ We are in constant need of good, nutritious food; meaning and purpose in life; being close to nature; meaningful, caring and long-lasting relationships; smart exercise and movement; sound sleep; heaps of joy and fun; and good sex. Yet we either don’t get any of these or too little or too seldom - and expect to live a happy and healthy life.
✔ Ohh and trauma. That little son-of-a-bitch of a memory stuck in the wrong part of the brain (i.e. amygdala) which haunts most of us, consciously or unconsciously, for most of our lives. As a result, we not only suffer indefinitely, but we also act like assholes, and inflict the same trauma on our most loved ones, including our offspring.
At this point, I hear you saying “OK, but what the fuck does all this have to do with Mark?”
Here’s the thing: almost all the people I stumbled upon during my time in this rabbit hole were very excited about this “newly (re)found” tool called psychedelics and attesting to their immense healing capacity. Their capacity for healing from those very human conditions: wounds, trauma, depression, anxiety, addiction, emotional pain, existential angst...
These testimonials definitely piqued my interest. How could they not? There is so much unnecessary suffering out there. Just too much. Look, even I (a relatively “lucky” person, a genetic lottery winner, physically and mentally), suffered from:
(1) Obsessive compulsive disorder
(3) Panic attacks
(4) Severe insomnia
(5) Alcohol and drug abuse
(6) Chronic fatigue syndrome (how surprising)
(7) SSRI withdrawal syndrome
(8) Shingles (yes, even fucking shingles)
And I now know, none of the above is was predetermined, none of the above was “my fate”. In other words, I could have avoided most of these ailments and the pain they inflicted, had I known any better. This is true for everyone. We simply suffer a lot and our suffering, to a great extent, is unnecessary and/or avoidable. Yet we don’t know shit about how.
This is why I got super excited when I learned more and more about the the miraculous effects of psychedelics on mental health - and these miracles happened, sometimes, in just a single session. Long story short, people in pain, along with people in science, say the same thing: psychedelics are highly effective for tackling some very insistent, very debilitating mental problems.
But there is more. It can be also utilized as a tool for the “betterment of the well”. Since I considered myself one of the “well” (at least, at this period of my life), I was in Amsterdam more for the betterment than to say fuck off to my skeletons.
Aaaand the tangent closes.
So we are back in the bedroom in Amsterdam. I’m now lying down in the bed with 15 grams of some potent mushrooms in my belly. Since I wanted to be alone in the room, Mark' is trip-sitting me from the living room.
Beautiful music is playing through the wifi speakers next to my bed. A mix of dramatic classical music and some world music and jazz. We –Mark and I- decided to play the Johns Hopkins’ Spotify list, the playlist the researchers play during their psilocybin trials at the University’s Psychedelic Research Center (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5KWf8H2pM0tlVd7niMtqeU?si=_eIq0SRkTiWwpCMMHEYsig).
This is also the same playlist Michael Pollan listened to during his mesmerizing mushroom trips. However, thus far, my trip couldn’t be less mesmerizing. In fact, it was pretty dull so far!
“How the fuck can MY mushroom trip be this dull” I thought - and my thoughts were well-founded: I was at this point almost an hour in, but I hadn’t see any action whatsoever. No horseman came to get me and no travels made back in time on his horseback. No one contacted me from the past or the future. No childhood trauma replayed. No one whistled me the magic numbers to the lottery. Nothing. Except for some meaningless shapes which kept changing and changing and changing, like Winamp visuals. “Get your shit together and form a decent pattern, like a name or something, would ya?” I wanted to say to those stupid shapes.
I had also been frantically checking the trees in the backyard. Those boring trees, who only moved idly with the wind, and the stupid windowsill plant (please refer to the cover photo for the actual image of the boring plant and the trees). So, no action on the plant front either. “Even the lowly plants won’t connect with me” I thought, “Michael Pollan’s plants staged him a Broadway show, and mine are just sitting there, doing nothing”.
And I wasn’t expecting much to be honest. Almost every mushroom trip I’d heard of featured some sort of bizarre connection with nature, even recreational ones. “It’s like the least you can expect from a goddamn mushroom” I thought, and with that thought, I panicked even more: instead of making me a “better person”, what if this trip turned me into the biggest douche I’ve ever been?? How brilliant. I started this journey with the distant hope of becoming a “more present, productive person” and I ended up cursing at a plant!
Mark entered the room when I was sending my telepathic apologies to the plant and the trees. “How are you feeling?” he said, his smile as big as my disappointment. “I am doing good” I answered, “I am feeling pretty great actually”. Come to think of it, this wasn’t a lie. There is the “visual” aspect and then there is the “emotional” aspect of a mushroom trip. While the former had gotten off to a lousy start, the latter had not disappointed. In other words, except for being grumpy at my plant companions, I was feeling really good: warm, secure and cozy - like you feel on (pure) MDMA.
“So, do you wanna go deeper?” he said. “Hell yes, bring it on” I replied. His smile grew even bigger - or so I imagined, and he gave me another 15 grams. Now I am going for 30 grams in total - a.k.a the Heroic Dose among psychedelic circles. After eating the second dose, I put the eye shades on and left the plants in peace. And about 20 minutes later, everything changed…
Here’s a caveat: when people talk about their psychedelic experiences, they usually start with “it is impossible to put into words, it’s ineffable”, and yet, this won’t stop them! They will continue talking about it, while you try to find a moment to excuse yourself for the loo. And I will also try to do the impossible, at least for half a page, while trying to be the least boring.
With the Heroic Dose, my already ecstatic state upped a few gears and so did the visuals. The geometric, inanimate Winamp visuals started turning into more animate, naturistic objects and things. And these animate objects changed constantly too. But not like in a sequence, not like a slide show. Instead, they changed into other things - for example a tree-looking-object grows and dies and morphs into another animate object. I was watching a mesmerizing show titled “The Constant Change of Life - and the trivial problems of Mr Kırmızı Şortlu”.
The show lasted a few hours, with occasional breaks from visitors and for chats with the windowsill plant and the trees. The first visitor was my ex-girlfriend, the one whose break-up had drilled a hole in my heart two years prior. It took some time to heal that wound, more than I’d expected. It was one of the darker episodes of my life to be honest. But it too passed and the wound eventually healed.
That day I had no resentment towards her, no anger, no hard feelings. There was no break-up trauma left, yet, I’d still hoped for her to come up in my trip. And it wasn’t to say “fuck you!” either. On the contrary, I wanted to thank her, to show my gratitude. To say “Thank you for coming into my life and making me realize that I am, in fact, ready for the next “chapter”. For making me realize that I am, maybe a little late, ready to be a part of something that is bigger than just ME" (I am actually kinda bored to death with just me to be honest).
She entered the scene emerging from a thick fog like the zombies in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Her face was completely dark. I couldn’t even spot her eyes . And she was crying, which I wasn’t expecting. She came towards me and put her head on my left shoulder, all the while crying silently. Instead of saying thank you, I found myself caressing her long, thick hair, whispering “canım benim, canım benim” (“my dear”). I said “I didn’t make you feel good. I hope you can find happiness somewhere else.” After this, she slowly disappeared back into the fog where she came from.
The next guest appearance was from another ex. This one was a happier occasion. We hugged tightly. I put a few kisses on her cheeks, all the while saying “canım benim, canım benim” before she slowly disappeared.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a person who says “canım benim, canım benim” to all his exes all the time, but for the next few hours, these were the only words I could say to anyone who made an appearance on the show. These were the only words I could say because, I was incapable of having any emotion that was not pure love, kindness or compassion...
Love was, during this whole trip, the only constant, the main theme. While going deeper and deeper into the journey, I was also feeling more and more love. I felt love for EVERYTHING and EVERYONE. However, the nature of love changed too. After a while, I wasn’t the subject of love anymore. The boundaries between me, as a separate being, and other beings, became blurry. After a while, I wasn’t a person being in love or a person being loved. I was just part of it. I was part of this magnificent, omnipotent, uniting love…
With this love, I started looking for problems in my life. Looking for traumas, wounds not necessarily healed. People who cause me stress. People to whom I cause stress. I was actually looking for trouble, because I’d never felt in a better place to solve them than that moment. “Now I understand how people say fuck off to their traumas” I thought, “Now I get it”.
But I couldn’t find much for myself. My problems, at least at the time, just did not seem so important. Or, not “not important” but, I couldn’t really see the “problem” as a problem. For instance, there was this person I had some communication problems with. Our relationship was far from being perfect. There was a mental, emotional barrier that prevented both of us from taking a step in each other’s direction to have a better relationship. “What’s my problem with this guy? We do not communicate well - OK, I’ll take the first step and go to him with open arms” I decided (and later did, with much success). The emotional barrier was nowhere to be felt.
After some time, I took my eye shades off. I looked at the plant at the windowsill. She was smiling to me, and dancing, with all her colors changing all the time. Some of her leaves and arms would go brown and then become the liveliest green again a few seconds later. As if she was constantly dying and coming back to life. As if she was showing me all her circle of life. As if she was saying “Now you get it asshole, don’t you?”. “Yess, canım benim" I said, “yes, I do.”...
After making amends with the plant, I reached for the photos I brought with me as Mark had suggested. “Bring photos of loved ones” he had said, “It helps during the trip”.
So I started looking at photos of my nephews. I looked at my sister and her partner. I looked deep into their eyes. The love and the compassion I felt for them at that moment is indescribable. Not just love but also gratitude. Gratitude to my sister and her partner for all they’ve done to raise these wonderful kids. I thanked them. Kissed all of them one by one - and said millions of “canım benims”, of course.
With the photos lying on the bed next to me, with trees dancing outside and with not-so-stupid-plant tap-dancing on the windowsill, I thought: “I am bathing in a sea of love”. Tears started to flow. Tears of joy. Tears of bliss. I never felt happier, more grateful, more blissful and joyful in my life.
And this state; this feeling of being part of something much bigger, this connection with nature, this feeling of oneness, this enormous love - it didn’t feel temporary or mushroom-induced. Or it didn’t feel like it is only for a brief time. It didn’t feel like it is out there just a for a bunch of eccentrics, mystics or Steve Jobs. It didn’t feel like I’ve been invited into a secret club. It felt like it’s always there, and it’s for everyone. It felt like, it was and is always there, like the blue sky above the clouds. And at this point, I started hearing these magical words:
“Everything’s fine, as you are. Everything’s gonna be fine, as you will”.
I couldn’t understand whether someone was uttering these words, or my mind playing a trick or a “cosmic” reality that I finally got to recognize. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. .
It also doesn’t matter whether you are lying down on a bed with 30 grams of psicolybe galindoii in your belly and listening to Brahms’ II. Adagio or being stuck in İstanbul traffic next to a chain-smoking cab driver - that blue sky is always there. However, in case of the latter, you might not readily tap into that feeling compared to the former scenario.
After a little while, I got up and went into the living room. I was still tripping but the peak was over, and I had checked all the boxes I wanted to check - except for that damn horseman:
★ connected with nature,
★ ego got dissolved,
★ oneness felt,
★ canım benims said,
★ bathed in love
★ touched the face of God.
While getting out of the bedroom, I wanted to check the time, but had no such luck. I looked at my watch yet could not read the time! The watch was working perfectly but I just didn’t know how to tell the time from the moving metal line things! “This is awesome” I thought, “what a total reset!”.
“How was it?” asked Mark, curiously. “Ready to share any insights?”
I returned my gaze from my watch to Mark. “This was the best thing ever happened to me” I said, “this was the best experience I’ve ever had. I wish all my friends get to experience this. All of them.” He seemed very happy with what I had just said. “Ohh by the way, in case you don’t know, only LOVE matters.” I added. We both laughed for a few good minutes.
We continued talking for another hour or so. This was the therapy part of the session. We discussed what I’d seen and felt. To be honest, there were no bizarre emotions or enigmatic appearances that begged for close scrutiny. In fact, I thought that my experience may be a little too dull for a PTSD and severe depression therapist who treats ex-combat soldiers and firemen alike from all around the world. “I now understand how people get rid of their traumas” I said, “there was nothing in my life that I couldn’t deal with back in there, no matter how painful.” He nodded, smiling again.
And after this, we hugged, and said goodbye.
Before leaving, he turned to me and said “You should be proud of yourself Kırmızı Şortlu, this takes courage you know.” I couldn’t keep myself from hugging him again.
I thought about what he said after he left, about me showing courage. We humans, especially men, are highly skilled at hiding skeletons, never ever talking about them and then putting a bullet in the head one sunny Sunday afternoon. I, to the contrary, am a talker (and writer) of emotions, talker of tough, dark times. Perhaps even a little too much sometimes.
I was also in a very happy, very content place coming to Amsterdam. But even then, I was a little anxious about what the session may bring to the surface: Would I encounter the poor guy I killed at a traffic accident 17 years ago? Would my childhood friend who killed herself a little after I suggested to her that I didn’t find her suicide attempts real pay a visit? Would my childhood trauma be replayed?
It really takes courage to do a Heroic Dose session, and the level of courage required for a Heroic Dose would differ from person to person, depending on their number of skeletons and their skills at hiding them. However, as courage has definitely a part to play, I believe regret has none. I am fully aware that this kind of therapy would be much less fun than mine for most people, much more like a roller-coaster ride or straight up hellish. Yet I couldn’t fathom how one might not come out better from the end of tunnel, or how one could regret experiencing something like this.
And I’d get an answer to that soon...
The next day, sitting on my friend’s sofa, in the afterglow of the session (afterglow is the opposite of a drug/alcohol hangover where you smile stupidly and sing Heroes - Motorhead), my phone chimed. It was a message from a dear old friend. A friend who had experienced a catastrophic event in her late teens. An event which caused (and was still causing) her enormous pain. A pain that crippled her socially. A pain that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, didn’t seem like it would ever soften its grip on her. A pain that made her lose hope..
“Are you in Amsterdam?” the message read and continued with a “I gotta tell you something.” We don’t get to chat much, at most a few times a year. And she had never before said “I gotta tell you something”, a phrase that would ignite curiosity and uneasiness in any human being. So I was fully focused on the little screen.
“I did it. I went to Amsterdam two weeks ago, rented a hotel room, and did a mushroom session with a guide from tripsitter.amsterdam”.
I couldn’t fucking believe what I just read. However, it wasn’t a “WHAT ARE THE FUCKING ODDS, ME TOOOO” kinda shock.
She knew about the pyschedelics and my curiosity and even about the tripsitter.amsterdam. Because the moment I heard of the magic of psychedelics, I thought of her and along the way, shared with her my enthusiasm for psychedelics. I had even bought Michael Pollan’s book and got it shipped to her.
But she didn’t show any interest in the subject. She didn’t even tell me that she had read the book until a year later. And when I sent her tripsitter.amsterdam’s website (https://tripsitter.amsterdam/) and told her that I was thinking of doing a trip with them, she didn’t even reply. I felt like I was pushing her to face her demons too much and stopped there and I didn’t even tell her about my actual Amsterdam trip.
“You did? Ohh canım benim, I am so proud of you. Canım benim. How was it?”
“It was the most horrible trip of my life Kırmızı Şortlu” she said. “I spent last 1.5 hours of the trip in the bathroom, crying. The guide only left the hotel room after he was convinced that I wouldn’t hurt myself.”
She was still typing and I had now stopped pacing in the room like a Jack Russell - what’s gonna come next was too important:
“I couldn’t thank you enough Kırmızı Şortlu” she said. “It was a horrible experience. But at the end, I think something’s changed. I feel better now.”
Well I guess you can guess how I responded at this stage: with heaps of “canım benims”, accompanied by occasional “you are so braves”, a pinch of “I love you” and with a splash of (joy) tears. Thus, I managed to break my level of happiness record twice under 24 hours.
The other night, I was out with a good friend, whom I hadn’t seen for a long time since he moved to Paris. He was curious about my Amsterdam trip. I told him most of the story, all the while eyeing him cautiously, trying to gauge his New Agey Mumbo Jumbo-meter. Which, to my surprise, didn’t seem to go off.
At the end, he asked, like many before: “So, did you get any long-term, lasting benefits?”. I said, for me, there weren’t many. I made two resolutions during the session, to better my life, and I followed them. But, I didn’t become more creative or more present as I intended - or not yet.
“But it was still great. It was like having experienced Gezi Park protests**” I told him. His eyebrows made a reverse bent.
“You know, after the Gezi Protests, many people felt it was for nothing since we couldn’t even move one fucking minister from his seat. But don’t you still get goosebumps when you think of those days? Don’t you think, having seen something so beautiful and so awe-inspiring is life-changing? I mean, before Gezi, we didn’t know we could be this beautiful, did we? So what if we weren’t able to move the Titan? I think what’s important is we know what we are able to do and become and to know that we can tap into that beauty again one day.”
When I finished, his eyebrows were still in a “bullshit” angle. He took a sip from his cocktail and started looking around the bar in hopes of finding something to change the subject.
“Well” he said “Amsterdam is only a few hours from Paris”.
(and Ciao kuşum, in case you read this).
[*] Including, but not limited to, MDs such as Kelly Brogan, Gabor Mate, Peter Attia, scientists such as Robert Sapolsky, Sam Harris, Robert Carhart-Harris; psychologist/therapists such as Jonathan Haidt, Terrence Real, Esther Perel; journalists such as Graham Hancock, Johann Hari, Dan Harris; thinkers/podcasters such as Chris Ryan, Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Russell Brand, Mark Manson and, last but not the least, the great Michael Pollan and his magnificent book titled How to Change Your Mind - What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence .
[**] If you haven't heard of Gezi Park Protests, here is a video to give you an idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0Uwh971f6w