“Microdosing helped me come to terms with my own death”

“Microdosing helped me come to terms with my own death”

Doctors don’t understand why I’m still here. I think the peace of mind psilocybin has given me is a huge part of it

Photo by Andreea Muscurel

Who: Andrea Bird, a 60-year-old artist and former art educator based in Caledon

Treatment: Psilocybin microdoses, one to three times a year

My husband, Daniel, and I ran an art school for years at the Alton Mill Arts Centre in Caledon. In 2012, I went for my first mammogram, and they found a large tumour in my right breast. I was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer. I felt shocked and confused. I had surgery, followed by chemo, followed by radiation. That took about a year, and then I was told, “You’re cancer free. Go live your life.” And so I did.

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About four years later, my cancer had metastasized to my bones and lungs, and last summer, it spread to my brain as well. I was diagnosed with Stage 4, which is terminal. My doctors and I were now talking about end-of-life plans. The estimated timeline is about two years, according to my husband’s research. I was not so keen to have a date floating around, so I left that part of the process to him. It was really challenging for me to wrap my brain around mortality, and I tried antidepressants but they didn’t help much. I had all this internal turmoil, thinking, How do I want to spend this time? I wanted my days with the people I love, in ways that were nourishing for all of us.

At the time, Daniel was reading Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, which is about how psychedelics can be used in therapeutic treatments for PTSD, addiction, trauma and end of life. I read the chapter on psilocybin and told my husband I wanted to try it. I had never done anything like this before and was always very cautious about those kinds of things, but I thought it might be helpful. Dying had pushed me to the edge of my capacity to cope.

I mentioned psilocybin to a friend, and they told me they knew someone who could help—a guide of sorts. It felt like the universe was aligning because I had no idea how to do it or how to access the drug. Everything fell into place extremely easily and I thought, Andrea, life is giving you the opportunity to try this. Do you have the courage to do it?

I had a lot of conversations about what to expect with my guide. They’re not a doctor, but they’ve researched psychedelic medicine and are extremely knowledgeable. I quickly realized that I was in good hands. They asked me, “What do you want to get out of this? What are your fears?” I hoped to come to terms with death and dying. I also wanted to know what I could let go of. Like preparing to climb a mountain, I wanted to lighten my load and only take what was essential.

I had my first trip in December of 2018. My guide boiled three and a half grams of mushrooms in hot water with lemon and ginger. I was sitting at home, and Daniel went out with our pets. The guide had Daniel’s phone number if they needed him. I sat in a reclining chair with eye shades and headphones, playing a psilocybin playlist on Spotify made by the team at Johns Hopkins University, a leader in psychedelic therapy research.

I started to feel the effects in half an hour, a full spectrum of emotions: gratitude toward Daniel, then sadness that I was dying, and then a deep realization of how fortunate I had been. It helped me to come to terms with my reality. I recognized that being sad and grieving for my life was not a problem. Because if I didn’t love life so much, then there wouldn’t be that sadness.

It also helped me to understand that life is a gift that we get to have for a little while, and then we have to give it back. On my first trip, my death showed up as a physical form in my mind’s eye. You know when you’re running a relay race and you’re carrying the baton, and your friend up ahead is waiting for you to pass the baton into their hand? Their hand is in the ready position, they’re crouched over with their arm outstretched behind them. That’s what death looked like. Death was the hand waiting for me to pass the baton to it, and the baton was my life. And death wasn’t in any hurry. But it was there. And it’s there for everybody. At some point, everybody has to part with their life. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to give up this beautiful life. I don’t want the people I love to have to grieve for me and all of that. But that’s just the nature of life. It’s not personal. This is how it is.

I did another trip a year later to see if there was anything else I needed to understand and I got this resounding message: You’ve got this. You’re as okay as you can be in this situation. The second trip confirmed the realization I was edging towards: death is not separate from life, deep despair and grief are not separate from wholehearted love and joy.

Since then I have microdosed off and on, under my guide’s advice. I would take tiny amounts, like one tenth of a gram, grind up the mushrooms, and put it on toast. There was no psychedelic effect at all. Rather, microdosing upped my capacity to deal with the emotional waves that were hitting me at that time.

Last summer, through TheraPsil, a Victoria-based advocacy group, I got an exemption from the federal government to take psilocybin legally. When I got the exemption, I felt such a relief. I know psychedelic therapy is all relatively new, but it feels like it’s overdue because it’s so effective. I haven’t microdosed for months now but it’s good to know it’s an option.

I want to help de-stigmatize and demystify some of the concern that comes with this drug and advocate for legalization. It’s possible to get an exemption, but why should dying people have to deal with yet another obstacle during this time when they’re doing everything they can to wrap their brain around dying? People should be made aware that psilocybin is an option, whether they choose to take it or not. And if they choose to, the process should be effortless for them.

Taking psilocybin was the most helpful thing I did in the last four years in coming to terms with my own death. I’m currently on a cancer regimen that involves a monthly injection, morphine for pain and all kinds of other drugs to treat the side effects of opiates. But I mostly feel like myself. I’m still in pain and get tired easily, but with the energy I have, I am painting, reading poetry, listening to music, dancing and visiting with dear friends. The doctors don’t understand why, four and a half years later, I’m still here, feeling as well as I do. Clearly the treatment plan I’m on is working. That’s part of it, but I think the peace of mind psilocybin has given me has been huge.