Finding Peace With the Fact I Would Die

How an NYU guided psilocybin research study helped me deal with my cancer-related anxiety

Art by Jessica Siao

An hour before I took psilocybin, I finished the last chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In it, the author Douglas Adams speculates that there are three distinct stages in the development of a civilization: 1) survival, 2) inquiry, and 3) sophistication. Perhaps, I thought, these three stages would inform my experience later that day at the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research at NYU, where I was participating in a research experiment for cancer survivors with anxiety.

I arrived at 8:15 a.m. and spent the next 45 minutes getting ready. Nurses checked my blood pressure and heart rate. I laid out pictures of friends and family, beads, ornaments, figurines — all things that would help make my environment as comfortable as possible. There were fresh flowers and fruit on the table.

My path to this moment began about a decade earlier. In 2004, at age 17, I was diagnosed with leukemia. The onset of the illness was sudden and unexpected. In a period of just several weeks, my health deteriorated. I went from playing varsity soccer to being unable to walk up a flight of stairs without losing my breath. I knew something was seriously wrong.

I was diagnosed on Monday, and on Wednesday I began a 32 month chemotherapy protocol. My case was considered high risk and I was given a 50% chance of living.

I went into remission and made it through two and a half years of chemotherapy. I moved on with my life — finished college and moved to New York — but the anxiety of relapse continued to haunt me daily. I should have sought help for this sooner, but I suppressed the fear and dread.

I heard about the NYU psilocybin study on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast with Dennis McKenna. It struck a chord with me and I contacted the researchers. And there I was.

At 9:00 a.m., Dr. Steven Ross, the Principal Investigator for the study, came into the trip room. He looked me over, asked how I was doing, and we agreed we were ready to go. Inside a glass vial was a single pill — either a high dose of psilocybin or an inert placebo. Dr. Ross wished me luck and left.

J and E, my guides, got a red rope and sat in a circle with me. We each tied a knot in the rope and stated our intention for the day. Mine was merely to have an open mind. I then took a deep breath and washed down the pill with water from an antique chalice.

I lay down with eyeshades over my eyes and noise-cancelling headphones over my ears. World music came through the headphones, loud tribal drums, and I waited.

And then it started.

The first thing I felt — heard may be a better word — was a Spirit saying to me, “I’m going to show you what I can do.” A bit of skepticism remained. I had been lying down for over one hour now, blindfolded, listening to world music. Could this be my mind playing tricks on me?

Again, the Spirit said, “I’m going to show you what I can do.” The first thing the Spirit showed me was darkness. Like most people, when I close my eyes, I see black, but I also see light coming in and occasionally shapes. This time, I saw darkness like I never thought possible. Then, white dots started coming at me and passing by me, kind of like the old Asteroid screensaver. The white dots turned into geometric patterns. Wheels, cogs, gears, stars, triangles, squares, trapezoids. And they were not just white anymore — they were in all colors in the spectrum. This was the beginning.

I yielded. This was not a placebo! This Spirit was real and it was trying to show me something. I stopped resisting.

The patterns stopped and I saw myself at my own funeral. Cause of death unknown. Organ music was playing. There were people there, and they were sad, but they had no faces. I had many questions: How did I die? Why did I die? Who was at my funeral?

The next thing I knew, I was on top of one of Salvador Dali’s spider-legged elephants on a journey through Hell. The ground around me was charred and burnt, with fires off in the distance. Skulls were lying on the ground. Everything was dead. The elephant walked slowly and I felt agonizing pain. This was the most anguish my mind had ever experienced, and I was convinced I had died and gone to Hell. The agony reached its climax, and the Spirit blasted me into space.

We flew through space for what felt like hundreds of thousands of light years. Further than I had ever traveled or knew it possible to travel. All the while, we were traveling to escape the Hell that we had just left. Each second of traveling was just a bit more relief and distance from the pain I had just escaped.

I landed in a garden, confused and relieved. It was the first time I’d seen living organisms since my journey began. I tried to take as much of it in as I could, but the Spirit would only allow me to stay in the garden for a very brief time.

Then I was in Grand Central Terminal at a formal Ball, complete with a symphony orchestra. This lasted briefly and I was soon shot up to the top of the Empire State Building where I looked out at New York City, only to be dropped down into the sewers that flow beneath the city. This all happened quickly and was rather confusing to me — why was I being led to all of these places?

At this point in the journey, I had no body. I was simply a mind or a soul being led by this Spirit. Then, the Spirit took me to a cave in a forest to find me a body, but when we got to the cave the only body to be had was my own body, the one I inhabit in the physical world.

As I examined this body, which was held up without a head on a clothing hanger in the cave, I thought about how this body was made and what it had been through — the mileage on the body, so to speak. I pictured my father’s sperm going into my mother and impregnating her egg. I saw the fetus growing, my mother giving birth to this body, and this body growing up. I saw every piece of food, every drug, every drink that had ever gone into this body or come out of it. I saw the cancer that developed in this body, how it took over cells, and then I saw the chemotherapy drugs, thousands of them, that went into this body and attacked the cancerous cells. Everything, good and bad, painful and euphoric, that the body had experienced. And then I chose it. I had no other choice. My mind and body became one.

I walked out of the cave in my new body, clenching my fists, flexing my muscles, trying to figure out what this new body that I had acquired was capable of doing. When I got out of the cave, I saw a vague mountain in the distance. It was foggy and I couldn’t see the top of the mountain, but from the top of the mountain I felt the energy of a powerful Entity, and I felt called to meet the Entity. The call was strong and I felt like I had no choice but to go up the mountain and meet the Entity.

The Spirit agreed to take a message on my behalf to the Entity — the Spirit clearly had the ability to communicate with the Entity and this was my conduit for communicating.

As I waited, I became very ashamed and felt inadequate — that I myself was unworthy. The waiting seemed to last forever, and I began to lose hope.

Finally the Spirit came back to me and conveyed a message from the Entity: it told me to be kind to people and to care for people. And to do this with purpose.

The words of the message were simple and straightforward, but the emotional power of the message was immense. The message told me to make these changes, to heed this advice, and that I could make another request to meet the Entity at a later point, but now was not the time.

Then it was just me, on the couch, in the physical realm at NYU. The music was no longer a conduit for the Spirit. It hit me that all those white stars traveling through space from the beginning of this experience were on their way to meet the Entity. It hit me that when I die that will be me. Everything felt right.

As I sat there and thought about everything I experienced, I felt the urge to see my parents and friends. I was content with where I was and I wanted to share my love and experience with them. I felt interconnected with the world. The Spirit faded into New York City. I saw the Spirit as an angel and started to wonder if these angels are all around us all the time, but that we’re just not sensitive enough or open enough to receive them.

This psilocybin journey was the single most transformative experience of my life. It forced me to reconcile with the mortality of being human. It alleviated my anxiety and gave meaning to my life. I found purpose in connecting with others through kindness and compassion. I found hope.

Written by

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store