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The Magical Mushroom Trip that Wasn’t

My journey with anorexia

By Robin Howe

For 25 of my 61 years, I have struggled with anorexia. It has been akin to a broken leg in my life. I can be optimistic, carry out a normal daily routine, compete in triathlons, raise children and paint with passion. Nevertheless, I’m still dragging this leg around with me. 

I have been fortunate over my journey with this affliction to receive unending emotional support from my three adult children and to have employers who value my contributions and work ethic as an English teacher and artist.

I was diagnosed with anorexia in 1972 when I was in eighth grade. I was an anomaly, and my parents were terrified. I attribute that anorexia to a trauma in middle school and a fear of growing up. Sexually abused and unable to make sense of what happened, it was easier to hole up in my room. I found solace by drawing and reading. I slowly made a comeback, and I still cannot attribute the turning point to any impetus. By the time I went to college, I was happy and healthy never thinking that anorexia would again rear its ugly head. I was wrong. It returned in 1990 when I was 32 years old.

I knew that my attachment to this anorexia was a means of self-destruction both physically and socially.

Anorexia, unlike many other disorders, can be embarrassingly visible. I hated it and I hated myself; rationally, I knew that my attachment to this anorexia was a means of self-destruction both physically and socially. Frequently, I felt that in my skinniness, I stuck out like a prolifically tattooed convict in Parliament. I was long past thinking that I could change my narrative. I was irreversibly altered by the disease and could muddle through life well enough.  

Thankfully, I was wrong. Last spring, I discovered that psilocybin mushrooms (magic mushrooms) can provide an opportunity to bring change for even those who have long given up on believing they could rid themselves of bad habits and bad lifestyles. I was elated: I might miraculously change to a healthier self. The more I read, the more I realized that mushrooms could help me transfigure my past from one involving shame and sadness to a calm acceptance of what had happened.

Better yet, mushrooms could help a wide range of disorders. Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, launched me, like a catapult, from a state of inertia. Pollan, named by TIME as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012, was to become one of the most influential people in my life. His book discusses the neuroscience behind psychedelic therapy, the use of mushrooms in ceremonies, and the current laws about the use of them in the United States, Europe and South America.

He explains how the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics can help people gain a calm sense of acceptance about their mortality and immortality. While Pollan details current clinical studies that focus on PTSD, cancer, anorexia, depression, and terminal illness, he also provides information regarding the underground world of mushrooms in which users of all ages can gracefully face their mortality, rid themselves of hang-ups and/or better their lives. If psychedelics could free me of anorexia, I was in. 

I know that if I had one gift to leave behind, it would be to offer others a way out of the intricacies of anorexia.

If I could help others by becoming part of a clinical study or by recounting my experiences, I was more than in. I know that if I had one gift to leave behind, it would be to offer others a way out of the intricacies of anorexia. Furthermore, I believed that being a part of the study’s maze would help broaden the use of psychedelics to encompass the well.

Magic mushrooms help free up mental rigidity by temporarily dissolving an overpowering ego. Pollan reflects on his own trip. “The ego, filled with backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more,” he wrote. Connecting his experience to my goals I hoped that mushrooms would help release me from a difficult time in middle school and look ahead with optimism.

Robin Carhart-Harris, a world-renowned leader of psilocybin research and head of the Psychedelic studies at the Imperial College in London, compares tripping on mushrooms to shaking a snow globe in which unhealthy thought patterns are disrupted, and the brain becomes more flexible. Healthy patterns emerge and eventually settle. Taking on both Pollan and Carhart-Harris’ words, I was charged to be picked up, have a past shaken from its overbearing place and to settle and emerge in a healthier state where I could just be Robin with no baggage.

Two decades ago, I had planned to donate my brain to scientific research of anorexia. Close to euphoric while reading Pollan’s book, I realized that if I were to be accepted into a clinical study, I could advance science by helping uncover potential treatments for those struggling with destructive habits or negative mindsets. I could make a difference not by offering my brain up when I died, but by trying to help while still alive! My quest for magic mushrooms began full throttle.

My life was changing. I found myself answering my phone when I was in bed to listen to doctors, scientists, yogis and spiritual leaders.

As psychedelics remain illegal, the quest wasn’t easy, but I was relentless. I looked for government-approved studies and underground sources. I contacted Pollan for guidance and, whenever I mentioned his name in an exploratory email or phone call, I got immediate responses. He was repeatedly the game-changer who opened doors to contacts who would support me in my research.

My life was changing. I found myself answering my phone when I was in bed to listen to doctors, scientists, yogis and spiritual leaders. For most, their intrigue in the world of mushrooms was something they pursued outside of their daily work. Hence, they called after hours. Anorexia aside, I was excited listening to others speak of their passion toward the potential of magic mushrooms. Suddenly I was in my pajamas sitting up in bed and talking to strangers until the wee hours. 

I started to learn about the underground world and pursued unusual routes in which I could participate. I kept connecting to two sources from the myriad of opportunities for tripping under the guidance of a trained facilitator. One spiritual society was only a five-hour drive away and held ceremonies with mushrooms in “religious rituals”. The more I read, the more I sensed that I would be feasting on scorched tofu and surrounded by tie-dye t-shirts and Birkenstock sandals. The other opportunity was with Lars, a Scandinavian mystic clad in a long white robe. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to fly to Sweden and I worried that if I went with Lars into this coastal conifer forest I might be poisoned by edible roots and start dancing with bouncy elfin energy. Learning about the underground was thrilling and yet, I was not feeling courageous enough to plunge into any of its offerings. 

I hit gold when Pollan connected me to Johns Hopkins Hospital which was planning a clinical study in September. I got in touch with those preparing for the study even before it was announced. I surged onward. First, I sought my children’s approval. Then I went on to acquire approval from my general practitioner and request time off from my boss. I was setting the stage.

As I continued writing, it became increasingly clear that I feared losing my anorexia identity and wondered if my friends would still like me when I looked healthier.

I then began an incubation period involving painting and journaling to mentally prepare myself for the trip. As I continued writing, it became increasingly clear that I feared losing my anorexia identity and wondered if my friends would still like me when I looked healthier. My thoughts were irrational, but they haunted me. Sharing my fears with a close friend, she responded, “if your friends don’t like you, you need better friends.” 

Because I have a background as an artist, I included a visual complement to my incubation stage. I cut up poster board and made a cut out of a mountain to paste on my bedroom wall. At the top of the mountain was a new me with the decorated hearts symbolizing people I loved who were assisting me in this journey. I pictured myself at the bottom of the mountain, and pasted encouraging phrases all over the mountain. I envisioned myself in a chairlift waving to encouraging words as I headed toward the peak.

The mountain was my visual aid to encourage me each day. I thought of my decorated wall as a way to psyche me for the Johns Hopkins study. At this time, my son pointed out that there is a proven neurological effect that the body releases more oxytocin in anticipation of the actual event. I was living on a sort of wonderful high over the excitement of possibilities. Without any drugs, I was on high by just planning.

And then, I didn’t get into the mushrooms studies for anorexics.

I felt as if I had been snubbed by the imaginary chairlift which was to take me to the top. I was alone and stuck at the bottom. I was bereft, and I turned to my ever faithful children. I told them that no matter what, I was going to make it to the top even if I had to herringbone up.

I looked at my bedroom wall and I realized that I had prepped so hard for the clinical trial, that I could start to ascend it even without magic mushrooms. I have yet to get to the top, but I no longer see myself as a scrappy outsider. After so long, I am super close and I feel genuinely proud. Self-love can’t be measured by a scale; it is more than a number. I now approach my days with a sense of calm and acceptance. 

About the Writer

Robin Howe is an artist and teacher who spent her first forty years in New England. She then moved to the South where she began painting incessantly creating up to fifty works in a year. Her paintings have been noted as expressive, whimsical and comforting. Her newspaper columns have a similar tone. They are light-hearted, self-effacing and a welcome read. Upon learning of The Bucket and its mission, Robin wanted to become a part of it and see if she might help others change the trajectory of their last few decades. Never afraid to try and not embarrassed if she were to fall flat on her face, Robin took to the keyboard and contacted The Bucket staff.


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