My First Time on Magic Mushrooms: Ten Psilocybin Experiences
Whether you view them as recreational, medicinal or sacred, 'shrooms are embedded in human culture. We asked 10 people to share their varied stories of first-time use.
“Magic Mushrooms” refers to any of 180 or so species of mushrooms found around the world that contain the naturally occurring psychedelic drugs psilocybin and psilocin. The most common strain on today’s black market is Psilocybe cubensis.
As with most psychedelics, how psilocybin causes its effects in the brain is only dimly understood. Recent research shows that rather than increasing brain activity (as had been thought) the chemical reduces activity, particularly in the “hubs” that connect sensory regions and help organize the constant barrage of stimuli into a sense of stable “selfhood.” With self-consciousness lifted and stimuli “disorganized,” the brain region involved in dreaming during sleep is increasingly activated. This puts us in a dreamlike state in which our senses feel heightened—sometimes to the extent that we hallucinate.
Although psilocybin mushrooms have been used since prehistoric times, mainstream America’s first exposure came via anthropologist Robert Gordon Wasson’s pioneering 1957 photo-essay “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” for Life magazine. His trip to Mexico to take the psychedelic fungi with the shamans of Oaxaca caught the public’s imagination and is often cited as the root of the counter-culture’s interest.
Among the starry-eyed psychedelic explorers who followed Wasson’s lead was a certain Timothy Leary, who went on to dose Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and other future figures in the psychedelic scene via the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The rest, as they say, is history. What was once the preserve of medicine men was now part of any self-respecting hippie’s drug buffet. By 1970 magic mushrooms use was so widespread that Wasson spoke of his regrets about the publicity his essay brought to the Mazatec culture, and the lack of ritualistic and cultural significance that mushrooms hold for latter-day consumers. Today, actress Susan Sarandon and ex-CNN reporter Amber Lyon are among those who publicly acknowledge being fans.
For all its cultural heritage, psilocybin’s most significant contribution to humanity may turn out to be medical. Exciting research has focused on the drug’s ability to treat OCD, PTSD, depression and anxiety—even the terror of impending death in patients with terminal illness—with highly promising results. The loosening of restrictions on such research will likely bring more good news.
‘Shrooms are the first psychedelic experience that many of us have. Following our explorations of readers’ first experiences with ecstasy and LSD, Substance.com asked 10 people two simple questions: Do you remember the first time? And where did your initial experience lead?
1. Singin’ in the Rain
Eric, 46, an EMT technician in the Bronx, NY
My first time: A buddy of mine called TJ had gotten some—this was 30 years ago. We were hanging out in these old baseball fields, three of us had taken’ ‘em, and I thought it wasn’t working. It was one of those real humid, heavy New York summers. I’d taken maybe a couple of grams—ate ‘em down, washed it back with a 40. Then there’s a rumble of thunder, and, man, the skies just opened. We’re all screaming and running for cover, and I don’t know if it was the shock of the rain, but I realized it was happening. I was tripping. Hard.
It was beautiful, man. I remember looking at the rain through the streetlights, and seeing these intricate, three-dimensional patterns that you could almost reach out and touch. They were very geometric and huge—you could get lost in them—but everything seemed very precise. I looked over at TJ and he was sitting there in the rain and the mud, holding out his hand catching raindrops and looking at them, with a big grin on his face. I’d never thought of the city as beautiful before, but it looked so beautiful that night. Just alive with colors and all kinds of prettiness. I wish it always looked like that.
Where it went from there: We did it a few times, but you know in the Bronx in the ’70s, ‘shrooms weren’t easy to get. TJ ended up getting strung out on angel dust and I lost contact with him. I can’t remember the last time I did any head drugs. These days I like my booze and that’s about it.
2. Funny That Way
Sara, 26, a student in Washington, DC
My first time: I’ve always been interested in trying mushrooms, but up until recently pot had been my only real drug experience. However, my friend Tom bought some on the Internet. We took them before we hit a festival. I was a little worried about going out while tripping, but Tom had done mushrooms plenty and said he’d look after me. Honestly, it was a glorious experience. We smoked a little pot, but no booze, and it was just incredible.
Music had never sounded like that to me before, and what I really took away from it was just how funny everything was. It was very different from how I imagined it—like in the movies where you see things that aren’t there. Everything had these kind of colored trails, but it was more just a sense of complete wellbeing. The only unpleasant thing was that I kept burping up this rancid mushroom taste all day. That and I insisted on taking off my shoes because I wanted to “feel the earth through my feet,” lost them in the crowd and had to get home barefoot.
Where it went from there: I’ve done it a few times. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’ve found that I don’t like to be inside when I’m tripping—the most fun I’ve had on ‘shrooms is when I’m out in forests, parks and the like. I plan to continue using them as long as they remain fun!
3. Dead Man’s Feet
Terrance, 36, a teacher in New Jersey
My first time: I grew up in a small town in the North of England where mushroom season was a big deal. People would try to be up early enough to scavenge the best of the crop, which grew wild in the hills surrounding our town, to dry them out for sale. A guy I played in a band with had a nice little business going, and as well as keeping him in weed and booze, his side-gig meant he always had an excess of ‘shrooms at his house.
I was 16 at the time, and he had concocted a vat of mushroom tea—a vile-tasting concoction created by steeping the ‘shrooms for hours in warm water and lemon juice. It basically tasted like dead man’s feet—and that’s being generous. However it was extremely potent, as you could ingest a greater amount that way—it was easier to chug a pint of vile-tasting water than it was to eat 20 of the bloody things. It was a wild night. Our band used to hang out in a real dump that we ironically dubbed “the Manor”—a house owned by my mate’s landlord father that he couldn’t rent out on the grounds that it was condemned. As my mind began to burst apart into fractal insanity, we could no longer stay with those oppressive, peeling walls. We ran around in the fields, whooping like madmen, flashing torches at each other. The next day I felt like I’d been punched repeatedly in the stomach. It took me a while to realize I’d hurt my muscles laughing so hard.
Where it went from there: I did mushrooms on a few occasions after that, but moving away from my home meant the opportunities to do them became limited. As I’ve gotten older it’s more an issue of time: I prefer short-acting drugs, because what 36-year-old father has a spare eight hours to trip? But I’m sure that mushrooms and I will cross paths again.
4. Don’t Feed the Animals
Andrew, 34, a writer in New York City
My first time: When I was 22, I was in Holland with some friends and we bought some unappetizing-looking goods from a head shop. When we took the ‘shrooms, the experienced people made sure there were sugary drinks to hand in case we wanted to dampen the effects—turned out, I’d be glad of that. After some initial tinting visuals, the people I was with began turning into somewhat threatening (but still facially recognizable) animals. The guy sitting next to me became a leering orangutan. A girl who stood up, high, and began massaging my shoulders became a praying mantis—the last thing you want jabbing you from behind. When cobwebs started shooting out of my mouth, I gulped down orange squash, terrified, and never went back.
Where it went from there: I had awful experiences with every hallucinogen I tried and wouldn’t want to do them again. To be fair, I combined them with alcohol and marijuana, which wasn’t a great idea. But give me booze or cocaine any day.
5. Friends Indeed
Miguel, 23, a musician in Valencia, Spain
My first time: I learnt that it’s important to have good people around you when you trip. The first time I did I was 16 and with friends from school. Mushrooms were very cheap and easily available in my hometown—a lot easier to get than cannabis or ecstasy. We did it in a friend’s house. I chewed them up until they were a paste. At first I thought nothing was happening but then I noticed that time had starting moving strangely—jumping forward, almost. One of the boys I was with saw the look on my face and said, “He’s tripping.” Then the bastard started trying to freak me out! He kept waving his hands on my face saying they were bats. It didn’t freak me out but it did annoy me, so I left.
The walk home was very strange. The town looked different, and even though I grew up there I somehow got lost. The lights from shop windows looked very beautiful. Somebody said, “Are you all right?” and I realized I had been standing for what seemed like a very long time, just staring into the window of a closed up shop. I knew what I really needed was peace and quiet, so I got home and managed to get to bed without bumping into my mother. I put on some headphones and listened to music. By then I must have been coming down because the effects were less, but still nice. I had many strange thoughts and waking dreams. The mushrooms had powered up my imagination, so it was almost like watching a movie in my head. When I woke up I’d been asleep for a good 10 hours and felt great!
Where it went from there: I didn’t do it again for a couple of years. The next time I did it I was in college, with a girl I liked. It was much more fun, not being stuck with some dumb kid who wanted to mess with your head.
6. Dutch Courage
Samantha, 28, a PA in Los Angeles
My first time: The first time I did ‘shrooms was on a trip to Holland back in 2007. We knew you could get weed there—duh—but I had no idea that they sold mushrooms. We bought some from a little place in The Hague—they called them “Smart Shops.” It was beautiful! My girlfriend and I each took about a gram and a half and wandered around the city at night. The Hague is really beautiful and quiet, not at all like Amsterdam, which is full of obnoxious drunk tourists.
My friend and I had a very deep conversation about our childhoods and tripping together definitely solidified our friendship. I remember colors seeming brighter, and they seemed to pulse—and music sounded incredible. We heard some jazz coming out of a little bistro and we both just stopped to listen. Suddenly I realized that we must have been standing there in the street for ages—we just got totally caught up in it. It felt like being a child again. That sense of wonder over anything: light, colors, music, taste.
Where it went from there: It’s hard to get good ‘shrooms in the States. I’ve ordered them online a few times, but the quality is never as good. Eventually I just stopped. I mean. there’s something super-sketchy about a mystery package arriving in your mailbox and you’re just trusting that whatever you ingest isn‘t going to poison you. I was really sad when I heard they stopped selling mushrooms in Holland [in 2009], because I planned to go back and do it again sometime.
7. Legal High
Dave, 39, a barman in Newcastle, England
My first time: I was a bit of a late bloomer with ‘shrooms. Back in 2003 I was staying with friends down in London and for some reason mushrooms became legal to sell in the UK for a split second–I think there was some kind of loophole where people figured they could sell them so long as they weren’t prepared in any way, like dried and that. You’d see these hippie blokes selling live mushrooms in little plant pots at Camden Market or Portobello. I hadn’t a clue about it until one of the tabloids did a big “shock horror!’ exposé on it. Thus alerted, a couple of mates and I decided to try it. The guy told us how to prepare them–either dry ‘em with a fan for 24 hours or make tea—and we were off.
We hit the town. It wasn’t a stellar experiment. My mate Bill insisted on drinking loads and soon after the ‘shrooms kicked in he was locked in the bogs of the Good Mixer [pub in Camden], puking his guts up. Meanwhile I came to and found myself deep in conversation with the landlady of my local [pub], with no idea of what the hell I’d been talking about! She seemed really interested. I got paranoid about what I’d been saying and jumped up, started mumbling excuses about needing some fresh air and got out of there, sharpish. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but really all I felt was majorly disorientated. I wound up necking a couple of Valium because I really wanted to just go to sleep and wake up straight again.
Where it went from there: They clamped down on the mushroom sellers not long after that, so the opportunity never presented itself again. That said, they could sell them at my corner shop and I probably wouldn’t be interested.
8. Better Late Than Never
Walter, 57, a journalist in New York City
My first time: I did mushrooms for the first time on the Fourth of July at party in the country. A large number of gay men, lesbians and the like hang out all day, eating, drinking, smoking, flirting, swimming in the pond, walking in the woods, and generally acting as if time stopped 20 years ago. A surprising number of people in their forties and fifties take ecstasy like in the old days. I do not do ecstasy because I take antidepressants that blunt the effect of X. But a friend had some mushrooms and asked me to do them with her. I took myself completely by surprise when I did—a small amount. I had not taken serious hallucinogens since 1979.
My high was mild but I felt great. Inside my skull it was warm, quiet, still—the usual anxiety and noise were gone. I felt detached from needs and desires. I watched people sitting close around a big fire or dancing chaotically and had the impression that I could decide whether or not to “feel” anything—sexual attraction or sentimental attachment or simply nothing at all. It was as if I had control over my attention and could choose any of a million ways to occupy it.
Where it went from there: I am grateful to have sampled that state of mind. I would like to live there forever, but at least a few sparks of magic remain.
9. Bugging Out
Tom, 38, a retail manager in London
My first time: I was seeing a girl who had a packet of mushrooms sitting in her freezer—I was getting ice for our cocktails when I came across this Ziploc baggie. She told me a friend had posted them from Amsterdam, where they were sold freely. So of course I said we should do them. But I wasn’t really a psychedelic adventurer, more of a coke-and-lager type of guy. The ‘shrooms started kicking in when we were in her back yard having drinks: I suddenly became aware that in every nook and corner, this place was teeming with insects. All kinds of crawling, creeping, multilegged things were squirming through the darkness and moist, secret places underneath me, above me—I could hear them! I turned pale and decided that we had to leave—“too many insects!”
Needless to say, I didn’t have a much better time of it once we’d spilled out onto the teeming streets of East London. The first person we met was the head waiter of a restaurant we knew, who happened to wear a wig that struck me as particularly lively that day. That was the last time my girlfriend did mushrooms with me.
Where it went from there: Well, I haven’t done ‘shrooms since. But the girl didn’t hold it against me. We’re married now, and she still finds the story rather amusing when she drags it out at dinner parties.
10. Heaven on Earth
Joe, 38, an author in Edinburgh, Scotland
My first time: I’d been told by a very reliable source—the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey’s brother, Ronnie—that the finest magic mushrooms, known locally as Omji, were freely available on the exotic Indonesian island of Lombok. And fuck me: As soon as I set foot there it was obvious I was in magic mushroom Shangri-La. Wherever you went they were for sale: bottled magic mushrooms, pancake mushrooms, mushroom in your beer, mushroom coffee, fried mushrooms, mushroom omelets, raw mushrooms straight from the jungle interior. Man, I was in heaven. I stayed on Lombok for three weeks, munching on all different mushroom concoctions, climbing volcanoes, scuba diving, watching mushroom sunsets—in the end I felt like I was turning into a mushroom. It was great!
Where it went from there: There was no physical or mental payback for all this fungal excess—after all, the mushroom is natural and organic. If anyone takes magic mushrooms and suffers some sort of breakdown afterwards, it has nothing to do with God’s own plants.
Tony O’Neill is the author of books including Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He recently interviewed Soft Cell and solo artist Marc Almond for Substance.com.
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