There seems to be a growing consensus that conventional pharmaceuticals are not so great, as Cat Marnell makes clear in her recently published memoir, How to Murder Your Life. She describes how an Adderall prescription helped her ADD but also put her on a path that led to some serious Sid and Nancy and Girl, Interrupted scenarios (she also got to hang out with Courtney Love, but whatever).
So where to turn when legal drugs fail you? The answer might just be hallucinogens, if we’re to believe A Really Good Day, a new book about a writer’s experiment with LSD microdosing, and The Last Shaman, a forthcoming documentary about a young man’s experiments with ayahuasca.
This isn’t the first film about ayahuasca, and microdosing seems to be the trend du jour, but these two releases represent a new level of mainstreaming– both are the accounts of relative drug virgins who take drastic measures because all else has failed to treat their depression and anxiety. (Oh, and this ayahuasca doc is co-produced by Leo DiCaprio.)
The author of A Really Good Day is Ayelet Waldman, who has made a nice life for herself as an essayist, novelist, and mother in Berkeley, California. She’s by no means deeply depressed, but she has been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder—she has trouble sleeping, suffers from mood swings and self-doubt, and often finds herself arguing with her husband (the novelist Michael Chabon). Therapy, anti-depressants, and meditation haven’t helped—though the occasional MDMA trip has served to reboot her marriage.
Desperate for a solution, Waldman scores some LSD from an old hippie who calls himself Lewis Carroll (get it?) and undergoes a regimen recommended by former psychedelics researcher Dr. Jim Fadiman: ten micrograms of LSD (one tenth of what you’d take to trip) every three days for thirty days, accompanied by active self-monitoring.
Fadiman’s USDA-permitted trials with LSD in the mid-‘60s found that the drug helped Silicon Valley types with creative problem solving. Since the publication of his 2011 book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, Fediman has collected dozens of microdosing reports. They’re “overwhelmingly positive,” and involve claims of anxiety reduction, mood elevation, sustained creativity, and improved relationships.
A Good Day— which is what many of Fadiman’s correspondents reported having– reads like a real-time journal of Waldman’s daily self-evaluations, interspersed with background information about the government’s misguided, hysteria-driven, racially discriminatory drug wars, and the history of psychedelic research. (Fun fact: one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous had a positive experience with LSD therapy and sought to make it a part of AA. Not-so-fun fact: The CIA experimented with weaponizing psychedelics, and once set up brothels in San Francisco where drinks were spiked with LSD.)
Waldman is deeply aware that for every “level-headed” LSD user and researcher, there are gonzo psychonauts like Timothy Leary or Ken Kesey, who’ve made it tough for the government to reverse its course on hallucinogens—and who’ve made it hard for her to admit her use to her kids, despite her belief that honesty is the best policy in drug education. Still, there are clinical studies of psilocybin being conducted, as Michael Pollan noted in a 2015 New Yorker article. An NYU researcher told Pollan that he had witnessed unprecedented results: “People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear.”
By the end of the book, Waldman definitely seems sold on the therapy. Normally a pessimist, she finds herself experiencing surprising moments of optimism and being more aware of her surroundings, and her chronic shoulder pain decreases. But she acknowledges that microdosing isn’t a cure-all: “Microdose Day is fun and productive, but sometimes it has an edge,” she observes on Day 19. “Senses are ever so slightly heightened, which can be pleasurable, but does incline me to a version of my infamous irritability, albeit a mellower one.” Still, she no longer finds herself flying into a rage at the sound of her husband chewing, and she doesn’t completely freak when she thinks her daughter has gotten a bad tattoo.
Waldman also found that her productivity shot up, but she acknowledges that it might not have been the microdosing. “I don’t know if this is a result of the protocol itself or the means to force myself to put words on paper each and every day.”
And there’s the rub. Is the microdosing working because it stimulates serotonin receptors and effects parts of the brain associated with growth, memory, and learning, or is it working simply because Waldman is being more mindful and is focused on recovery? Not to mention, actively occupied with writing what she must know will be a very sexy and salable a book?
That paradox arises in The Last Shaman, as well. At one point during the documentary, its protagonist James Freeman is shown pouring flower water over his head, a cleansing that precedes an ayahuasca ceremony. “I’m just trying to keep an open mind and not be judging any of this,” he says of the rituals. “And I think there’s a part of me that believes that that itself is healing.” So, the journey is the reward?
The film follows Freeman, a young preppie from Boston, as he ventures into the jungles of Peru to find a shaman who can cure him of the suicidal depression that hit him during his late teens, when he finally buckled under the stress of trying to live up to the expectations of his father. His parents, both accomplished doctors, seem okay with electroshock therapy, but, like some of Waldman’s peers, they’re dubious about the whole hallucinogen thing.
Filmmaker Raz Degan decided to make the documentary after his own ayahuasca experience helped cure a bout of pneumonia; the experience convinced him to arrange an ayahuasca retreat for his mom that he says helped with her depression. Once he left his acting career in Italy and started shooting the doc, however, he discovered the sacred brew wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns—the doc’s early scenes show the corpse of a man who suffocated to death while under the care of a shaman at the Anaconda Cosmica in Iquitos (ayahuasca can be fatal when taken with other medications; according to a Men’s Journal article about the drug’s “dark side,” this wasn’t the only death that occurred at Anaconda).
Freeman, who was also present for the incident, remains undeterred, and links up with a wild-eyed American expat– an ex-addict and ex-con from Kentucky who organizes cockfights but also considers himself a “spiritual warrior.” The gringo shaman’s “treasure chest” is said to contain some $250,000 worth of ayahuasca.
Ultimately, however, Freeman opts for a shaman who isn’t so set on monetization, which is depicted in the documentary as an increasing threat to indigenous communities. He finds one in the Shipibo village of Santa Rosa de Dinamarca. The gold-toothed shaman prescribes strict isolation, ingestion of a variety of plants, and regular tokes off a pipe containing mapacho, a highly potent jungle tobacco that’s often used in conjunction with ayahuasca. During the dubstep montage of Freeman’s marathon treatment, he speaks of an exorcism-like combination of fevers, cramps, sweats, nightmares, “incredible visions,” and a letting-go of anger toward his father. It all looks very intense, and yet somehow after five months of this he emerges looking rested, healthy, and suddenly capable of frolicking with street dogs and playing soccer with the local kids.
“Though I wasn’t necessarily cured, I feel like I came back with a will to live,” he later says, which more or less jibes with Waldman’s thoughts about macrodosing.
Clearly, both the film and Waldman’s account aim to encourage less anecdotal experiments. And those are actually happening– just this week, the Guardian wrote about a study of ayahuasca’s effects on people with PTSD, and Business Insider reported that ayahuasca has been shown to affect the brain in the same way meditation does. At the same time, a new study of LSD conducted by scientists at the University of Basel indicates that 100 micrograms “reduces activity in the region of the brain related to the handling of negative emotions like fear”– a finding that could be useful in the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Of course, that LSD study was just one of the results when I searched “LSD” on Google News. Most of the others involved people getting arrested.
But hey, watching a documentary that uses dubstep to simulate an ayahuasca trip is still legal. The Last Shaman is in theaters May 12, and A Really Good Day is in bookstores now.