Relief in Unexpected Forms

At seventy-one, I think more about death than I did when I was in my forties. I try not to let these thoughts rule my day, but that can be tricky when a friend becomes terminally ill or I hear a heart-breaking story of a child being given only a short time to live. It’s logical, I suppose, that thoughts of death expand as we age.

Part of my thinking is about the when and how.  Will I pass suddenly? Or will I succumb to an illness with some time to plan? Each scenario has its advantages. To go suddenly means no protracted illness and all that encompasses. On the other hand, a disease that will give me months or even years to live – hopefully somewhat comfortably – offers the advantages of estate planning, making amends, and saying good-byes.

Today, I’m looking at the aspect of handling the fear and anxiety that come with knowing your days are numbered.

A Friend with Time to Plan

Last year an acquaintance developed cancer but, through surgery and treatments, she spent several months in remission. This year, however, the cancer returned in multiple places in her body and she was given six to eight months to live, most of that time, they hoped, without a lot of debilitating factors.

Obviously, her situation saddened and terrified her, and she became quite depressed and afraid. Someone told her about the advantages of psilocybin’s (magic mushrooms as they were referred to in the days of Timothy Leary) in getting past the angst that was turning her last months into sheer terror. Her profound fear and depression were preventing her from using the time to plan and accomplish what she wanted in terms of her estate and in terms of connecting with family and friends for her last days on earth.

She did her research and found a professional near her who could serve as a guide through the hallucinogenic experience.

Turns out she benefited greatly by this encounter.

As might be anticipated, she has difficulty describing the five to six-hour “trip.” She recalls feeling safe and supported, enfolded by a strong sense of peace and contentment. But perhaps most remarkable, she says she gained an understanding that dying and living are inseparable; that she had nothing to fear.

The next day she veered toward discounting the clarity she got during the hallucination, but the guide brought her back around to understanding her essential truth during a follow-up conversation.

That experience was months ago. Since then, she has been able to cling to and find comfort in not just the sense of connection but in the sense that dying is as normal as living – that they are the same. So far, since returning home, my friend hasn’t had any of the terror attacks she experienced before the magic mushroom session.

A recent psilocybin study at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studied the chronic depression and anxiety, and decreased quality-of-life expectations, created by the trauma of a disease and its treatment coupled with one’s mortality. Overall, the data show “that psilocybin produced large and significant decreases in measures of depression, anxiety or mood disturbance, and increases in measures of quality of life, life meaning, death acceptance, and optimism. These effects were sustained at six months.”

Put yourself in her place:  would you be open to psychedelics to deal with the trauma of knowing that your death is imminent? I think I would.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out Michael Pollan’s 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind, about the “new science of psychedelics.”