Chryss Cada goes for a walk after a microdose of psilocybin. “I had trauma. And I’ve tried everything,” Cada said. “This has helped me and I think it can help other people. … It really does clear your mind, it puts things in perspective.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America) (Animation by Marvis Gutierrez, The Colorado Sun)

It was the time of day that plays out in similar fashion in kitchens everywhere; breakfast dishes piling up in the sink, sandwiches that would likely languish forgotten in high school backpacks being made and calls going out to “hurry up or you will be late.” 

The ping of the microwave cuts through the chaos. My mug of hot water is ready. I step out of my role of mother preparing for the day to squeeze lemon in. 

The citric acid and hot water work to break down the psilocybin and make it easier for my system to digest. Next I take my jar of mushrooms from their hiding place in the pantry, fish a couple stems just barely wider than toothpicks out of the plastic container and place them on the scale. It reads 0.14 grams. 

It’s time for Mama’s Microdose. 

Eight months ago I joined the burgeoning number of people ingesting small amounts of psychedelics most days of the week to relieve the crippling anxiety and depression responses created by childhood trauma. 

And guess what? It’s working. 

After making limited progress during four decades of prescriptions and talk therapy, psilocybin has dramatically sped up the healing of wounds from losing my only sibling to suicide when I was 12 years old. 

Although Denver became the first city in the country to decriminalize “magic mushrooms” in 2019, their use is still a violation of federal law. So the 10.5% of the adult population who has tried psilocybin at least once in their lifetime (up from about 8.5% in 2015) is sneaking shrooms on the sly. 

Colorado voters will decide in November whether to become the second state to decriminalize the use of mushrooms for medical purposes (Oregon was the first in 2020). Initiative 58 would also allow the creation of state-regulated “healing centers” where people would be allowed to purchase and consume psilocybin. As Coloradans consider legalization of mushrooms, there is a need for clarity on the difference between medicine and recreational drugs. 

“Shrooming”

Like many of us entering midlife, I know the difference from personal experience.  

In college there wasn’t all this fuss, we would just throw a few mushrooms in our mouths, chew and then press the pulp against the roof of our mouths until the earthy taste became overpowering and we swallowed it down. 

It was the late ‘80s at the University of Colorado and most everyone (even some of students over in the engineering school) was “shrooming.” In those days the psychedelic compound naturally occurring in about 200 species of mushrooms was for fun. Psilocybin (which hardly anyone knew by name) was for lying on the grass waiting for all the stars to become shooting stars, streaking a long, sparkling trail of light behind them, or for an ordinary rabbit darting across the park to become a magical sighting, an envoy from another world looking for a portal back to Wonderland. 

Cada takes psilocybin mushrooms with lemon water to help its absorption. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Cada’s typical mushroom dose ranges from 0.15 to 0.4 of a gram, three to four times a week.

My generation took shrooms so that our minds would let go of the everyday and just play. So when mushrooms recently sprouted along my healing path, I thought, “Hey, this could be fun.”

Turns out bringing up the most painful moments of your life and reliving them as if they were happening in real time isn’t exactly a party. But the relief  “the medicine” (as it is often referred to) brings by loosening and releasing  tightly held trauma is nothing short of magical. 

Despite the high in the sky feelings created by mushrooms, their benefits are rooted in science. A flurry of recent studies, including from respected institutions like Johns Hopkins University, have shown psilocybin helpful in treating everything from alcohol dependence to major depressive disorder. 

Dr. Scott Shannon has a history of working with psychedelics that reaches back to the ‘70s. He is one of the founders of the Fort Collins-based Psychedelic Research & Training Institute and is heading up the Phase III trial of MDMA (commonly known as molly or ecstasy)-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. At the Wholeness Center in Fort Collins (which Shannon founded in 2010), he provides therapy with ketamine, a drug legal for medical purposes that works in the brain in ways similar to mushrooms. 

“Using psychedelics to access alternative consciousnesses decreases the barriers to processing trauma,” said Shannon, who has seen dramatic results in his seven years of providing ketamine-assisted therapy. “It gives us a different perspective on our personal narrative, our presence in the world, and in doing so can break us out of certain patterns we have been stuck in for years or even decades.” 

One Colorado woman who describes herself as a plant medicine guide has also been helping people heal trauma with psychedelics for the past seven years. But since she uses mushrooms to do so, her work is done underground. 

“Mushrooms in particular are heart medicine,” she said. “The earth provides them and indigenous people have been using them for centuries to connect with a vibration of love; love for nature, our community and ourselves.” 

She pauses to smile and let out a hearty laugh.

“The medicine makes people more loving — it’s that simple,” she said. “And when you are safe and supported in love you can in essence clean out the pain your mind has been holding onto.”

After taking psilocybin, Cada often experiences realizations and epiphanies. “It’s not always fun. A lot of times, it brings up really dark stuff. … You’ll spend a lot of time shedding a lot of really deep, tightly held emotions that it accesses,” Cada said. “But it helps. It’s like letting off some steam, shedding some of my grief every time I do that.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America) (Animation by Marvis Gutierrez, The Colorado Sun)

Big “T” trauma

Everyone who grew up with a brother or sister knows their importance. Parents guide and instruct us, but our sibs are our first partners in life. We scheme, explore, plan, play, fight, make up, and figure out the world together. We confide in, consult with, and comfort each other. We grow with our roots intertwined in a nurturing soil of unconditional love. At least that’s how it was for Mark and me. Two and a half years older than me and my only sibling, he was always within eyesight.  

Growing up a 30-minute drive outside the Mayberryesque town of Loveland at the base of the Big Thompson Canyon, we spent our days on the rocky-ridged foothill behind our house. “The Hill” provided acres to discover unknowns, build treehouses and forts, and play high-level games of hide and seek. 

On Jan. 31, 1981, it was on The Hill, overlooking the storied peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, that my big brother chose to die. When he woke me up that Saturday morning to give me a letter and a hug goodbye, I had no idea I would be the last person to see him alive. 

I didn’t know that morning that I was the last one who could have stopped him, but every day of the last 41 years I’ve wished with all my being that I would have. 

“(Trauma) produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant,” writes Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, in his book “The Body Keeps the Score.”

In other words, when something really bad happens to you as a child, you spend the rest of your life expecting something really bad to happen again — at any moment. 

Brain damage

Losing my only sibling not to disease or accident, but to his own choice, hardened parts of my developing brain into scar tissue, blocking healthy function. 

“People can store trauma so deeply that they no longer realize it is there, influencing their day-to-day life through the way they do things or the reactions they are having,” said Bri Bendixsen, a psychotherapist offering ketamine-assisted psychotherapy and integration, or processing psychedelic experiences. “If you treat the symptoms without investigating the root cause your healing can only go so far.”

Chryss Cada holds a photo of her brother, Mark, when he was a sophomore in high school. Cada was 12 years old when Mark took his own life at age 15. (Photos by Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Mark was a natural risk-taker, she said, yet he took on solving others’ problems like they were his own. “I was the last person to see my brother alive,” Cada said. “So I have immense guilt about not stopping him.”

I told therapists for the 35 years after losing Mark that I was “fine,” that I had dealt with my brother’s death and I’d like to get back to complaining about all the other people in my life and their “issues.” What I didn’t tell those well-meaning therapists (because I didn’t know) is that my mind had developed an intricate coping mechanism to protect me from getting blindsided by trauma ever again. 

“Anxiety in and of itself is a healthy evolutionary response of the body developed to keep us safe from threats,” explains Kai Rosendahl, who despite having a doctorate in ocean physics chose to become an  OCD recovery coach after his own battle with the disorder. “After trauma, our perception of threats can become significantly skewed, and our responses to both real and falsely-perceived threats can morph into ridiculous demands.”

Ridiculous. Like thinking that accidentally putting ham on my youngest daughter’s sandwich is putting her life in danger. And no, she is not allergic to ham.

The medicine makes people more loving — it’s that simple. And when you are safe and supported in love you can in essence clean out the pain your mind has been holding onto.

— A Colorado plant medicine guide

In my mind, children who are cared for in every possible way a mother can imagine are “safe” from suicide because they know with absolute certainty they are understood and loved.

Cada watches a storm roll in near her home after microdosing psilocybin. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Watching my daughters enter their elementary school, OCD would start the checklist in my mind. 

Did they have a well-balanced breakfast? 

Check ✔️

Did I tell them I loved them?

Check ✔️

Did I brush their hair 100 strokes?

Check ✔️

Did I pack their sandwiches in their insulated lunch boxes?

Check ✔️

But wait … the week before my younger daughter told me she was no longer eating “cute animals, including pigs.” I don’t think I put ham on her sandwich, only cheese, but I’m not sure. Also maybe I switched the sandwiches.

When my malfunctioning mind detects a flaw in my parenting, my body has a full-blown fight-or-flight response. My pulse rises to a throbbing in my head and chest. My breathing stops. Lightning crackles through my veins. All the while, my brain screams, “DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!”

A mom without crippling anxiety would figure if her daughter did get ham she could just take it off the sandwich. This mom dug through the bin of lunch boxes in front of a classroom of bewildered third graders to “check and be sure” her embarrassed 9-year-old had a ham-free sandwich. 

People can store trauma so deeply that they no longer realize it is there, influencing their day-to-day life through the way they do things or the reactions they are having.

— Bri Bendixsen, a psychotherapist

That would likely be only the first of many such episodes in my day. Compulsions (including checking) consume the time and energy of someone suffering from OCD, with the disorder relentlessly upping the ridiculousness of its demands. As my children grew up, I became increasingly obsessed with providing them a meticulously organized and clean home. Pillows arranged on the couch, no streaks on the counter and homemade goodies in the cookie jar meant they were safe.

When you repeat behaviors you wear down neural pathways in your brain. Just like walking the same route in the natural grass in my backyard has worn a path to the gate, every time I respond to worries about my children’s safety by arranging, cleaning and monitoring every detail of their lives, it wears the pathway a little deeper into my brain. Would they still be OK if they had to eat store-bought cookies? Maybe, but there’s no way I would risk it.

While under normal conditions neurons fire neurotransmitters along well-trodden neural pathways in the brain, researchers have found that when on magic mushrooms, these pathways were “destabilized.” Rather than traveling along the usual pathways, the neurotransmitters tended to take new “roads” to new destinations. 

The shift was a subtle one when I started microdosing. It’s not a “buzz” that kicked in like when I was drinking (well from what I remember, I gave up drinking more than three years ago out of fear of the lows it took me to). With microdosing I feel more of a vibe, a beautiful general sense of well-being. 

I would notice the pillows were out of order, but stopped myself on the way to straighten them. In the pause I thought, “Hey, they don’t look bad that way.” 

And I left them. 

And my daughters survived the day. 

This is what they call a “disconfirming” experience. I can loosen my grip and things are still OK. I can exhale. In these moments I realize that I’ve been holding my breath in one way or another for more than four decades.

Little “t” trauma

“People think it takes trauma with a capital ‘T’ to damage a person,” said Craig Heacock, a therapist who does ketamine-assisted therapy and integration work with his clients and hosts the mental health podcast “Back From the Abyss.” “For example, I am working with a young woman who is a sensitive soul who lives with a father who is verbally abusive. He’s never physically touched her, but living in an environment where she is constantly in fear of an outburst is traumatic for her system.” 

On my healing path I’ve met people who have found relief from traumas as major as losing both parents to domestic violence and enduring chronic sexual abuse, but also lesser traumas like a nasty divorce or a hyper-critical boss. 

“Psychedelics can dredge up experiences from patients’ past they didn’t even realize were traumatic,” Shannon explains. “Car accidents, bullying or a parent who was always losing his temper. In our society we just buck up and soldier on, to our own detriment.”

In the group experiences known as “ceremony,” the plant medicine guide has helped people process everything from profound sexual abuse as a child to struggles with infertility. Her clients are mostly middle aged (40s and 50s) and come from across the income- level spectrum. 

“While it is important to approach the medicine with intention, you have to be able to let go and see what you recieve,” she said. “I had a middle-aged man in ceremony to process a nasty divorce who was expecting to cry the whole time, but instead he got an energetic download of pure joy.

“He came out the other side much lighter.”

Going big

Have you ever just wanted to turn off your brain and take a break from … well, being you? By disconnecting parts of the brain that form what we call our ego, psilocybin does just that. The medicine puts you on the wings of a bird to soar above your life and decide what you think of the view. 

It allows you to not only rethink who you are, but also who you want to be. Umm, after decades of unresolved grief and constant anxiety … yes, please. 

Chryss Cada often spends time in nature after microdosing, frequently experiencing realizations and epiphanies. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

When my PTSD was triggered by my oldest daughter entering high school (an institution my brother did not survive), I went full-send on dealing with my trauma — think skiing the steep chutes at Mary Jane extreme. 

In an effort to protect the teens in my life from suicide and heal what it had taken from me, I went deep-dive journalist on the issue. In fact, I gathered enough information to fill a book. My memoir, “At the Top of the Stairs: A Child’s Story of Losing her Sibling to Suicide,” is based on the first and most important fact I came across: Suicide is the leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds in Colorado. 

Jumping into the deep end of my trauma without support was too much for my system and my PTSD left me barely able to function. I wanted to stop the pain for good. And if it was just me, if I wouldn’t have been taking away my daughters’ mother, I would have. 

I was on a call with Kai Rosendahl one rainy day last April, waiting to pick up one of the four prescriptions I was taking for anxiety, when I heard myself say, “I don’t want to live like this anymore.” 

When I heard “You don’t have to” over the phone from California, I was surprised to feel tears of relief running down my cheeks. 

The “Hippie Way”

Thus began my journey into the “alternative healing modalities” that I like to think of as the “Hippie Way.”

Through yoga, breathwork, massage, reiki and even some surf therapy, I was able to shed layers of grief. Through my “shadow work” I was reintroduced to my younger self, a joyful girl for whom the world was a place of joy, play and possibility. 

Three grams of psilocybin and I not only remembered her, I got to be her again. On my first “deeper journey” with the medicine I became a child of 10 running through a field of Montana wildflowers trying to catch up with her big brother. 

You didn’t really think I was going to tell a story of alternative healing without bringing up my inner child, did you? 

According to some in the “magic” mushroom community, taking psilocybin can temporarily alter one’s eye color, Cada said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Cada’s typical mushroom dose ranges from 0.15 to 0.4 of a gram each time

That first “macrodose” also put me back in the body of the 12-year-old, bewildered to find herself in a world without her brother. That version of myself is still so very sad. When children experience a loss beyond their coping abilities their brain locks away that sadness so tightly that no air gets in to heal the wound. 

Which is why this spring, my 12-year-old self spent about 45 minutes face down in the backyard “giving the earth my sadness.” So many tears poured out of me I was convinced that spot in the dry April grass would be green by the time I finished.

But the medicine was there with me, holding me in a way I’ll never be able to fully explain. Psilocybin showed me the pain, but she also promised to be at my side as I worked through it. 

In ways science will never be able to explain, but that humans have experienced for centuries, mushrooms show you how truly beautiful the natural world is. In April I spent the first part of my trip marveling at the trees to the point that I asked my guide, “How do we walk by trees every day without stopping to look up into their branches in awe?”

This is the point at which my guide wisely suggested I put on a blindfold and go inward. As soon as I covered my eyes the darkness descended.

Both times I macrodosed I was with guides I trusted implicitly, people who were well-acquainted with my trauma and prepared to help me with its intensity. 

A good guide also knows that untethered to your usual brain patterns, you are free to rise out of the depths of uncomfortable emotions with a joke or an upbeat selection of music. 

For example I was brought out of the pit of grief by a comment that I was producing enough mucus to go through the better part of a box of tissues. “Don’t worry,” I told my guide. “If I write about this trip I can write the Kleenex off on my taxes.” 

I must have laughed for 4 minutes straight.

FYI, the mushrooms not only tell me that I’m hilarious, but that I’m actually pretty good at singing.

Ceremony

Dressed all in white, with a beautiful hand-beaded necklace around her neck, the guide went through the ceremony process. 

“In the West we do drugs to tune out, mushrooms make you tune in,” she said during opening circle. 

To keep our journey inward, we all agreed to be blindfolded and nonverbal for the first 2½ hours of our trip. If we had to leave the yurt where the ceremony was held, there was to be “no wandering off.” 

Research shows that psilocybin can tap into the memory parts of your brain, bringing the past to life by reanimating the past. I wanted to spend time with my brother, so I took roughly 5 grams of mushrooms in chocolate and capsule form, put on my blindfold and laid flat on my back. 

If I write about this trip I can write the Kleenex off on my taxes.

— Author Chryss Cada

As they called in the directions I set my intention. I would turn to the south, the place of fire and alchemy to shed my trauma like a serpent sheds its skin. I wanted to be with the pure essence of my brother instead of the dark, painful version of him his death left behind.

The fact that it was nearly 100 degrees that June day, and likely even hotter in the yurt, would surely help me melt and shed the useless layer that had been constricting me all my adult life. 

Your experience of music is usually the first clue that the medicine is taking effect. Our guides played recorded music, but also played drums and sitar and sang to us. I don’t understand Sanskrit, but I received the message of the songs to be comforting, supportive and loving. Without touching us, the guides held me and the 13 other women and one man in the circle as darkness fell outside the yurt and under our masks.

Afterward when I was asked if the experience was fun, I answered, “Not really, but it was beautiful.”

My stomach, which as instructed was nearly empty when I arrived, wasn’t happy with that much psilocybin. I spent most of the next 3 hours on my stomach, a lump of melting emotion, moaning and in tears. 

As if to encourage you to close your eyes, the medicine puts on a show for you; an exploding kaleidoscope of colors and patterns dancing just for you. 

And in that loving and supported environment I went looking for Mark. I can’t explain my surroundings. It seemed like we were everywhere; peeking under a hobbit bridge, running up a mountain trail, diving into the depths of the ocean, gathering around the fire. At the same time we were somewhere I’ve never been before.  In this case the “we” is all the other people in the yurt. We were on a quest, for different things perhaps, but we were helping each other look.

After about an hour I found Mark. 

He was so close to me that my mind confirmed what I have always suspected, he’s not all the way gone. 

We’re outside. I remember what it is like to see the sunlight behind his head, like an aura. I feel the sunshine and the familiarity of my brother’s face warming my own skin. 

I look up at him into a face as familiar as my own  — so similar that I more than once adopted for myself the mood expressed on his face. Oh, Mark is smiling: I must be happy too.

And that’s what a large dose of mushrooms brought me once again. Seeing my brother’s face. Kinetic with the little lines at the corner of his mouth pushing out a fold against his high cheekbones as he smiles. Mark is OK, he is at peace. 

So now, at last, I can be too. 

(Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)(Animation by Marvis Gutierrez, The Colorado Sun)

Integration

The medicine sets you down gently, its effects leaving gradually until you look around and realize the grass is back to a flat, dry green. 

The morning after the ceremony we sat in a circle once again and began processing the lessons of the night before. 

Like me, some of the participants visited with family members who have died. Some were called to enter healing professions or let go of resentment. Some saw themselves as children and were called to protect their younger selves. 

Many had deep journeys into the emotional abyss, while others stayed on the surface and danced. A couple women were disappointed that the smaller doses they chose didn’t “really do anything.”

The woman next to me in the circle commented, “I’ve never really understood what the deal is with tie-dye, but now I do.” 

Once you’ve sat with the medicine, it is always with you; a part of your brain that calls on you to remember. 

“Remember that feeling that you’re OK, that your daughters are safe? Well, it’s still true …” 

Many of the women in the yurt that morning will see a therapist to process their experience. Several of them are therapists themselves and went on the journey so they can relate to what their patients experience with psychedelics. 

“In my opinion the therapy component is the most important part,” Bendixsen said. “You have to develop trust because psychedelics put you in just a vulnerable place. You need to be able to have guided support to process what is coming up.”

I’ve been doing my integration work with the nonlicensed healers I have found most helpful, but the vast majority of the work is just me and the medicine. 

In addition to this supportive part of myself,  I can also access my brother again. He’s closer to me now. I sense his awe in a brilliant sunset, his curiosity about my life as a mother and his humor when I take a fall on the ski slopes. 

But I also hear his messages: He’s proud of me. He’s so sorry. It wasn’t my fault. Play more, live for both of us. We can still go have adventures together. 

Mark and I didn’t say “I love you” that morning because it’s just not something brothers and sisters our ages tended to do. But I do now. And every morning when I hear a meadowlark on my morning walk, I can feel him say, “I love you too.”

Help psilocybin research

Because it is illegal, many aspects of psilocybin use remain a mystery. In the first study of its kind, CSU researcher Bethany Gray is searching for answers about mushroom use.

“We know anecdotally that there are a lot of people using psilocybin, but there are no real tangible numbers on who these people are, how they are using it, why or how much,” said Gray, who as a therapist helps patients integrate their psychedelic experiences. “Are people taking large doses every few years or are they taking tiny doses several times a week? We just don’t know.”

If you use psilocybin you can take the survey by clicking here or scanning the QR code.

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Chryss Cada

Chryss Cada is a freelance journalist in her fourth decade covering Colorado. Visit her at chryss.com. Email: chryss@chryss.com Twitter: