‘I took part in the psilocybin trial and it changed my life’

Psilocybin is a non-lethal, non-addictive drug with real clinical potential. In the race to realise that potential, Imperial College is running trials. Volunteer Steve Shorney shares his experience

Sunday 23 May 2021 12:55
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<p>Psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, may be at least as effective as a leading antidepressant medication</p>

Psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, may be at least as effective as a leading antidepressant medication

For the first 20 years of my working life I wrote for a living; mostly for television and well enough to earn the occasional accolade to put in a frame or a shiny thing for the mantelpiece. Working with words was my sustenance and pleasure. That was before depression crept darkly into the light open spaces where joy and creativity lived and useless thoughts swamped my brain and smothered the words I needed. After two decades of darkness and drought I am writing again. This is the story of how that came to pass.

It has all the elements of a fantasy quest: in my search for the holy grail of wellness I’ve done battle with demons and despair, sampled exotic practices and even mastered a few. There is controversy: my spark was re-ignited by a drug in the same class as crack cocaine and heroin. And there’s some pretty weird stuff too – I had a couple of very psychedelic trips.

The little white pill that so radically changed my life was a synthesised version of psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms. Made in a Swiss laboratory, it cost more by weight than gold and was paid for by the generosity of people like Tim Ferriss and others whose funding of the centre for psychedelic research at Imperial College paved the way for Psilodep 2, a clinical trial designed to test psilocybin’s potential as a treatment for depression.

Imperial College London has conducted the most rigorous trial to date assessing the therapeutic potential of a psychedelics

I was one of 60 volunteers on the Imperial trial, and we all had two things in common: a history of treatment-resistant depression and no experience of psychedelics. Most of us are functionally depressed – outwardly just like you or your friends or neighbours. What makes us different is what we do with our thoughts; or rather what our thoughts do with us.

My thoughts became a problem in my early thirties. Things that used to run happily on parallel tracks in my head – story ideas, camera angles, what’s for dinner – began to crash in catastrophic scenes that were not in the storyboard. Fear and dread stalked the alleyways of my mind. And the fears were not rational. I have felt rational fear on a Johannesburg street with a gun in the back of my neck, but there was nothing rational about the bizarre game of one-upmanship my thoughts were playing, vying to outdo each other with the most diabolical ways to end my career, relationship or life. I wasn’t the only target: loved ones, friends, even strangers died horribly in my head. Night after sleepless night I marvelled at my mind’s creative genius for torment and learned why sleep deprivation is such effective torture.

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I was working on a documentary on the drug trade at the time, interviewing addicts in rehab and traffickers in Thai jails, people who described their lives with words like despair and shame and hopelessness. I felt the same. And uncorked another cabernet to dull the pain.

I was living in a Kristofferson song – a sad, bleak place even by country music standards. When I first heard it I was just old enough to legally order beer, and listening to it then I felt the pain of a broken man alone, and vowed never to go there. But 20 years on, I was there, and I had to get out. Not just for my own sake, but for those around me too, because too many attempts to escape my own pain erupted in a rage of frustration that caused dogs and cats and even my own children to run and hide and was eventually cited in divorce papers. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but I dared not leave that possibility open.


Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad
So I had one more for dessert

I tried therapy. Well-intentioned people skilled in Cognitive Behaviour and other therapies listened intently and gave me useful advice – eating and exercise plans, books to read. But all the talking – about my life, ex-wife and a career that was crashing – felt like a sticking plaster. I wanted to get under the skin of this thing, to know more about me and what caused it. I had no idea what, but I needed something else.

My way out was as radical as it was unexpected: I started running. For the sake of context you should know this about me: as a kid I would take home two prizes on sports day: a little cup for the longest cricket ball throw, and a wooden spoon for finishing last in all the flat races. Running was as natural to me as walking on water. But I persisted, and it paid off.

I have felt rational fear on a Johannesburg street with a gun in the back of my neck, but there was nothing rational about the bizarre game of one-upmanship my thoughts were playing, vying to outdo each other with the most diabolical ways to end my career, relationship or life

I suspect that serendipity was waiting for me to make the first move, because soon after I started running two things happened, without any planning or intention, that changed the course of my life: I bought a second-hand book of yoga from my local library, and met a Buddhist monk who taught me to meditate. Meditation helped to tame my mad-monkey mind, and The Book of Yoga taught me how to breathe, to get into my body, and out of my head. I revelled in the physical practice, in how it gave me a lighter way of being, a more natural flow. I was still some way from my first ashram retreat or mastering the headstand but things were looking up.

My days began with meditation, I was running and practising yoga and eating well, but depression’s dark shadow was still draining all the colour from my life. The rainbows that followed the storms were all in monochrome. I needed help.

An empathetic psychiatrist at the Priory told me the problem was with my brain chemistry; the solution, he said, was an anti-depressant. Against all my instincts I agreed to give the pills a chance, and soon regretted it. The first week on the drug was horrible – a disorienting, out-of-body kind of horrible, like being back on land after days at sea. By week two I was edging closer to normality, but life was not the same. By far the worst effect was this: a part of me, something of my essence, was missing, exchanged for a promise of stability. It felt like a bad trade, but that promise kept me going, and I dutifully swallowed my daily dose for more than 10 years.

Shorney: ‘I was running and practising yoga and eating well, but depression’s dark shadow was still draining all the colour from my life’

Would I ever regain that missing part of me? I had no idea. The question has waited patiently at the back of my mind ever since for an answer, overshadowed by bigger questions: what made me feel the way I did? What else could I do about it? Would it ever end?

Looking for answers I have talked for hours to psychotherapists, sat for hours in meditation, and travelled far and wide on retreats. The shelves in my study could be the Body, Mind & Spirit section of a good bookshop. In many ways the search for answers has defined my recent life. The ideal of holistic wellness is more than personal; it’s at the heart of my business.

When I opened my yoga studio 10 years ago I opened a door to an unexpected bonus: a queue of people offering life-enhancing practices: Tibetan singing bowls, light therapy, QiGong, transformational breathing, the Wim Hof Method, Kirtan, Gong baths, somatic practices of every kind and most things ending in -opathy. I had unlimited access to them all, and felt like the cat who got the cream.

You may ask, quite reasonably, how a man so favoured by serendipity could be so miserable so much of the time. Most of the answer to that is in my mind, or at least in how it works. In my mind the story of my life is a negative narrative, of a life gone wrong, a picture of bad calls and dodgy choices. Repeated enough, even unconsciously, the negative self-reflection leads to a sort of cerebral erosion, the creation of neural pathways, deep fissures too dark to admit the light of positive experiences.

The danger is that the psychedelic history of 50 years ago could repeat itself

To a dispassionate observer my life is not the pile of excrement part of me thinks it is. There is a yin of success to my yang of failure: awards won and marathons run. I’ve seen dancing emerald skies in the Arctic and lain awake under African acacias listening to lions roar. I love and am loved by my wife and my children and their children, but inevitably, inexplicably, the view through my lens of self-reflection is negative. Depression does that.

Based on what I’ve learned about the mechanics of a depressive brain I imagine the holy grail for neuroscientists to be something like a railway signal-box, a mechanism for switching negative thinking like mine on to a more positive track.

If Dr Robin Carhart-Harris is right, psilocybin does pretty much that. The man who heads Imperial’s Centre for Psychedelic Research believes the drug creates a state of entropy in the brain, allowing every part to communicate with every other. Amid the chaos something magical happens: the frantic neural cross-talk opens ways out of those deep dark grooves where depression lurks.

As keen as I was to put that theory to the test, there was more to it than knowing I might be in with a chance of lifting the dark fog of depression. I wanted, as much as anything, to explore the nature of mind and the realm of consciousness. The question of what consciousness is, is a slippery fish, one of the big questions of our time that has engaged philosophy for millennia and now neuroscience too; each discipline as engrossed as the other, debating, theorising and even collaborating in the search for an answer. Which remains as elusive as ever.

Amid the chaos something magical happens: the frantic neural cross-talk opens ways out of those deep dark grooves where depression lurks

I have grappled with it too, this sense of being inside my head looking out, or if you prefer, of having a soul. I’ve explored the concept with swamis in saffron robes, Buddhist monks and therapists. In meditation I have caught a glimpse, through a chink, of a realm beyond the one we inhabit, the source of the seeds of secrets.

Before psilocybin would open that chink any wider I would have to make it through pre-trial screenings that probed every cranny of my body and mind – and surprised me by adding layers of warm personal connection. To someone half expecting serious clinicians in lab coats, the easy-going warmth was like a friendly embrace. As natural as it felt, it was also very much by design.

In trials generally, and specifically with psychedelics, the environment can make the difference between a positive or negative experience – a good or bad trip – and everyone involved in this one was clearly on the side of good.

Dr Carhart-Harris believes psychedelic therapy could be licensed within five to 10 years

The physical environment is the setting part of set and setting, a term coined by Timothy Leary in the Sixties. Set is a little more subtle, more subjective, and includes the mood of the participant. My own mood in the final hours of preparation was a mix of the two parts of anticipation: excitement and nerves. I was grateful for the dress rehearsal.

Breathe through it. Whatever comes up, try not to resist. Just breathe, go with it, through it, and don’t worry, we’ll be with you. And if you need us, hold out your hands….

I reached out, and my hands were gently and firmly held. Michelle Baker-Jones, an engaging integrative therapist with a warm reassuring manner, held my left; my right was held by Dr Jonny Martell, a lanky laid-back psychiatrist with funky socks. Together they had guided dozens of people like me through their first experience with psychedelics, and I could not have been in better hands.

We ran through the form for the following day: I would return to the room, ingest five white capsules, recline comfortably on the big hospital bed, don a blindfold and headphones, and wait for the curtain to rise. They would be there in support, and the whole thing would be recorded on video. I would spend eight hours in that room the next day, and it would be the most rewarding day of my life, one that I would not exchange for anything.

It’s time for an open admission of something I have known since I began writing this story: the psychedelic experience is fundamentally resistant to description. Mere words are not enough to convey even the bare essentials. It is entirely experiential, beyond language, without time or context. Unlike anything I had known or could ever have imagined.

I would return to the room, ingest five white capsules, recline comfortably on the big hospital bed, don a blindfold and headphones, and wait for the curtain to rise

Having brought you this far, the least I can do is try to describe something of it. I will resist the temptation to use mind-blowing again. Besides, the real story is in how it changed my life.

I’m not a religious man – a Calvinist home and Methodist boarding school gave me enough religion for one lifetime – but the essence of the experience was mystical. Expansive, transformational and magically mystical. There were no angels waiting to greet me, but I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to see and hear a heavenly choir waiting at the portal, such was the heart-bursting euphoria that lifted and carried me. Where to was impossible to say, or know, and every time I thought that’s it, there’s no topping that, I was shown just how wrong I can be.

I was not myself. I was a tree, then the roots, spreading and joining underground with the mycelium, opening, reaching out into infinity, way beyond the reach of Hubble to join with every other tree, now and before and ever after – Yggdrasill, unbound by place or time.

Any sense of time I had at breakfast dissolved before lunch like a dandelion blown on a breath. I was out of time but entirely in touch. I knew that I was on a bed in a room with two people watching me, but I also was not – was not simply in another experience but immersed in one that was more real, and richer and deeper than anything I’d ever dreamed or imagined. And in that experience I disappeared, leaving nothing but a memory to show for the me I’d spent a lifetime constructing. Poof! Just like that I dissolved, leaving nothing, no puff of powder on the breeze, not even a trace of DNA. Nothing.

Finding my way back from no-me was a journey that would find a place in mythology, make me a legend, but it was a baby step compared to the one I had to make to the en-suite toilet. Where I peed a waterfall of dazzling crystal shot through with sparkling coloured gems and watched the floor tiles dissolve and slowly climb the walls.

I knew that we – you and me – are a unique expression of a universal consciousness. You could spend a big chunk of your life reading Krishnamurti or Meister Eckhart or Alan Watts and not know that; you might think you do, because they said it was so, but in that moment I knew it more clearly than I know my own name, because I had seen it, felt it, and lived it.

Psychaedelic art depicting magic mushrooms

I had seen an alternative reality, another way of being, and knew beyond anything I’d known before that day that life is extraordinary. And in that moment I felt happier, more alive, and more Me than I imagined was possible.

Much as we’d like it to be, life is not all joie de vivre; there is pain and sadness and fear – and death. And the fear of death is a handbrake on living. I felt it that day like a snake coiled in my belly, a sickening slimy thing that writhed and grew and filled me with a mortal terror that was real. I knew somehow that I needed to feel the fear and deal with it, and being with it and breathing through it brought exquisite relief in the realisation that I was not alone in my fear. It belongs to us all. Everything does, we are in it together, bad or good. And we are all made of the same stuff. We did not parachute out of the sky to populate this planet. We were born of it, came from it, are part of it.

If my first session on psilocybin was revelatory, the second – two weeks later – was transformative. And as different as yin is from yang. The setting was the same: the dimly lit room with its pink salt lamps, warmly easy-going guides, the same tea. But the set was different. A few days before I had done a stupid thing on a big motorcycle and was sleep deprived and sore in body and mind.

Like a magician Dr Martell produced an analgesic and hot water bottle to ease my aching back, and after ceremonially swallowing the magic pills I settled down and waited for the show to begin. The opening score was familiar but muted, as though only half the orchestra had turned up for a practice run. When the curtains eventually rose they opened on to empty darkness, a stage abandoned by cast and crew, without so much as a footlight for relief.

In the void I saw what Aldous Huxley imagined Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

The magic white pill is a synthesised version of psilocybin

Slowly I was sub-atomically carefully picked apart, formlessly, weightlessly expanding into infinity. I will never know where I went to for there was no me, and nowhere to go. Eventually, after years or maybe seconds, who knows, sensations began stirring in the outer reaches of my dispersed being, slowly gathering like stars drawn to the centre of a spiralling galaxy, lifting, expanding, and overflowing in a cascade of love.

If that was my peak experience, the hours that followed were the darkest. Armed with the light of revelation I ventured into the shadows to confront my demons, a lifetime of suppressed emotions and deep-seated beliefs, un-admitted and buried deep in my subconscious.

I did not go there out of choice: I am profoundly out of touch with my emotions, and would no more choose to deal with the big bad ones than I would choose to cut off an arm. But the drug opened a door through which I had to go, and every step deeper into the dark side brought catharsis, and tears of relief, and at the end a sense of profound gratitude.

I’ve been grateful every day since, not just for the experience, but also for whatever magical alignment brought people like Jonny and Michelle and Robin Carhart-Harris and Tim Ferriss together, and me into their orbit. The experience itself was priceless, a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but as it’s turned out it was not the destination I thought it might be. If anything it was the start of a new way of living. Psilocybin shifted my consciousness, fundamentally changed my life by showing me another way of being, but the real change is happening now.

In many ways I am happier, more content with my lot. Happiness, as I understand it, is mostly a temporary thing; like the high that comes with a compliment or an unexpected gift it fades away. As a formerly unhappy person I was a keen student of this elusive state, reading and trying all I could to be happy, or at least happier. Mostly I failed, because as I came to realise, real happiness is not a short-term thing but a sustained sense of contentment. By that measure I am a happier man today than I was before the trial.

Funding by Tim Ferriss of the centre for psychedelic research at Imperial College paved the way for trial, Psilodep 2

Crucially, I am happier with myself, and I suspect the reason is this: my eyes and heart have been opened to a new reality. Life is not what I thought it was, it is richer and more wonderful. And I am lucky to be living it. That revelation has made the most difference. It is my new point of reference, my lodestar, and it keeps me going when the going gets tough.

And that’s just as well. In what feels like an ironic twist of cosmic fate the universe has conspired to test the new me, probing the limits of my new-found resilience with adversity. Life in the past few months has not been easy. At the time of the trial my business was taking a beating, badly bruised by Brexit uncertainty, increased competition and the Amazon effect on the High Street. Just as we were getting to our feet Coronavirus put the boot in. Six months earlier I would have buckled, given up, gone off-grid, ranting and raging about the unfairness of it all.

But I didn’t even consider it. As big and bad as it was, the threat of losing my business just didn’t seem to matter that much. Because, I suppose, I had seen a bigger picture, how things really worked, and I knew that we’d come through it. Our community would need their yoga sessions live-streamed to help them navigate the surreal times, and I had work to do.

What affects my business affects me, and inevitably it spills over into life at home, but even here things are better. My wife, Jane, delights these days in how much I smile; it’s not an expression she’s familiar with. An intelligent and perceptive woman, she says I’ve changed, am changing in ways she didn’t think possible. I am, according to my spouse, less entangled in the drama of my life, more able to separate myself from the thoughts behind my actions, more comfortably me.

To a casual observer my life hasn’t changed much; I eat the same breakfast, wear the same clothes, do the same work and interact with the same people, and if anyone has noticed a difference they haven’t said. But things are not the same – my lens of perception has been freshly polished. I am outwardly still the same man, but in my head and my heart I feel different, and differently, about most things, even the English weather. On a grim, wet cold day in winter I did something I rarely do and wrote a post with pictures and a few lines of gratitude about sunsets and frosted leaves and beauty in creation. Pre-trial me would hardly have noticed those things, would have pulled his hat down and collar up and trudged through the crappy weather under a cloud of his own making and grumbled about going back to a place where the sun shines.

Magic mushrooms growing wild in a park in west London

This is the first time in 20 years I’ve written anything longer than an email, and as I write I’m astonished, not just by the fact that I’m doing it, but also by what it’s doing to me. For so long, possibly most of my life, I’ve been an emotional zombie, feeling nothing but the most superficial emotions, and here they are now, welling up from deep inside and spilling on to my keyboard. In time I might have a better sense of what I’m feeling; right now I have the sense that I’m re-connecting with some part of me that I lost or buried a long time ago. And that is quite extraordinary. This is powerful stuff.

Psilocybin showed me an alternative reality, but it also opened another door – to my reality in the here-and-now.

The scales have dropped from my eyes and I’m seeing things I was blind to before. I was so preoccupied with dealing with the symptoms of my depression that I’ve ignored the cause, have been so far up my own bum, so in awe of meditation and yoga, that I thought I had a handle on it, that self-inquiry was pointless. I see now that self-development needs self-awareness to work, and the answers I most need are in places I’ve avoided looking for fear that I won’t like what I find.

But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. The new road I’m on is not always well signposted, and at times I’ve felt quite lost – as sure of myself as I am about the existence of the yeti. I suspect it’s a result of ego-dissolution: when everything you hold to be true, yourself included, is taken apart and reassembled, even a little differently, your identity is sure to be at risk of a crisis.

Should I need more help along the way there’s a psychologist on call, monthly integration meetings, even retreats. The team at Imperial takes its responsibility to the integration of the psychedelic experience very seriously, as it does the entire process. From the first email to the final interview, every step, every word and gesture has been documented, possibly in more media than I was aware of. Caution and attention to detail are critical design criteria for a very good reason: psilocybin is a powerful drug, and the trial data will have to stand up to sceptical scrutiny, will have to be bomb-proof.

Psilocybin is a powerful drug, and the trial data will have to stand up to sceptical scrutiny, will have to be bomb-proof

As trials like this one attract more media attention, critical attention will surely follow, and not all of it will be positive. Mental health is certainly topical, but I suspect that at least some of the attention has more to do with the ‘shroomy part of the story, in particular the fact that the fungi in question are illegal – class A illegal – along with crack cocaine, crystal meth and heroin. It’s unlikely to stay that way for long. Although illicit drugs killed nearly 3,000 people in the UK last year not one of them died from eating too many magic mushrooms: psilocybin is a non-lethal, non-addictive drug with real clinical potential. The race to realise that potential is well underway: there’s mounting pressure to re-classify psychedelics, clinical trials are adding new layers of understanding to the public domain, and investors with an eye on future profits are accelerating the development of synthesised psychedelics.

Carhart-Harris believes psychedelic therapy could be licensed within five to 10 years. For the millions who suffer the weight of depression or the numbing effects of anti-depressants that day can’t come soon enough, but the future of mental-health treatment does not begin and end with popping a pill.

Without proper integration – a way of making sense of the psychedelic experience and integrating it into everyday life – there is no therapy to speak of. It’s too soon to say what the therapeutic protocols of the future will look like, but already the space is alive with innovation. Dealing with mystical experiences, altered realities and navigating the light and shadow of the psyche will call for empathetic guidance and a wide range of hand-holding, sense-making exercises, quite possibly new ways of doing things too. Dr Rosalind Watts, the clinical lead on my trial, is experimenting with nature-based immersion, and somatic practices, mindfulness, breath-work, Jungian therapies and psychosynthesis are just a few of the modalities on the therapeutic menu.

The fungi in question are illegal – class A illegal – along with crack cocaine, crystal meth and heroin. It’s unlikely to stay that way for long

This game-changing moment opens the door to making a difference on a huge scale. But the psychedelic landscape is also dotted with red flags. It’s possible, even likely, that the results of this trial and others like it will fuel an upsurge in interest that change-your-life experts of all stripes will be keen to exploit, and the psychedelic history of 50 years ago could repeat itself, with the drug being separated from the therapy.

Today, that possibility is tempered by a better understanding of the drug and an awareness of the bigger picture. Today’s revolution is more Save the Planet than Stop the War. This new awareness admits a need for regulation and restraint and sees things like a spike in demand for medicinal plants adding pressure to places like the Amazon rain forest. But the spectre looming largest right now is the distorting effect of the pursuit of profit in the pharmaceutical realm, and for the stewards of the new psychedelic revolution whose return on investment is more human and less tangible than than shareholder value, these are uneasy times.

On a Friday night a few months after the trial I sat on a mat in a circle of 15 people in a Hackney studio where Imperial therapists hold a safe space once a month for anyone with an interest or psychedelic experience to share. Drawn by confusion, expectation or hope, people bring stories of group retreats and solo trips, magic mushrooms, acid and ayahuasca, stories of curiosity, confusion, sometimes disillusionment, but also wonder and transformation. I heard about a few good trips that night and several bad ones – and in every one the critical factor was the set and setting.

The mind trip you take on psychedelics is entirely of your own making, but wide open to influence, and therein lies a danger: an unwelcome ambience, a bad vibe from a guide, even a sense that something feels wrong, can make the difference between a good or bad experience. Which is why the Imperial team takes such care in getting it right, and I am both lucky and grateful that it does.

Dr Rosalind Watts, clinical lead in the treatment (dosing) room with Jonny Martell and Roberta Murphy

But the care and attention doesn’t end with setting it up right or even with post-trial support. Throughout the trial I’ve had the sense that the team is motivated by something more than scientific curiosity; they’re not so much testing a drug with big-profit potential but one with transformative power, and they seem to be fully invested in something less tangible, in doing good, in making a difference.

The same belief in being better, in self-transformation, is what bound the people in the Hackney psychedelic circle. There’s a real sense in psychedelic circles that “we’re in this together, for all of us”. There are echoes of the Summer of Love here, but where the unifying sentiment in the Sixties was peace in a time of war the dominant theme now is the future of humanity and the planet.

And that gives some context to another insight from my first revelatory psilocybin session. What I saw was this: we’re all sleepwalking to the edge of the precipice, and it’s time to wake up before it’s too late.

That feels as real as the keyboard under my fingers as I write it, and it makes me wonder what we’re going to do about it. What about the great and good of this world, the people who could do something for humanity and our home: have they got the message? A glance at the top table of the G8 is all it takes to burst that bubble of hope; they have other priorities, and the same is true of people in food queues and refugee camps – political power plays and staying alive will always be more urgent in the moment.

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I did not expect when I started writing this that I’d end with a riff on the future of humanity and our responsibility to act, but several strands of thought have led me here. Central to them all is the notion of freedom, individual and collective, and especially the freedom to shape our future. By showing me what is possible and liberating me from the deep grooves of depression, psilocybin has given me a real and growing sense of freedom, and a very different, even positive, view of my future.

But I also realise that there’s no freedom without responsibility. Growth comes from dealing with adversity, not avoiding it. We don’t need more drugs to dull the pain or take the edge off our existence; what we need is to be shown our pain and how to deal with it. Psilocybin has done that for me. I am dealing with the pain of my past and of not knowing myself, facing adversity with calm assurance not panic, and for the first time in my life I feel like I’m getting my act together.

And that is where real change begins. It might be challenging but this feels like real living. Like the drug that helped me get here it is life-affirming, miraculous even. And long overdue.

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