A psy­che­del­ic jour­ney into OCD

A conversation about consciousness with the doyenne of psychedelics, Amanda Feilding

I wasn’t raised to think about my mind through the lens of con­scious­ness. As a child of the west­ern men­tal health sys­tem, I’d inher­it­ed a sus­pi­cion of any­thing resem­bling depth psy­chol­o­gy and a blind faith in cog­ni­tive behav­iour­al ther­a­py. The lat­ter eased the acute OCD which had once made me sui­ci­dal and gave me enough relief to start feel­ing hap­py. But it did noth­ing to dis­lodge the more inef­fa­ble dis­com­fort that still returns every day: a tight­ness in my chest; an exis­ten­tial anx­i­ety; mech­a­nis­tic, auto­mat­ic thoughts. It felt like some­thing was stuck. But where? Not in my uncon­scious”. I’d been taught that was a dirty word. 

The first chink in my rigid per­cep­tions came two years ago when, dur­ing a med­i­ta­tion retreat, I had what I can only – and still embar­rass­ing­ly – call a tran­scen­dent expe­ri­ence: 90 min­utes of shim­mer­ing, unbro­ken con­scious­ness, glow­ing lights, all-body-tin­gles and expan­sive, end­less love. As a scep­tic and an agnos­tic athe­ist, God” was not a go-to expla­na­tion. And my sec­u­lar­ism, which had giv­en me no lex­i­con for spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, left me uncom­fort­able with how corny and banal it all sound­ed. Try say­ing one­ness with the uni­verse” to a bunch of yup­pies and watch the eye­brows rise.

When I start­ed research­ing to bet­ter under­stand what had hap­pened to me, my curios­i­ty was piqued to dis­cov­er there was an over­lap in phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy and neu­ro­phys­i­ol­o­gy, between deep med­i­ta­tion states and psy­che­del­ic states. Had I expe­ri­enced a kind of sober trip? How could a mind which was usu­al­ly so sticky with wor­ry become so rad­i­cal­ly altered? It was the first time I’d con­sid­ered that there was anoth­er way of being beyond my default, churn­ing neuroticism. 

So I approached Aman­da Feild­ing, not just because she’s one of the most influ­en­tial peo­ple in psy­che­del­ic sci­ence and an icon of the British anti-estab­lish­ment, but because she’s an artist and a philoso­pher, and explor­ing con­scious­ness seems as much an artis­tic task as a sci­en­tif­ic one. What was my stuck­ness”, and could a big dose of psy­che­delics set me free? 

Feild­ing, 76, Count­ess of Wemyss and March, has always lived at Beck­ley Park, a moat­ed 16th cen­tu­ry hunt­ing lodge in Oxford­shire. I am wel­comed by staff through its stud­ded Tudor door into a flag­stoned sit­ting room. Every sur­face is lined with paint­ings, arte­facts, trea­sures, curios. Feild­ing enters: tall, grace­ful and charis­mat­ic. We sit in front of the fire. She leans in and speaks soft­ly. What brought me here? 

I tell her. It’s like there’s some­thing locked inside”. I place one hand on my ster­num and the oth­er on my throat. A phys­i­cal con­stric­tion. Some­thing beyond words. I’m on a per­son­al quest to under­stand it.” 

She nods: Every­thing I’ve ever done has start­ed with a per­son­al quest.”

Feilding’s fas­ci­na­tion with con­scious­ness start­ed young, fed by the roman­ti­cism and iso­la­tion of Beck­ley Park – it was a king­dom unto itself here” – and by the books on phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­o­gy her father encour­aged her to read. She had mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences as a child. She remem­bers feel­ing over­whelm­ing, all-con­sum­ing empa­thy over paint­ings of Christ cry­ing. I’m remind­ed of sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences in my own child­hood, which sound too much like the ghastli­est of song lyrics to retell here (yes, there were angels involved). 

As a teenag­er, Feild­ing was the Oxbridge hope­ful at her Catholic school. She request­ed books on Bud­dhism and mys­ti­cism from the nuns. They said no’, I said bye’”. And at 16 she left Eng­land with £25 in her pock­et to trav­el the world. I cre­at­ed my own education.”

It wasn’t until nine years lat­er, in 1965, that Feild­ing first took LSD. A man who’d become my boyfriend had syn­the­sised it in his kitchen in Ibiza, and after turn­ing the island on, he brought it here.” What was it like? Like a trip to the fun­fair.” The expe­ri­ence lit a fire under­neath Feild­ing. She want­ed to dis­cov­er every­thing she could about con­scious­ness through this new tool. 

But by then the moral pan­ic over LSD had begun. The first wave of research in the 1950s and 60s had start­ed to show the ther­a­peu­tic poten­tial of psy­che­delics in treat­ing depres­sion, addic­tion, anx­i­ety and the exis­ten­tial suf­fer­ing of dying. When the mol­e­cules seeped out of the lab and onto the street, they got entan­gled with the 60s spir­it of resis­tance: Peo­ple went to the park and took LSD with their girl­friends rather than go to a jun­gle and get shot at. It was con­sid­ered a threat to the estab­lish­ment.” The US made LSD ille­gal in 1970. The UK in 1973.

So Feild­ing did her own thing, name­ly four decades of per­son­al exper­i­men­ta­tion, sci­en­tif­ic research and cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tions. At 27, while exam­in­ing the effect of changes in blood flow on con­scious­ness, she famous­ly trepanned her­self (drilled a hole in her skull) and filmed it. An audi­ence mem­ber faint­ed dur­ing the New York screen­ing of the result­ing art doc, Heart­beat in The Brain. As some­one who’s just emp­tied the con­tents of their head in a very pub­lic way through my TV show, I find myself irre­sistibly drawn to Feilding’s method of putting her­self at the cen­tre, lit­er­al­ly, of her own learning. 

In 1998, Feild­ing found­ed the Beck­ley Foun­da­tion, a psy­che­delics think tank based in the ancient cow­house next door, which car­ries out research and lob­bies for evi­dence-based pol­i­cy reform. Why? So I could go into the House of Lords and the UN, like a Tro­jan horse, armed with sci­ence.” In recent stud­ies car­ried out as part of the Beck­ley Foun­da­tion research pro­gramme, psy­che­delics were found to dra­mat­i­cal­ly improve treat­ment-resis­tant depres­sion and help peo­ple quit smok­ing. Beck­ley hopes to see pro­hi­bi­tion lift­ed so that mil­lions can be helped legal­ly in ther­a­peu­tic settings. 

But for now, no such set­tings exist, which is why last year I found myself on a gonzo psilo­cybe truf­fle-buy­ing mis­sion. It was not my inten­tion to trip. I’ve read enough about these sub­stances to know that some­one of an anx­ious dis­po­si­tion should approach the big one” with care and con­sid­er­a­tion. But I want­ed to acquaint myself by exper­i­ment­ing in small doses. 

Rook­ie error num­ber one was get­ting them post­ed to my work address. Rook­ie error num­ber two was being away for the deliv­ery and there­fore leav­ing them fes­ter­ing in a pigeon hole for a week and a half before retriev­ing them.

What kind of a pack­age is it”, said the post room attendant.

Just a…package.”

I mean like, ASOS or con­tact lens­es or what?”

Just a small – to medi­um sized – package”.

I squir­relled the tiny jiffy bag home and opened it to reveal a clear plas­tic pouch of nob­bly gold­en hazel­nut-type growths. Vac­u­um pack­ing had safe­guard­ed against rot but they’d start­ed to dis­colour. Wor­ried, I took to Google. It was of para­mount impor­tance that I dried them imme­di­ate­ly in a culi­nary dehy­dra­tor – the kind used for des­ic­cat­ing coconut and jerky. I stroked my imag­i­nary beard at the open kitchen cup­board for many min­utes before sus­pend­ing the truf­fles in a tea infuser in front of an elec­tric table fan and tend­ed to them like a fret­ful moth­er bird all after­noon. By night­fall, when they still hadn’t dried, I texted my housemate. 

Pls don’t turn off the oven babe I’m baking.”

The gas mark num­bers had rubbed off years ago so I couldn’t tell you the tem­per­a­ture, but it was very low (too high and you’ll kill their chem­i­cal poten­cy). By morn­ing they were lit­tle woody rocks and there­fore, I hoped, pre­served. I guessed the gram­mage of a small dose by eye, chopped the truf­fle and put it in hot water to make a tea”. The chunks float­ed and got stuck in my teeth so I fished them out and ate them off a spoon. Then went to work.

The effects were mild but tan­gi­ble. I felt ener­gised, sharp, effec­tive. Like I’d tak­en a few Pro Plus. I banged out what felt like hun­dreds of emails. The pro­duc­tiv­i­ty could’ve eas­i­ly come from place­bo. There’s not yet any data on the effects of so called micro­dos­ing, but Feild­ing and her col­lab­o­ra­tors are cur­rent­ly car­ry­ing out the biggest ever self-blind­ing study into it. 

Why both­er tip­toe­ing into psy­che­delics when I could just go to the park and get fucked up? Because I know I need to be held metaphor­i­cal­ly and often lit­er­al­ly by peo­ple and places that make me feel safe. In the UK, in 2019, there are no such psy­che­del­ic safe spaces. No legal ones anyway… 

As cof­fee and short­breads arrive, I ask Feild­ing what dis­cov­er­ies her sci­ence has uncov­ered. We’ve shown that psy­che­delics reduce activ­i­ty in the Default Mode Net­work”, she says. The DMN is a col­lec­tion of hub cen­tres that work togeth­er to con­trol con­scious­ness, polic­ing the amount of sen­so­ry infor­ma­tion that enters our sphere of aware­ness. It watch­es every com­ing and going so you don’t have to. It is the over-zeal­ous bounc­er at the doors of your mind; or the doors of per­cep­tion” as psy­cho­naut Aldous Hux­ley put it. 

The riff-raff it turns away ranges from use­less” infor­ma­tion you don’t need to re-learn (like the out­line shape of trees), to poten­tial­ly harm­ful infor­ma­tion (like the sud­den night­mar­ish dread I felt as a child when I had my first intru­sive vio­lent thoughts). Under trau­ma, the the­o­ry goes, the DMN’s hyper-con­trol works dev­as­tat­ing­ly well, phys­i­cal­ly block­ing off neur­al path­ways to pain in an attempt to keep us safe. It sup­press emo­tion in the moment and in doing so, pre­vents it from being vent­ed in the long term. It reg­u­lates, tight­ens, suppresses. 

That might explain the con­strict­ed feel­ing in your chest,” Feild­ing sug­gests. Trau­mas cut paths in the brain, like your trau­ma has cut a path in yours, that are very deep and dif­fi­cult to get at.”

It’s thought that psy­che­delics work by dis­rupt­ing the DMN’s rigid­i­ty, reduc­ing its strong­hold on the brain and allow­ing buried infor­ma­tion to resur­face. This may explain why trip­pers report access­ing and let­ting go of deep child­hood pain. 

In 2016 Feild­ing teamed up with Dr Robin Carhart-Har­ris and Pro­fes­sor David Nutt of Impe­r­i­al Col­lege Lon­don in a ground­break­ing study which visu­alised this process for the first time. The study pro­duced two neu­roim­ages: one of the brain on LSD, fired up and glow­ing as it forms new con­nec­tions, unshack­led by the DMN. The oth­er shows a diminu­tive cen­tre of activ­i­ty – the DMN’s closed fist. It was a water­shed moment in the literature.

Jean-Philippe Charbonnier 'Woman Tripping on LSD' (1960)

It’s sun­ny out­side, so Feild­ing and I take a walk. Her dogs fol­low us along the cob­bled paths through the clipped box gar­dens and ever­green top­i­ary. The sur­round­ing trees are mas­sive and ancient, as high as the red brick house with its three gabled tow­ers. A huge kite hunts over­head. It’s poet­ic here. I ask Feild­ing about lan­guage because I’m struck by how beau­ti­ful­ly she uses it and yet how absent it is from the psy­che­del­ic ther­a­py she champions. 

In CBT you’re encour­aged to use words active­ly. You ratio­nalise. You change musts to shoulds. You cor­rect false beliefs. As if beliefs were just pieces of lan­guage that could be erased if you rubbed hard enough, rather than a com­plex inter­play of emo­tions and neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy. I’m in the busi­ness of talk. I idolise words. And yet they’ve nev­er man­aged to ful­ly explain or ren­der my most pro­found and painful expe­ri­ences. Why?

Words mean we do all the incred­i­bly bril­liant things we do, and also why we’re kind of blind, myopic and dan­ger­ous,” Feild­ing says. When a baby is born, their worlds are very flu­id. Words haven’t got into it yet. It’s pri­mal con­scious­ness.” She the­o­ris­es that as a baby devel­ops, words like no” and stop” become enmeshed with the inhibito­ry con­di­tion­ing which keeps us from harm (i.e. stop: don’t touch the stove”) that they’re part of a block­ing off rather than an open­ing up, which makes them poor tools for peo­ple like me try­ing to explore the mind.

So when we start­ed this con­ver­sa­tion and I said that some­thing in me felt beyond words, maybe it’s phys­i­cal­ly beyond words?” I ask.

Yes, that’s my the­o­ry: pro­hib­i­tive brain struc­tures become so sol­id and fixed as they try to pro­tect us. If trau­ma is very deep, I don’t think words can get down to where it’s set. Maybe the ways have been blocked off, because it’s too dan­ger­ous for the psy­che to go there.”

For a writer this is a sober­ing yet lib­er­at­ing thought. Maybe I’ve been using the wrong tools all this time. The hours of words I’ve spo­ken to ther­a­pists. Those jot­ted in scrap­books. The thou­sands more I’ve writ­ten as mem­oirs. Per­haps they could only ever pick at the lock of the door. 

I think it was Pla­to who described every­day con­scious­ness as just see­ing shad­ows on a wall,” Feild­ing adds. Words form the veils between you and real consciousness.” 

Lunch is near­ly ready. We sit on the lawn drink­ing pome­gran­ate juice and start talk­ing the law. LSD, MDMA and mag­ic mush­rooms are all Sched­ule 1 sub­stances. If you’re caught sup­ply­ing them, you could get up to life in prison. On par with rapists and mur­der­ers. Feild­ing is the most ani­mat­ed I’ve seen her. This dev­as­tat­ing bar­ri­cade of pro­hi­bi­tion has caused more suf­fer­ing to soci­ety than almost any oth­er,” she says. We have the right of cog­ni­tive lib­er­ty, so long as it doesn’t harm any­one else. The right to do what we like with our own consciousness.” 

In 2009, Feilding’s col­league Pro­fes­sor Nutt was fired from his posi­tion as chief drugs advi­sor to the UK gov­ern­ment for say­ing that horse-rid­ing was more dan­ger­ous than MDMA. How­ev­er true, this could not be admit­ted pub­licly. It’s so arbi­trary,” I say.

Yes, the rul­ing gov­ern­ment is just a pro­jec­tion of the ego in the brain. A person’s ego is try­ing to keep every­thing under con­trol, and the grip of the gov­ern­ment is a pro­jec­tion of that. It doesn’t like revolt.” 

The gov­ern­ment is our default mode net­work,” I reply. 

A pro­jec­tion of it, yes.”

Embold­ened by the neat­ness of Feilding’s metaphor, I share one I’ve been toy­ing with all morn­ing: I was think­ing: psy­che­delics desta­bilise deep-root­ed unhelp­ful sys­tems in the brain. And that’s what you’ve done in your career. It takes a unique and spe­cial mol­e­cule to dis­rupt the brain and you’re obvi­ous­ly a unique and spe­cial per­son. Your work has been entrop­ic and dis­rup­tive, just like psychedelics.”

Yes, I’ve been very lucky,” she says. I think you’re a pro­jec­tion of what’s inside. As with­in, so with­out, and all that.” Lunch arrives. Trout with Hol­landaise. The tide changed in the 1960s and psy­che­delics research was shut down,” I say. Could it hap­pen again?” 

I don’t think so. I think our force has won through.”

Jean-Philippe Charbonnier 'Woman Tripping on LSD' (1960)

We’re on the cheese­cake by the time we reach the hinge of my quest and the quests of mil­lions like me: access. How do we access ther­a­pists who can guide us through psy­che­del­ic expe­ri­ences safe­ly? To even ask the ques­tion feels trans­gres­sive and the con­ver­sa­tion fal­ters. We are gagged. That’s the sub­tle attack on dig­ni­ty that author­i­tar­i­an­ism achieves – self-cen­sor­ship. I can’t get a name, Amanda”. 

I know,” she says. 

In the beats of silence that fol­low, I feel a wash of hope­less­ness. To think that long before my brain fin­ished grow­ing, it was try­ing to pro­tect the child in its care from events beyond my con­trol. It laid trip­wires to sound the alarm at emo­tions that could hurt me, and in doing so sealed off for­ev­er a pain that 20 years lat­er still wakes me up at night. The access is blocked. As with­in, so without. 

Yet change is com­ing. Psy­che­del­ic-assist­ed psy­chother­a­py will be part of our near future, Feild­ing believes, and she’s active­ly work­ing 15 hours a day towards that vision. When I was a kid I want­ed to water the desert. As I got old­er I realised the desert was the human brain. That’s what we need to water.” She ges­tures behind us, towards the ancient red­brick build­ing. When I tripped here, I saw this house as a red boat in which I could sail the world and hope­ful­ly spread hap­pi­ness. So in a way this has all been the ful­fil­ment of a dream.”

Dreams don’t change the law but sci­ence does, and it’s just as beau­ti­ful. Beckley’s imag­ing stud­ies show the birth of new neu­rons – neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. Under altered states of con­scious­ness new den­drons spread out in our brains. New synaps­es are cre­at­ed. So even the deep­est trench­es of the uncon­scious” – a word which, in light of recent neu­ro­science, we clin­i­cal scep­tics might now use with­out embar­rass­ment – are not immutable. What emerges from this con­ver­sa­tion is a pic­ture of con­scious­ness that is not fixed and deter­mined, but flu­id and buzzing with possibility. 

I was raised to think about my suf­fer­ing as pathol­o­gy. I was giv­en a seman­tic field of dis­eases and cures and pills. Def­i­n­i­tions with hard edges. Maybe I bought into that way of see­ing because it gave me dis­crete lin­guis­tic con­tain­ers – an estab­lished frame­work with­in which to write and talk. But that frame­work could not con­tain my expe­ri­ences for long. 

In the cou­ple of years since the sober trip”, I’ve start­ed to see my mind not as hav­ing been faulty but as hav­ing tried its best to keep me safe – a shift away from the self-hatred that the West’s ill­ness par­a­digm had instilled in me. By stop­ping for the first time in my life to pay atten­tion to con­scious­ness, I’d tripped on an insight: maybe a mind capa­ble of reach­ing pow­er­ful­ly towards dark­ness can reach with just as much pow­er in anoth­er direc­tion towards some­thing bright. Med­i­ta­tion gave me that intu­ition. Maybe one day psy­che­delics can help me know it more fully.

For me, the research at Beck­ley Park points less to the won­der of psy­che­del­ic mol­e­cules and more to the won­der of humans. Psy­che­delics do not work through exter­nal alien forces, they har­ness pow­er­ful endoge­nous mech­a­nisms that have always been inside us; mech­a­nisms we can spring in oth­er ways, like through the neu­ro­chem­i­cal firestorm of falling in love, Feild­ing sug­gests. As I leave Beck­ley Park, cross­ing the moat and walk­ing through the old deer grounds towards the road, I’m remind­ed of Stephen King’s advice to aspir­ing writ­ers, which is sure­ly scrawled in scrap­books every­where, as it is in mine: Remem­ber Dum­bo didn’t need the feath­er, the mag­ic was in him.” 

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