The COVID-19 pandemic hit us right in the middle of our psychedelic renaissance. For some of us, there’s never been a more urgent time to tap into the healing power of psychedelics, and for others, the idea of opening the doors of perception during such a frightening time is ludicrous.
Some are using psychedelics, like psilocybin, for their potential anti-inflammatory properties, to protect against COVID-19 (which has been linked to inflammatory diseases), and to mitigate the symptoms once you already have it. There is even research into ketamine as a treatment for COVID, as it could also halt the disease’s inflammation.
MERRY JANE reported that one doctor is recommending that the FDA grant “temporary approval” for psychedelic therapies to help patients struggling with the trauma of the coronavirus pandemic. MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin all show promise for PTSD and depression. Ketamine is currently being used off-label for depression and PTSD through clinical IV therapy and oral administration, in addition to a nasal spray that was approved last year to treat depression. However, before you take psychedelics for COVID relief it’s important to understand the risks.
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When we take psychedelics, our perception of reality becomes altered. Guidelines established for a socially distanced stroll while shrooming, organized by well-meaning friends, may be thrown to the wayside once the euphoric effects kick in. “I wonder if you’re in an altered mental state how you will be able to ensure that you aren’t exposing other individuals,” says Johns Hopkins infectious disease specialist Amesh Adalja, MD.
Of course, one could trip solo, but if you do have COVID, and experience serious symptoms, that could make it trickier to properly describe your symptoms to a helpful friend or a doctor if you seek medical attention. “It might cloud your judgment in terms of when you need help and go to the hospital,” Dr. Adalja says. “It might make it much harder to discern for clinicians whether this person is acting off because the infection has progressed or if it’s the result of a psychedelic.”
As some of us already know, psychedelics can also make you ultra-aware of germs and your bodily functions. You may not be able to give an accurate description of your symptoms to a doctor if you take psychedelics while healing from COVID and need medical attention. The hospitals are overwhelmed, so it’s important to save a trip to the emergency room unless it’s absolutely necessary or else you risk exposing yourself to COVID and further overwhelming the ER staff. Let’s be honest, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, doctors will be worrying about other things than someone’s bad trip.
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Grace (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) is living in New York City. Two months ago, she began to show symptoms of COVID. “I had no sense of taste or smell. I had body aches and pains all over the place. I had a lot of tightness in my lungs, but I never really had difficulty breathing and I never spiked a high fever,” she says. However, she did go see a doctor in advance of a thyroid surgery which was postponed when she tested positive for COVID.
“As a precaution now going into surgery it’s standard to get a nasal swab,” Grace says. Her test came back positive. Before COVID, Grace took LSD or psilocybin mushrooms about six times a year and describes psychedelics as “smart drugs,” which she says have had a wonderful and clarifying effect for her. So while she stresses that she tries not to use substances to escape, after dealing with the stress of contracting COVID, she was ready for some ketamine, which she got from a friend. She was over the most serious symptoms of the virus, but was still experiencing brain fog. After experimenting with micro-dosing, she took enough ketamine for what she hoped would be a 45-minute pleasant, dissociative experience. “I just wanted to be held or comforted, but I didn’t get out of my head,” Grace says. But then it intensified. Instead of taking a break from reality for somewhere cozier, her trip took her to about the worst place imaginable.
“My boyfriend likes to watch the news. The ketamine happened to hit me during one of Trump’s press conferences. In my mind, I was in the room with them and like swimming through their words. I was trying to push my face into the pillows… like, make it stop,” Grace says. “I wanted to go into a warm happy bath place but instead, I went into the current Oval Office.” You read that right. Instead of getting out of her head, Grace entered a Trump press conference while on ketamine with COVID. “The importance of set and setting has never been more important to me,” she says. Going forward, Grace says that she will work to control the environment and experiment with a low dose of shrooms.
Cara Irwin, a blogger specializing in interior design and wellness, also had COVID, and she did have a positive experience with micro-dosing mushrooms while she was sick. Prior to catching the virus, she says she had little psychedelic experience, aside from a singular ayahuasca ceremony. A few years ago, she became sick with autoimmune disorders Lyme Disease and Epstein Barr, which made her among the populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus. “When I got COVID, I was like, I’m going to die,” Irwin says.
She contracted the virus early in March and says by the 15th she just felt different. “By the 27th I had chest pains. It felt like there was a cinder block on my chest and I had trouble breathing. That’s when I started getting really freaked out,” Irwin says. She got tested on the 31st, and three days later it came back positive.
At her worst, she was so weak that her husband had to carry her to the bathroom. However, when she started to feel better, she felt called to take mushrooms. “I’ve never done mushrooms, I just felt lead to it, and I think that’s how I felt about ayahuasca the first time too,” Irwin says. A friend had ready-made microdose capsules. Even though her physical symptoms got better, she was still living in fear of the virus. “I woke up one morning and the sun was just shining, and I’m like, you know what, I’m just going to do today,” Irwin says. “I came outside and was looking at my animals and nature. It put me in this mindset where I’m like, wow, my body is so powerful. And I felt better. My headache went away, I didn’t feel like my skin was crawling, it took the anxiety away. I thought, okay, it’s not the COVID symptoms I feel, it’s the fear that I feel,” she says. The experience has helped her process the trauma and move forward.
We don’t know if the anti-inflammatory properties of psychedelics can treat coronavirus, even if it sounds fun to experiment with. We do know that set and setting are everything, so altering your perception of reality while sick with a novel and potentially deadly virus can be dangerous if you need to seek medical attention, not to mention, stay away from Trump’s news conferences (probably even off psychedelics). To play it safe, wait until you are healthy and able to control your environment to embark on a trip, and play by the rules our community has always set. Start low, go slow, and know that setting is everything.
Sophie Saint Thomas is DoubleBlind’s Community Engagement Editor. Her writing has been published in GQ, Playboy, VICE, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, Allure, Glamour, Marie Claire, High Times, Nylon, Refinery29, Complex, Harper’s Bazaar, PRIDE Magazine, SELF, and more.