Opinion | A Good Girl’s First Time on Magic Mushrooms
A love letter to mushrooms and the power of friendship.
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On 9 July 2022, the world lost one of the great figures of the psychedelic movement: Ann Shulgin, who passed away at the age of 91. With her late husband and chemist Alexander (“Sasha”) Shulgin, she pioneered the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy and co-wrote two seminal books on psychedelics: PiHKAL (1990), or Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved, and TiHKAL (1997), or Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved.
Ann was born Laura Ann Gotlieb on 22 March 1931 in Wellington, New Zealand to an American diplomat and New Zealand mother. She grew up in different parts of the world (including Italy, Cuba, and Canada), but the family eventually settled in San Francisco after her father’s retirement. Ann was a professionally trained artist, drawing and painting all her life. She also worked as a medical transcriber in a large hospital complex in San Francisco before beginning her study of psychedelics.
In 1978, she met Sasha, who discovered and synthesised more than 230 psychoactive compounds. This was the same year that Sasha was introduced to MDMA. The couple were married on 7 July 1981 in the backyard of their home (known as “the Farm”) in Lafayette, California, about 22 miles east of San Francisco. This is also where Sasha had his lab, and for decades their home served as a gathering place for students, teachers, and those working with psychedelics.
Ann was a lay therapist; she had no formal training or qualifications. But as her daughter Wendy Tucker said, “she was always the one who people talk to and you always felt like you could open up to her.” Ann had an innate aptitude and skill when working with people, utilising compounds such as MDMA and 2C-B in therapeutic settings (when they were still legal), and in her writings, she stressed the benefits of analysing these experiences from a Jungian perspective.
“He was the scientist, and I was the psychologist,” Ann said of her partnership with her husband in a 2014 interview with The Associated Press. She was especially skilled in doing shadow work with clients, which refers to uncovering the parts of yourself that you repress and hide from, including trauma or aspects of your personality that you deem unacceptable. Psychedelics can certainly be one way of making visible psychological material that has been left in the dark. As Ann remarked at the 2019 Women’s Visionary Congress, “No matter what motivates you to nibble mushrooms or drink ayahuasca tea, sooner or later you’re going to have an encounter with the dragon and demons in your soul.”
If we don’t make this unconscious material conscious and integrate it into our sense of self, it “is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness,” as Jung stated when discussing his concept of the ‘Shadow’. When we are upset, angry, or under pressure, this bursting forth of the ignored Shadow may involve lashing out at others, committing deplorable actions, or projection (perceiving our rejected qualities in other people).
In PiHKAL and TiHKAL, Ann and her husband developed a systematic way of ranking the effects of various psychoactive drugs, known as the Shulgin Rating Scale (or “quantitative potency scale”), with a vocabulary to describe a drug’s visual, auditory, physical, emotional, and mental effects. The most intense experience on the Shulgin Scale is “PLUS FOUR” or “++++”, which is:
“A rare and precious transcendental state, which has been called a “peak experience,” a “religious experience,” “divine transformation,” a “state of Samadhi” and many other names in other cultures. It is not connected to the +1, +2, and +3 of the measuring of a drug’s intensity. It is a state of bliss, a participation mystique, a connectedness with both the interior and exterior universes, which has come about after the ingestion of a psychedelic drug, but which is not necessarily repeatable with a subsequent ingestion of that same drug. If a drug (or technique or process) were ever to be discovered which would consistently produce a plus four experience in all human beings, it is conceivable that it would signal the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end, of the human experiment.”
The couple experimented with the psychedelic and entactogenic compounds themselves. Sasha would test them first and, if all went well, he would bring them to Ann; after this, they would share them with a small group of trusted friends and fellow researchers to try and review.
Many of these substances were novel, such as the 2C-x compounds, but some were classic, naturally-occurring psychedelics like mescaline and DMT. The Shulgins noted the effects achieved from different dosages. In PiHKAL, Ann also wrote about her first psychedelic experience in her 20s:
“I saw something forming in the air, slightly above the level of my head. I thought that it was perhaps a few feet from me, then I realized I couldn’t actually locate it in space at all. It was a moving spiral opening, up there in the cool air, and I knew it was a doorway to the other side of existence, that I could step through it if I wished to be finished with this particular life I was living, and that there was nothing threatening or menacing about it; in fact, it was completely friendly. I also knew that I had no intention of stepping through it because there was still a great deal I wanted to do in my life, and I intended to live long enough to get it all done. The lovely spiral door didn’t beckon; it was just matter-of-factly there.”
Established publishers thought that PiHKAL was too controversial to publish, so the Shulgins started their own imprint, Transform Press, to make the work public. They wanted to share their experiences and knowledge with the world. Unfortunately, the book caught the attention of law enforcement (it included accounts of manufacturing illicit drugs, after all) and Sasha’s backyard lab was investigated. This led to a lot of disruption and distress, ending in heavy fines, but nothing more serious than that.
Sasha earned his nickname, the “Godfather of ecstasy”, after rediscovering the MDMA compound and honing a way to synthesise the drug (he tested the product on himself, of course, to make sure his process worked). The Shulgins also introduced MDMA as a possible mental health treatment. Tucker said:
“They were the ones pushing to do all the PTSD work with veterans with MDMA because they saw people who had severe trauma could really breakthrough. They were so brave to publish their work because that really opened the door and paved the way to all that is happening now.”
Research sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has shown that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can provide significant and long-lasting relief to many patients with severe, chronic, and treatment-resistant PTSD. This treatment is also on track for FDA approval in 2023, which will allow clinicians to legally provide MDMA therapy to PTSD patients. “We lost years and years of research ability because of the attitude and fears around psychedelics. But we wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for Ann and Sasha,” Tucker added.
Ann said the following about the therapeutic value of the MDMA experience:
“There is something about the MDMA that allows for the knowledge of what is going on inside yourself to come up, but at the same time, it gives you this feeling, not just that you are able to accept yourself, but this feeling that God and the universe truly do hold you in its hands with love. That you are a treasure. This knowledge, this certainty, that you are whole, with your dark, light, good, and bad. You are of infinite value. This is the greatest gift anyone could be given. In this case, MDMA is the greatest thing to happen to the world of psychotherapy.”
MDMA therapy certainly holds a great deal of promise for people struggling with trauma, social anxiety, alcoholism, and relationship difficulties, who have tried conventional treatments with little to no success. In 2017, the FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, which means the treatment may have a meaningful advantage over available medications for the condition.
To Ann, MDMA therapy could help patients explore themselves uncritically and with empathy and love, which is what our shadow needs in order to be integrated.
Ann was a guest of honour at the book launch for The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact, Vol. 1 – written by Sasha – and when asked what she thought about the future of psychedelics, she said:
“First of all, I agree that the War on Drugs has got to stop. The entire emphasis on law has got to end, the emphasis should be on medical use and spiritual growth. The laws must change and we have to work very hard on making them change. I’m very optimistic about the way things are going right now. I think there is a lot of hope.”
While Ann is no longer with us, her highly explorative and empathetic approach to the human psyche – and advocacy for psychedelic therapy – will live on, inspiring many to follow in her footsteps.
Sam Woolfe | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective
Sam is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to Matt via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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