psychedelics: a personal take

I took psilocybin for the first time around 1.5 years ago. After that my life changed. A few friends have encouraged me to write about psychedelics because I’ve had such an excellent experience with them, but I’ve been reluctant because it feels like a deeply private thing. However, I’ve become more convinced over time that that sharing could potentially be useful—I think the way we currently treat mental health problems in this country is often ineffectual, and many people I know are deeply depressed and alienated. I believe that psychedelics have the potential to help them. I’m very excited about the current FDA studies and the recent legalization in Oregon.

There are a lot of studies about how psychedelics can help with depression and anxiety, and I want to do a breakdown of the science later, but I’m going to spend this post focusing on my own experience. Without further preamble:

Effects I’ve personally seen from psychedelics:

  1. I’m not depressed anymore. In fact, several of my friends think I’m the happiest person they know.

This is probably the biggest one. I’ve been temperamentally cheerful and excitable since I was a little kid, but I’ve also been very anxious and plagued by seasonal depression. I had shed a lot of the anxiety as a teenager thanks to applying cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and also maybe just my brain maturing (?) but the depression was probably at its worst between the ages of 19-22. Here’s why I think I was depressed:

  1. As a teenager, I’d been super excited about college, but once I got to college I realized that it was not The Promised Land but in fact just another juncture. I felt deeply ambivalent about it, didn’t connect with the culture at my school that much, and was presented with choices (banking or consulting?) I didn’t feel equipped to make.

  2. At college, a lot of the people around me were super pre-professional. Most people went on to work at Goldman and Jane Street and the like. I thought I wanted to do that but I couldn’t summon any interest in it. When I left and moved to SF, people were in a way even more focused on work (everyone I knew was working on a startup). Although I was very into tech and still am, it felt like the part of me that was creative and expressive was stifled and seen as not valuable, and I felt that the thing I was maybe best at (writing) was also something that was too impractical to ever pursue. I felt like if I couldn’t be very successful in something STEM-related then I was a failure and should maybe just give up on life.

  3. I was always waiting for The Thing that would make me Feel Better. E.g. running a successful startup. E.g. finding the perfect partner. The Thing was always on the horizon, and whenever I grasped it it was always way more hollow and unfulfilling than I thought it would be. I felt permanently unfulfilled.

I never felt suicidal, but I often felt that being alive was kind of an annoying burden. When I was depressed I would try to be unconscious for as many hours as possible in a day. Feel free to read this post from 2019 that quite accurately describes how my emotional state before: aware of my extraordinary privilege and luck, but numb and unhappy anyway.

The thing I struggle with most, and have for the longest, is my inability to really feel what I know to be true—the greatness of my own life—and produce the according output. I don’t know what causes it: maybe garden-variety depression, which half my generation struggles with, and seems to be a relatively minor detail in the overall painting of my life. Maybe an overt preoccupation with the future or the past, an inability to stay completely fixed and soak in the temperature and sounds of the present. Whether it's chemical or psychological or both, it spins in and out of my life, faithful as a boomerang. It has neither the exuberance of mania nor the jaggedness of psychosis, instead leaving me anhedonic and exhausted.

My experience of the world is nothing like that anymore. Psychedelics made me feel that life itself was fulfilling and that I didn’t need to grasp the thing on the horizon to be happy. They made me feel the way I felt when I was five years old and mesmerized by everything: mud in the garden after a rainstorm, spiderwebs glittering with beads of water, fantasy books I checked out from the library. They made my life feel magic again.

After I did psychedelics for the first time, I waited for that magical feeling to go away, waited to slide back into a vaguely anxious numbness. It didn’t happen. It’s been almost two years, and I’m probably happier now than I was after the first time I did psychedelics.

How this feels for me: I’m in a good mood every day when I wake up. When bad things happen I do get distressed, but I tend to rebound to my baseline quickly. For example, if I posted this essay, and someone were to tweet Ava’s writing is so bad she should be drowned (yes I’m paranoid), I would definitely be sad, but probably for like 45 minutes. Then I would return to my normal emotional state. Something like a breakup might upset me greatly and stay on my mind for months, but I would remain interested in life and quite happy even during the healing period.

I feel, for the first time in my life, really consistently present in my body:

You started noticing in the middle of the conversations, in the middle of kissing, in the middle of running, that you were actually there. You were inside your body. You were watching yourself think and you weren't trying to escape from your thoughts. You didn't like what you saw most of the time, but you kept watching.

  1. I have much less fear around writing.

As I mentioned above, I’ve always loved reading and writing. I’ve been reading probably ~100 books a year since I was in elementary school. But I grew up in an Asian immigrant family that pushed me towards a more practical field, and I never even considered going into anything literature-related. I knew (or believed I knew) that I was too sensitive, too afraid of rejection to hack it, and also probably I would never write something that was good enough. Now, I still know that writing is a super unstable way to make living at the best of times, and I’m not saying that I’m necessarily committed to writing vs being in tech for the rest of my life, but I’m now able to write several hundred words nearly every day. Two years ago I couldn’t have imagined that.

In the past, I would post on my blog (sweet 2014 Tumblr) one or two times a year and get lots of encouragement, but I was completely unable to write regularly. I experienced this as “I have nothing to write about,” but now I realize that I was just really afraid to try. I felt like if my writing was rejected it would mean that I was a bad and untalented person, that none of my dreams would ever come true, and that I was completely worthless.

I don’t feel that way anymore. I think rejection is natural, I expect to experience lots of it, and I’m willing to keep editing the book I’ve written until I’m happy with it. I’m able to put in the work to make my work better because I’m no longer as terrified of failure.

  1. I find it easier to break bad patterns.

I have a post on maintenance where I talk about how I become easily obsessed with things but don’t always have great control over my obsessions. This resulted in an inability to sustain good habits, and difficulty breaking bad ones.

In the past I would notice bad habits and despair over them, but it seemed totally beyond my ability to actually change my behavior. I was ruled by my emotions—specifically my negative emotions. Now it feels like they have a much weaker hold on me.

I admit that I don’t really know whether this is caused by psychedelics, but in the past I always struggled with maintaining a consistent workout routine (I would workout 3x a week for a month or two, and then not at all for another month or two, and then 7x a week for an unsustainable month, which is not so good for consistent progress). Over the past fifteen months I’ve worked out probably an average of 3-4x a week, which has never happened before, and I really enjoy it.

I wasn’t even that outdoorsy until around a year ago—I really disliked weather-related discomfort (shivering in a tent, running in the snow, etc). Now I’m much more comfortable with it. S agrees that he has had a similar experience with psychedelics—he really loves nature now and felt pretty indifferent before.

  1. My relationships are healthier

I don’t (yet) want to air out all my dysfunction on the internet, but I tended towards turbulent romantic relationships before psychedelics. It was hard for me to stay in a long-term romantic relationship because I would try to bail on every happy relationship around the one year mark. I also wasn’t sure if I could be monogamous for a long time (my current relationship started off non-monogamous and remained that way for a while).

When I first started dating S the relationship was unstable because because I had a lot of fear around commitment. Although dating was really fun for me, I panicked once I was firmly ensconced in a relationship. Psychedelics helped quell this fear because they made me more able to reside in the present, versus constantly being dissatisfied and fixated on the future.

Obviously my relationship style has to do with deep-rooted anxiety/avoidance stuff that developed during my childhood. I’m not saying that psychedelics were a magic pill, but I will say that I’m probably 65% healthier than I once was. I never expected to get even 10% healthier because relationship patterns are so difficult to correct, so I’m very happy with this progress.

  1. I like myself more

I’ve always been a critical person. If you know me well, you’d probably agree that I like to pick apart everything: intellectual beliefs, politics, room decor choices, restaurant food, movies and books. I’m an annoying armchair psychotherapist. This criticism, of course, has always extended to me: my appearance, my intelligence, my performance in all sorts of areas. To myself I’ve always been, well, lacking.

After psychedelics, I felt like I had a new tolerance for myself separate from how well I performed or or what qualities I thought I existed. For the first, I think I realized I existed separately of what I achieved. I finally properly understood the concept of the ego—how we think we ought to be, essentially. Before I had no ability to distinguish how I was from how I thought I should be. Now I’m interested in myself as I am, in being rather than merely seeming. When I notice things I’ve done wrong or things about me that I can improve, I don’t feel self-loathing. Instead, I feel patiently neutral.

I also care less about what other people think of me. Before, I had some degree of social paranoia that likely stemmed from being bullied while growing up. The thought that people in my extended friend group might not like me or disapprove of something I’d done would upset me. Now I don’t really mind. My ability to respect myself is more important than what anyone else thinks.

Aftermath

I think most of the changes I’ve seen fully set in after 4 moderately dosed trips over the course of 8 months. My friends say I’m more confident, calmer, significantly happier, and more self-aware. I do fall into the psychedelic cliche of being more spiritual, though I don’t have super clearly defined beliefs around that (may write a more lyrical/emotional piece about the psychedelic experience someday, but trying to stick to the facts right now).

Anecdotally, it seems that psychedelics have a more dramatic effect on me than they have on most people (I’ve talked to probably 30-50 friends about their psychedelic experiences). I believe I had what Maslow describes as a peak experience (great study on this here). However, psychedelics do have the ability to affect at least some people this intensely (more on this in the upcoming Part 2), and I think there’s evidence to show that they’ll probably affect you positively (for ex I’m quite certain they’re likely to work better than more antidepressants). Also: experientially, a good trip is truly beautiful. It’s better than falling in love, and if you’ve read any of my writing you know how I feel about falling in love. I would describe it as a kind of wonderful de-cohesion, an unraveling of all the narratives that bind you to your dysfunctional patterns. I felt like I was exhaling after a life spent holding my breath.

Since I’m not trying to present only the good side of psychedelics here, I will mention that I know many people who’ve had bad trips that they found distressing, get nauseous after consuming psilocybin, and remain depressed despite having tried psychedelics. I think it’s possible, though the data suggests it’s extremely rare and unlikely, for psychedelics to trigger a psychotic break if you’re already predisposed to it. Set and setting are all-important (may write more about this in the future).

I had a lot of negative assumptions about psychedelics before I tried them for the first time. This included the totally incorrect assumption that they would strip me of all ambition, as well as lead to the formation of all sorts of weird untrue beliefs. But if anything I think I’m more productive and creative today than I’ve ever been, I’m more motivated to solve my problems, and I have healthier friendships. I mean, pretty good right?

I do think psychedelics have removed a lot of my need for external validation, but if your ambition is totally guided by the need to plug a hole inside of you that can never be filled you’re probably super miserable anyway. I don’t think correcting that particular brand of ambition is a bad thing.

I still have many flaws, but I feel like psychedelics gave me the toolset (annoying term yes I know) to make meaningful changes. I want to help more people experience that agency and to hopefully correct some of the incorrect assumptions floating around.

I don’t personally advocate tripping on very high dosages. I think people should honor the experience and stay within their comfort zone, and if you have a super intense trip you should take your time to process and understand it.

I don’t trip regularly anymore. I’m open to it but don’t actively feel the need. (This might change in the future.) I feel like I’ve gotten the psychological benefits I wanted from the experience, and want to spend more time unpacking them. People sometimes ask me to tripsit them—I’ve done it a few times, and it’s been wonderful but very tiring. I’ve played around with the idea of organizing shroom retreats when it’s properly legal in Oregon.

My first time taking psilocybin was unbelievably magical, and I was desperate to read about other people’s experiences. I couldn’t find enough of the type of writing I wanted—sober and clear and measured (though Michael Pollan, Ayelet Waldman, and Tao Lin are great). So I wanted to write about it myself. I hope that reading about my experience helps you in some way 😊