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the way they used to talk, back in the day

This is a continuation of a series on methods for treating depression. See part 1 and part 2.

3. It's Good to Talk

So said Bob Hoskins. Although I think he was marketing landline telephones, back when they were a thing. I remember seeing that advert and being totally convinced that it wasn't him. I mocked my sister for suggesting that it was. I knew so much about everything back then.It's good to talk!

So - on the subject of my own mental health - you'd have thought I knew it all too. It turned out not to be so. I guess that is one way you could categorise the illness: a sudden and deadening realisation that you have no clue whatsoever what your purpose in life is and why you should even be in existence. A self-destructive existential crisis. I certainly remember the early stages of the condition being confusing and guilt-ridden. Something was wrong, but I was loathe to admit it to anyone initially, and who was I to be unhappy, anyway? I was very well looked after physically and materially.

Only with hindsight can I clearly see how my life situation at the time was contributing to a slow destruction of my perceived self-worth. I was holding myself up to an ever enlarging measuring stick and making myself adhere to a never-ending list of 'necessary' life goals.

I had to totally change my life situation and reset all of my expectations about how my life was meant to pan out in order to beat the illness. It was a total un-tethering that would be the most beneficial treatment for me at the time. Even after that I still was unaware of why it might be so helpful.

Luckily I had some very good friends who were able to counsel me through the most distressing times. They were the most valuable resources - for me to contrast my sick mindset against theirs would relieve the pressure immediately and show me that it was mostly in my head. I will be forever grateful to these people for listening to me in my time of need. I also consulted University counselors and the Samaritans at various points, which served a purpose at the time, but I did not get to the root of the issues in the same way as I did talking to my friends.

The Best Chats

Regarding talk therapy, a lot of the 'work' that was done in this area of self discovery was done at raves. It was a happy (ecstatic even) by-product of trying to escape my problems, that left me with more understanding and yet more curiosity about the origins of my mental disease.

So far, any advice I have given so far in this series has been fairly conventional, and I must stress at this point that what worked for me will very likely not work (at least in the same way) for people who are struggling with the condition and looking for a way out. The most effective techniques I learnt were all, in the end, good self-care habits and learning to be open enough about what was happening that I could receive help. MDMA affects the serotonin system and should be approached very carefully by people with a serotonin imbalance*, and not at all by those on SSRI medications (from my own experience - it will not work).

Pill popping didn't work for me, until I changed pills

Given this disclaimer, I would be missing a large (and crucial) chunk of my story if I didn't relay the use of psychedelic medicines to help treat me or guide me through the process. The SSRI medications I tried did very little for me, and blocked the use of natural supplements that I later found to be beneficial such as 5-HTP. After a close friend lost a parent to the illness, and I had been given the chance to offer advice that was less conventional (but didn't) I have found the courage (or rather, stopped caring about the repercussions) to speak up for the more alternative routes to healing that were so pivotal to me.

The best chats came on MDMA. It also played the following roles:

  • Showed me, at the time a very sad person, what it was like to be euphoric: without a care in the world, not a shred of anxiety or despair. In knowing this feeling even for a few hours I was shown a glimmer of hope about the realms of my human experience and that my future mightn't be filled with darkness.
  • Opened me up emotionally to the point where I could admit my life choices were very much led by the need to please others and that this was not enough of a basis for a healthy mental self-image.
  • It acted as a gateway - primarily because of prohibition and the realisation that the government was very wrong about this, and many other things - to exploration of other, more natural, psychedelic medicines; medicines such as Salvia divinorum, Psilocybin (which I will explore in parts IV and V) and later dissociatives such as Ketamine and its analogues.
  • Led me to the use of 5-HTP and L-tryptophan as supplements - initially used to stop the 'come-down' after the drug.**

Science, not just anecdote

I am not alone in having experienced the medicinal properties of this drug. In fact, we seem to be entering a psychedelic renaissance in which the true helper roles of many substances that are now illicit will be fostered using medical institutions and with government approval. The role of Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS, in this transition, cannot be understated. 

For a more nuanced opinion on the whole thing, try this video interview discussing the pitfalls of the current resurgence in psychedelic use. I'll leave you with a quote in which the interviewee (author of a book on 'flow states' and other ecstatic experiences) talks about the research done by MAPS with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

[MDMA] does something very specific - it shifts your neuro-chemical profile [...] and the closest neurological analogue they have found to somebody in an MDMA therapeutic dosage is post-orgasm - and it's a state of satiety - you have oxyctocin, you have prolactin, you've got an increase in serotonin, basically feelings of safety, security, belonging, wellbeing. And that actually allows people to relax their vigilance response, turn off their amygdala, and their threat scanning, and have a little bit of distance between themselves and their stories, and their past pains. And that alone can be transformational.

* The 'chemical imbalance of serotonin' theory on the origins of depression is being found to have a lot of holes in it, and to have been funded by drug companies with vested interests. I direct anyone interested in this to the book 'Lost Connections' by Johann Hari

** I later used it to combat winter blues. I will probably do that this winter as well, although so far have not felt the need. Supplementing vitamin D3 is also hugely helpful at this. For some scientific research on D3 deficiency, try listening to this podcast:

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Putting on a mask is often easier

2. The Tactical Smoothie/Run Until You Can No Longer Run

This one is a bit of a double header (which is good, since the title of the post sounds like a movie). It may seem a little obvious and maybe even trite to tell someone to go and exercise and eat well. Many people told me it would help and indeed their advice seemed misplaced considering the severity of my symptoms when I heard it.

The problem with self-managing depression is that the manager... or captain if you prefer (manager sounds a bit like an office worker)... is asleep at the helm. Worse than that, even: the captain is very much awake and is intent on steering the ship into an iceberg, hoping for scenes much less poenient and much more depressing than those in Titanic, if you can imagine that*. The iceberg in this analogy is maybe a huge tub of ice cream or a bed that has been thoroughly slept in already (besides that, it’s only 4pm).

So, how are you supposed to subvert the chain of command and get what you need. What you REALLY need, to get a little better? A little goes a long way when you are trying to course correct from a terrible, and potentially one day life-threatening set of coordinates.

I found this strategy to be very useful for pulling myself out of a nose dive**. After a particularly punishing spell of self-negligent/destructive behaviour brought on by my illness (perhaps for a few days or a week without stopping) I would - unfailingly - have a moment or two of respite. A moment when my inner voice of compassion for myself would have to pipe up and make itself heard. Let’s call this my first mate.***

It turns out, or it did in my case, that a moment is all that’s needed. If you can pounce on that little bit of positive volition and leverage it into some positive action, you can wrestle hold of the ship’s wheel and set course for AMERICA! Or, at least a slightly less self-destructive course than you were on before.

This was how it played out for me:

1. The self-destructive habits and actions come to a whimpering halt after many days.

2. I decide I’m not that bad after all, or perhaps I am that bad, but even bad people have to eat.

3. I go to the shops and decide that buying vegetables and fruit mightn’t be the worst idea in the world. I may be useless but for the moment I’m willing to try and make things a little better for myself.

4. I get home and make a healthy smoothie and put it in the fridge. I may by this point already be edging back towards darkness.

5, The negative, self-hating voice comes back and prevents any further improvement in behaviour. An amount of time passes in which the symptoms again are hitting me hard, but I banked that positive will from earlier, so there’s still hope to pull it round.

6. At some point, maybe at 11am the next day when I’m trying to sleep my way out of unhappiness, I get thirsty. Then I remember my smoothie. I hate myself but now the only bit of positive volition that is needed is to walk to the fridge. You see where this is going.

Many years later I met a cognitive behavioural therapist in a pub, and she told me that this was kind of a form of that. She also said that she was only referred patients who had struggled with the initial prescription of this treatment and asked for more help. I thought back to when that was me - I was given a load of worksheets which seemed to me to be very much like school homework and so a total waste of time.

Later still, I managed to work exercise into this technique. If I could just convince myself to put on some running gear and get out of the house, even to jog for 5 minutes, that would be enough to satisfy my first mate. I always ran for longer than that and I always felt better. Sometimes I didn’t stop running until I was totally physically exhausted. That was one hell of an anti-depressant.

Keep reading these posts for some less commonly recommended techniques that I used, but would never suggest to anyone else (until now - I’ll explain why).

* the Oscars were just on, so I am making a topical yet also totally dated and irrelevant reference. But it’s kind of on theme and analogies are greater than Olivia Colman, so I will persist

** OK, fine, analogies only go so far. Maybe it’s time for a metaphor instead. What’s the difference? How long’s a piece of string? Wait, that’s more of a riddle...

*** Didn’t think I could pull it back, did you? We’re back in the room... I mean ship.

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Chaotic attractors

I ended the first in this trilogy of posts by posing a question: what are we heading towards? Will the transition to a new economic paradigm (the use of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain) leave us in a place of empowerment, or under a continuation of the economic slavery via debt peonage that we're experiencing under late-stage capitalism?

In a series of talks including Terrence McKenna, Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham (recorded as a series of '

’: states of order situated at some point in the future, which lead events towards them as if we were all vectors on a deterministic drive towards an advanced or evolved point of organisation. McKenna pontificates:

Is it credible that perhaps the universe is a kind of system in which more advanced forms of order actually influence previous states of organisation? This is what emerges in Ralph Abraham's work with chaotic attractors. These attractors exert influence on less organised states and pull them toward some kind of end state.

If one runs with this idea, two key questions arise: can we analyse current trends and, through projection, visualise possible forms of these attractors? If there is an intelligence guiding our seemingly continuous state of chaos towards a more ordered form, where does this intelligence originate?

In Neuromancer, our protagonist Case expands his sphere of consciousness by jacking into the matrix. As he hacks through new database defences he absorbs the power of the information within those networks (very much like Elliot in Mr Robot). There is a clear progression in the book from Case as a disconnected, off-grid and atomised individual to a highly aware, jacked in group member whose power rivals that of the most advanced artificial intelligence. Each new piece of technology or data he has access to helps him act to expand the realms of what he can experience. When he begins, the matrix is a relatively simple construct. By the time he encounters Neuromancer, at the end of the book, the experience is more like a waking dream. Here I see clear parallels with the chaotic attractors of the trialogues. There is a trend towards increasingly complex forms of order emerging from the chaos.

Microdosing - bringing order from chaos

There is more information coming to light recently about the potential cognitive benefits of micro-dosing on psychedelics. I have dabbled myself and I must agree with the reports of higher mood and enhanced states of creative flow that many have been able to achieve whilst under the influence of minute doses of LSD. It comes as no surprise that, in articles such as this, there are anecdotal reports of the use of psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms in tiny doses to give an advantage to tech industry workers in Silicon Valley. 

The link between tech innovation and acid trips is not new, with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both having cited experiences with the drug as influential. Hopefully, more evidence will continue to emerge(that is scientific rather than anecdotal) to provide data that might back up the reports. Already, pioneering brain scans (as described in this article done in 2016 on a subject under the influence of LSD showed that “psychedelics increase communication between parts of the brain that are less likely to communicate with one another, and decrease communication between areas that frequently do.” This could be a massive advantage in the competitive tech start-up industry, where every company wants the sharpest and most innovative minds on board to help them get to that 'next big idea' before their competitors. And what is the hottest new tech trend in which an edge could turn a huge profit? Blockchain.

Fungal Architects of the Crypto Revolution

Blockchain technology is one of the most dynamic and innovative technologies of the moment. From Bitcoin’s fertile soil there have sprouted over a thousand new cryptocurrencies. Some work using the Bitcoin blockchain framework (or an adapted form of it - such as Litecoin).

Many more work using Ethereum’s smart-contract based platform which allows a greater versatility and a huge number of applications. Beyond that, there are IOTA and Nano, which use yet another innovative structure, more eco-friendly due to the lack of resource-heavy ‘mining’ for coins for the creation of a public ledger.

The depth of this field is mind-boggling. If you are struggling to get your head around Bitcoin, it might be surprising to hear that in cryptocurrency circles it is widely regarded as an outdated technology. I consider myself tech-savvy and I still get lost in the innumerable technical terms that have arisen around the technology. A cognitive edge in this sector could be a great help, and it makes me wonder how much of the coding for these applications is being done under the effects of micro-dosing.

One of the more ambitious projects using blockchain is Golem, which is building a supercomputer harnessing unused computing power from nodes on the network. They boast of the technology: “It can never be owned by anyone.” 

The claim may be true, but this project reminds me eerily of the A.I. named Wintermute in Neuromancer, which via an "

, but the infrastructure will soon be there to allow such an agency to have real consequences in our physical world.

Returning to the meat-locker

What are the implications of this when we go back and take into consideration Paul Stamet’s claims on fungi being the architects of our existence? Are we moving towards a technological singularity via a psychedelic-assisted digital financial revolution? I don’t make any proclamations here - it is just personally fascinating to explore these ideas and I offer them to you for discussion in the comments section.

According to Moore’s law, the pace at which technology is increasing in complexity is exponential. It would seem that this is driving us towards a technological singularity... or is the singularity pulling us towards it, like a chaotic attractor? I see the implications of the law going far beyond the physical and material based notion of the doubling of transistors. This is symbolic of an exponential rate of change that is evolving the human experience away from the corporeal sensation towards a dissociated virtual-reality based existence, minimising the human connection. The human experience as detached from meaning physical sensation is more like a dream. We cannot exist purposefully without the physical balance to our mental life, so perhaps that will be the chaotic attractor that sucks us through time towards the enlightened state of harmonious balance on a personal, social and planetary level.

I’ll leave this on one last quote from Neuromancer. There is a definite pullback at the end of the book where it seems that Case and other characters such as the artificial personality construct Dixie Flatline realise the frugality of a purely digital existence, ironically devoid of connection.

It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, to the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.

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Shut up. Seriously - shut up and leave me alone. I’m not joking - if you don’t shut up and leave me alone I’m going to...

Going to what? You’re stuck with me you idiot. You worthless piece of shit.

That quote’s not verbatim - in fact it wasn’t even spoken out loud - but I can paraphrase it pretty accurately. Why? Because it was me. Both parts. A similar dialogue repeated in my thoughts, a seemingly unending barrage of self-hatred and unreason, for years.

t was very confusing; mainly because I was well. Materially I was sound. My body was tip-top. Illness was for the old and the unfortunate. Luckily I had everything I needed in my life... right?

Looking back at those times with some new found perspective, I would say I was depressed on some level from my early teenage years until my later twenties. It’s hard to differentiate teenage moodiness from depression, but the beginnings of symptoms were there: reclusion; emotional over-reaction to life’s events; I was often morose and downbeat.

Let’s say 14 to 29 were the unstable years. That’s HALF MY LIFE. Why did that happen? And where did the perspective come from? Doctors didn’t give it to me. Friends and family got me through the toughest times but they weren’t able to pinpoint the causes of it. So did I just grow out of it?

It was work. Serious work of the kind that you only do when your back is against the wall and the alternatives are much worse. The alternative at the time was suicide or a state of catatonia*. Compassion towards my loved ones ruled out the first option, much as I craved taking what seemed like the easier option - I remember thinking when I was 15 or so that if there was a switch on the back of my head that would turn off consciousness forever, I’d have gladly flipped it. The other option for my twenty-something self was a daily life of zombie-like stasis, with no desire to get up, walk, eat, or go out.

How long can one linger in that sort of no-man’s land without permanently negatively impacting the psyche? Thankfully a mental health professional did, after some wait, do something to help me and found a combination of drugs that would stop the rot. I didn’t like them, but I took them, feeling safer, then, that the ’man who knows‘ might be able to fix me.

Adam Ant

Life went on, and the symptoms returned. I was adamant** that I wouldn’t stay on the drugs for longer than I needed. This left a gaping hole in my treatment that had to be filled by something else, something more holistic. It was treatment that at the time the most highly trained NHS staff were never going to reccommend.

It turns out that there was a change in my psyche from the worst bouts of illness, but it was only semi-permanent. Our brain chemistry is plastic***, but it takes time to overwrite deeply worn patterns with something new. So here, in a series of post, are my top 5 depression busting techniques that carried me through the most difficult times towards a place of relative inner stillness. They are ordered from the most influential to the least. The first was crucially found when I was close to my lowest point and I’ve cultivated it as a practice over the years since.

 *My autocorrect favours the sovereignty of the Basque state of Catalonia. Who knew it was so political?

** I was not Adam Ant - although a quick internet search reveals that he also has struggled with depression. The evidence mounts...

*** For more on this see this article:

1. Vipassana meditation

Sit. Close your eyes. Concentrate. Observe.

Sounds pretty easy. For me, when I began, it was one of the hardest things I’d ever attempted. It gave me hope where there was only despair. It showed me a path that could  limit my lot of suffering. It promised to eradicate it fully.

I am not a religious person although certain spiritual (read: not dogmatic) inclinations have developed over the years of my recovery. These were informed by experiences on psychedelics but they are also reinforced on a daily level, little by little, by this practice.

Thankfully, the retreat centres I went to did not package the technique along with dogma, in the most part, and it is a technique that is based upon repeated direct experience for its validation. This experience was what drew me in (where dogma would have instantly repelled me) and it is all I wanted - all I needed - to take from my first meditation retreat 7 years ago. I have now completed 60 days of retreat - spread out over the period since, and continue to meditate daily (even for a few minutes).

I can do no better in explanation about this technique than this book:
Why Buddhism Is True
I urge you to seek it out. For those looking for a brief summary, see:
Why “Why Buddhism Is True” is True

Vipassana meditation for me was the catalyst for knock-on effects in my emotional understanding, creativity, physical health, mental focus, compassion for others - the list goes on. It’s also the most amenable to daily use, although it did take a long time in order to reap the most benefits in my mental health (repeated practice really is the key, not something that’s easy to develop when you’re at the peak of despair).

Keep reading this series for some anecdotal experience on more immediate antidepressants - some which are obvious, some more esoteric.

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Life imitates art – tech and drugs in Neuromancer

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

So begins the visionary futuristic novel Neuromancer on which I commented in previous posts, linking it with the topic of cryptocurrency. The book continues to amaze me with further reading. I see disconnection as one of its less obvious themes but one which is prominent in my mind and explains the choice of imagery in Gibson’s opening line. What use is a television when it is only tuned to static, devoid of a signal, of meaningful connection?

The other theme which I have been drawn to is the drug use and psychedelic imagery scattered throughout the story. Many of the characters use chemicals to alter their consciousness: perhaps to escape the void of human connection that seems all-encompassing in this dystopic future world.

The holodeck/cyberspace/the matrix: a network of all the world’s digital information visualised in increasingly complex virtual reality constructs as the story progresses. It has a definitively trippy description throughout. A corporate virus named Kuang Grade Mark Eleven is visualised as

‘filling the grid […] with hypnotically intricate traceries of rainbow, lattices fine as snow crystal on a winter window.’

The quality of Gibson’s writing puts me in the mindset of an acid trip and he has admitted to using LSD during the writing process. The lead character Case loses his ability to jack into the matrix after he’s dosed with some psychedelic mushrooms. One of the by-products of the mushrooms is a mycotoxin which inhibits his ability to visit the life-like visualisations of networked data where he has made his reputation as a “console cowboy”, or hacker. Interestingly, LSD was discovered after studies on a fungus called ergot. Lysergic acid, from which LSD is derived, is a mycotoxic ergot alkaloid.

That infamous scene in the Matrix (which borrows heavily from this book) where Neo is offered the red/blue pill can be seen as an offer to come out of a lower state of consciousness and be introduced to a higher perception of reality in which the field of visualised data experienced until then is seen as it truly is: “What is real? How do you define 'real'? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” The difference here is that Case tries throughout to undo the effects of the mycotoxin and return to his reality, however simulated it may be. This leaves us questioning which the hallucinations are: the effects of the psychedelics, cyberspace, or our physical day-to-day reality?

Do androids trip on electric mushrooms?

In this

mycologist Paul Stamets talks about how the biggest living organism on the planet is a honey fungus spreading under the ground for 3.8km. How did the fungus get so big? Unsurprisingly it is put down to natural selection and Stamets explains brilliantly (from about 7:20 in the show) the process of a fungus adapting over millions (or even billions) of years from exposure to microbes in its ecosystem.

He goes on to say: “We have 5 or 6 skin layers that protect us from an infection. The mycelium only has one cell wall. On the other side of that cell wall are hundreds of millions of microbes per gram [of soil, many of which are trying to consume it], the mycelium is able to upregulate and in constant biomolecular communication with its ecosystem be able to prevent predators from consuming it, thus allowing it to achieve the largest mass of any organism in the world.” Stamets also variously comments on the state of organisation which enables this ‘fungal intelligence’:

'[Fungi] are the architects of our existence';
'They have more neural connections in the mycelial mass, over a thousand acres, than we have in our brain. They are accumulating knowledge-like intelligence';
'I call them earth’s natural internet';
'...massively resilient adaptive organisms that have a network-based design: not dissimilar from that of our neural networks; not dissimilar from the computer internet.'

Does this remind you of anything? I see great parallels between this and the A.I. constructs as they are depicted in the cyberspace of Neuromancer. If you were to ask me a year ago what were my thoughts on non-human intelligence, I would have answered with a few vague mutterings about perhaps there being a possibility of higher plant and animal intelligence than we can presently conceive. Oddly, considering the age of rapidly advancing technology and space exploration that I have grown up in, I would not have spent long pondering artificial or extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Since listening to the conversation mentioned above – and having my mind blown - I have come to accept a much greater role for fungal intelligence in our human evolution. If fungal intelligence predates the human, which predates the artificial, I am left questioning whether this all comes from the same source.

Psychedelics as a technology of consciousness

The examples that Stamets lists for possible symbiosis between fungi and humans (let alone the knock-on effects of their symbioses with the plants and animals) include the discovery of penicillin, the transporting of embers to recreate fire, and the treatment of consumption. Would it be accurate to describe psilocybin mushrooms as a technology, given that they have enabled us realise so many new developments?

The Collins dictionary definition of technology is “methods, systems, and devices which are the result of scientific knowledge being used for practical purposes.” Some of the benefits we have realised through the use of fungi could be described as such, whereas others seem to happen without us realising at all, or by chance. I for one would love to see some studies on micro-dosing - the potential harms and benefits – and whether it could be a legitimate tool for cognitive enhancement in technical fields. I will discuss this further in the final post of this trilogy.

Terrence McKenna's hypothesis (as critiqued here) about the role of psilocybin mushrooms in the development of human language as well as evolutionary advantages in hunting and mating are yet to be further developed scientifically. This is not surprising - to say McKenna was 'out-there' in his field would be a vast understatement. His closest peer in this respect is probably his brother, Dennis McKenna, who focuses his studies on the pharmacological side of psychedelics. He, along with pioneers such as Robert Carhart-Harris (leading the aforementioned LSD brain scans) and Rick Doblin of MAPS (working on clinical MDMA trials for PTSD) being at the vanguard of scientific discovery in their field.

Due in large part to the war on drugs progress in this area was stagnant for decades, although now it seems that it’s only a matter of time until ideas like those of Terrence McKenna can either gain traction or be discounted. The neurogenesis that Stamets attests to in the podcast, as well as potential cancer-fighting properties of culinary Turkey Tail mushrooms and boosting of immunological defence, are other areas of study that could have great potential.

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