For O.M., that anxiety had been crippling. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 21, the then-pre-med student at first refused to accept reality. “I’m pretty domineering,” he laughed. “I told the nurses, ‘I can’t have this right now.’ I thought I could negotiate with cancer.” That domineering spirit served O.M. well through six rounds of chemotherapy. He even looked forward, he insisted, to the debilitating side-effects of his cancer-killing infusions. Enduring them gave him a sense of agency. He could withstand the punishment; his cancer could not. Only when the treatments ended, with his cancer in remission, was O.M. consumed by a feeling of abject helplessness. The fight was over. From that day on, all he could do was wait to see whether the cancer would return.
“When I first met him, he had calluses all over his neck,” explained research manager Gabrielle Agin-Liebes. “He would constantly feel his lymph nodes as a habit, to see if they had grown. Even as he was talking to you, his hand would be up there feeling his neck. Ironically, that would make the lymph nodes swell up even more.”
“He had one of the highest ratings on the anxiety scale that we had seen: 21 out of 30,” Gabrielle continued. “To qualify for the study you only need an eight. The day after his first dosing session, he dropped to zero, and for seven months he’s stayed there. Zero anxiety.” The black cloud had carried it all away.
Psilocybin, found naturally in more than 200 species of mushrooms, has a long history of use by humans. Called “flesh of the gods” by the Aztecs, the mushrooms were widely consumed in religious ceremonies by pre-contact indigenous cultures throughout the Americas. Cave paintings in Spain and Algeria suggest ritualized ingestion dating back as far as 9,000 years. Brutally suppressed by Christian authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, indigenous psilocybin use was nearly eradicated until the late 195o’s when Western psychiatry rediscovered it.
In the years after World War II, hallucinogen-aided therapy was a rapidly growing field. Conditions as diverse as alcoholism, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety were treated. In the quarter century that followed, 40,000 patients were given psilocybin and other hallucinogens such as DMT, LSD, and mescaline. More than 1000 research papers were produced. The results were very promising, though as the NYU study’s principal investigator Dr. Stephen Ross explained, much of the research lacked proper oversight. “They didn’t understand set and setting in the beginning. Patients would be injected with LSD, put in restraints, and somebody would come back hours later. They were put in very drab clinical environments. Then you had people like Timothy Leary and his group over at Harvard who were using the drugs themselves, using them with famous people, and recklessly promoting psychedelics within American culture.”