I am stretched out on a lounge chair, looking at purple flowers that hang from a tall tropical tree. It’s a windy day, but despite the wind, the flowers aren’t moving. The branches, the leaves—everything else thrashes about according to the dictates of the wind, but not these flowers. They are fixed. Motionless, like flagpoles. For this reason, I decide that they are my friends, holding the center of calm for the entire universe.
And I have this ridiculous thought because I am 100 percent out of my mind on magic mushrooms delivered to me as part of a healing retreat. To be clear, the flowers absolutely are moving. And they aren’t my friends. I would say we are acquaintances at best.
Before you assume I’m some kind of mushroom-peddling bohemian, let’s rewind: I am not a wellness person. I hate the word “journey”—it’s overused and feels cheesy and hack. The phrase “self-care” reminds me of manicured ladies who lunch, of unnecessary lilacs, and of Goop. I’m not really into the idea of “nurturing oneself” or “connecting with my inner child” or “healing.” I don’t often see the “light in you” and I assume you don’t see the “light in me.” I don’t have a mantra and I’ve never referred to my third eye.
And yet, I found myself ON A JOURNEY of SELF-REFLECTION at a mushroom retreat in Jamaica where I very much decided to HEAL MYSELF. And look, I am embarrassed about it. I’m a comedian. We’re not supposed to be centered. People don’t come to us for our healing journeys. A holistic approach to self-love doesn’t play at the Chuckle Hut. Nevertheless, I risked this professional embarrassment to write about a mushroom retreat because I thought—at least at first—what a crazy gig.
Transformational retreat travel is all the rage. If you’ve done your garden variety yoga retreat and you’ve splurged on your elite wellness retreat, there’s only one place to go, and that’s straight-up, mind-altering psychedelics. And people are going—oh, are they going. In the past decade, psychedelic tourism has become so popular that the industry is projected to bring in more than a trillion dollars in revenue by 2027. While there’s a lot of excitement about this new type of travel, not every experience is rosy. In some rare cases, clients come back even more damaged than before. Poorly monitored subjects might engage in dangerous acts during a trip, jeopardizing themselves or those around them. And like any trend, there’s the occasional “shaman” who turns out to be a fraud.
Despite the potential downsides, I was curious. I had never tried mushrooms, which for the sake of scientific accuracy, I’ll refer to as psilocybin. I dabble in weed, I rarely drink, and I don’t smoke. I sometimes mainline cheesecake. But there was just something about psilocybin that appealed to me. Maybe because they come from nature, or maybe because a bunch of my uptight, say-no-to-drugs friends had tried them and deemed them safe. Or maybe it was simply that I wanted to shake things up and do something out of my comfort zone.
Whatever it was, I was in. But I was such a newbie to the scene that I craved facts, safeguards, assurances! Enter MycoMeditations. The company, which launched in 2014, is widely considered the gold standard in magic mushroom retreats. It focuses on an evidence-based approach. And the data itself is convincing. If you’ve got depression, a pilot showed a “significant decrease” in depressive symptoms. If you want to quit smoking, 80 percent of subjects in one study managed to quit after two doses. If you’re a real pain in the ass, they’ll make you into less of a pain in the ass. OK, that last one hasn’t been studied yet, but I have a hunch it’s an area of interest.
All the small-group retreats operate in the tropical backdrop of Jamaica. Psilocybin is legal in Jamaica—unlike marijuana, it was never illegal. In fact, unlike most governments, Jamaica has embraced mushrooms and the attending travel boom. Each retreat is eight days long and includes three dosing days with a rest day between each dosing day. For a person jumping into psychedelics for the first time, what I needed was comfort and a touch of luxury. With three interlocking villas, views of the Caribbean, and the word “butler” tossed around, luxury is exactly what I got.
I don’t often see the ‘light in you’ and I assume you don’t see the ‘light in me.’
But this wasn’t a one-click online purchase. Two months before I left, I had to submit an extensive application in which I disclosed my therapy goals, my complete medical history, current medications, and any family history of mental illness. All applications are carefully reviewed by therapists and medical staff to make sure the retreat is a good fit. For example, some guests are asked to stop taking certain antidepressants because they conflict with the psilocybin. Some clients need a long lead time to get off of those drugs. Some need time to get over the fear of getting off those drugs. From what I observed, no one enters into this lightly. My fellow guests were often in communication with Myco for weeks, if not months, before their arrival on how best to approach the retreat both medically and therapeutically.
Luckily, I didn’t have much to prepare for, medically. I spent my lead time taking a serious look at the recommended reading—I picked up a copy of The Four Agreements because it was short. I also thought long and hard about my packing list, asking questions like, “What kind of outfit is suitable for tripping?” And, “Does this tank top say ‘psychedelic chic’?”
If you’re thinking of the Hulu show Nine Perfect Strangers as you read this, you are not alone, because I was literally one of nine perfect strangers. On our first night, we were welcomed to the retreat over a dinner table set with candelabras and white napkins and sprinkled with bougainvillea, which is when I realized that our group was a casting director’s dream. We should have been on a reality TV show saying things like, “I’m not here to make friends.” Instead, we were there to earnestly remedy our core traumas. And little did we know, we would definitely make friends.
Among us: the extremely high-functioning founder/investor who couldn’t let go of the pain of having been put up for foster care as a baby. The lovable C-suite executive whose extremely impoverished and Catholic childhood made being gay . . . tough. The brilliant and hilarious entrepreneur who couldn’t erase the trauma of rape. The graphic designer brimming with artistry whose agoraphobia meant that walking into a drugstore could induce paralyzing panic attacks. The graceful environmental policy consultant turned yoga instructor who was somehow stuck. The divorced and caring father who, despite paying to be there, was so closed off, he could barely relay a real emotion. The older political wonk who spent a lifetime in government healing rifts between marginalized groups but now wanted simply to prepare himself for the last phase of life. The seriously observant Hasidic Jew and amiable father of three whose lifelong stutter and family dynamic had gotten in the way of sleep and happiness. And of course, there was me, the (Muslim) comedian . . . who was, ya know, there because it was a gig.
As we watched the sunset and ate hors d’oeuvres, many of us shared that we hadn’t done mushrooms before and didn’t know what to expect. The elder political operative had done them in the ’60s but that seemed quaint compared to what we were about to do. WE were going to SOLVE ISSUES. I’m not sure what they were doing in the ’60s, but it looked a lot more fun than solving issues.
MycoMeditations CEO and cofounder Justin Townsend, who led the retreat, immediately presented as the sage among us. He had an even-keeled, professorial vibe, delivering between appetizers nuggets of mushroom wisdom—such as psilocybin’s historic use in various cultures—peppered with quotes from mythologist Joseph Campbell. His beard helped, of course. His résumé reads part business advisor (he was an executive at various startups) and part psychedelic healer (he studied Jungian depth psychology and taught meditation and breath work). MycoMeditations sits at the Venn diagram of those interests. Townsend not only deeply believes in the healing capacity of mushrooms but also, alongside his cofounder—the affable Mike Ljubsa—knows how to run a business that delivers that exact service.
At dinner, I also realized that this place is crawling with therapists. They dined among us! It was another reminder that these mushroom trips aren’t about grabbing your glow sticks and hitting up the rave.
That first night, I kept asking the therapists about the trips they had witnessed and the outcomes they had seen. They told me about people who had successfully battled anxiety, suicidal ideation, and depression. But essentially, said the delightful retreat therapist Adaeze Greenidge, mushrooms are about “getting over your horseshit so you can move on with life.”
The cynic in me loved this explanation. Simple, elegant, filthy: getting over your horseshit. This moment hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure I was there on assignment. Sure I was looking for interesting tidbits and jokes. But I was definitely mired in mental horseshit and, my God, did I want to get over it. Most of my problems were me. They were the voices in my head. They were the horseshit I was feeding myself. Maybe this was a gig—but one with a side of deep emotional repair?
The morning of the first dose, everyone gathered in a parlor room that overlooked the ocean to unload all their suffering—their crummy childhoods, their poorly understood fears, their well-understood fears, their small to medium to wildly awful traumas. Over the course of three hours, we laid it all bare for Justin, Mike, a nurse, a facilitator, a team of therapists, and each other.
And then it was time to trip. For me, that first trip was in some ways the easiest because I didn’t know what to expect at all. As we sat around the parlor room, Justin, our bearded sage, determined our first dosage by taking into account prior experience and a whole host of information from our intake forms. For most of us, this hovered in the three-gram range. This meant nothing to me—he could have given me five tablespoons and I would have accepted that too. To put it into perspective, a microdose is 0.3 grams. A party dose is about one gram. We were taking three times that. It was a lot. The mushrooms were administered in civilized capsule form, and we had about 45 minutes to leave the parlor room and set up before the mushrooms hit the fan.
For each trip, they set us up in a scenic area, sometimes overlooking the ocean, sometimes overlooking a tropical garden. We also had the option to be in our rooms. For the next four hours, we would rest in lounge chairs with a yoga mat nearby in case we were overcome with the need to “feel the Earth.” They gave us eye masks because, even though we were in a gorgeous tropical location, they didn’t want us to look at any of it. They wanted us to “go inside.” And to help do just that, they had us wear headphones and listen to a series of curated playlists.
About an hour later, I was on a lounge chair and I started yawning, which was my first cue that the mushrooms were working. So I threw on my eye mask, popped in my earbuds and . . . I entered another dimension. My first sensation was cold—teeth-chattering cold—and my brain took me to an Ansel Adams–inspired snowy landscape. They had warned us this might happen, so they came around with heavy blankets. If anyone had sauntered through while we were tripping, they would’ve seen a bunch of people scattered about in lounge chairs, wearing eye masks, and covered in heavy fur blankets on a sunny, 85° day. We looked insane.
But the experience was far from insane. This trip covered my notably wide landscape of guilt. Guilt is my brain’s favorite pastime. I feel guilty when I leave my four-year-old to do gigs on the road. I feel guilty when I read only one book to her instead of 1,000. I feel guilty when I don’t call my parents, when I don’t volunteer enough, when I ask for help, when I don’t ask for help. I feel guilty when I work too much but also when I work too little, and interestingly, I have never hit “just right.” I feel guilty when I eat a cupcake and guilty when I eat a salad because why don’t I always eat salads?
Throughout this trip, my guilt focused on my daughter and my mother. After I was done with Ansel Adams, I went into a vague visual world of, well, Pink Floyd album covers. After a confusing prelude in that laser light show, I found myself in a jungle holding my daughter’s hand. I kept telling her, “I have to go on safari. I’ll be back when I’m done with this safari.” I can see why my brain chose “safari” as a stand-in for comedy because in both cases, you go out into a dangerous place where you might be eaten by wild animals, and if you’re not eaten, you’ll experience something amazing.
First my brain wanted me to become a sunset. This kind of sounds nice, but it wasn’t. It was hardcore.
At certain points, my daughter became my mother and the guilt would build until it made me cry. I cried because I felt like I was failing my daughter to pursue my dreams. I cried because I felt like my entire existence had robbed my mother of pursuing her dreams. I cried and I cried and I cried. For four hours.
Throughout those four hours, I also had moments of utter clarity. Clarity that the guilt is destroying me. That my workload is too much. And that it is actually OK to leave my daughter sometimes for work.
But my mind kept coming back to one persistent realization, a realization that is probably embroidered on a pillow in your aunt’s suburban home: Everyone deserves a nap. I wanted to write this down but when you’re tripping at these dosages you lose a lot of normal body function, like moving, walking, or handling objects. So this next bit took a lot out of me: I sat up, lifted the eye mask, and with the limited motor skills available to me, I wrote this realization down on a notepad in size 45 font, in what looked like a serial killer’s handwriting.
I called over any therapist or nurse who would listen and said, “Did you know? Everyone deserves a nap?” I have long needed rest. It’s so obvious to everyone who knows me. It’s obvious to ME. And yet, it took four hours of crying at a psilocybin retreat to fully understand that my pace is unsustainable, that my guilt is eating me alive, and that I deserve a nap.
After the height of the trip is over, facilitators walk each person back to their room because you couldn’t possibly figure out “stairs” when you’re on the comedown.
I walked into my room and took a look at my face. My eyes were the puffiest that eyes can get. Like I’d had botched plastic surgery. Like I was the heavy for a mafia operation on a particularly violent day. I said to the nurse, “My eyes are so puffy,” and she said, “Oh yes, you cried a considerable amount.”
The next day we had the afternoon off. But first thing in the morning, we had an “integration”—in other words, group therapy. It was led by a therapist and head facilitator to help us make sense of our trips. One of us got roped into a world inhabited entirely by clowns. Another gave birth to her five abortions in the form of celestial light then sang hymnals in relief. One person described the experience as one big battle that totally “sucked.”
As Justin put it, what seemed to be true for everyone was that their trips were driving them to slay dragons—to vanquish the mental villains that brought them there in the first place.
The morning of the next dose, we arrived in the parlor room. The ocean view continued to be a scene-stealer but we nine strangers were visibly nervous. Because on dose two, they up the ante. By this point, three grams was for kids, for weekenders, not for serious soldiers on the therapeutic battle field. We were there to heal! Healing isn’t for pussies. So, when the capsules came around, the doses were generally doubled.
I did six grams. F*ck yeah, I did six grams and when the grams hit, they hit hard. First my brain wanted me to become a sunset. This kind of sounds nice, but it wasn’t. It was hardcore. It felt overly demanding because, as I tried to explain to my trip, I don’t know how to BE a sunset. My trip didn’t care. It was really forcing the issue. So I picked a shade of orange and I went for it.
Becoming a sunset was my “ego death”—a term used in psychedelics to connote losing oneself. I became one with the Earth. I didn’t matter. I wasn’t really there. I was a f*cking sunset.
This freed me up to welcome a hot blazing demon that had suddenly emerged in my gut. I really wanted to expel this ball of fire. They had warned us of such a sensation—the feeling that something needed to “get out.” I was advised to get on my hands and knees and perform the act of retching. Nothing would come (ya know, because the ball of fire isn’t real), but the act of retching would supposedly release the hot demon.
The meaning of that fireball soon became clear, because after my melodramatic commedia dell’arte performance of barfing, I had to go to the French Open, play on a clay court, and literally be Serena Williams. You might think from that previous sentence that I know anything about tennis, but I do not. So to be Serena Williams was, let’s just say, difficult. Which I told my trip. My trip didn’t care. I had to go through with it.
The demon I had “puked” out was self-doubt. The self-doubt that I carry with me on every stage I perform in, in every writing assignment, in every minor interaction. There’s always a voice telling me that I’m not doing it right. Serena, she doesn’t have that voice. She just crushes. And so, I crushed. I waved a tennis racket underhand and overhand and sideways hand. (That’s a thing, right?) And I did it all in the style of WINNING.
What seemed to be true for everyone was that their trips were driving them to slay dragons—to vanquish the mental villains that brought them there in the first place.
The voice in your head that says you can’t do something is what happens when you have an overactive default mode network. It’s a lot like a Twitter bot that trolls your brain, telling you that you’re shit. The mushrooms are there to unfollow, report spam, and to add a dose of triumphalism. So I lifted my mask, I took out the notepad, and wrote in gigantic letters, “Everyone can be Serena Williams.”
But this trip wasn’t done with me. I had one more inspirational poster caption to go. My brain kept taking me to Morocco. The last time I was there was nearly four years ago. My husband had needed to go for work, so I had joined along with our six-week-old baby. We’d had a lovely time. I didn’t get it, why go to Morocco? And then a suppressed memory resurfaced: I had accidentally burned my daughter’s finger while standing too close to a kettle in a hotel room in Marrakech. She was fine. But I had been beside myself. I hadn’t been able to contain my anger and my shame at being so careless.
Reliving this memory, I began to cry. I was really good at crying by now so at this point I was just showing off. One of the therapists checked in on me. I told her, “She was so little and I just made a mistake.” At the time, that mistake led to months of self-flagellating anxiety. And yet, it was just that, a mistake. And I have made many more since then. But I had to forgive myself. So I did. The eye mask came up, the notepad came out, and I wrote, “Parents make mistakes.”
Again, my trip was about slogans for novelty coffee mugs. How banal. How glaringly obvious. But in my years of being a first-generation child of immigrants, had I ever really understood that anything less than flawless perfection was acceptable? Intellectually, I did. But my body had never accepted it until this moment.
Back in my room, I sobered up and showered before calling my husband to tell him I was back in the earthly dimension. They have a rule about this: You’re not supposed to call your partner until you’ve sobered up. Once, a man called his wife in the middle of a trip, convinced that he was gay. He was not gay. You can imagine the drama that ensued, when later, the sober and apparently very heterosexual man had to explain to his wife that it was just a part of his trip.
The following day we had another integration with yet more revelations. There was the man who gave birth to himself. The rape victim who had to endure yet another rape. The person who rediscovered the joy of dancing. We were appearing in each other’s trips. Sending each other messages in the trip space. We were connected, egos merged.
What struck me about our group—a microcosm of all humanity—was how much love was in every trip, whether it was about giving love or a fear of losing love. Our trips were about a parent, a child, a sibling. We’re all saddled with love. Even your Q-Anon cousin. Yeah, he feels love too. It’s awesome, it’s incredible. But sometimes our hearts explode from its weight.
And because there should be a respite from all the work, on each rest day we went to the beach together to hang out. Operations director Abbie Townsend not only expertly managed our accommodations but also reminded us to have fun. So, together we drank piña coladas, went swimming with the retreat’s resident dogs, and ate a seemingly endless supply of their signature chocolate-chip cookies before the next day of work began.
By the time the third dose rolled around, I was tired. I figured, “I’ve learned everything I can learn. I wrote down some really great captions for statement tees. I’m good. I don’t want to cry anymore. And I don’t have the energy for more elite sporting events.” But as my husband reminded me, I was there for a reason and that reason felt increasingly less aligned with “just a gig.”
At the last integration, I had mentioned in passing that the birth of my child was tough. Our lead therapist, the intuitive Catie Bragagnolo, told me that it takes an average of four to six years for a woman’s psyche to fully recover from a traumatic birth. I assured her that I was cool—I had 15 minutes of standup on my delivery. I had clearly gotten over it!
When I was pregnant, the books and the classes all advised that, when it comes time to deliver the baby, it’s best not to take an epidural. But if you have to, you should wait. I had experienced nearly 2 years of IVF and 10 years of chronic migraines, so I thought, “What’s a little more abject pain, right?”
But my cervix was a real dick. It wouldn’t open and so the doctors and nurses pulled out a series of Game of Thrones–style torture devices to open the cervix. The pain of the contractions was nothing compared to the pain I endured with my uncooperative cervix. I endured that pain for 17 hours.
So there I was at the start of my trip, and as if on cue, my brain sends me right back to that delivery room, mid-torture. The (imagined) pain was, again, unbearable. I called Catie over and asked for the epidural. One therapy technique is to rewrite these traumatic events. So, she played into the scene, suggesting, “Why don’t you ask the nurse? She’s right here.”
So I did. I rewrote my story. I got the epidural when the pain was clearly too much. I forgave everyone around me for not recommending it sooner. I forgave myself for not asking for it.
Once I got the psychedelic-fueled epidural, I entered the realm of the triumphant. I was, literally, Napoleon Bonaparte. Specifically, I was Bonaparte when he was posing in that one portrait where his knee is cocked and he’s looking real braggy, like, “I just led an army through battle. What did you do this morning?” It felt good. It felt like victory. This was my liberation point so I pulled up the mask, looked at my phone to see what time it was, and wrote down, “2:34 p.m. o’clock liberation point.” (I started writing “2:34 p.m.” and then decided that my post-trip brain would NOT know that 2:34 p.m. referred to time, so I added “o’clock” for utmost clarity.)
For the next two hours I was in a light and airy place. That purple-flowered tree became my buddy. I told every therapist that I “did the triumphant part and had entered the light and airy part.” I told them to go tell the other eight strangers that they could get out of their hellscapes and just go to the light and airy part. The light and airy part was beautiful, it was serene, it was ecstatic. I felt like I could breathe for the first time in years. I wanted my eight strangers, who had now become inextricably linked spirits, to join me there. To ease their suffering. There was so much suffering in our group. So many good people who needed to rewrite their histories.
I asked one of the facilitators to deliver a message to the therapist Adaeze. “Tell her that I got over my horseshit,” I said. I had carried around the pain of parenting, the stress of work, the agony of birth, and it had made me an anxious mess. That horseshit had been gumming up the pipes. I hadn’t been able to think clearly. But now, I could. I finally let it go.
I’m now a few weeks out from the experience. Studies show that an individual will experience six to eight weeks of neuroplasticity following a therapeutic dose of psilocybin. Your brain will accept change. I’m still enjoying that neuroplasticity. It wasn’t a cure-all but the voice in my head is quieter. The anxiety has taken a back seat. The burdens are less like dumbbells and more like floaties.
And here I am at the end of this experience. I’m not woo-woo. I’m not going to quote Joseph Campbell. I will still hold in farts and I will continue to be judgmental about inspirational throw pillows. But I do know that everyone deserves rest. Everyone has the capacity for Serena Williams–style greatness. And we all make forgivable mistakes.