Tripping On Shrooms: Why No One Understands Chemical Depression

In September 2012 I took shrooms for the first and last time.

My friend Ari and I consumed the (revolting) magic substance at the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens. The setting: lying on the bank of a dam, looking up at the treetops. Seeing shapes and faces, even before the shrooms kicked in.

Then the world changed pace, and Ari took out the map he’d appropriated from an old video game.

This nonsensical map would guide us through our little world for the next few hours. Along with the substance, it allowed us to see magic in every corner.

We frolicked in a pool of ankle high fountains. Waterdogs, we called them, because they looked like puppies jumping up at us for attention.

We made our way across the vast landscape, moving from point to point in our quest for we knew not what.

Along the way, we made up different races of people, categorised whoever else we saw enter our world, and even asked some of them for directions. They dutifully helped us get to the next stage.

And eventually, we ended up in a place with trees locked away in cages, found the tail of a Pking – a creature we had made up – and completed our journey.

As we felt the trip wearing off, we drank orange juice and smoked weed, in an attempt at a smooth transition to sobriety.

I took a drag on the joint and suddenly felt an irritating nausea. Something that did not usually accompany weed. It did not matter – I just closed my eyes to try to ward it off.

Behind my eyelids I saw spirals. Spirals that would not stop turning, that made me want to throw up, that made me start to sweat. I opened my eyes and the spirals remained. I could barely see and my breathing had gotten shallower.

Suddenly, I was panicking. At first, I had no rational reason for it. What does a bit of nausea matter? But then thoughts entered my mind. I realised that although Ari sat just inches away from me, he could never really know me or what I was going through. We’re all alone in the world, I realised, to navigate this terrifying existence on our own. This terrifying existence that would only end in death, and possibly an eternity afterwards, and how could eternity be anything but suffering? How could it be anything but lonely?

I was sinking into another major depression, I realised, one which was my fault for taking an illegal substance. How would I get out of this, or even get from here to a safe place where I could lie in a fetal position and try to numb out my existence? I had to do something to save myself.

I remembered my psychologist telling me to ground myself in the beauty of real life, and I reached out in my mind for something to care about. I found the tail of a Pking, the fact that we had found a part of a mythical creature, and that to us that tail was very real. I started laughing, and suddenly felt wonderful.

There are different states of being

The depression or panic attack or whatever exactly it was, lasted two minutes at most. But it felt like it lasted multiple eternities.

That’s because it was not a feeling. It was not just strong fear or extreme despair. It was its own state of being.

That day, I transitioned through 3 states of being. The normal, everyday state. The trip, brought on by the shrooms. And the depression.

There is no way to fully describe any of these states, which you can only understand when you’re in them. After taking the shrooms, for example, I went on a nonsensical adventure. I knew it was nonsensical. I saw no hallucinations and was under no delusions. But the state the shrooms put me in made it possible for me to take it seriously anyway.

When I sank into the depressed state, I may as well have never been in the previous state. Yes, it left its memories and effects. But I wasn’t just one feeling away. I was in a completely different world. One which truly did have no meaning and no kinship and no hope.

And then once I was back in the everyday state, I could only vaguely remember the previous two. The impact of that two minute depression lasted. For a couple of weeks I did not feel like myself – the memories haunted me. But at the same time, I did not feel anything that resembled the depression itself.

It’s impossible to understand depression

This is why those who haven’t experienced depression cannot understand it. They cannot see how something good happening can fail to make you feel “better”. They can’t see how what they imagine is a feeling can be so all-encompassing.

Because it’s not a feeling. It’s a state of being of its own. You’re grateful for that when you’re out of it, but while you’re in it there seems to be no escape, with only small indications that you’re still part of the normal world.

I wish no one had to be in that state ever again. I pray to all the gods I don’t believe in that I never experience that state again. Because when you’re in it, there seems to be no way out, and it’s literally the worst thing in the world.

My shrooms trip was wonderful, and it lasted around four hours. And yet, I’ll never do shrooms again, because those two minutes of depression, chemical imbalance caused by the substance, lasted much longer.

Depression is not a feeling. It’s a world of its own, and when you’re in it you cannot imagine life could be any different.

These Are The Distortions At The Root Of My Depression

Where did my depression come from?

This question has two answers. One is simple and the other is way more complex. In terms of heredity, chemical depression runs in my mom’s family, and possibly my dad’s as well. Simple enough.

But the chemical imbalance does not explain everything. I still have a depressed worldview – an obsession with death, as well as the difficulty I have in seeing life as worthwhile – and that’s a product of my upbringing.

Not that my parents made the conscious choice to teach me what they believed to be the facts of life. Not that they taught me those “facts” at all. However, I learned how to live from observing them, watching them treat life with an attitude that was fundamentally distorted.

These are the beliefs that led me to see the world in all the worst ways.

1. Nothing will ever go right for me

My dad did not believe in himself. I know that’s a clichéd thing to say. But he truly had no self-belief. He saw himself as a loser, as someone who would never “make it”, and unfortunately the people around him did not do enough to change that belief. Some even reinforced it.

He lost his job in 2001, and for the next 10 years, it seemed like nothing went his way. Every small job came to an end, leaving him unemployed for another tension fraught period of time.

The way I framed that last sentence is exactly the way he framed his life. When he was working, he did not view himself as successful. Rather, he believed that it was just a respite from his failure of a life.

For much of my life, I believed that I’d never be a success, and that the best I could hope for was to not be a failure. This led me to constantly judge the good things in my life as flukes, and assume that they’d all come tumbling down eventually.

This is a belief that fundamentally fosters depression. It makes it difficult to feel joy without the dampening effect of a context of hopelessness. It invites in despair, and I still have to fight it every day.

2. It’s all my fault

This belief is in almost direct contradiction to the previous one. Whereas that distortion grants me no control, this belief puts me in charge. My father believed that every good thing in his life was fluke, and every bad thing was due to his own failings.

He projected this onto his children, always blaming us when things went wrong in our lives, teaching us not to take responsibility, but to take the blame. You can’t take responsibility when you have no chance of getting it right, but you can be down on yourself for being a pathetic loser.

This belief further props up that despair, that “knowledge” that life is just not worth it. It’s just a matter of time before you mess up again, and face the humiliating reality of your own failure.

3. The world is out to get you

This belief was propagated as much (or more) by my mom as by my dad. She is constantly waiting on the next terrible thing that is going to happen. Because the world is dangerous, and it’s coming for us.

My mom’s anxiety informed the way we were raised. We were constantly told that the worst would happen – it’s how she tried to protect us from it.

But this belief protects you from nothing. It does the exact opposite. Since anxiety makes it incredibly difficult to live in the present, it becomes nearly impossible to be adequately prepared for what might really happen. You get so caught up in the imagined threats, that you fail to prepare for the real ones.

And, of course, the bad things become a lot worse than they really are. Instead of failure being something that you get over and learn from, it becomes the worst thing that could possibly happen. When it does happen, you don’t see the real consequences, but live in the light of your perceived humiliation and disappointment.

4. There are bad feelings

This is one of the most prevalent beliefs propagated by people everywhere. Sadness is bad. Shame is bad. Anger is bad. Anxiety is bad.

We therefore do everything to try and avoid these feelings. We live life ineffectually, going after not what we want, but what will prevent those bad feelings from happening. We avoid these feelings like the plague, and we ultimately hurt much worse when they inevitably hit us in the gut.

I learned this belief from both my parents, who spent all their lives controlled by what they were too scared to feel. For my dad, it was shame. For my mom, it was grief and disappointment.

Emotions that every single person is fated to feel no matter how hard they try.

Getting over the distortions

In order to recover from depression, you need to rewire the way you think. After all, if you still live in the distorted beliefs that led to that despairing worldview, you’re only going to reinforce the disease.

As the quote goes: “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it in the first place.”

This is why mindfulness is considered one of the most effective treatments of depression and anxiety. It gives you an entirely new way of looking at life, rather than trying to fix what’s “wrong” with it. Instead of trying to do what you believe is impossible and be a complete success, you change your conception of success entirely. Instead of trying to stop things from going wrong, you reconsider how bad the inevitable downs really are.

Another approach, that can work in conjunction with mindfulness, is to challenge those distortions head on using CBT. You take every thought that usually leads you to self-sabotage, and you interrogate it. Once you expose it to the clear light of day, and show how unfair or unrealistic it truly is, you’re a step closer to changing that belief. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, but the payoff is worth it.

Ultimately, depression is based on a distorted view of the world. You only see certain aspects of reality, and judge those aspects as “bad”. By challenging those distortions, using CBT and mindfulness, along with a host of other techniques, you can begin to see life as it is, and accept even the “worst” parts.