I'm not a big fan of death.
Being alive strikes me as, well, a heck of a lot more appealing. More than infinitely so, in fact, since the difference between (1) being alive, and (2) dead and gone forever, is the same as the difference between something and nothing.
How many zeros does it take to equal one? The answer is... not even an infinity, because no amount of nothing can equal even the smallest something.
But since death is inevitable, the next best thing is to not fear it. Or at least, not to fear it too much.
Which is why I've been enthralled by a 60 Minutes episode, Psilocybin Sessions: Psychedelics Could Help People with Addiction and Anxiety. Not just once, but twice, since it was repeated after its initial showing.
Click on that link and you can read a transcript of the episode. Here's some excerpts that include the part I found most interesting, since it dealt with a cancer patient's fear of dying.
For most of us, psychedelic drugs conjure up images of the 1960's. Hippies tripping out on LSD or magic mushrooms. But these powerful, mind-altering substances are now being studied seriously by scientists inside some of the country's foremost medical research centers. They're being used to treat depression, anxiety and addiction.
The early results are impressive, as are the experiences of the studies' volunteers who go on a six-hour, sometimes terrifying, but often life-changing psychedelic journey deep into their own minds.
...We were told we couldn't record anyone participating in the study while they were on psilocybin because it might impact their experience, but we were shown how it begins – without the psilocybin.
You lay on a couch, with a blindfold to shut out distractions and headphones playing a mix of choral and classical music – a psychedelic soundtrack with a trained guide, Mary Cosimano, watching over you.
Everything is done the same way it was for the LSD experiments scientists conducted in the 1950s and 60s. Some of the most dramatic results have been with terminal cancer patients struggling with anxiety and paralyzing depression.
Kerry Pappas: I start seeing the colors and the geometric designs and it's like 'oh this is so cool, and how lovely' and, and then, boom. Visions began.
Kerry Pappas was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer in 2013. During her psilocybin session, she found herself trapped in a nightmare her mind created.
Kerry Pappas: An ancient, prehistoric, barren land. And there's these men with pickaxes, just slamming on the rocks. So…
Anderson Cooper: And this felt absolutely real to you?
Kerry Pappas: Absolutely real. I was being shown the truth of reality. Life is meaningless, we have no purpose. And then I look and I'm still like a witness, a beautiful, shimmering, bright jewel. And then it was sound, and it was booming, booming, booming. Right here right now.
Anderson Cooper: That was being said?
Kerry Pappas: Yes. "You are alive. Right here right now, because that's all you have." And that is my mantra to this day.
Later in the segment, Michael Pollan, who took psilocybin in the course of writing his book, How to Change Your Mind, described why he thinks psilocybin has such a potent power to alter someone's perspective on reality. Then Pappas talks some more about how psilocybin has eliminated her fear of dying.
Michael Pollan: It seemed so implausible to me that a single experience caused by a molecule, right, ingested in your body could transform your outlook on something as profound as death. That's-- that's kind of amazing.
...Michael Pollan: There is a reason [that love is on a Hallmark card]. And one of the things psychedelics do is they peel away all those essentially protective levels of irony and, and cynicism that we, that we acquire as we get older and you're back to those kind of "Oh, my God. I forgot all about love." (Laugh)
Pollan said he also experienced what the researchers describe as ego loss, or identity loss - the quieting of the constant voice we all have in our heads.
Michael Pollan: I did have this experience of seeing my ego-- burst into-- a little cloud of Post-It notes. I know it sounds crazy.
Anderson Cooper: And what are you are without an ego?
Michael Pollan: You're, uh… (Laugh) You had to be there.
Researchers believe that sensation of identity loss occurs because psilocybin quiets these two areas of the brain that normally communicate with each other. They're part of a region called the default mode network and it's especially active when we're thinking about ourselves and our lives.
Michael Pollan: And it's where you connect what happens in your life to the story of who you are.
Anderson Cooper: We all develop a story over time about what our past was like and who we are.
Michael Pollan: Right. Yeah, what kind of person we are. How we react. And the fact is that interesting things happen when the self goes quiet in the brain, including this rewiring that happens.
...Michael Pollan: Maybe the ego is one character among many in your mind. And you don't necessarily have to listen to that voice that's chattering at you and criticizing you and telling you what to do. And that's very freeing.
It was certainly freeing for Kerry Pappas. Though her cancer has now spread to her brain, her crippling anxiety about death is gone.
Kerry Pappas: Yeah, it's amazing. I mean, I feel like death doesn't frighten me. Living doesn't frighten me. I don't frighten me. This frightens me.
Anderson Cooper: This interview frightens you, but death doesn't?
Kerry Pappas: No.
It turns out most of the 51 cancer patients in the Johns Hopkins study experienced "significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety" after trying psilocybin. Two-thirds of them rated their psilocybin sessions as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives. For some, it was on par with the birth of their children.
Kerry Pappas: To this day, it evolves in me.
Anderson Cooper: It's still alive in you--
Kerry Pappas: It's still absolutely alive in me.
Anderson Cooper: Does it make you happier?
Kerry Pappas: Yeah. And-- and I don't necessarily use the word happy.
Kerry Pappas: Comfortable. Like, comfortable. I mean, I've suffered from anxiety my whole life. I'm comfortable. That, to me, okay. I can die. I'm comfortable. (LAUGH) I mean, it's huge. It's huge.
Sounds good to me. No, more than good. Great!
Which is why I'm hoping that the Oregon Psilocybin Society is successful in gathering enough signatures to put an initiative on the November 2020 ballot that would legalize the use of psilocybin in my state. And then, that voters approve the measure.
Measure 34 will legalize access to “psilocybin services” – also known as psilocybin assisted therapy – statewide. Psilocybin, currently a Schedule 1 drug, would be administered in licensed therapeutic environments, supervised by trained facilitators. Rooted in research, the service model involves a sequence of sessions, including preparation, psilocybin administration, and integration afterwards. Each client will be screened for contraindications prior to scheduling a psilocybin session. Clients would not need a mental health diagnosis to qualify.