Retired Sergeant Jonathan Lubecky sat alone in a bar in Raleigh, North Carolina when he heard the chiming of church bells. It was Christmas Eve 2006 and midnight mass was about to start. He made his way to the church, looking for some solace and relief. The church was packed and tears fell down his face as he pleaded to be let in.
“I just got back from Iraq. I really need to go in there.”
“It’s a living nightmare, honestly. You feel like you have no control.”
Returning to civilian life was difficult, compounded by the fact that his wife had left him two weeks prior to his arrival, an unexpected blow. He bounced from job to job, finding it hard to concentrate or complete work tasks.
“On a typical day, I’d wake up, hang out, go to the bar, get drunk, come home. I tried to work. I’d work for like a month or two and get fired. Eventually, I just quit trying.”
“The VA did everything they could so that I could exist and that I did not end my life. And, my therapist had told me I was a difficult patient, because every time everything was triaged they would ask ‘can we keep him alive till tomorrow? Can we keep him alive till next week?’”
“When you experience this illness and everything that goes along with it, it is incredibly overwhelming and intense,” explained Rebecca. “It’s always the next appointment, the next blood work, the next dosage. You’re dealing with just the day-to-day meds that they need to take, and then getting them to eat well. And then, just managing their pain and making sure they’re able to be bathed and cleaned and taken care of, and then working full-time.”
As Tony’s health continued to decline, the couple had to come to terms with the reality that Tony was terminal.
“[The] emotions and psychology that comes along with that, you really have no idea until you’re in the thick of it,” continues Rebecca. “[Tony experienced] extreme despair, depression, anxiety, anger, rage. Rage. Lots of it. He was definitely not at peace.”
“When I went in – what made me cry – was that Tony was crouched down by the fireplace, just looking at the fire.”
Tony had not been able to crouch down since the previous August. The radiation in his hip had made movement difficult. Rebecca was amazed.
“I expected the psychological and spiritual impact, but not for one moment did I expect the physical to be impacted. It was like he was trying to open up, like he was in a fetal position for so long from the illness and the pain that his body had just started turning physically inward. But after the journey, he stretched out his arms and lifted his chest. He could move his leg.”
Over the next two weeks, Rebecca witnessed the transformation. She felt she had the old Tony back.
“It gave him such peace. It was phenomenal. And his sense of humor was back, playing silly little tricks on me. We were basically like two children. All of a sudden, my butt’s getting smacked in the kitchen and he’s like, “come here, give me a hug,” and I’m like, “oh my god, you’re hugging me!” And we’re having a nice long hug. Like we used to.”
“It was like day and night. He was sleeping better, so I was sleeping better. He was eating better, so I was eating better. It was a whole effect – it was a gift. They call them magic mushrooms for a reason.”
While the use of psychedelics can be traced back to the late 1800s, many start the story in 1943 when Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann accidentally discovered the psychoactive properties of lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD. Five years earlier he was tasked with synthesizing molecules produced by ergot, a common fungus that infects grains such as rye, in the search for marketable pharmaceuticals. Initial testing didn’t show much promise, so the molecules were shelved. When Hoffman returned to the compound for further examination, he absorbed a small amount into his skin. Hoffman documented the experience in his book “LSD – My Problem Child.”
“I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.” (1)
Hoffman conducted a series of self-experiments in which he again experienced altered perceptions, albeit much more intense and threatening. He feared he was going insane.
“Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange…”
However, these terrifying feelings subsided as the experiment went on.
“The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude.The world was as if newly created.I could not, with every exertion of my will, shake off the LSD world. Everything was experienced as completely real, as alarming reality; alarming, because the picture of the other, familiar everyday reality was still fully preserved in the memory for comparison.”
“The visions were not blurred or uncertain. They were sharply focused, the lines and colors being so sharp that they seemed more real to me than anything I had ever seen with my own eyes. I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view… for the effect of the mushrooms is to bring about a fission of the spirit, a split in the person, a kind of schizophrenia, with the rational side continuing to reason and to observe the sensations that the other side is enjoying.” (4)
“Make no mistake: the effect of consciousness-expanding drugs will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed, ladies and gentlemen. Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull. Present social establishments had better be prepared for the change. Our favorite concepts are standing in the way of a floodtide, two billion years building up. The verbal dam is collapsing. Head for the hills, or prepare your intellectual craft to flow with the current.” (7)
“MDMA may allow patients to experience reduced fear and shame, and, at the same time, feelings of trust and safety, often of great importance in complex PTSD. This enables them to more easily revisit and process traumatic memories and gain openness and trust. Patients also feel more empathetic and experience an increased openness to new and constructive perspectives on their situation. They may experience an increased connection to others, changes in views on life values and purposes, and insights into the moral value of traumatic exposures or around existential issues. Integrated within a psychotherapeutic treatment, 2 to 3 sessions with MDMA have shown the ability to induce significant and sustained reductions in PTSD symptoms.” (14)
“It’s like doing therapy while being hugged by everyone in the world who loves you, in a bathtub full of puppies licking your face. Of the participants I’ve talked to, it seems to fall into one of two camps. You either have an “aha” moment in one of the three sessions where everything just comes together, and you’re good, right. Or, it’s more like drainage, which was kind of like mine. You clean out a little bit in the first, a little bit in the second, and a little bit in the third. And eventually, it’ll run clear.”
Lubecky stressed the importance of the therapy component, as he doesn’t believe that taking MDMA in and of itself is what works.
“The therapy part is a critical component. [You’ve] got to face the demons. But the MDMA makes it okay. You trust and love the people you’re with; the therapist in the room. Your body doesn’t betray you. You can just talk about it. You can cry, or laugh, or do whatever, and work your way through it in a safe environment.”
In the more than 5 years since Lubecky participated in the study, he has not had any suicidal ideation. He is down to taking only two medications per day and he believes he has cured his PTSD; something he didn’t believe would be possible when he entered the therapist’s room.
“I was told by everyone, including respected, well-known medical professionals, that this [PTSD] was permanent. I believed that there was only temporary relief. I’m more than willing to admit that I was completely wrong. This is not permanent – it can be healed. And so, I hope they make the advancements in psychedelic research. Look at the science – there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Jonathan Lubecky and Tony White are but a few of the thousands of examples that the impact that Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy can have on those suffering from mental health conditions. While this type of treatment is in its infancy, recent and ongoing research shows significant efficiency with few adverse effects, when paired with psychotherapy and medical supervision. (15) (16) (17) However, up until 2020, legal use of psychedelics in therapy or otherwise was not possible in Canada. Psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA and LSD are classified as controlled and prohibited substances. Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drug and Substance Act does allow for certain exemptions to be made by the Health Minister for medical or scientific purposes. In August of 2020, Health Minister Patty Hajdu granted the first exemptions to Canadians with terminal cancer, allowing them to legally receive psilocybin therapy for their anxiety, and opening the door to future exemptions. Approximately 30 exemptions would be granted over the coming months, providing some hope to those wishing to legally undergo the therapy. Yet a handful of exemptions simply doesn’t begin to address the significant demand for access to relief for millions of Canadians currently suffering with a range of mental health conditions that research shows could likely be reduced or mitigated by Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy. For caregivers like Rebecca Crewe, this is progress, but more needs to be done. She concludes:
1. Hoffman – LSD: My Problem Child
2. Erika Dyck Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD on the Canadian Prairies.
3. My 12 Hours as a Madman, Sydney Katz, 1953.
4. LIFE Magazine (June 10, 1957). R. Gordon Wasson. Seeking the Magic Mushroom.
5. Psychedelic research in 1950s Saskatchewan, Erika Dyck. July 16, 2019.
6. Psychedelic Psychiatry, Erika Dyck.
7. How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan. 2018.
8. How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan. 2018.
9. Psychedelics and Canada’s Regulatory Landscape, Leila Rafi and Sasa Jarvis. July 2020, Capital Markets Bulletin. McMillan.
10. Psychiatry & the psychedelic drugs. Past, Present & Future. James Jilt Rucker, Jonathan Ilift, and David J. Nutt. 2018. Neuropharmacology Vol 142.
11. How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan. 2018.
12. Increased amygdala responses to emotional faces after psilocybin for treatment resistant depression, Leor Roseman, Lysia Demetriou, Matthew B. Wall, David J. Nutt and Robin L. Carhart-Harris. 2017. Neuropharmacology.
13. Psychedelic Psychiatry’s Brave New World. David Nutt, David Erritzoe, Robin Carhart-Harris. April 2020, Cell 181.
14. Reviewing the Potential of Psychedelics for the Treatment of PTSD. Erwin Krediet, Tijmen Bostoen, Joost Breeksema, Annette van Schagen,Torsten Passie, Eric Vermetten. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology(2020) 23(6): 385-400.
15. Griffith RR, Johnson MW, Carducci MA, et al.: Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology 2016; 30(12) 1181-1197.
16. Grob CS, Danforth AL, Chopra GS, et al. Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced-Stage Cancer. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):71–78. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.116
17. Johnson MW, Griffiths RR: Potential therapeutic effects of psilocybin. Neurotherapeutics 2017; 14:734-740.