This post is dedicated to my friend Jannie – your pain is sacred. I feel it with you.

Magic mushrooms have taught me so many incredible things that sometimes when I talk about them, I realise that I sound like a televangelist. It’s hard for me not to grab people and shout at them: “take shrooms!” whenever a related topic comes up. But I must add that magic mushrooms can also make very little difference, or be detrimental even, if we don’t embrace the experience they give us with surrender and a willingness to change. And using magic mushrooms as a spiritual tool should be accompanied by putting in the work: practicing self-care, developing a spiritual practice, building on one’s foundations, putting in the hours to turn our lessons into lived reality.

That being said, some of the things I’ve learned through magic mushrooms were just THAT BIG, that transformative, that they changed my life immediately and irrevocably. It’s like seeing something for the first time, and never being able to unsee it again. And of all the revelations I’ve had on mushrooms, the biggest one by far has been, quite simply, love.

Every mushroom trip I go on gives me some experience of love. One of my favourite things about shrooms is the experience of expansiveness and belonging that happens especially at the tail end of the trip. But almost every trip I’ve gone on has also had a theme, something(s) specific that was shown to me. Sometimes these are hard realisations, like the one time I delved deep into my own shame.

In fact, in my experience there’s always at least a part of the trip that is quite difficult, even on the experience I had roughly a year ago now which I now call my “love trip”, the one which entirely changed the way I understand life.

It began in my house; I was watching the sunrise through my window, feeling my mind opening in the rather terrifying way it does on mushrooms. Spontaneously the image of a person I love deeply came to me – his soul, the nature of his essence, his aches and joys rose up in my consciousness so strongly that I immediately burst into tears of awe. I couldn’t stop crying, profoundly moved by the beauty I could sense flowing from his heart. He was the most breathtaking being I had ever seen. Everything about him was perfect: his struggles, his fears, his desires, all coming together to create this complex dance of flesh and soul, this Being, this very breath of God. That’s what I saw. I saw that he is perfect, that nothing is out of place, that everything belongs, even the things he dislikes about himself, even the things he denies about himself.

And I saw that loving him is the most natural response imaginable.

The only thing I need to love fully, I realised, is to notice. As soon as I notice someone’s beauty, alive and throbbing in their every cell, my only possible reaction is love. And it is an expansive love, a love filled with awe and compassion, with recognition and admiration and sadness and profound joy. There is nothing else. I knew in that moment that when we are able to open our eyes to the vibrant beings around us, we cannot refuse to love them. We cannot even be afraid or shy or insecure in our love – faced with the fullness of Life, the only possible response is to open entirely.

Okay, I thought, but this is someone I love deeply, even when I’m not on mushrooms. Would it be the same if I thought about somebody I know less well? So I thought about a colleague. Her laughter rose up in my mind, the funny stories she shares at work, the way she rushes late into the office, breathless. Immediately my heart overflowed again. WOW, I thought. There is so much here. Such a complex and joyful and perfect being, imbued with such tremendous beauty. It’s there. It’s right there, everything: every struggle she has had and will ever have, her fears and empathy written into her very cells, everything exactly the way it should be. Changeable, fluid, yet at the same time everlasting.

It is incredibly poignant to witness another human. We are all so very brave, as we continue living on this earth in these limited forms, seeking love, seeking connection. Every day we have to reconcile our need for belonging with the limitations of a life in which resources are scarce, in which time is short. We get tired, we get hungry, we get jealous or irritated, we worry about money, we worry about our families. We negotiate our needs and desires in a world where there is a constant sense of not-enough: not enough sleep, not enough time, not enough energy. We pick our battles. We hold our tongues. We laugh, and relax, and tense up; we give of ourselves, unceasingly, in every interaction. We are so very scared that we might not be loved, or be worthy, or be enough. Yet we continue living through this fear, giving, loving, as best we can. We are so tremendously brave. We are so beautiful.

I thought about myself. I could feel the calmness of my own essence, like a tree somehow, grounded and singing softly, whispering the song of my heart to myself. I could feel my soul contract and expand like a river flowing unhindered around obstacles. I could feel the bigness in me, the joy and the grief running deep. I am SO beautiful. I am breathtaking. I am exactly as I should be.

All it takes to love myself is to see myself. Now, when I feel tired or self-critical, I lie down and place my hand over my heart. I grow still, until I hear the song inside my soul. It’s there, constant, my own life force undeniable. Sylvia Plath wrote it so powerfully: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am I am I am.

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That day, I listened to my own heart for a long time. Then I started asking questions: What about rejection, and loss, and jealousy, do they form part of this elemental love that I am feeling? What about desire, is that part of it? In this, in what feels like divine love, is there room for need as well?

Yes and no, came the answer. There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, or loss, or jealousy, or an overpowering need to be loved back. Those feelings form part of this human experience, and they are the things that make us so complex and beautiful. In fact: We can love these very things about ourselves.

All the different emotions and experiences that we have as humans are simply more chances for us to love another part of ourselves. I see my own insecurity, and I love that too, and I love myself FOR it. And I am grateful for the chance to experience the whole gamut of emotions, because everything is another experience I can open myself to.

But. Love is independent of these feelings. As a human I am hardwired to want, and need, and even fear. Those things serve a purpose. But none of them affect the quality of Love itself, the love I was tapping into as I lay there, the love I have often tapped into since. We could be in the midst of much pain, bereft or abandoned, rejected, unseen. And still, if we are able to open our eyes to ourselves and to others, love will arise naturally. Even in the midst of a deeply painful moment.

Sometimes in life that feels impossible, and I do think there are times when opening our hearts is not what serves us best. There are times we feel threatened. There are times we need to insist on getting our needs met. There are times when we don’t have the energy to surrender into the full expansion of this kind of love. But it is there.

It is there whether or not we have the capacity to allow ourselves to realise this.

And it’s all okay. Even while I was on this mushrooms trip I realised there’s a reason I don’t feel this intensity of love all the time: I would not be able to function as a normal human being if I did. I get to witness myself and my fellow living beings in awe for a while, and then I have to go back to the grind of normal life.

But that’s where the magic happens: when it’s not easy. When I am anxious and rushed, yet suddenly remember the beauty around me. When I become still after a long day and acknowledge my own heart again. When I realise that love, this kind of love, is at the heart of everything I do.

Last night I watched a video by Russel Brand. He was talking about the death of his cat, about the deep love that existed between him and his pet, a connection far deeper than language would allow. “What is love”, he said, “other than an acknowledgment of oneness, an acknowledgment of union?”

That was the thing I saw on that mushroom trip: that we all have the same spirit. Every living being is beautiful in a wholly unique way; never will the exact combination of genes and experiences cohere again as they do within each of us. Witnessing each person is a journey of awe and discovery every single time. Yet at the heart of us we are the same. We have the same Life throbbing within our cells. Recognising the beauty of someone’s being is recognising my own. It is remembering, deep within my bones, that we are one.

I stumbled onto the drug scene comparatively late in my life: the first time I ever smoked weed was at 21, in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. It took me another three years before I tried cocaine, and the first time I took LSD (at 28), I didn’t even know what it was (looking back, that could have gone horribly wrong – but instead it sparked a profound love of psychedelics).

Of course the term “drugs” is very strange. Grouping speed and magic mushrooms into the same category is patently absurd. Equally absurd is the fact that we don’t generally describe alcohol as a drug – we talk about “alcohol and drugs” as if they’re separate things. This grossly underplays the dangers of alcohol, which we somehow feel safe to use even though it is by far the most ubiquitously destructive substance.

Most of us have been very mis-educated about drugs – the only drug education I ever received was to just “say no”. We’ve all seen the before and after pictures of a weather-beaten teen star, or heard whisperings about the local promising student who fell in with the wrong crowd and got hooked on meth. As a teenager, I thought all it would take for me to become a raving drug-addled dropout was to take a single pill handed to me by friends.

You hear that drugs, all drugs, are so addictive that you’ll never be able to quit if you’ve tried them once. You hear it burns holes in your brain. You read about that one girl who took ecstasy for the first time and promptly died of a heart attack. I was terrified of ruining my life – more than most kids, perhaps, I realised there would be very little to catch me should I fall. I needed my wits and my willpower, such as it was, to carve a life for myself and so I stayed away. Looking back I am quite glad I abstained from drugs for as long as I did.

But the widespread misinformation about drugs is much more harmful than it is good.

One of the biggest dangers about this misinformation is it that it completely alienates people who DO use drugs. Parents and peers alike react with horror at the slightest whispering of substance use. So what happens if you stumble upon cocaine, for instance, and find yourself liking it, and using it increasingly often? There’s no one to talk to, that’s what happens. Your mom would cry herself to sleep if she knew. Your friends and colleagues would look at you differently, even though many of them get drunk almost every weekend. You can’t even tell your GP because you’re too ashamed.

You enter the twilight world of dodgy backstreet purchases, of taking lines off toilet seats in clubs, half surprised your brain hasn’t collapsed yet. On the inevitable cocaine comedown you lie in bed feeling suicidal, totally alone, even though half your acquaintances have also, unbeknownst to you, abused a substance at one time or another.

On the flip side, the misinformation regarding drugs doesn’t prepare you for the relief you feel when, after all, you don’t promptly die of an overdose the first time you try MDMA. Oh! It’s actually fine. Actually all your friends use it too! It must be okay then. Because all the official sources react so hysterically to drugs, you dismiss them all as entirely wrong. Have you ever tried googling “effects of using MDMA”? All the websites stridently warn you off. All of them have banners at the top with the numbers of helplines you might call if you suffer from substance addiction. All of them detail the side-effects but barely mention what happens if you, like most people, simply take drugs every now and then without disappearing into the chasm of total addiction.

So between the hysterical headlines and the casual secrecy of your drug-using friends, you have nowhere to go for solid information. You have to learn it all yourself.

Imagine if we did this with sex – imagine if you googled “having sex for the first time” and the internet exploded with enthusiastic reddit threads and WebMD pages listing all the dangers of sex, with nothing balanced to actually explain your experience to you. What would happen? You’d be too embarrassed to ever go for an STD test, for one. You might never understand why your body works the way it does. If you enjoy sex, you might think there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t enjoy sex, you might think there’s something wrong with you.

As we know, until recently, this hushed hysteria surrounding sex was in fact the norm. We are realising the error of our ways gradually, with increasingly thorough sex education (though we still have a long way to go), with magazines and movies imperfectly bringing this profoundly normal act into everyday conversation.

But drugs? Drugs are still the all-around baddies. In movies when a character takes drugs (almost always a nondescript pill given by dodgy friends in a nightclub), the camera becomes shaky, visuals blur, music becomes ominous. You know the protagonist is going to wake up bloody and his best friend will be revealed, through disjointed flashbacks, to have died in a car accident. In police procedural series, it’s always either the street thug, the hopeless rich boy, or the crooked policeman who uses drugs.

This ignores the fact that most people have tried mind-altering substances at one time or another. Most of these people are functional citizens. Most people manage to drink two glasses of wine on a weekend without becoming alcoholics (although I’ll say again that alcohol is much more dangerous, in my opinion, than most other drugs). Many, many people smoke weed without becoming ambition-less stoners. Many people routinely take MDMA at a party and wake up just fine, if a little emotional, the next day. Many people, myself included, have even flirted dangerously with substance abuse and have emerged a little poorer, a little battered, but wiser and humbler on the other side. Without help, because none was available.

We need to talk about drugs. We need to talk about the fact that humans have been using mind-altering substances for as long as we have existed. We need to talk about the difference between psychedelics and opioids, about the difference between a line of pure cocaine and the similar-looking but much more dangerous speedball.

And importantly, we need to talk about the difference between drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction.

A friend recently told me “I don’t use drugs because I don’t need anything to change my reality” – she was very drunk at that stage. This is one of the most pervasive myths I have encountered about drugs thus far: that it is somehow shameful to take them because it implies that you can’t have a good time otherwise. Like religion (the “opium of the masses”), drugs are viewed by many as a crutch for the weak, for those who can’t face life without something to soften the blow. SO many of my acquaintances have said to me that what you experience on drugs “isn’t real”. By implication, sobriety is the only valid way to experience ‘reality’.

Reality is a matter of perspective. You see colour differently than your dog does. You experience emotions in a different way from anybody else. Your brain chemistry and your biology is entirely your own. The information we take in, every minute of the day, is heavily filtered according to what we need to know and what we are able to process. Something as commonplace as a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar may significantly change our experience.

The expansive love we feel on ecstasy, or the spiritual awareness on LSD, or even the frenetic excitement of cocaine, is not inherently less valid than any emotions we might normally experience. It’s just an experience we might add to our arsenal, another way of seeing, another way of being. Like everything, this could further us on our journey, or it could hold us back. But to safely expand our horizon of experience, we need to bring drugs back from the shadowy world of fear and shame that they currently inhabit. We need to start a conversation. We need to talk about drugs.

The first time I heard about non-monogamy my instinctive reaction was to jerk back. “Oh no, I could never do that,” I said to myself. I felt a kind of fascinated revulsion. The idea sounded so foreign to me, so…sad. How could anyone resign themselves to not being their significant other’s One True Love? How could anyone so resoundingly give up on the romantic dream? Could people really be happy living non-monogamously, or were they kidding themselves, being brave and modern and secretly very, very alone? That’s how I thought it must be: a very liberal, forward-thinking yet deeply painful lifestyle.

Yet I couldn’t leave the idea entirely alone. Something in me was triggered and I reacted the way I see my friends reacting now when I talk about non-monogamy: defensively, as if they suspect they’re in the wrong somehow for not embracing this. To be clear: they’re not in the wrong. We are where we are and there is no need for us to push ourselves into uncomfortable territory if that doesn’t speak to us.

But.

Monogamy and the romantic dream goes so deep for us, touches us at the very core of who we are and of what we secretly hope and long for; and therefore when this idea is challenged even slightly we react with the flinching instinct of a threatened child.

People say all sorts of things when they hear I’m non-monogamous, and all of those things are comments I’ve made myself at one time or another: “Oh, I’m too jealous, I couldn’t ever do it” and “That’s completely impractical, having one romantic relationship is a full-time job already,” and “I’m a born romantic, I can’t be in love with more than one person at a time” and “it’s just a phase, you’ll be monogamous when you find the right guy” and “but what about feeling special?”

The weird thing about people’s reactions is that they often react as if I’m trying to convert them, when really, that’s not it at all. I’m not preaching non-monogamy, not trying to get them to change their lifestyles, not hinting that their way of living is worse than mine. (Or am I? It’s hard to tell, sometimes, when you stumble upon something that revolutionises your way of thinking, whether you’re being overly zealous. But after all, isn’t that what growth and community is all about? We lovingly share what we’ve been learning, and perhaps it benefits others, and perhaps it doesn’t.)

So I share where I’m at, and people react in a way that betrays how very, very threatened they feel in the area of romantic love. And it makes sense, because this is scary stuff. Even just briefly facing our bottomless need for love and acceptance and belonging, and our fear of this need not being met, is terrifying. Encountering the idea of non-monogamy for the first time takes us right to the edge of the terrifying unknown.

Non-monogamy stayed at the fringes of my consciousness for a long while before I finally started delving into it. Amanda Palmer and her husband Neil Gaiman are non-monogamous, which is where I’d first heard about it. They’re some of my favourite artists, the both of them making wise and brave and moving art; they also seem human and relatable. Yet they’re non-monogamous. This fascinated me. I scrolled through Amanda Palmer’s Wikipedia page (this was almost a decade ago when she was just as confessional on the internet but social media wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous) looking for clues to how she did it, looking for scandals maybe, for hints that it doesn’t really work. She must be even cooler that I think she is, I thought, she must be confident and collected with no hint of insecurity. Then she posted on facebook about her marriage, mentioning that being in an open relationship is tremendously hard work, requiring a lot of communication and facing of your own insecurities. Somehow she made it look more real, like something normal humans do.

For a long time I kept the idea of non-monogamy tucked into my mind, something scary and fascinating that I was saving for a rainy day. My romantic relationships, each offbeat and unique and often very difficult, without my knowledge were moving me towards revisiting this idea. I was becoming more disillusioned with romance and my seeming inability to find the ‘right’ person or to settle down. Finally, one day in late 2017, I officially started exploring non-monogamy. I read books. I imagined myself as polyamorous. I read blogs, arguments for and against. I encountered more people who were in open relationships of one kind or another. Then I took the plunge.

It’s been a hell of a ride. I could write a hundred posts about it, and I hope I will. For now, what bears repeating is that it is incredibly scary to dismantle one’s ideas of romance and monogamy, because they touch you right at the core of who you are. When I started entertaining the idea of being non-monogamous in 2017, I had no idea that I was about to launch a full-size investigation into who I am, into what I really want, into what I have always assumed about life and how to transcend these assumptions.

I’m not even close to finished with this journey, but so far it has by far been the most revolutionary event in my life, greater even than that time, ten years ago, when I started questioning my faith.

My advice to anyone considering any form of non-monogamy is this: Do not think you can compartmentalise this experience. We have so successfully internalised monogamy, made it such a deep part of who we are, that we cannot leave it behind without putting other aspects of our identity in jeopardy too. That’s okay, because there are many corners in our psyches that could do with some deep cleaning. Letting go of parts of ourselves that we thought were intrinsic to who we are is not a bad thing. It is, however, a tremendously challenging thing.

Listening to my romantic woes, a friend recently said to me: “But you know it doesn’t have to be that difficult, right? Love can just be easy sometimes.” And it can. It has been for me, and it will be again. It’s not love that’s hard – love is really very, very easy – it’s fear. And the way I lived my life before, the way that I often still do, I now see is filled with fear. I’m not saying that monogamy is bad, but I AM saying that unquestioned monogamy is a hotbed of insecurity, it’s an institution that we have created to hold fear at bay, and it is not working. It is making us smaller. The answer is not to dive with abandon into polyamory or swinging or threesomes. The answer is to approach the topic of romantic love with curiosity and the courage to be sceptical about our assumptions, the courage to grow more than we thought we ever would. All we need is willingness, and growth will happen.

For a really long time I thought that being healed, whole, would mean not feeling much pain anymore. I still catch myself thinking this quite often. At the very least, surely, being a healthy human should mean not experiencing inexplicable bouts of intense sadness, right? I mean, surely I must be doing something wrong if I rock my weepy self to sleep, face glued to a snotty pillowcase, and promptly resume my sobbing the next morning? And surely I am un-whole if life still routinely rocks me with its rush and clamour, and I find myself feeling namelessly anxious throughout the day? Right?  

Yeah, if I’m going to wait until life doesn’t hurt anymore to pronounce myself healed I might as well not try.

But first of all, I think that I should backtrack: the word “healed” merits a proper investigation. I speak about healing in my very first post, and even on my home page – but it’s a really vague word. What do I mean by healed? And healed from what? And what does being healed look like, anyway?

Okay, so to begin with: while I often feel broken, and sometimes use that word to describe myself, I do not mean ‘broken’ like a toy would be, or a leg. I am not a utilitarian object, I’m not here to DO a specific thing. Therefore I cannot be broken in that sense. If I don’t react as others do, or if my pain and past trauma clouds my judgement, or if I struggle to convey myself, or if I misunderstand others, this is not because I am broken. It is because I am unique. I have a unique past, unique aches, unique fears, unique talents and a wholly unique soul. There is no one way to be. There is only this odd and beautiful maze that I am walking, in which each choice brings its own challenges.

What I mean by broken, rather, is broken open.

I mean unprotected: as if my vulnerable underbelly is exposed to the world, as if I am holding my throat bare to the ravages of life. And indeed, as if life has ravaged me. I have not stopped functioning, I am no broken toy – in fact I am functioning beautifully, as wounded and terrified and gloriously myself as I will ever be.

I’m only thirty years into this life and so I cannot make any final pronouncements, but it does seem to me that the older I get, the more broken open I become. Everything.Still.Hurts. But it hurts differently. I hurt more coherently, as if with my entire body instead of with separate bits. Instead of reacting blindly to a stimulus, I open. Instead of rolling into a tiny ball, or snarling from a corner, I fling my arms wide open. I have some choice in the matter – not always, sometimes I’m a fiery ball of rage and relived triggers, but every now and then I feel this: Aaaaaaaah – everything hurts. I’m going to let go, right into that pain.

A fun metaphor I like to think about is the fantasy trope of the untrained magician. You know, that young boy or girl who gets discovered, potent with unrealised magical powers, yet with no inkling of how to use them. This young witch is trained, gradually, to direct her anger and her desires into what she wants to accomplish. At the same time, as she gains focus, she becomes increasingly aware of the untapped reserves of power she has always had, yet could never access. Before her training she was reacting rather than responding to stimuli. Becoming more skilled means focusing, but it also means unleashing. It means allowing what wants to come through to break out, because it’s safe to do so: she can hold it. She can hold herself. She knows when she’s about to drown in her own outpouring, she knowns when to step back, and she knows how to release more fully.

So I guess that’s what I mean with healing. I mean bringing the unconscious things, the fears and traumas and desires that have in the past largely determined my actions, into the light. Becoming whole means knowing who I am. I know what I’m working with. I’m still just as vulnerable, life has not become less dangerous. But I am equipped. I get to make choices from a place of self-knowledge, and self-acceptance, instead of from a place of constant threat.

That feels really fucking powerful.

And it’s also a shifting goal post. The more I discover who I am, tap into my own depths and learn how to dance the dance of catch and release, the more I have yet to discover. It feels like an increase in capacity, capacity for joy but certainly also for pain. At the end of the day, perhaps healing is best defined as presence: How much of myself can I bring? How much of this human experience can I show up for, knowing that it will hurt, knowing that it will reward, knowing that I get to decide, moment by moment, what my response will be? Presence means arriving in each moment armed only with surrender. Healing means trusting enough in oneself to be able to do that.

And yes, everything still hurts. More so, even, because my body is becoming more attuned to what’s happening within and around me. The world is bleeding, I feel its profound aches resonating within myself. We are disconnected from each other, from ourselves. To some extent, this is due to our current dysfunctional society. But disconnection is also part and parcel of the human experience. We are not one being floating blissfully into the ether – we are comprised of separate bodies, with hormones and hunger and gravity and the elements each exerting their influence on us. Life chafes. It pushes and pulls. We long to know and to be known fully, but in this life we never will. That is frustrating and painful.

But somehow, above and beyond the pain of it, this experience is something glorious. I am profoundly grateful to be here for it.