Abbotsford resident Laurie Brooks describes a trip she took on psilocybin that changed the way she views life and death.
Laurie Brooks doesn’t like the word terminal.
It’s not just because the Abbotsford resident is surviving her cancer. It’s more there’s a finality to the word that doesn’t fit with what she’s learned about death: That it isn’t the end and it will be OK.
She didn’t always feel at peace. Like most coping with cancer, Brooks went through enormous waves of fear, anxiety, guilt and shame.
Then a friend introduced her to psilocybin, a psychedelic drug derived from magic mushrooms, as a way to process her anxiety. She went on a trip that changed her life.
“I was in a dark forest, trying to find my way, and I was scared, but then there was this old woman who led me down a path and then I saw light,” she said.
“It came up like dawn and all of a sudden I was in this most beautiful, warm place. And then I was off on my trip.”
Brooks, 53, is one four Canadians who were approved last week by Health Canada to experience a legal trip on magic mushrooms. They are the first to legally consume the drug since it was banned in the 1970s.
They sent applications to the federal government in April for an exemption to the Canadian Drugs and Substances Act, and were approved on Aug. 4.
Growing up as an evangelical Christian and shunning illicit drugs, Brooks never imagined she’d become an advocate for psilocybin.
But now the mother of four, who describes herself as more spiritual than religious, hopes that one day psychedelics will be available to those suffering the fear and anxiety she went through.
Brooks was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2018, and after a year of chemotherapy and two surgeries, the cancer returned in August 2019.
She was told she had six months to a year to live, but that they’d try again with more treatment. She had successful surgery in May, though there’s a high chance of the cancer coming back.
Before her trip, she set out four intentions: To know whether her family would be OK if she died; whether or not there was an afterlife; how to deal with her anxiety; and how to live authentically.
She said all of her questions were answered.
Many of the difficult emotions that she had been dealing with because of the cancer came to her during the trip in the form of waves.
“At one point in the trip, I heard somebody just wailing and crying and I thought, ‘Who is that?’ and then I realized it was me. I just let go of all the emotion and grief I had been keeping inside.”
The waves subsided, and then she was lying in a boat being rocked by gentle waves.
At another time, she saw her sick father walking toward family members who had died. It was like a race to the end line, she said, and as he got closer he was able to stand up straight and discard his walker.
Given that psychedelic drugs are still illegal, there is no formal training on how to administer them, but some trauma therapists have already been using psilocybin.
Drawing on Indigenous wisdom and their own experiences with psilocybin, the therapists involved in the practice have learned how to administer psychedelics safely.
There are differences between a recreational and a therapeutic trip. The main difference is that the patient uses the psilocybin medicinally with very specific intentions, according to a trauma therapist familiar with the practice.
When someone is facing a life-threatening disease, they are confronted with very strong feelings of fear and uncertainty. They can become disconnected with their family, experience a loss of joy, and can be angry, the therapist explained.
Patients spend the whole trip in a therapeutic setting with people they trust. They wear eyeshades, to stimulate the visual cortex, and headphones to listen to a carefully selected playlist of music.
“Every person has a unique story behind why they are afraid of death. It’s humbling to sit someone at that point. It’s normal to be afraid of dying, but once you get under the skin of it, it’s amazing the stories that emerge,” the therapist said.
The dose is usually anywhere from three to seven grams, depending on whether the patient has experience with psychedelic drugs, the therapist said.
“Done this way, there are no bad trips.”
The experience allowed Brooks to “put her cancer in a box” and when it comes out of that box she draws on what she learned.
“The emotions come over me and they are gone just as quick,” she said.
And while she’s no longer scared to die because she feels she’s seen a glimpse of what’s next, she will continue to fight to stay alive.
The four patients’ applications were supported by Therapsil, a non-profit organization based in Victoria. The group advocates to provide palliative Canadians with access to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
Psilocybin is not the only psychedelic drug showing promise for treatment of depression. In 2017, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration gave MDMA a breakthrough therapy designation for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Last year, an international study, which involved UBC researchers, helped more than half of the study participants with PTSD see substantial improvements with MDMA over conventional treatment.
An earlier study from John Hopkins University demonstrated that psilocybin therapy led to significant and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer, in addition to improved quality of life and a renewed sense of optimism. Six months later, those changes persisted. About 80 per cent of participants continued to show substantial decreases in depression and anxiety.
— with files from Postmedia