The idea of an intimate Caribbean retreat where high-net-worth individuals take “trips” on magic mushrooms all week then sit around the pool sipping wine discussing their lives may sound like the premise for a bad movie, but it actually makes for a great, even profound, experience.
MycoMeditations, which offers one of the world’s few legal psilocybin-assisted therapy retreats, has been able to reimagine one of the hottest underground trends in the fast-emerging field of psychedelics in mental health into a five-star respite.
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“We’re aiming to establish a gold standard for this type of experience,” said Justin Townsend, MycoMeditations’s CEO and a longtime student of psychedelics. “This isn’t a religious or spiritual retreat with a shaman, part of a medical study or a recreational week for drug users.”
Exactly what it was remained to be seen. The guests ranged in age from 26 to 69 years old and included business owners, an attorney, a former military officer, a retired teacher, psychologists, grad students and my wife, Cathy, and me. No one’s reason for coming here was frivolous. Most of us had painful childhoods, some were battling alcoholism, drug addiction or PTSD, and a few others, like me, were seeking relief from long-term depression for which antidepressants had stopped working, or as another guest said about herself: “They’re making me lose my mind.”
My wife was suffering from two decades of severe insomnia. Specialists, sleep treatment, nothing helped. We were both so burned out, so exhausted from years of this Groundhog Day, it felt like we were at the end of our shared rope, with nothing left but thin air. Melodramatic, maybe, but true.
At the back of my mind, I wasn’t holding out much hope for a miracle cure or even substantive results. But Cathy was. She’d seen the Netflix movie Fantastic Fungi and had further researched the use of psilocybin for anxiety, depression, end-of-life reconciliation, alcoholism and, yes, insomnia. The laundry list of conditions, not to mention true-believer accounts of meeting higher powers or becoming one with the universe, triggered my journalist’s skepticism.
My doubts didn’t last long. I took my first trip on day two, and it was a fast plunge down my own personal rabbit hole. I’ll keep it brief, but the first thing I heard, after ingesting six psilocybin tablets (manufactured by Myco in its own facility), or three grams, was an unidentifiable male voice saying, “We better get going. We have a lot to get through today.”
Then my upper right chest area, which has been stiff, almost frozen, for as long as I can remember began to pulse with dread—yes, dread—and a different, younger voice said, “Oh, now you’ve done it. There’s no turning back.”
For the two-hour journey to the trip’s culmination, wearing dark eyeshades and listening to a five-hour playlist compiled by the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research for its psilocybin patients, I cycled through a montage of my worst childhood traumas: Four years old when my father became an absentee dad; 12 when we moved to a new state, far from friends and family, to a lonely, rundown house on the edge of a cemetery. The last was age 15, having moved for the ninth time since birth, feeling such despair about leaving friends behind again, I locked myself in my bedroom for the summer. There was a clarity to these visions, minus the usual emotion and resentment I’d always felt when I’d dredged them up in therapy. My eyeshade was filling with tears as I observed these younger versions of myself as lost boys, but I didn’t feel sad. And I wasn’t detached, either, like when watching a movie. Things felt real, present. I could see everything clearly, maybe for the first time.
Coming down during the second half of the trip was the flipside of the anxious climb: a prolonged sense of inner peace. I hung on to every nuanced, beautiful note of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” also catching the ocean waves, crickets and birdsong just beyond my earphones.
A sense of relief I hadn’t experienced for a long time. I leaned into that on the grass for what seemed like hours, feeling the darkness gathering. When Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” was over, I got up, and the facilitator, Mike, waiting in a nearby hammock, escorted me on wobbly knees to the group dinner.
“I’d be very bad with Wordle right now, but very good with butterflies,” was something Sean (he and the other guests requested pseudonyms to protect their privacy), a Midwestern commercial real estate developer, had scrawled into his notebook immediately after his first trip. We were all gathered in the Treehouse, an open structure overlooking the ocean.
Unlike my walk down Trauma Lane, Sean’s trip was lighter, almost carefree.
He called it an “insightful” experience, a mix of fantasy and reality that revolved around his family. The setting was reminiscent of a Broadway play, with Disneyesque Fantasia-like characters. And butterflies, lots of butterflies. “It was over the top, and during it I laughed at the absurdity,” Sean said. His big takeaway: The true purpose of life was to discover love and share it abundantly.
The Hallmark card-ish content of messages like that could be what turns many people away from the idea of psilocybin. But those messages often resulted from some of the most profound experiences these people had ever had, ranking up there with their children’s births or their wedding days. “The problem is that words can’t get close to touching what the experience was,” said Sean.
Others in the group had joyous, if less message-driven, trips, exploring the impossibly vibrant colors, birdlife and plants of the tropical gardens, eye masks off, via a new set of psychedelic eyes. A few had challenging experiences, including the attorney, who felt intense shame, and the former US military officer, who relived his war years in Iraq. But now he was able to release
his grief. “I saw these young soldiers again on their gurneys, limbs missing and suffering, and I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard,” he said.
My wife underwent a deeply felt transformation into a female elephant and enjoyed romps with a bull in her herd. She described feeling at one with nature. She was just radiant as she shared the trip with the group. “I want whatever she’s having,” said another guest.
These integrative sessions, the day after each trip, were key to bonding the group and gaining an understanding of the mushrooms’ mysteries.
“On a neurological level, they are resetting the default-mode network for cognitive insights, emotional breakthroughs and, at times, mystical experiences,” said Townsend.
Set and setting, writes Michael Pollan in his seminal book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, are the key parameters around any hallucinatory trip. Set, or mindset, is the mental state one brings to the experience. “We don’t take people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or histories of psychotic episodes,” Townsend said, noting that psilocybin can trigger an episode of such a condition in someone with a personal or family history of it.
The setting, as it turned out, was more than just a beautiful Jamaican Eden. It also had as much to do with having the right staff to guide and sometimes keep guests from wandering into trouble. On my first trip, I took the facilitators (trained, licensed psychologists, therapists and counselors) for granted, discounting them as a group of true believers.
But during my last trip, I appreciated how critical they were to the success of the retreat. In lucid moments during trips, I could see they were always nearby, monitoring guests but keeping a respectful distance. They were also on hand to talk guests through dark sequences—and everyone except Cathy had at least one darkish trip.
“It’s a powerful tool, but these medicines shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Kendra, a psychiatrist practicing in the Midwest, who trained with Myco after doing one of the retreats herself and no longer prescribes antidepressants.
The retreat’s climax for me was the third dose, at 8.5 grams, designed to obliterate whatever ego, or sense of self or self-importance, was keeping my rational mind separated from my subconscious—and perhaps even allow access to a higher consciousness.
The idea was to gain deeper insights, maybe even see a higher power. About 41 percent of the 1,300 people who have attended Myco retreats report having had a “mystical” experience; I was just hoping for a lighter trip than my second, when I’d glimpsed Armageddon. Spoiler alert: The battle between good and evil won’t be fun.
My last trip didn’t involve speaking with a deity or feeling at one with the universe, but I did eventually get dropped into the Garden of Eden, beside the Tree of Life, where I felt protected and nourished, finishing the back side of the trip with a sense of mild euphoria. I didn’t meet the serpent or God, or even Adam and Eve, but the rush of joy it gave me for the last few hours felt like a symbolic place to finish the week.
“It’s not a magic pill,” warned Kendra, the psychiatrist. “The euphoria and bliss, the newfound hope and vitality, it all wears off to some extent as you go back to real life. But what it does is open doors to new options—doors that many people never knew existed—to help them start putting pieces of their lives together.”
Our group all looked far lighter (and happier) by week’s end. Six weeks later, Cathy is sleeping better than she has in years, and my right arm and chest—the area that long seemed frozen—now feel as normal as the rest of my body. My depression is still around, but a less weighty, softer version.
Placebo effect? Maybe. Temporary? Likely. But I do know that the experience, my experience, was worth the price of admission, and even if I slide backward, I’ll see the doors Kendra was talking about.