April 24th, 2020. That is the date of the last blog I posted. I started ideas for a new post countless times. Even finished one or two. But most remain loosely formed, trapped in my head. Questions about myself unanswered. Thoughts about life events left unprocessed and undefined.
My sense of time during this two-year writing hiatus was altered. There were days, weeks and months where time slowed, with each new critically ill COVID patient admitted to the ICU. Non-stop 16-hour days bookended my brief and fitful few hours of sleep. Conversely, the clock seemed to move faster during the days I spent at home or simply out of the hospital. Two years in the depths of COVID hell. Two years’ worth of life stories that my young adult children are writing for themselves. Of a life with Becky juggling family and friends, work life and vacation life, aging eyes and creaky joints.
My problem is not a shortage of ideas to dig into for the blog, but my inability to maintain any consistent focus or attention. To do the work to move from point A to B. From idea to essay. From examining difficult questions and finding sometimes painful answers. My brain, which on its best day shouts squirrel at the slightest distraction, has not been up to the task. Reading, always a reliable escape in the past, doesn’t hold my attention. My brain craves the comfort of mindless Netflix series, gaming apps or Instagram videos. My mind feels cluttered and chaotic, incapable of transforming transient thoughts and raw emotions into something more distilled and cogent. The idea of even choosing somewhere to start leaves me apoplectic. But leaving these ideas unattended does not mean they go quietly into the night. It requires an increasing effort to ignore their calling, to pay them their proper due. At an escalating cost of increased irritability, constricted emotions, and overwhelming fatigue. It is easy to see how one becomes seduced by the comforts of brainless TV, mindless Instagram videos. Or darker options to quiet the chaos with alcohol or other mood-altering substances. At best, a short-term solution. At worst, possibly rewiring my brain in a problematic way.
Now to be clear, the issues and ideas in my head are not particularly novel or unique. They are frankly somewhat cliché for your standard 50 something year old suburban white dad: my increasing age and mortality, striving to live a life consistent with my values, evolving role with my children from parent to partner, and embracing the challenge of fully sharing a life with another. In the past I have been able to sit with, think about, and sometime put words down on paper explaining my thoughts. For me, the insights that came from doing that work were helpful. Kind of like routine maintenance. And I enjoyed the risk of sharing them out in the blogosphere. But I am struggling now.
It was in this milieu that I chose to take psychedelic mushrooms. (How’s that for a segue?) First time since college. Shake things up, take a little break from life. Possibly see things through a different lens. Maybe tap into a different part of my brain which seems to be locked for the most part in a binary mode, either engaged at work in fight or flight or disengaged and completely immersed in 15 second Instagram reels or Tik Toks. So, I took some psilocybin. On my own time (no patient care responsibilities) and in a safe environment. And for 6 hours, I saw things that were present and around me that my brain had filtered out on most days. The details and intricacies in the outline of a cloud. The array of granular details that make up a stretch of sand. The vibrant contrast of colors that exist just along the street or my own backyard. It felt as if the hardwiring of my brain was briefly bypassed, allowing me to see beyond the blinders of my own unwitting design. These filters may be necessary to efficiently and safely navigate a complicated and stressful life, but they definitely leave a world lacking some vibrancy, texture and color.
For the next several days I looked at things differently. Paid a bit more attention the world around me. Noticed color where before things were muted. What was simple and bland had complexity and contrast. But sadly, relatively quickly, things regressed back to their default. The world once again became a blander backdrop as I moved from one task to another. From work life and home life.
The ability to be on auto pilot while navigating a complex word is, at times, necessary. Similarly, ignoring a screaming headspace when my ICU is literally overflowing into any available bed, is a critical skill. But I think it’s time. Time to shed these self-imposed external and internal blinders. Time to let in and embrace more of the vibrancy, richness, and complexity of life. It just might require a psychedelic every now and then to reboot and find my way back home.
Thank you, Jeremy. We all need to hear we’re not crazy.
I think I will have a glass of wine tonight. Not quite ready for the mushrooms.
EXCELLENT WRITING JEREMY TOPIN
So happy to see you back! 💃🏻🎉🥳
Thank you for sharing your psychedelic experience. It really seems like almost every person has both a similar and totally unique ‘trip’, how *fascinating*!!
It will be so interesting to watch how the re-emergence of these substances/plants in mainstream culture will influence the course of medicine, and especially attitudes and policy toward mental health and well-being. What a strange time to be living and working…
Best wishes to you and your family, and hope to see you ‘round these parts again soon!!
Dr. Topin, Iam so happy to see ur writing and also see u recently. I miss u at work, especially icu rounds. God bless u and heal u . I wish I will work with u again.
Great article JT!
So glad to see you are posting again, adding to the richness of our lives here in LA, far from our home base of Chicago. Thank you for sending your unique observations out into the universe again — and we were so moved by your work in Ukraine.
Thanks for sharing. It’s comforting to know other people go through some of the same things I go through. Those things- different but the same.