Meanwhile, her oldest son was failing out of college and clashing with Conneally, making her doubt her own parenting skills.
In the middle of it all, Whitney began the process of transitioning to live as a man.
Conneally was happy for him—he had been deeply depressed and living a false life. But for Conneally, it meant yet another loss of identity. Long before they became a couple, Conneally and Whitney were just friends, and Conneally dated men. Gradually, Conneally fell in love with Whitney, and she constructed her lesbian identity around their relationship.
And Conneally got really into being a lesbian. She came out to all her friends. She sat on the Maryland Equality Board.
“It was this big, life-affirming thing,” she said. “It was an interesting way to be. I enjoyed it, I embraced it.”
When Whit—as he is now known—transitioned, it meant Conneally was no longer a lesbian. She was no longer “interesting,” in her words. She already felt she was failing at parenting and finance—and now she was failing at being gay?
“Happy 40th birthday,” she thought. She reached, as she always had in pressure-cooker moments, for her cigarettes.
This time, she figured she was never going to quit. She had tried everything from gum to hypnosis. She white-knuckled through a few cold-turkey attempts and scared herself with how it made her scream at the kids.
But when she heard about Johnson’s study, she thought, “why the hell not?” A Grateful Dead-head back in the day, she was no stranger to trippy experiences. At least it would be fun, she figured.
The first session was assuredly not. The music the researchers selected—a cacophony of drumming and nature sounds—was disturbing and annoying, she said.
“I started to panic and have anxiety thinking that I wasn’t doing it right,” she said. She worried the trip wouldn't work, and as a study participant, she wouldn't be allowed to smoke when it was over.
Johnson said some people don’t seem to enjoy their time on the drug. “Many times people say, ‘People do this for fun?! I don’t get that at all.’” The guides tell them to “just go with it.”
Conneally sunk into a depression after the first trip. A few weeks later, she cried on her way to the second session.
But this time, something was different. The music was better; she felt freer. “My spirit soared,” she said. “I had this great vision of rising above and being a goddess.” She saw her worries like ants in the distance: Her abusive father; the air-conditioning unit where she would hide from her family and smoke. The participants in Johnson’s study had weeks of talk therapy before they tripped. Now everything she had talked about with her counselors was coming together.
“I just am,” she thought, “and I just need to let go of this stuff that’s unnecessary.”
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A sense of mysticism seems central to the trip treatment. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had used LSD and believed it might be a way for “cynical alcoholics” to find the elusive “higher power” that’s key to his 12-step program. Eleven of Johnson’s 12 study subjects rated the psilocybin trip among the five most spiritually significant experiences in their lives. Some considered it a crash-course in mindfulness, or years of therapy crammed into a single day.