Tom Shroder Takes a Trip

by Tom Shroder – from Dec. 2, 2014

Though I began researching Acid Test, a book about the revival of research into the use of psychedelic drugs for healing, in 2007, my interest in the subject really began 30 years earlier, when I was a college student at the University of Florida. The UF campus is surrounded by a rural landscape, including thousands of acres of palmetto and pine-studded pasturage used to raise cattle. My friends and I had learned to slip gingerly through barbed wire fencing and, keeping an eye out for shotgun-wielding ranchers, hunt for recently deposited piles of cow dung, from which sometimes sprouted the creamy, brown-tipped caps of psilocybin mushrooms. We plucked the mushrooms with rising excitement, as if we were pulling nuggets of pure gold from a mountain stream instead of fungi from cow shit. We knew the power contained within. Steep them in a pot with tea and drink, and before long we would see the world, and ourselves, from a novel vantage point. It was like being able, for a few precious hours, to climb above your life and view it from on high, a perspective every bit as revealing as seeing a too-familiar landscape from the top of a mountain. Instead of individual corn stalks or oak trees or buildings, you saw checkerboard patterns of fields, serpentine forests following the course of a river, villages arrayed around ascending spires of churches. You saw, for once, how it all fit together.

One experience stands out in my memory, because it is something that I have carried with me every day since. As the tea took effect, instead of feeling the usual lift, I grew increasingly entangled by anxiety. I began to obsess about an ethical problem I was struggling with, which generalized to feelings of inadequacy in life overall and my inability to find solutions.

The more I struggled against these feelings, the weightier and more intractable they seemed. I felt the weight as a physical reality, a huge boulder that pressed against my chest, making it nearly impossible to breathe. As I suffered under the almost unbearable load, I flashed on a vision of myself in which something became almost comically clear. The only reason why the boulder was pressing on me was because I was holding it. It was my choice to keep that weight close, in fact, I was straining to do so. Part of me was choosing to be anxious — as a way to avoid making decisions, or evade responsibility for them. To be free of that awful weight, all I had to do was open my arms, which I did. The stone, and the weight, dropped away.

Ever since, though it has rarely been easy, I’ve been able to see negative emotions as a choice, and the will to let them go as something I could develop, like a muscle. The more I practiced, the better I became, and I no longer needed the mushrooms to do it.

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