Cannabis, mushrooms, and the case for community-based care systems

Hi, I’m Rose.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an autistic, queer, polyamorous, nonbinary human and psychedelic mushrooms and cannabis have changed my life. I am the complete stereotype. I’m half joking but it’s not untrue either.

Cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms changed my life because they gave my former partner Wren and I an amount of control over our lives and the treatment of our chronic mental and physical health issues that the contemporary medical establishment never allowed us. Instead of pushing us into debt with treatments that seemed to hurt at least as much as they helped, cannabis and mushrooms were things that actually helped our lives improve and could be cultivated for a fraction of the cost of other medications if it were legal to do so.

To illustrate just how much cannabis and mushrooms have changed my life though, I feel that I need to tell you a bit about what brought me to them in the first place.

The struggle of obtaining care in the American Healthcare System

When I graduated from college in 2009, Wren came back from Study Abroad in Scotland with a mysterious illness. Their whole body was in constant pain, they were always fatigued, and they suddenly gained 100 pounds in less than a year. This was all despite being extremely physically active and eating healthy, raw foods most of the time as you do when you’re an environmental science major who grew up with the quintessential hippy mom. As you might imagine, we were really confused and scared about what was happening.

Wren still had a year of school to finish when this started happening, so they went to the student health center to find out what was going on and what we could do to fix it. After being bounced around a bit internally, they were sent to the head physician who suspected that they might have Fibromyalgia. Unfortunately, there was no test for it at the time, so they had to eliminate all other possibilities to give a confident diagnosis. The student health center didn’t have the facilities to do the testing that needed to be done, so Wren was referred out to the local hospital. The head physician of the student health facility then also gave them access to recent medical journals so that Wren could learn independently about the latest research on Fibromyalgia.

The testing gauntlet that Wren had to go through at the local hospital was intense. I don’t remember what all they went through, but they had to do a sleep study and had scans of their brain and they were tested for other chronic inflammation diseases like lupus, lyme disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. By the time they were done with this testing gauntlet, they too had graduated and were no longer covered under the university health insurance plan. Unfortunately, this was before the Affordable Care Act, so no health insurance company would even cover Wren because of this pre-existing condition. Medical bills started to pile up and we started to have to juggle our finances to keep food on the table.

After more than a year of expensive and disruptive medical testing to rule out any other possible diagnosis, they were diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. By this time, they had started to suspect that they also had hypothyroidism like their mom but had difficulty finding a doctor that would do a full thyroid panel showing both the creation and conversion rates of thyroid hormones because of their age. They kept being told that they were “too young to have thyroid issues” and that their thyroid levels were “on the low end of normal.” Eventually, they got one very skeptical doctor to put them on a trial of synthetic thyroid medication and it stabilized their health quite a bit even if it didn’t stop the chronic pain.

In addition to being shuffled between different specialists and doctors for all of this testing, Wren also got put on a parade of different medicines used with varying degrees of success to treat fibromyalgia. Each one seemed to come complete with its own special hell of different side effects – one caused Wren to sleep 16 hours a day and be a zombie for the rest of it, one caused horrible vomiting that ended up in an emergency room visit, one caused stomach ulcers and IBS. None of them seemed to really help the pain or fatigue of fibro more than a little.

Enter cannabis

During a visit to Chicago several years ago when the medical cannabis program was just starting in Illinois, one of their friends offered Wren a bit of cannabis, saying that they heard how much cannabis could help with chronic pain. At that point, I believe Wren had smoked once or twice before and I was very skeptical of drugs because of my rather puritanical upbringing. However, we were both pretty desperate so Wren accepted a bit of cannabis and smoked it before bed one night.

Now, Wren has never exactly been a deep sleeper. They’ve experienced disturbed sleep patterns their whole life. I honestly didn’t know how bad it was because of how heavily I slept, but I knew that it was bad. That first night after Wren smoked cannabis medicinally, they slept through the entire night for the first time in our several year relationship. I don’t think they even changed position. I can’t even tell you how much of a miracle that felt like.

And it didn’t just help them sleep – it also relieved their pain. At that time, I believe that they were on the maximum daily dosage of acetaminophen and ibuprofen and were regularly using a rescue opioid just to get through especially hard days. It was causing hell on their digestive system and Wren was worried about opioid addiction if they had to rely on their rescue medication too much. Cannabis helped enough with their pain that they immediately went to their newest doctor and applied to become a medical cannabis patient. When they were able to start using cannabis regularly, they were able to reduce the dosages of the pain medication they were on by quite a bit and even stopped using their rescue opioid altogether for a couple of years.

This completely changed my view of cannabis. What I had viewed as a drug that delinquents used to check out and blow off life was able to accomplish things that hard core opioids and pharmaceuticals could not. Wren didn’t become a zombie when smoking cannabis – they started doing things that they loved again. They got more physically active and they started doing art again.

I don’t want to imply that cannabis is a miracle drug that fixed everything though. It wasn’t perfect and didn’t reverse a lot of the damage. They were still in pain a lot of the time and had to do a lot of physical therapy, massage, and chiropractor work to keep their pain reduced. But the pain was a lot more manageable than it was and it still allowed them access to activities that they had been missing in their life. After losing so much, it was amazing to see us gaining any ground against the disease.

I found it amazing that a plant one could grow just like any other herb (if it were legal) could give a person some of their life back. It also completely changed my view of the medical establishment. After all, spending a fortune for doctors, tests, and medications left us broke and just as sick as before.

Herbalism and the impact of healthcare autonomy

Dr. Marty, the doctor who happened to help Wren become a medical cannabis patient, was the first doctor that Wren saw who really seemed to believe them implicitly. She took a more holistic and natural approach to treatment than the other doctors that Wren had seen, favoring herbs and nutritional changes over pharmaceutical intervention. She recommended that Wren take natural pig thyroid instead of synthetic thyroid as it being natural helped with the bioavailability of the hormone. She suggested a couple of diets to Wren which added in a few different herbs and cut out grains and non-honey sweeteners and when we tried them out for a while, Wren and I both experienced significant positive changes to our physical health. She also recommended books on herbs to us and taught us how to do our own research to develop our own personalized treatments.

The biggest thing that Dr. Marty did for us though was to empower us to take our wellbeing into our own hands. Every single one of the interventions that she gave us, including medical cannabis, was an intervention that Wren and I had complete control over and did not require us to seek approval from insurance or anyone else to pursue. They still required a significant amount of effort and many of the treatments were difficult to keep up while living the fast-paced life of a cog in capitalism. But given time and practice, we were at least able to keep up with some of them and we had a choice in which treatments we prioritized.

This method of treatment ended up being fairly effective for a couple of years. I took a few online classes in herbalism, read a few books, and worked with Wren to figure out what helped to treat the Fibromyalgia and what didn’t. We made edibles and cannabis tinctures so that Wren didn’t have to be smoking and damaging their lungs all of the time if they didn’t want to. We weren’t experts in what we were doing, but we knew that there was power in learning how our body worked and being able to grow, create, and use our own medicine. And to be quite honest, the fact that we didn’t have to be experts to find some relief was a big bonus in of itself.

We didn’t abandon the medical establishment though; we just approached it differently. Instead of completely depending on a system that we have little to no control over, we were able to work with the medical establishment as partners. We were able to treat everyday complaints on our own with things that we created in our kitchen. We had a better idea of what tests to request because of the basic medical knowledge that came from treating things regularly and paying more attention to our bodies in general. We were no longer completely at the mercy of the system or the doctors that happened to treat us.

Finding autonomy in mental health

Since practicing herbalism had worked out well so far for our physical health, I decided to see what I could find for managing mental health conditions. As someone who only recently discovered that they were autistic, queer, and nonbinary despite giant flashing neon signs from a very early age, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life. Childhood is rough and it’s all the more rough when you’re being told that what you are is evil and wrong.

Neurodivergent people tend to cluster together even when they don’t know that they’re neurodivergent. Combine that with the fact that society seems to be designed to cause mental health issues and it’s no surprise that all of my closest friends and partners have also struggled with their share of depression and anxiety. Because of this, I’ve always been very motivated to figure out how to treat mental health disorders. If I wasn’t afraid that I was too messed up to ethically help others, I probably would have studied psychology instead of computer science in undergrad. Instead, I just made cognitive psychology into a personal hobby and tried to help myself and my friends anyway.

Since physical health and mental health are intimately linked, it was a natural leap to want to apply what I was learning through herbalism to cognitive psychology as well. I thought that if I could figure out how to treat my own mental health using plants, then maybe I could help other people learn to do the same thing for themselves. After all, the experience that I heard from many of my friends of encountering mental health professionals sounded just as bad as the experiences that Wren and I had with doctors before finding Dr. Marty. I wanted to offer myself and my friends some of the same autonomy in mental health care that Wren and I discovered for our physical health.

I researched what herbs people used for different mental stresses. I learned about chamomile and lemon balm that were supposed to calm the mind and lift the spirits. I experimented with St. John’s wort and licorice root for my depression. I tried valerian root for sleep and ashwagandha and holy basil to help balance myself. I feel like these herbs probably worked to some extent but generally did so in a very gentle manner, so their effects were often subtle.

I also started experimenting with cannabis for my own mental health and found it to be therapeutic in ways that went beyond treating my depression and anxiety. I unlocked the ability to see images in my imagination for the first time in my life. I gained a whole new appreciation for the art of play. My emotional range expanded and I was more at peace with myself. Considering where I am now, it’s sometimes easy to forget how much of an impact cannabis had at first for my own mental health.

Treatment-resistant depression and my introduction to psychedelic mushrooms

During this time, a friend that Wren and I were getting quite close to through our mutual love of cannabis was having his own mental health crisis. He was miserable at his job and struggling to motivate himself to go into work every day. Every job that he had ever worked was a toxic environment of exploitation of workers and lying to customers, so attempting to find another job wasn’t particularly motivating since it would likely be the same shit in different packaging. All of life seemed like a struggle and he very understandably wasn’t particularly enjoying any part of it.

After living in the feeling of crisis for so much of our lives, Wren and I had developed quite codependent tendencies without realizing it. It was impossible for us to stand by while our friend was suffering so much without making his pain our pain, so we did everything we could think of to help. We tried to involve him in our lives more, show interest in his hobbies that he felt alone in caring about, and come to see him most weekends even though we lived three hours apart at the time. I also started researching herbs for treatment-resistant depression as the ones that I had found so far didn’t seem strong enough for what he was dealing with. I learned that some people had used psychedelic mushrooms and had remarkable success at lifting their depression when nothing else had worked. I had no idea where to find magic mushrooms though, let alone how to use them, so I started reading everything that I could find on the subject.

A year later, his depression was at the worst that we had seen it. He was actively starting to be suicidal and my own suicidal tendencies were getting way worse. I knew that I didn’t really have enough information to know what I was doing but something had to change immediately. Upon later reflection, we probably should have gotten him into an inpatient mental health clinic which specialized in treating that sort of crisis. At the time, however, we both had deep distrust of the mental health establishment from experiences that our friends have had and I thought that it would do more harm than good. Instead, I decided to see what I could do to find magic mushrooms.

In general, I don’t like to recommend something to someone else that I have no experienced for myself. I feel that if I am unwilling to risk trying something on myself, I have no business recommending that others risk it on themselves. Fortunately, I had a bit of extra cash from a recent acquisition at work and had recently learned about a friend and former coworker that started a legal psychedelic exploration business in Amsterdam, so I had the opportunity to test this out for my own depression which was becoming a problem again.

I had started seeing a therapist a few months previous to help me treat my depression through a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and herbal interventions. I told her about my plan to go out to Amsterdam and do psychedelics for my depression and she was skeptical at first. She had struggled with addiction to alcohol and drugs in the past and was worried about what sort of dependency doing psychedelics might cause. She also had another recent patient who was referred out to a ketamine clinic in New York who ended up having a complete psychotic break when they returned.

We talked a lot about the reading that I had done on psychedelics over the past year. I told her about Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind and what I took away from it. We talked about the research being done to use psychedelics for treating addiction and how most people didn’t want to do psychedelics long term for one reason or another. We also talked about set and setting and how important it was to have a safe and comfortable experience not only during the trip but for a few weeks after since psychedelics leaves you very open to influence from your environment. We theorized that the reason their other patient had such a bad reaction after their experience with ketamine was not due to the drug itself but was because after their treatment, they immediately went back to living in the toxic environment that had caused them mental health problems in the first place and ketamine made them more receptive to that toxicity.

After we talked for a while, my therapist agreed with my plan. I think it helped a lot that I was going to see someone who was incredibly experienced with this sort of psychedelic guidance and I had a safe and supportive space to return to. I had also clearly done my due diligence when it came to reading about the experience which I’m sure was also comforting. Ultimately though, I think that they knew I was going to do what I was going to do and the best thing that they could do for me was to help me prepare for the experience and talk to me about the experience when I came back.

As an aside, I think it's very helpful  (and maybe even crucial) to be in therapy with a therapist that you trust if you seek out psychedelics to assist with your mental health care. Just as I advocate for using herbalism while under the care of a licensed health care professional so that you have access to resources and knowledge that they have which are difficult to come by as a non-professional, I also feel that working with an experienced mental health care professional gives you access to an important set of frameworks and a fairly unbiased outside perspective that psychedelics can amplify the effectiveness of. There are a lot of resources that you can find on your own to help with mental health issues and I've done a lot of self education through books, podcasts, and online mental health communities. Even so, nothing can replace the impact of that experienced outside perspective.

A world transformed

With my therapist’s blessing, I made my arrangements to travel out to Amsterdam to see my friend Amanda and their herbalist business partner Nikolitsa to have my first magic mushroom experience. The trip itself was quite the experience. Amanda and Nikolitsa are amazing professional sitters and did so much to make the experience a good one. They had me set up in a deeply beautiful and comfortable space, they gave me different sorts of creative and mind-expanding activities that I could use as tools when I wanted, and they even drew me a bath surrounded by candles and fresh flowers to give me some private self-exploration time.

My experience was nothing short of mystical. Time slowed down and became malleable. I felt like I spent years in that beautiful apartment surrounded by beauty, grace, and comfort. I was shown things about myself and the universe. All of the things that I brought into the session as anxieties about my past and my future seemed to melt away in the grandeur of the experience. Suddenly, nothing that I was worried about seemed to be nearly as important as they felt before. I had found a new connection to myself and the universe that made my mortal worries seem trivial.

After the experience, I had a couple of more weeks in Amsterdam by myself. I was grateful for the time to process by myself because I found myself unable to stop writing about my experience and the revelations that I felt. I wrote over forty pages of notes in my personal journal in the span of a few days, more than I had written in years. I was determined not to lose what I had experienced and I felt inspired to try and describe an experience that others has simply been able to describe as ineffable.

When I came back from Amsterdam, the feelings of peace and confidence in my position in the universe stayed strong. I had heard that a single psychedelic experience could reduce anxiety and depression for months but it was an entirely different thing to experience it personally. It wasn’t as though my anxiety or depression was completely gone by any means, but they were severely reduced. When I did worry, it was more about things on a global scale instead of being overly focused on the specific details of my own life. I was more confident in my gender identity and expression that I had recently started experimenting with. I was no longer as worried about my personal relationships and what specific labels they had. I realized that a lot of my personal problems stemmed from the fact that I had trouble just existing and feeling allowed to just exist without being useful to others and identifying that allowed me to focus more on the root cause instead of the symptoms of my mental health issues. In short, I was transformed.

A community-centered model for mental health

Naturally, I wanted to bring this back to my community. My personal experience seemed to validate everything that I had read about magic mushrooms having incredible potential to help with the very mental health issues that had destroyed the lives of so many people that I knew. I wanted to send people to Amsterdam to work with Amanda and Nikolitsa to have an experience like I had because I knew that their experience was a big part of why my own experience was so profound. However, I knew that wasn’t going to be feasible financially because I couldn’t afford to send everyone I knew to Amsterdam myself and my friends often had issues with employment because of their own mental health issues and were devoting the little money they made to the increasingly high cost of living.

A lot of the resources I had found leading up to my experience in Amsterdam had to do with cultivation in addition to treatment. Many of the different cultivation teks seemed to be beyond what I was personally capable of, especially when it came to creating a sterile environment where I was living at the time, but I found a tek for growing the same sort of magic truffles that I found available in Amsterdam and I set myself up to inoculate a few jars.

While those were growing, I learned about the upcoming Psychedelic Science Conference that was happening in Austin and I decided to grab myself a ticket so that I could drive down and learn directly from the professional experts. Many of the talks were interesting and covered a wide range of topics that only tangentially applied to me but the talks that captured my attention the most were ones talking about successful efforts to use psychedelics in a community setting to treat mental health issues. Instead of advocating for a treatment model that depends on a single licensed professional working in a facility that provided expensive, gated treatments, these people were advocating for a treatment model that people could use within their own communities using medicine that they grew themselves with guidance provided by experienced mental health professionals. Ultimately, they wanted to democratize mental health care and reduce the same barriers to treatment that I had experienced with Wren when trying to get treatment for their chronic health issues.

This model appealed to me greatly because it was essentially the same model for treatment that had worked so well for Wren and me when Dr. Marty introduced us to herbalism. I felt that even if I couldn’t provide the same sort of experience for my friends, maybe having even a fraction of that experience would help them find enough relief that they could start to figure out a treatment plan that worked for them long term. After all, it’s a lot easier to focus on improving your life when you’re not on the verge of suicide a lot of the time.

Personal experiences since Amsterdam

By the time I got back from Austin, my truffles were ready to be harvested. I only had moderate success for my first time growing, but even with a large amount of failure, I was able to harvest enough truffles to give my friend a similar size dose to what I had in Amsterdam. I was nervous as I had never done anything like this before but I did my best to emulate the experience that I had with Amanda and Nikolitsa with the resources that I had available.

My friend’s experience did not seem to be as mystical or as impactful as mine was. I think with me being less experienced with trip sitting and cultivating an environment conducive to those experiences has a lot to do with that fact. He was also in a different mindset than I was for a number of different reasons including the fact that he wasn’t in therapy at the time and did not do the same sort of trip preparation that I had done. Even so, the difference in my friend’s depression was notable. He found at least a little relief and was no longer on the verge of suicide.

Since that time, I’ve sat for a few other people with mixed success, learning a bit more each time. The biggest thing that I’ve learned through this process is that I can only bring so much into another person’s experience. While I can help to cultivate a nurturing and safe setting for others, their mindset going into the process is much more important than anything I bring to the experience. In fact, it’s a lot easier for me or someone else to disrupt the mindset of someone going into a trip than it is to assure a positive mindset.

I mostly use psychedelic mushrooms now for my own personal benefit. I’ve found that adding psychedelic mushrooms to my self care practices and building a weekly or monthly self care ritual around them helps me deal with day to day stresses so much better because they help me to make time for being in touch with myself. With their capacity for time dilation, these self care rituals can feel like taking an extended vacation in the span of a single evening. As someone who has difficulty taking real vacations, I can’t overstate how much of a relief it is to have access to these condensed vacations on the regular.

Extending the community-centered problem solving framework

With the experiences that I’ve had with cannabis, psychedelic mushrooms, and other herbal remedies, I think there’s a real possibility for a community-based framework for reducing the barriers that people face when it comes to improving their lives. I don’t think that the answer is to completely replace the existing medical establishment, but if we’re capable of building out the resources required to access these medicines safely, we can change our relationship with the medical establishment and gain more autonomy over our own well-being.

I don’t know what this community-centered framework could look like, but I have some ideas based on what is already working in other areas. Herbalist and cultivation communities are already springing up all over the internet to give people access to the knowledge that they need to grow and use their own medicine. Local and online integration circles are popping up to give people the space that they need to process their psychedelic experiences and integrate them into their lives in a healthy way. Larger communities where psychedelics are being decriminalized are creating community-run treatment programs that are accessible and inexpensive. Through these community programs, people are gaining access to care that they would not have access to otherwise.

It makes me wonder how much of these principles we could apply to other areas of our lives where we completely depend on others for our survival. If we couldn’t rely on people outside our communities for food, everyday needs, or housing, would we be able to survive? Could we improve our current lives by reducing how much we need to rely on people outside of our community for our daily needs?

During the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the United States’ national supply chain for food and other essentials seemed to be in critical danger. If enough truckers fell ill, our national supply chain would have collapsed and as we learned from supply shortages, most communities only have two weeks worth of local available food. We are only a couple of disasters away from mass starvation in a nation full of food because our supply chains are so fragile.

During the collapse of the Soviet Republic, starvation due to collapsing supply chains was common. However, the people in Russia largely survived because over 40% of their food came from local, personal gardens. In the United States, I believe less than 10% of our food comes from local gardens. Most of our food is imported from other locations, often from global suppliers. If we faced a collapse similar to the USSR (which is more possible than most of us would like to admit), I don’t know that we would be able to survive without drastically changing where we get our food from before such a collapse happens.

It would benefit us to figure out how to shift our own food supply to be community-based so that we aren’t so vulnerable. Even if the United States never collapses in the same way, it would be beneficial for us to change that dependency. Climate change is a huge issue and is causing more natural disasters by the day. Being able to source our food and medicine locally makes us more resilient to those disasters and also reduces the carbon footprint of our food and medicine since we don’t have to ship it in from elsewhere.

But it’s not just food that we import. Take a look around at all of the necessary products that we use each day. How much of your clothing, fabric, or cleaning supplies are produced locally? If you removed everything from your home that was not produced locally, could you live your life the way that you want to? I’m willing to bet probably not. And even if you went out to find local sources of everything that you need or want, I’m also willing to bet that you’d find that local sources for those products aren’t always available locally. Even for products that you can source locally, how many of those products are made with materials that aren’t locally sourced? Everyone knows someone making soap or sewing their own clothes but they often get their fabric and soap supplies from large or at least remote suppliers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There might be things that we can’t source locally – I’m certainly not going to find locally sourced coconut oil while living in central Illinois – but we can start finding alternatives if we shift our mindset. In the same way that you can focus on growing your own herbs and foraging native plants, we can look to our own local resources in abundance to source alternatives to the products and materials that we currently use.

While it’s not exactly the same, much of our housing is also in the control of people outside of our community. So much of real estate is managed by large companies or is mortgaged to huge banks. Very little real estate is community owned and managed, especially in comparison to countries with a larger social support network that includes social housing and this is a big reason that the cost of housing goes up every year. How many people do you know that are locked into increasingly abusive and unsustainable housing situations? How many people are locked into jobs they hate or abusive relationships simply because they can’t afford to move?

It’s probably one of the most difficult problems to solve, but we are capable of looking at community-based solutions for this as well. We could invest more into local co-ops and other living situations where property is owned communally. We could invest local resources into locally-funded and controlled social housing options. We could lobby our local governments to limit how much of our local real estate is controlled by outside investors.

I don’t know what a comprehensive solution for any of these problems looks like. Since every locality is different, it is likely that solutions will have to be tailored specifically for each community. But I think that we can learn a lot from the power of herbalism, cannabis, and psychedelic mushrooms to gain more autonomy over our health and we can apply those lessons to the other major problems that plague our communities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s