Psychotropic Substances: Stories about altered states

This week, we present two stories about psychotropic substances, from a study on the impacts of magic mushrooms on cancer surivors to a comedian's spiritual epiphany.

Part 1: Actor Gail Thomas is invited to take part in a study testing mushrooms as treatment for depression in cancer survivors.

Gail Thomas has several resumes: writer/actor/teacher/filmmaker/lawyer. She is a Moth StorySLAM winner and has performed with RISK!, Sideshow Goshko, the Liar Show. She teaches for the Story Studio. Voiceover credits include David Letterman, Beavis and Butthead and Angelo Rules. Her short comedy, My BFF, rated 95% funny on Funny or Die and audience favorite at New Filmmakers. As a speechwriter for the Tribeca Film Festival and the Gotham Awards, her words were uttered by Oscar winners and fancy people with great clothes. Gail is currently working on her fashion sense.

Part 2: Comedian Myq Kaplan has a spiritual epiphany while experimenting with ayahuasca.

Myq Kaplan is a comedian named Mike Kaplan. He has been seen on the Tonight Show, Conan, the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Seth Meyers,the Late Late Show with James Corden, in his own half-hour Comedy Central Presents special, and in his own one-hour special on Amazon, "Small, Dork, and Handsome." He has been a finalist on Last Comic Standing and recently appeared on America's Got Talent. His album "Vegan Mind Meld" was one of iTunes' top 10 comedy albums of the year, and his latest available now is called "No Kidding." And that's only the past! Even more to come in the future! Check out myqkaplan.com for more information, and/or live your life however you choose. Thanks!

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Gail Thomas

When my nurse practitioner asked me if I wanted to do a study for cancer survivors with anxiety and depression, I was offended.  It had been two years.  I got through the chemo.  I got through the relationship breakup.  I even got through the loss of my little dog Rusty.  I survived my cancer; a year later, he didn’t survive his. 

But I'd gotten through the post-traumatic stress syndrome.  I didn’t overreact at Laundromats anymore.  I could be flexible about where I folded my towels.  In fact, cancer was good for my self-esteem. 

I learned something that a Midwestern girl doesn’t necessarily know.  I learned how to stand up for myself.  My decisions were important.  I stood up to doctors, I stood up to family members, I stood up to cab drivers, I stood up to that guy at the Laundromat.  Anybody who wasn’t good for me was out.  I got rid of all the toxic people, and there was no one left. 

I was different now.  I had changed into somebody that I didn’t really know.  My life was really exciting when I was making treatment decisions, chemo or radiation, life or death.  Now that I was back with the regular people, it was like Starbucks or the local café, soymilk or skim.  It was dull and ordinary.  I wanted to talk to people who had life-or-death situations.  I felt separate, like I had gone off to this far planet and then I came back and I didn’t speak the language anymore. 

So, “All right,” I said to my nurse practitioner.  “Tell me about this study.” 

She ushered them into the room, Dr. Ross, who’s very straitlaced, sort of short clean-cut haircut and a tweed jacket, and sort of a nerdy-looking awkward fellow, about mid-thirties, accompanied by Gabby, whose hair was up in a bun.  She wore a flowy skirt and they sat in front of me.  Dr. Ross explained that this study had been done previously at UCLA and Johns Hopkins and that I would only need to do one drug and then one placebo.  There would also be four months of free therapy.  Now, I didn’t really want any more therapy, but I do like a good deal. 

So I said, “All right.  So, tell me what’s the drug?” 

“Psilocybin.” 

I was like, “What?”  Magic mushrooms.  Oh, my God.  Timothy Leary and like Ram Dass and all that stuff.  Magic mushrooms.  I'd never had the guts to do them myself.  I knew other people who’d had, but I was sort of a straitlaced kid in college and in my twenties and I already was kind of hyper and a little bit of an over-thinker so I was sure that I would be the person that would jump off the roof. 

But this was an FDA study.  My friend Joe says I’m the luckiest unlucky person he's ever met.  I got cancer, but I get to do mushrooms, legally with FDA approval.  It’s like winning the cancer lottery.  Sign me up. 

I was Patient Number Thirteen.  We started the therapy and there were lots of forms to fill out.  Gabby had them.  It was like, Rate one to five.  Do you feel depressed?  How are you eating?  Have you gained weight?  Are you happy?  Do you have suicidal thoughts?  The forms went on and on. 

Finally, it came the day for the dosing.  I’m so excited.  They had asked me to bring items from home that were comforting for me.  So I brought Rusty the dog’s little squeaky duck and I brought some pictures and some – they had flowers there for me, and snacks.  I walked into the room and they had two chairs where the two doctors, Dr. Ross and Dr. Kyrustalli, would sit and watch me on this fold-out futon while I had my experience.  I felt that might be kind of boring for them, but it was my day. 

So we got in a circle and we held hands.  They had a chalice, actually, that they had this little pill that had been measured especially for me that I guess had all the synthetic mushroomy stuff inside it, or not.  It was in a little glass jar with my name on it.  They put it in the chalice. 

And we stood in a circle and held hands and he asked me for my intention.  I’m like, “Peace, love, my intention is to do the drug.  Give me the drug.” 

I took the drug and I lay down.  They had a pillow and a blanket, and I put it over me.  They also had gotten together these NYU doctors, this whole team of people, and made this playlist of like crazy music that I could listen to the whole time.  And they had an eye mask for me to wear. 

My friends had all told me, “You know, you should really go out into the woods.  You need to be with nature if you're gonna do ‘shrooms.  Gotta do it in nature.” 

I’m like, “This is an FDA study.  I’m pretty sure they're not gonna let me out of the room.” 

So I lay down and I sat there and I didn’t feel anything.  I was like, “Oh, damn.  This is the placebo.”  Then, about thirty minutes in, there was this rush of information into my head.  It was just all coming at the same time.  It was like every philosophy class, every yoga class, every deep thought that I'd ever heard of or I thought I had and heard in my own life was all coming in at the same time.  It was a lot of information. 

Gail Thomas shares her story at the Kraine Theater in New York in July 2017.

Gail Thomas shares her story at the Kraine Theater in New York in July 2017.

There weren’t really like dancing lampshades like I thought there would be.  It was more like little sketches and stuff.  I saw two papier-mâché colorful cow heads going across.  And I saw a cat that was chewing on my bicycle.  I don't know what that meant.  But it was a lot of information. 

I clutched onto my little dog Rusty’s toy and I opened up my eye mask to look at Dr. Ross and he's sitting there and he's like, “Trust and let go.  TLO.  Trust and let go.” 

So I put the eye mask back on and it just kept coming, all the information.  Then I suddenly saw this beautiful field, like Little House on the Prairie, and it was this gorgeous open field with a little house in the back.  There was this lady standing in the middle of the field.  She looked so happy and so healthy, and I thought maybe she was me, or somebody I admire greatly. 

Then I saw a table.  I suddenly was over this table and it was sort of this round table, like a pie chart, and there were these little sections that were divided out of the table.  In one of the sections I looked at it, I looked down on top of it and it was cancer at the table.  I was like, “Oh, my God.  Cancer’s at the table.” 

And I looked and there was more and then my family was at the table.  They were all sitting around.  I thought about how I judged them, because they hadn’t said the right thing when I had cancer.  My brother wanted me to do tons of treatment and my sister didn’t want to do research and my mom came for the surgery but she wouldn’t help me out with anything.  I’m waiting on her, but then I realized they tried their best.  They meant well.  They love me.  They're actually there for me. 

Then I started to see more things and I thought about how I was an artist and I used to paint and I used to draw and I don't do that anymore.  I thought about how I went on stage and I used to perform and I really liked that, but I didn’t do it anymore.  I wanted to participate because I didn’t need to be isolated, because we’re all connected.  And that didn’t make any sense.  You have to participate because it doesn’t matter if you're old or young or sick or healthy.  You're all together because we’re all connected. 

So death has a purpose because the purpose of death is it tells you that you should live.  You should really have a good time because you're not dead.  You should just have fun.  You're alive. 

So it just kept going.  Then the IRS was at the table.  I looked at the table and the IRS was there, because it was just after tax time.  Then I was really annoyed because I was like, “I don't want the IRS in this trip.  It’s supposed to be a spiritual journey.”  Then I realized the IRS is at the table because everything is connected.  Death and life and my family and cancer and the IRS, they all belong at the table together because we’re all connected. 

Eventually, the trip sort of faded out.  I took off my eye mask and I looked at the doctors and they asked me some more questions.  They had me fill out some more forms and I wrote everything down.  That’s why I remember it.  My friend picked me up and they gave me some flowers and I went home in a cab. 

I remember being in the cab driving home and we passed these two women sitting at a café, an outdoor café and I was like, “Look at them.  They're friends.  They're talking.  They're really happy they're friends.  They like to be together.  Isn’t that fantastic?” 

I had the great privilege of being Patient Number Thirteen out of twenty-nine.  The results of the study, I guess they call it a paper, was published this past December in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.  The name of the study, the paper was “Rapid and Sustained Symptom Reduction Following Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety and Depression in Patients with Life-Threatening Cancer: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” 

It’s long, too.  It was very successful.  In over 80 percent of us they noted a rapid and immediate decrease in stress that lasted at least six months. 

That was five years ago and I have changed.  Things happen.  You know, the things that happen are not actually good or they're bad.  They're just things that happen.  I don't have a perfect life now, I don’t have the perfect job or relationship, but things happen. 

One of the things that happened is I was cast in a commercial playing the supportive sister of a cancer survivor.  In one of the times we were shooting everything, I walked by the monitor and I noticed the camera was focused above and looking down on our family’s table where we would all sit together and support each other. 

We are all connected.  Someone made this building; they built this building.  Somebody put all the buildings all over New York City and they made the subway and they made the streets and they made the beer and they made your shirt and they made my dress.  Sometimes I feel lonely, but I know that I’m not alone and I do not feel separate anymore.  Thank you. 

Part 2: Myq Kaplan

I’m not a scientist, but I do have a beard and glasses, so this should be good.  This is a story about the universe.  The universe is made of science, so let there be story. 

In the beginning, there was everything, but not the “me” part of everything.  Then billions of years passed if time is a thing, or thousands of years if it’s a different thing.  Then there was me. 

I was born to two parents that I'll call mom and dad to protect their identities.  I’m calling mom “Dad” and dad “Mom” for extra security.  They taught me a lot of stuff relevant to right now.  They taught me as a child “Don’t smoke,” “Don’t drink,” “Don’t do drugs.”  I've never smoked, I don’t care that much about drinking, and now for the rest of the story. 

I was raised Jewish-ish.  Like I believed in “God."  I believed in an afterlife.  That was very calming to think about, the fact that I would keep being, because I'd always been, so that was nice to be like, “Oh, yeah.  Good.  It’s not gonna stop.  That’d be terrifying.  Oh, God.  Oh, boy.  You ever think about not being?  Oh, God, the void.”  It was the most terrifying in the world or out of the world in and out of the world, Schrödinger’s world.  It’s hard to tell. 

And it’s weird that God, there's so many things that go into the idea of God.  Like there's the created everything part and then there's the rules and ethics and governs what’s going on during life part.  And then the afterlife part.  They always get lumped all together.  And it could all work together like, in theory, the three branches of government do.  Or they could not work together at all like, in practice, how the three branches of government don’t. 

So I stopped believing in the amalgamation version of God that was everything, because I heard that God was supposed to be all-loving and there was suffering in the world.  I was like, “Oh, if God was all-loving why wouldn’t there be zero suffering?” 

Myq Kaplan tells his story at Caveat in New York in September 2017.

Myq Kaplan tells his story at Caveat in New York in September 2017.

The hardest part to get rid of, the hardest part to let go of was the afterlife part, so I held on to that for a while.  Here’s how I did it.  I was like, there's absolutely no evidence, no proof, no support empirically for an afterlife.  But there's also no proof against it.  Nobody has any proof that there's not.  So I’m like, it’s fifty-fifty.  It’s like, it’s fifty-fifty, you can choose whichever one you like.  That’s what I did. 

I was a good kid.  I got good grades in school.  I think I was nice.  They didn’t grade you on that.  Shows where our priorities are in society.  Am I right?  That wasn’t very nice.  I’m sorry.  But I liked being good according to the rules.  It was mathematical, logical, just very structurally sound.  You could input studying and then output good grades and praise.  Follow along the path like school, college, job, life, living.  That’s what it was all about.  That was what the rules were about.  Like don’t do drugs, don’t smoke, don’t drink.  Yes, living.  Live.  Just keep living. 

When I went to college I had friends who did drugs, but my parents’ advice still stayed strong with me.  I was like, my parents were smart.  They were right about a lot of stuff.  I didn’t realize they were the only parents that I ever knew. I didn’t have like a double-blind experiment with a control group with different sets of parents saying different stuff.  So I got pretty lucky.  There's like worse parents out there, I learned.  But I didn’t even realize at the time that those were like the only ones that I had so that worked out pretty well. 

But then after college I got married, and there's more to that but not for here.  So, mystery.  A boring mystery. 

My wife smoked pot.  She liked it a lot.  She was a musician.  She said it helped her, and she was offering it to me.  I was like, “No, it’s fine.  I’m good.  I’m fine.  I’m happy.  I've been alive for many years.  It’s been going great.  Been following the rules, following the path.”  If I smoked pot, then I could never go back to never having smoked pot.  Would have sullied my perfect record. 

But the same parents had given me the pathway of school, college, job, life, they’d also given me a personal one of those as well.  They were like, dating, relationship, marriage, life, you know? Love honor, respect, obey.  I don't know if that one’s in there, for heteronormative men and women, but now, here is my beloved, respected, honored wife suggesting an alternate life path: Drugs are good. 

So out of respect for the institution of marriage, as instilled in me by my wonderful parents, I tried marijuana for the first time, and I didn’t love it.  I still try it every once in a while to make sure that I still don’t love it.  I’m not a scientist, but I do what I can.  It was a failed experiment basically, like my marriage.  She's not here.  Also, she doesn’t have the internet, maybe.  I don't know.  Also, she understands and likes jokes. 

A couple of years later, still in my twenties, I tried mushrooms, and those are great.  They knew what they were doing.  People think that pot is a gateway, but I actually think that the gateway is really not enjoying pot.  If you liked pot, then you're just like, “I’m good with pot.”  If you don’t like pot, you're like, “What else is there?”  It’s not like if you tried beets you're like, “Hmm, I don't like these.  I guess I’m not gonna eat any food.” 

It’s not like mushrooms are super-pot.  Like, “Oh, if you love pot you should try super pot.”  Well, I didn’t like pot.  You know what I mean? 

People think that heroin is a gateway from pot to heroin.  Like so many people that ended up with heroin started with pot.  But most people who do pot don’t do heroin.  That’s like saying kissing is the gateway to sexual assault.  Where did I lose you? Okay.

Before I'd done mushrooms, I've heard of enlightenment.  That was a concept, a word that I knew the same way that I understood Harry Potter’s magic powers.  Those were things that seemed cool but had no actual context in my real life.  Then I did mushrooms.  But one time I was Jesus and I was like, “Oh, that’s basically like the original Harry Potter.”  I’m not saying that doing mushrooms helped me attain enlightenment or understand enlightenment or become enlightened.  That wouldn’t be a very enlightened thing for me to say.  I’m not saying I get it, but I don’t not get it. 

I’m in my thirties now, right now and also in the story, about a decade post mushrooms.  P.M., if you want, which also stands for pre-mushrooms because time is meaningless.  I discovered ayahuasca and now our story begins.  The story begins at every point, the same way that every point in the universe is the center of the universe and the beginning of a story, and also my story will end even if it seems like it won’t and I said it just started. 

Ayahuasca is a vine that gets mixed with a leaf and then brewed into a tea.  You drink it and it releases DMT into your brain, which is what happens when we die.  If I understand everything correctly, which I’m sure I don’t.  It’s maybe the world’s most powerful hallucinogen.  One of them.  May be responsible for when near-death experiences happen or when this ceremonial ritual happens with ayahuasca with DMT and the brain lights up with white colors.  White colors, yeah.  Absolutely.  There's all kinds of conflicts. 

And you see your ancestors.  Maybe your life flashes before your eyes.  You see the universe, you see inside yourself, you see all these things.  Maybe.  That’s a thing that could happen. 

Large swathes of my life have been dedicated to trying to reconcile science and magic, the natural and the supernatural, physical and metaphysical.  In college I studied philosophy and psychology, and those are things for the brain and the body.  I followed scientific study to try to determine what there was, like what is there?  I liked rules.  I liked empiricism.  I liked following paths and I liked observable phenomenon.  These are things that were important, but also like, was there more?  Could I see everything? 

I couldn’t see everything.  So was there possibly more?  Like there could be more?  There could not be more.  Fifty-fifty.  So pick whichever one you choose, whatever you like. 

It’s difficult to describe the experience of doing ayahuasca not only because it’s different every time for every person, though if we are all one, then that does take away one of the variables, or it doesn’t?  I’m not sure. 

Niels Bohr once said the opposite of a profound truth is often another profound truth.  Then one of his friends said, “That sounds wrong.”  He's like, “Yeah, you're right, too, probably.” 

Before I did ayahuasca I didn’t believe in much supernatural stuff, like the soul.  I didn’t think that we had souls.  I thought that we were just meat.  Our body is meat.  Like electricity flows through us.  If you're like, “What’s a human?”  I'd be like, “Electric meat,” probably. 

But then I did ayahuasca and now I believe in a soul.  Literally one soul.  “The soul” that is all of our soul.  Like the universe is a soul.  The universe is God's soul, if you want to call it that.  You can call it anything.  It doesn’t matter.  There's no matter, no energy, yes matter, yes energy.  hashtag Niels Bohr. 

I think differently about a lot of stuff now.  I don't know if I know anything new.  I don't know if I know anything at all, but the same way that, before I did mushrooms, I know that I had no idea what enlightenment was.  And after, I at least had the concept that I had no idea before what enlightenment was. 

Now, I feel the same way, after ayahuasca, about the universe.  Like I know that I am the universe.  I’m part of the universe.  You're part of the universe.  I am meat and electricity, and so are you.  We’re all recycled star parts that can trace our lineage back to the point before the Big Bang, at the Big Bang, which I understand, if I understand correctly, which I’m sure I don’t.  At that point we were all one thing, and we all are one thing.  We all are literally connected because we’re one literally connected universe, or not. 

So my fear of death has mostly become done with.  I've sort of overcome it.  I’m told that nothing can ever be created or destroyed.  No matter, no energy can ever be created or destroyed.  That means that I can never cease to be because I've always been.  Or I've never been and I’m not now, but it seems like I am.  So I am always.

And if I cease to be, it will only be the same way that like a lap does when you stand up.  Or like when groceries get put away.  They're no longer a lap and they're no longer groceries, but nothing ceases to be. 

So in my twenties I basically came to the idea that there was no God, thanks to logic, science and evidence.  In my thirties, I decided that I am God, and we all are.  We’re all God, we’re all everything, we’re all the universe.  We can all call it that.  Whatever you want to call it. 

I also studied linguistics so that means that you can use whatever words you want for whatever concepts, and if you know that that’s not what linguistics is.  But because no matter or energy can ever be created or destroyed, basically I used magic drugs to help use science to teach me to eliminate fear, which probably didn’t exist to begin with because nothing ever can be created or destroyed, so there never was any fear. 

Basically, by teaching me that I am infinite and eternal, and we all are because the universe is, essentially I did a scientific experiment that said is magic real.  The answer was yes and no.  Fifty-fifty.  So pick whichever one you like.  Thanks.