My mother’s house looks like my long-repressed childhood memories. The black floral wallpaper is veiled with dust, cloaking walls yellowed by years of chain- smoked cigarettes. Everything decorative is dangerous: swords hang in place of picture frames, flanked by ominous leather ropes of unknown origin.
My mother’s house feels like a castle, but one where everyone lives in the dungeon. It’s a house made of walls that could be so beautiful, if they weren’t so broken.
When I walk back into my mother’s house nearly two decades after our estrangement—a separation born the day her drinking became too much for me to bear—everything is just as I left it, just as I imagined it after all those years.
Well, almost everything.
In my vivid visions of those dark walls, I never imagined my adult self standing within them, hugging a person who is both a stranger and my mom at the same time. And I definitely couldn’t have envisioned how I would get there in the first place—that it would take psychedelics for my mind to open enough to let me open my mother’s front door.
Unlike my mother’s house, my psychedelic guide’s home is a sanctuary. Her porch is enclosed by warm stone and decorated with trinkets and treasures: crystals and incense line the windowsills, spider plants spill from hanging baskets like fountains of forest. Each time we meet, we sit on the floor, a pot of magic-mushroom-steeped tea steaming between us.
My guide is an underground plant medicine ceremonialist and bodyworker who uses psilocybin—the hallucinogenic component of magic mushrooms—to help people tap into their own inner knowing. She works outside of any medical system and doesn’t call herself a therapist. Instead, she holds space for people, using mushrooms to light the way.
I visit this guide because talk therapy always fell flat for me. I could recite the painful story of my childhood mechanically to anyone who asked, but I could never texturize these tales with feeling, because I didn’t seem to have any. My emotions were invisible rocks that I carried, weighing me down so viscerally that it would take a proper excavation to set myself free. Magic mushrooms, I hoped, would help me unearth the hurt.
Though psychedelic therapy is slowly becoming mainstream, with the federal government acknowledging promising clinical trial results and a first-of-its-kind in Canada psychedelic- assisted therapy program introduced at Vancouver Island University’s Nanaimo campus last year, it still remains illegal and largely underground thanks to its fractured history in the Western world.
Psychedelic use dates back centuries, with early psilocybin use (called teonanacatl) linked to the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya and Aztec in what is now called Mexico. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists began to study it in North America, with researchers examining whether psychedelics could treat alcoholism and various mental illnesses.
Their investigations showed some of what shamans knew all along—that psychedelics could be used to treat addictions to other drugs, recover buried emotions and process childhood trauma, or even ease the mental distress faced by cancer patients. These results were promising enough to warrant further analysis, but as psychedelics became associated with anti-war counterculture in the 1960s, psychoactive substances became outlawed. For psychedelic research, the Summer of Love became the summer of loss.
As history book authors wrote their chapters on the War on Drugs, psychedelics remained tied to a harmful, hippie stigma. It wasn’t until the 1990s that interest in psychedelic research was gradually renewed, with studies assessing the effectiveness of MDMA, LSD (acid) and psilocybin to treat depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addictions. With tempered excitement, researchers began conducting the first human trials since the ’70s, instilling a new sense of hope in the field of psychotherapy.
Today, it seems we’re finally reaching the level of societal acceptance needed for a psychedelic therapy renaissance, with Health Canada offering some exemptions for researchers and health care practitioners to study or administer psilocybin and a number of convenient (yet illegal) mushroom dispensaries openly operating storefronts in major Canadian cities, akin to cannabis shops pre-legalization. These shifts are opening a potent path to healing for people like me.
At each visit, my guide asks me to begin my journey with an intention. Spilling a brave breath, I tell her I’m here to work through my childhood trauma. I want to dive deep into the cellars of my psyche that I’ve locked away from myself, to go back to the time of court orders and custody battles, child psychologists and threats of foster care—all those things that slashed the already precarious tightrope connection I had with my mother. Through my words, I pour my intention into my mug of mushroom tea.
It’s not long after drinking the psilocybin that my body feels lighter, colours become fractal and I enter that classic psychedelic state of oneness. I feel as though I am floating in bliss, embraced by levity. That is, until I’m not.
Abruptly, the room darkens and my lungs feel compressed beneath bricks. I see my heart trapped in a steel lockbox inside a pressure cooker. It vibrates like water coming to a boil, getting tighter and constricting, as toxic grey smoke billows from my body. Tears flood my face in a relentless stream. Overwhelmed by panic, I can barely grasp an inhale.
Everything that happens next happens so quickly, a lifetime of painful memories flip-booked in a nanosecond. I’m alone with the lightning inside of me and it’s terrifying. Out loud, I scream.
That’s when the lockbox shatters, revealing a white light emanating from my chest. I see my adult hand entwine its fingers with those of my child self. I hear myself telling her it’s okay, that we’re safe and we can let go of the pain now. As I do, my heart seems to release its venom. It leaves behind a void, but I see it as newfound space for the loving joy I’ve yearned for.
Thanks to neuroscientific research, the trippy magic of the psychedelic experience can actually be explained. It’s thought that at its root lies the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN), which is active during states of rest and thought. With psychedelic use, the DMN slows down, creating space for new neural pathways that override the typical mental shortcuts the brain uses to process information quickly in day-to-day life. This can open the door to creativity, new ideas, meditative states and ego dissolution. It can also help us tap into deeper states of consciousness beyond our regular, waking awareness, which is likely why psychedelic users can often access buried emotions.
When these emotions are surfaced in a safe way, led by trained therapists and integrated using other therapeutic and trauma-informed modalities like somatic experiencing and talk therapy, or daily practices like yoga or journaling, people may have a chance to accept, forgive and heal from their past experiences. For many, like myself, this can be life-changing.
My guided journeys get worse before they get better, as I dig into the lingering pain of my abandonment wound. With the support of a counsellor trained in somatic experiencing, I feel like I’m knocking my own house down, deconstructing those survival-mode walls that I built for myself in childhood. I work hard to construct something new, and each day I come home from a journey, I begin to greet a little bit more of the person I want to be.
Slowly and non-linearly, I process my anger and shame, exchanging it for acceptance and compassion. I swing through depressive states and, against my extroverted nature, I isolate myself as I struggle to navigate the world wearing the mask of the old me—a mask that doesn’t seem to fit anymore. But feeling that ungrounded comes with opportunities to foster new outlooks: I’m finally able to replace a desperate longing for the maternal relationship I wish I had with an unconditional acceptance of the human that my mother is, flaws and all.
Out of the blue, I call her.
On the phone, my mother’s voice sounds unfamiliar. We talk about nothing, the weather, the news. The rift of almost 20 years is too wide to catch up more meaningfully. Struggling to change the subject with grace, I blurt out that I forgive her.
My mother seems caught off guard. She says thank you and not much else. But it’s the first test of my ability to love her without expectations. I forgive her as part of my own healing, and so I forgive her with no strings attached. The simplicity of the exchange is no match for the radiance of feeling unburdened—the feeling of turning my body into a comfortable home at last.
My sharp edges soften enough to bring me to her doorstep a year later, our first hug bringing me to immediate tears. We look at old baby photos and offer each other small but symbolic tokens: the rose quartz that I carried to every journey for her, and a pair of earrings from my late grandmother for me. We promise to keep in closer touch, which we won’t do, but I’m at peace with the way we are. Because standing there, at my mother’s doorstep, I could finally see that although the walls of my mother’s house may be broken, they’re still beautiful.