FROM THE ONOLLA FILES

How magic mushroom therapy helped a marriage.

Suzanne Duckett and her husband tried using psilocybin, found in mushrooms, to reboot their relationship. 

‘We looked at each other with new eyes’ - Suzanne Duckett, 49.

I’ve done a fair few strange things in my time as a magazine spa reviewer in the pursuit of ways to look and feel better. But compared with the weekend I have recently spent with my husband of 25 years, most of those experiences seem pretty humdrum. We have just returned from two days in the Netherlands on a guided psilocybin trip, the effects of which I would describe, with no hyperbole, as like someone has taken a cannonball of love, lit it and fired it straight through the middle of our marriage.

We have experienced what feels like a complete reset.It wasn’t that our marriage was exactly on the rocks. But like many midlifers I felt our existence was lacking any real joie de vivre. Recently we’ve been through several life-changing situations — bereavements, the temporary destruction of both of our businesses due to Covid — and, at age 49, I have the menopause pending. Over the past couple of years I have felt myself becoming rigid, fearful and toxic, and I was desperate for something to help.

I have been curious about magic mushrooms for a while. Psilocybin, their psychedelic component, has lately been the subject of extensive research showing its benefits in treating a range of mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety, and having a lasting positive effect on mood and creativity. One recent trial, run by the British research company Compass Pathways, found that 30 per cent of those treated with psilocybin had a significant decrease in symptoms of depression compared with 7.6 per cent who had taken a dosage so low it functioned as a placebo. It’s one of many such trials, as psilocybin research, put on the backburner since the 1960s, is now being taken seriously by the medical community.

I read that a good psilocybin experience could be likened to years of therapy. Then, through my work as a journalist, I met a clinical therapist called Sarah Tilley who was a student of the veteran couples counsellor Esther Perel. Tilley is also a “psychedelic guide” who has been working in the field of “altered states” for 20 years, using it as part of her therapy approach. She runs couples retreats called Beautiful Space in the Netherlands and Portugal, where this form of medicine is legal. (In the UK it is not.) You can opt for a group retreat or pick your own setting.When I posed the idea to my husband, Andy, 47, of taking a journey to the Netherlands to try magic mushrooms as a couple, his eyes widened but he was on board. And he was drawn to Tilley as much as I was. We fixed a date. Two days away that would involve preparation for our “trip”, a six-hour psilocybin experience, then counselling the next day to discuss it.

To be clear, until this point I had never taken a hallucinogen in my life. So the prospect of ingesting a big dose of mushrooms was slightly terrifying. However, as Tilley puts it: “Life consists of cycles and phases and at the start of each new phase we have the options to stay the same or evolve. Staying in our comfort zone is nice, but it’s also part of the problem in long-term relationships and for people who have experienced trauma (which is most people).

”On a bright, autumnal Friday morning, Tilley came to meet us in a private farmhouse near Amsterdam. She provided us with magic truffles (the earlier stage of mushroom development, which contains psilocybin). I was nervous, to put it mildly. I opted for a 2.5mg dose, Andy for 3mg. We clinked our glasses of murky-looking brown, cloudy liquid and looked each other firmly in the eyes. Then the three of us sat and talked as if we’d just had a cup of tea, and we waited. Then, after about 25 minutes of nervous chitchat, mainly from me, a feeling that can only be described as a rolling warmth moved up through my feet, up my spine and into my face. “Here it comes. I think I had best lie down,” I said. Tilley gave me an eye mask and earphones to link me to a “psychedelic soundtrack” — all this was to intensify the experience.

And at first I felt terrified to let go. My body started twitching as though thousands of electrical currents were running through me. “Trust the plant, trust the medicine,” I could hear Tilley saying. She was sitting close by me and checked in regularly with both of us.Soon after, still lying down, I found I could see a group of giggling Hobbit-like plant people looking down on me. They seemed to be reassuring me. I could feel tears rolling from my eyes. I was taken up to the roof of what looked like a church with gleaming colourful stained glass bathed in golden light. I saw totem pole after totem pole.

At some point I must have got off the bed and Andy and I went into the garden of the farmhouse. We looked at the sky, the flowers and at each other with what felt like new eyes. It was magical. After a few hours (the intense part of the trip lasts about four hours, with the whole otherworldly sequence totalling about six) we started to come back to Earth. I felt extremely reassured that Andy had been there with me but also on his own journey.

Afterwards we ate (we were both starving) and we talked and giggled. We talked to Tilley about our experiences. Left alone with Andy as we went to bed that night, I felt the day had changed something in me and enlivened me. I felt as if it had taken my trains of thought and derailed them. It not only derailed them, it dissolved the track they had built their foundations on and it created something new. A feeling of great happiness, empathy and gratitude for being alive was reborn in me. As for Andy, I now looked at him with as much interest and fascination as when we first met but better, with all the depth of our years together too.

Back home the effects are still lasting. Since our trip we have decided to stop sharing a freelance office. We want our time together to feel more romantic and personal again. I will now work from a shop, Onolla, that I recently opened in Barnes selling plant-based health and beauty products. Already our interactions feel less naggy, less burdened. We feel like we are having fun again, we have that glint in the eyes back.Our almost 14-year-old teenage daughter keeps commenting on how “huggy” we have become. We are not advocating hallucinogens for fun, we told her. This is not something you do lightly, this is therapy that is about developing better consciousness and it is conducted in a special place by a special person. We are not condoning you doing it, we told her.“

Why would you want to lose control of yourself like that?” she said, and pretty much left it at that.

‘I experienced a powerful sense that all was OK’
- Andy Friedlander, 47

Rapidly approaching a point in life at which I would have spent more time in my marriage than not, I didn’t hesitate when over a coffee Suzanne casually asked: “Do you fancy going to the Netherlands to do a guided psilocybin journey with me?

”We’re secure together, supportive and caring, and while the embers still glowed, we were bored. Having travelled extensively with her, I knew how exciting trips could refresh our connection. But this was a decidedly different destination, an inner journey led by plant medicine and accompanied by an expert guide, not a city stop on the Eurostar. My answer, naturally, was: “Yes!” But not without apprehension.

Last year Covid slammed the brakes on my successful sports event business and the extensive downtime permitted creeping questions to start gnawing at me, challenging my previously unshakeable self-belief. Who was I, really? Did I lack empathy? Was I actively steering my own life or just drifting? What have I got to be angry about? Was my relationship as fulfilling as it could be?Regarding the last question, I’m open to trying most things to maximise contentment because I believe in marriage and lifelong love, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing: talk therapy (boring, rudderless), couple’s yoga (she’s a bamboo, I’m a breadstick), tantric workshops (I look truly crazy in white pyjamas). So while the prospect of venturing into an altered state together was appealing, it was also pretty scary.

 The persistent myths of leaping off the deep end, never to return to sanity, did nag my otherwise steady demeanour.

I have read extensively on ayahuasca, DMT, LSD and psilocybin over the years, plus I am a big fan of the author Graham Hancock, who, like me, passionately believes that it is not the job of the state to police our consciousness. But, I wondered, what would I discover if the plant medicine stripped away my alpha ego and I metaphorically looked at myself in my third eye? If I did really need this reset, what if we came out on different paths or in some way changed irrevocably and gravitated towards a future apart? I had a lot to lose, but at the same time nothing at all.

The murky liquid Sarah Tilley had us drink was herbaceous, earthy and slightly rank. We toasted the journey to come and nervously giggled because once we swallowed, the only way was forward. Having Tilley’s calm presence and trusting her experience made the 20-minute lead-in reassuringly relaxed, but I knew instinctively when it was time to lie down across the room from my wife, slip on an eye mask and surround-sound headphones and follow the mushrooms’ lead.

Tilley had recommended a playlist for my journey called Wavepaths by Mendel Kaelen, which undoubtedly steered the texture, dynamics and emotions of my trip. When the lightness of violins, flutes or operatic vocals harmonised, my “spirit” — if indeed I can so refer to the egoless essence of my “self” that waltzed and flew effortlessly and totally in sync with recurring fractals, kaleidoscopic colours and recognisable icons of my lived experience — was euphoric and expansive. When the cello, deep synths and bass fell to the minor keys, my perceptions were altogether darker and uncomfortable. But this was by no means a nightmare scenario, more a chance to sit back and explore some essence that wasn’t serving me.

The emotional stages began at excitement, then went through awe, bewilderment and a disbelief that what I was seeing and feeling was so real. I took my mask and headphones off a couple of times and tried to communicate what I was feeling and experiencing, but articulating a hallucinogenic journey in words was akin to describing the brushstrokes of a Van Gogh masterpiece using kitchen utensils. So I smiled at my fellow traveller and guide, called them both beautiful, powerful women, and returned to my inner world, grinning like Alice’s Cheshire cat.

The visions and senses I enjoyed were profound, but not with specificity to give clarity around my faults, behaviours, shortfalls or how I could be a better man. Instead, I experienced an overwhelming sense that all was OK, that life was fleeting and should be enjoyed, and that while I mattered, I didn’t too much. Was this the dissolving of my ego I had read about? Probably. The trust in something so much bigger than me was altogether comforting.

Why professionally guided psilocybin journeys — unlike recreational trips — are, in my view, so effective at breaking stale patterns and negative behavioural traits is the discussion a qualified guide offers in the hours and days that follow. Tilley helped me to make sense of my journey, see how my less-than-perfect behaviours were represented during my trip and — by recognising how vulnerable I was during the journey — that I could embrace a more empathic outlook.

And it has worked. Suzanne and I didn’t go into this process with any serious problems to resolve, but the humbling intimacy of sharing this journey has allowed for a greater understanding of each other, a greater appetite for fun, and has created a clean slate that allows for more forgiving, generosity and mindfulness of each other. Whenever a memory of enlightenment from the psilocybin pops up, we refer to “Good Friday” — the day we subtly resurrected our marriage.

Am I still impulsive and cranky? Yes. But less so. If nothing else I hope I am more sensitive to Suzanne’s needs and that we will continue to thrive.