BY MATTHEW SHAER
Shortly before his 22nd birthday, Octavian Mihai, then a student at New York University, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the bone marrow and blood. Although a CT scan showed that the disease had spread throughout his body, Mihai’s oncologist was confident the cancer would respond to chemotherapy. The doc was right: After eight months of grueling treatment, the number of cancer cells in Mihai’s blood had been eliminated.
Mihai should have been thrilled. Instead, he was gripped by a suffocating anxiety. “Intellectually, I understood that the five-year survival rate for stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma patients is about 80 percent,” recalls Mihai, who studied medicine at NYU. “But that also meant that 20 percent of those people died. And the idea that there was always going to be this thing hanging over me, something threatening my existence–it was chewing at me.”
Long a casual imbiber, Mihai doubled down on his drinking in an effort to drown out the anxiety. It worked, to a point. But in the mornings, along with the hangovers, the anxiety flooded back even stronger. “Eventually I decided I couldn’t take it anymore,” he remembers. His doctor at NYU suggested Xanax, but Mihai declined, suspecting that a benzodiazepine would just temporarily numb him up, like booze. “Well, there is another possibility,” the doctor suggested, “if you’re up for it.”
The doctor’s colleague at NYU Langone Medical Center was preparing a trial of psilocybin–the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms–to treat the anxiety and depression that often accompany a cancer diagnosis. There was still room on the roster. Mihai had never done anything stronger than marijuana, but he was desperate.
A few weeks later, Mihai stood in a softly lit room at Langone with two psychotherapists who would guide him through his first psychedelic trip. A metal chalice was produced, a capsule inside. Mihai swallowed. For half an hour, he felt nothing. He excused himself to the bathroom.
He was standing at the mirror when something strange and wonderful happened. “I saw another universe on the other side,” Mihai remembers. “The walls were crooked; absolutely nothing was straight anymore. I wanted to jump through the glass, slide into that other world.”
He walked back into the main room and lay down on the couch. There, in the company of the psychotherapists, and with a blindfold over his eyes and noise-canceling headphones on his ears, Mihai began to trip. Really trip. Like, an I’m-in-the-movie-Inception-level trip. Bright colors, infinite darkness. The ability to traverse time and space. The type of trip where reality seems to cave in on itself, where you’re convinced you’re finally seeing the world as it actually is: ineffable, generous, harmonic. As a track of tribal, bass-heavy music pulsed through his headphones, Mihai felt, for the first time in memory, perfectly at peace. “I’d describe it as having my mind permanently opened,” Mihai says. “And the anxiety was gone.”
What Mihai experienced was not novel. Researchers have experimented with the potentially palliative effects of psychedelics since at least the 1940s, when the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann began experimenting with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which he’d synthesised a few years earlier. In the 1950s and ’60s, thousands of patients participated in studies; many saw a decrease in their anxiety and showed improvements in mood after one trip, like Mihai. But in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, a law that banned LSD and mushrooms and brought the research to a halt.
Psychedelics are again finding favor among scientists. NYU Langone isn’t alone: Teams at institutions as varied as Imperial College London, the University of Alabama, and Johns Hopkins are currently studying them. Last year, a Brasilian review claimed that ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew that originated with Amazonian tribes, may help curb depression. And the FDA allowed the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies to proceed with tests on the ability of MDMA (or ecstasy) to counteract symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
“Look at all the states that have legalised medical marijuana,” says Philip Wolfson, M.D., a California psychiatrist and early proponent of psilocybin and MDMA therapy. “There’s this growing sense that mind alteration can be a good thing–helpful, beneficial, even pleasurable. And that prohibition–full stop–isn’t a healthy thing.” Adding to the momentum is the rising popularity of “microdosing”–the ingestion of tiny amounts of LSD, which advocates suggest can boost creativity and mood.
Less understood is how psychedelics work. They seem to stimulate serotonin receptors in our frontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs basic cognition and memory, says George Greer, M.D., medical director of the Heffter Research Institute, which backed the psilocybin studies at Langone and Johns Hopkins. Stimulation is the key word: A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that LSD amps up electrical activity and bloodflow in the visual cortex, the brain region that interprets what you see. Other research suggests that LSD lets otherwise separate areas of the mind communicate.
“Looking back, I would describe the experience as having my subconscious thrown wide open.”
Still, scientists haven’t figured out what’s happening on a molecular level, says Dr. Greer. “We don’t know how many of these healing experiences are biological in nature”–that is, the result of the brain being physically and possibly permanently altered–“or how many are a product of experiential healing, a substance giving a person fresh perspective on his life,” says Dr. Greer. “There’s a lot more work to be done.” Decades’ worth, he says.
Until then, he and other experts caution against running your own one-man study. For one thing, the aforementioned studies were done with lab-distilled psilocybin or LSD. If you buy something off the street, you’ll not only commit a crime–all the psychedelics in this story are strictly verboten in all 50 states–but also risk taking tainted or impure drugs. Plus, in some cases, psychedelics exacerbate the very symptoms researchers want to treat. In the Langone study, most patients reported decreases in depressed mood and anxiety, but a few experienced a temporary increase in anxiety. Luckily, they were tripping in the company of psychotherapists who could monitor their mental state.
“Without that clinical support from professionals, those situations can quickly spiral out of control,” Dr. Greer says. “And that can be traumatic in and of itself.”
Until the science is all sorted out and the drugs are legal, it’s safer to do your tripping in the company of a doctor. Or not at all.
Just ask Mihai. Now 25, he lives in Las Vegas and works as a physician assistant. His cancer is still in remission. His anxiety is firmly under control, and he drinks much less than he used to–progress he attributes in large part to his participation in the Langone study. “Looking back, I’d describe the experience as having my subconscious thrown wide open,” he says. “It was as if I’d finished months and months of therapy, working toward the goal of overcoming these mental blocks–and I got all that in one session.”
For months after the trip, Mihai felt aftereffects–occasionally heightened colors and sounds, a shimmer on the face of reality. It faded eventually. “But when I’m feeling stressed, I can still go back to that day,” he says. He recalls what he saw, the wisdom attained.
Still, Mihai has no desire to trip again soon. “I think people who want to use it for fun, as a party drug, they’ll have a weak experience,” he says. “It’s so powerful, right? And you’ve got to have a careful attitude toward it. You’ve got to use it the right way, in a guided setting. You’ve got to fear it, respect it. Because that’s when you start to learn.”
ILLUSTRATIONS BY MICHAEL HOEWELER