After our daughter’s death I was overwhelmed by pain and anxiety. Microdosing home-grown mushrooms helped me cope.
It was spring when my wife’s waters broke, three months early. We rushed to hospital, terrified. If our daughter arrived now, she might not survive. If she did, she would probably be plagued by lifelong health problems. Jo spent the next four days in hospital, while we prayed labour wouldn’t begin. But the night after we returned home, Jo’s contractions started and we raced back to hospital. Straight away, a foetal monitor was placed on her tummy. The brisk heartbeat we had been following so closely in the previous days was gone. Our daughter had died.
The train of our life was shunted on to a parallel track. We could see the train we were meant to be on pulling away, passing the milestones – the due date, introducing the baby to our family, the first smiles. But ahead of us now lay despair, guilt, a funeral, photos of our precious girl that some family members could barely bring themselves to look at, and support groups where every story would be more heart-rending than the last.
There is no right way to deal with losing a baby, but I would call my coping strategy unusual: I became obsessed with growing magic mushrooms.
Even before the stillbirth, I had experienced years of anxiety, exacerbated by long hours spent working alone as a writer, self-esteem issues, a young family (we already had a three-year-old, Grace), a midlife crisis… Whatever the cocktail of causation, it had begun to feel like a full-on depression.
I had tried cognitive behavioural therapy, which took the edge off it, but I felt that I needed something radical to break myself out of the deepening loops of negativity and lethargy. I had read that psychedelic substances, such as LSD or the psilocybin in magic mushrooms, taken in very low doses, were being touted as the latest so-called smart drugs. I was interested in microdosing, not for the creativity boost that advocates in Silicon Valley extol, but for the effect it is said to have on anxiety; on breaking patterns of negative thought.
In the course of my writing, I had spoken to Dr Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London, a leading researcher into psilocybin as a potential treatment for depression. He told me about the promising results he had seen in people with treatment-resistant depression. He also described how the brains of people on a mushroom trip “light up” in an fMRI scanner, revealing communication between areas that don’t normally “talk” to each other. (Right now, he’s preparing a trial comparing psilocybin with SSRIs for the treatment of depression.)
In another study, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a mushroom trip was shown to ease the anxiety of people with life-threatening cancer, leading to dramatic improvements in mood and wellbeing. I also found an article in the Lancet that concluded that magic mushrooms are the least harmful “recreational” drug you can take. Mushrooms are not addictive and you can’t kill yourself by overdosing on them, as long as you take them in a safe environment. It is a mystery to me why they share class A illegal status with crack cocaine and heroin.
So, in the months before we lost our daughter, I decided to try microdosing. That presented a problem: I didn’t know any drug dealers. So, I turned to YouTube. I discovered that to grow magic mushrooms at home I needed two things: mushroom spores, in a syringe filled with sterilised water; and a growth medium, or substrate, into which I would inject the spores.
A simple substrate is a mix of one part organic brown rice flour, one part water and two parts vermiculite (a moisture-retaining mineral sold in garden centres). I also discovered that, while it is illegal to grow magic mushrooms, it is not illegal to buy the spores – to look at under a microscope, for example. I found a spore syringe online for £15 plus postage and a substrate kit, pre-mixed and sterilised, on eBay, for £26. I was genuinely excited to be taking a step towards improving my mental health.
The syringe arrived, with a note from the vendor emphasising that I definitely must not use these spores to grow mushrooms because, you know, it is illegal. I am a pathetically obedient citizen under normal circumstances. But I had informed myself about the science and evaluated the risks.
The technical process of growing magic mushrooms appealed to my nerdy side. Any bacteria or unwanted fungus can contaminate the substrate. I was careful to don latex gloves, clean my arms and all surfaces with rubbing alcohol before I injected the spores through the plastic lid of the substrate tub. It would take about six weeks in darkness for my spores to germinate and colonise the entire substrate with mycelium, turning it white.
After that, I would “birth” the colonised “cake” into a daylit “fruiting chamber” – a lidded, ventilated, clear-plastic tub with a layer of soaked perlite (a volcanic glass) across the bottom, to keep things moist – and wait for the mushrooms to grow.
It was during the colonisation period, before seeing any mushrooms, that Jo and I lost our daughter, whom we had already named Isobelle. We would discover later the most likely reason for her death was insufficient follow-up after Jo had been treated with antibiotics for an infection. When Jo returned to her GP a few weeks later, complaining of further symptoms, Nice guidelines were not followed and she was sent home and told not to worry. We would later blame ourselves that we had not been demanding enough.
Because Isobelle was stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy, our paternity and maternity rights kicked in. We were spending a lot of time at home. In my grief, I became obsessed by the progress of my mycelium, which was growing in the dark inside a tub on top of a wardrobe. I had even rigged up a night-vision camera inside the tub so that I could check the growth on my phone: like live-streaming grass growing, only slower.
When the cake was fully colonised, I put it in the fruiting chamber. Within about four days, little brown dots, the heads of baby mushrooms, began to appear. Soon, my first crop, or “flush”, was ready for picking. At this time, my mother-in-law was helping to support us following Isobelle’s death. Few mothers-in-law would approve of harvesting class-A drugs in the kitchen, but mine is different. She is a keen gardener – and open-minded.
I placed the fruiting chamber on the kitchen table, put on my surgical gloves and started harvesting as my wife and her mother looked on. I was proud of my first flush. “My son-in-law is Walter White,” my mother-in-law announced, referencing Breaking Bad’s school teacher-turned methamphetamine cook with no small hint of admiration.
About three weeks after Isobelle’s death, with my anxiety buried under grief, I decided to begin microdosing. I would take 0.3 grams of dried mushrooms every third day (a popular regime among microdosers, recommended by Dr James Fadiman, the author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide). I was such a mess that it was difficult to know what effect it might have. I just knew that things couldn’t get any worse.