Photo by Mondadori Portfolio

The longest night of my life

Researchers should re-think prescribing magic mushrooms for depression

Artillery Row

Handle with care. This is my advice to anyone desperate enough to consider ingesting Psilocybin in the hope it will ease their depression, as suggested by researchers at Compass Pathways in London. For although Psilocybin, commonly ingested in the form of “magic mushrooms” (Psilocybe semilanceata), may indeed leave participants feeling “recalibrated, reset like they haven’t for years”, it can also irreversibly impact mental health.

Mushrooms have many effects, but superhuman strength isn’t one

Growing up in the small town of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire which even in the 1970s had a counter-culture in the form of hippies, refugees mostly from the cities it was commonplace for kids to take “mushies”, as we called them. Each autumn the nearby woods and fields would be crawling with locals, clutching carrier bags to fill with these small, distinctive fungi with brown bell-shaped caps perched on long, slender stalks. Some carried guidebooks that warned of which mushrooms were dangerous to eat; most of us simply took our chances.

I was thirteen or so when I first tried mushrooms, which could be eaten raw though they tasted disgusting in food, or in “tea”. The latter was most common, but unfortunately in this form, it’s hard to know how many you have ingested. When sipping the vile broth you would often find a mush of mushies in the bottom of your cup, and like most naïve youths I simply swallowed the lot. To my dismay, perhaps because I have poor circulation, nothing seemed to happen. After a few hours I went home, feeling quite normal. As I talked to my mother, I chewed a peanut butter sandwich for what seemed an eternity; was she looking at me strangely, or was it my imagination? Then she asked me to move a chair, which seemed so weightless I lifted it by one leg or so it seemed. Mushrooms may have many effects, but superhuman strength isn’t one of them. I decided to stay in my room until the effects passed.

Over the coming years, I tried most drugs including heroin, speed, dope and of course alcohol but nothing compared to mushrooms. Even the “trips” provided by LSD seemed artificial and shallow by comparison. With mushrooms, there was always this sense that it was natural, routed directly from Mother Earth into one’s inner core. There was also however the danger of “flashbacks”, weeks later, when tiny amounts of the drug were dislodged in the system and entered the brain. I heard rumours of one lad who worked on a laith in a factory: when he had a flashback, he pushed his fingers into the laith and watched in wonder as they flew off in all directions.

I huddled in a doorway as a kind woman tried to provide reassurance

Shortly before leaving Hebden, aged 18, three friends and I took hundreds of mushrooms and listened to music in an empty house. It was the longest night of my life. We alternatively giggled, grew morose, slept and hallucinated so much that at one point when we looked out the window the entire town seemed to have become a miniature. Strangest of all, we all saw it. It probably didn’t help that we had one cassette tape, on which we played “Bauhaus”, “Killing Joke” and “A Flock of Seagulls” on loop even now hearing those songs induces a semi-flashback.

In London, as well as drinking to a dangerous degree I continued to experiment with drugs. On one occasion I took acid with a friend and went to a nightclub; when we emerged we were blown over. As we wandered up Tottenham Court Road, all the street lights went out and tree branches smashed windows. It felt like the end of the world it turned out to be the Great Hurricane.

After that experience, with the emergence of the rave culture, ecstasy became my drug of choice; but then, one fateful night, I took a large quantity of mushrooms alone at my Farringdon flat. Some time later, at my local haunt, all seemed well until suddenly the barman turned into a griffin and perched on the bar squawking, flapping his wings. I attempted to walk home but Amwell Street became elastic, stretching out to infinity, so I huddled in a doorway as a kind woman tried to provide reassurance. Finally making it home, I lay on the carpet for hours until the worst of the effects passed.

I vowed never to take mushrooms, or any form of hallucinogens, again. I speak as someone with a history of mood swings which, in case you were wondering, pre-date my first experiments with drugs. As I tell my teenage children now, most drugs really aren’t worth the risk.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover