Updated: Apr 6
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This article is part of our Finding Wonderland long stories. Finding Wonderland is our unique series on women's personal stories to destigmatize and normalize the use of psychedelic substances. This is the story of Amy Bolton.
Amy shares her story because she believes in the importance of normalizing and destigmatizing dialogue around trauma/mental health and advocate for the use of psychedelics as an alternative treatment for mental health. Flip the Coin is the story of a journey from depression to peace. From inner healing towards outer action.
And here’s Part I for you.
Bardo 1 - Entrance
My depression had always been an enigma to me, and to some extent it still is. Growing up, I
was a bright kid; vivacious and eager to read, learn, and explore. However, at age thirteen, my
philosophical ponderings began to carry a weight that morphed the wonder of such musings
into existential dread. My academic success quickly deteriorated as everything felt
to be pointless.
As nihilism emerged, anhedonia set in, and time atrophied my mental state into being one I didn’t want to live in. At the time, I remedied this with excessive socialization and distraction. Post high school I went off to university where my usual cocktail of distraction started failing me. After one semester, I dropped out and entered into the next Bardo.
Bardo 2, Part 1 - “You’re barely special.”
Deciding to take a gap year, I had entered into my next distraction; a toxic relationship.
On the surface my ex was confident and charismatic. I had moved from the US to South Africa to be with this person, isolating myself from my family, my friends, my life. We shared an apartment in Cape Town where I fell in love with my best friend, for a time I felt like I was living in a dream state.
Over time, he’d display classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder, something I believe to be the defense mechanism of a deeply insecure and hurt person. This hurt and insecurity being the result of another narcissist; his emotionally out of touch father. Someone he hated yet was always seeking approval from, though not often receiving it.
Our relationship soon included the hallmarks of an abusive relationship; constantly putting me down, extreme suspicion that I was cheating, isolating me from friends by putting them down (I showed him a picture of my best friend to which he replied; “this looks like the ugliest girl I’ve slept with”), gaslighting, slut-shaming me about my past sex life, going through my phone, it goes on.
Worse, it seemed at times he’d experience moments of clarity in which he’d apologize and talk about how horrible he can be, giving me hope he’d change. I could see his internal battle, but in the end he submitted to shutting off his empathy. While I believe there were moments of genuine love, both of us dealt with major issues that we had no idea how to navigate, especially at our age.
The growing stress of the situation made itself known; I lost weight, I lost my confidence, and grew more depressed. The depression I carried into this relationship mixed with the emotional abuse wound me up at an in-patient mental health clinic in Johannesburg.
One day, my ex visited me at the clinic and told me he would be flying to Cape Town to hang out with his friends for the week. High on Ativan, I shrugged and said goodbye. When I woke up the next morning, clear of the Ativan fog, I felt frustrated. I was in a hospital halfway around the world where I didn’t have any friends or family, and he felt like it was a good time to leave for a week with the boys? Or was I being selfish?
I put myself in his shoes and tried to imagine what I’d do if he was in a hospital alone. Soon after, I sent him a text expressing that I felt disappointed and unsupported by his decision to leave, to which the response was “the world doesn’t revolve around you” and shortly after, another text breaking up with me.
I never saw him again. After all the abuse, I don’t know why I was surprised, but I truly was.
Perhaps it was the years spent together, the talk of marriage, the meeting of parents, the
traveling. After getting out of the clinic I would go to our apartment, pack everything up, and
liaise with the landlord with whom I was breaking a lease.
Upon arrival, all of his belongings were gone, though he had not yet returned from Cape Town. It was then that I realized he had known he was going to break up with me when I’d last seen him, but hadn’t had the decency to do it in person. As I sat there, my life in shambles, I thought about how I’d never thought I could be someone who would ever find themselves in such a situation.
I’d always been confident, outspoken, and independent. In the past, I’d looked down on women who made their whole world about a guy or “allowed” themselves to be disrespected. Emotional abuse is insidious. The person I fell in love with made it very difficult to let go when the abuser started to appear. The experience humbled me and made me kind.
Bardo 2, Part 2 - Limbo
Ironic to some, the mental healthcare facilities in SA are far superior to those in the US. The
equivalent of the facility I stayed at in SA, would’ve cost thousands of dollars a week in the US.
I could not afford such a facility and found myself at a state hospital in Massachusetts. My
parents were living in China at the time, so it was decided I would stay with my brother.
I was placed in the psychiatric ward; a dumping ground for anyone on the spectrum that is
“psychiatric”. Schizophrenics, sufferers of delirium and delusions, sociopaths, and my crowd:
During my first night, the lady I shared a room with woke up at 3 am yelling as she
peed on our floor. The staff treated everyone with an inhumane distance and there was no set
daily routine like I’d experienced in SA. I immediately wished to leave.
So after about a week, I would leave, then readmit myself when I felt suicidal because there was nowhere else to go...this cycle continued for six months (throw in an unsuccessful suicide attempt). At this point in time, I had tried upwards of ten different medications for depression, so I opted to try ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) at the hospital; a known solution for treatment-resistant depression.
Past-times included: waking up at a dark 5 am to be taken down the hall to my slot where I’d be met with the sounds of soft moans from those stirring out of anesthesia, the short term memory loss complementary of this treatment, looking down at my arms to decide which veins were less bruised for the IV that day, and lightly hoping that the maternal nurse was on duty. The anesthesia burned as I played the game with myself to see how long I could resist its shutdown of consciousness.
Time is emotional, making it fast or slow. I believe I lived six years in 2016. This experience was humbling, filling me with compassion.
Bardo 3, Part 1 - Default Mode Network
Looking back, I honestly cannot say what sparked the idea to grow psilocybin mushrooms. I
had little to no knowledge of them, never mind their therapeutic applications. However, the idea
arrived at the doorstep of my mind (bags packed) and I began my dive down the rabbit hole
that is youtube, to figure out how to grow them.
I fell quickly enamored with the process of growing these strange little creatures. The time, nurturing, and care required was cathartic. As I delved deeper into the process, I began to explore the literature surrounding psilocybin. While psychedelic mycelium was colonizing upstairs, I was downstairs reading “How To Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan.
I was blown away. How had I never heard of this as an approach to mental health...specifically depression? It had never been talked about or offered by any of the multiple doctors/therapists I had gone to. Shortly after finishing the book, I had my first psilocybin experience which changed my mind and my life...drastically.
A part of Michael Pollan’s book that I found crucial to my extreme shift in perspective was
learning about what exactly is happening physiologically in one’s brain under the influence of psilocybin. If the ego had a "neurological home", it would be the Default Mode Network, where one's identity is rendered.
Through experience and habituation, the DMN creates neural pathways that become set with time, and these ingrained thought patterns manufacture the decisions we make. The brain compiles information and experience to create this default. Why? Our brains take up a tremendous amount of our bodies’ energy supply, so it’s a way for the brain to be economical with energy rather than operating at 100% (manual) all the time. You can visually observe this phenomena by participating in the Troxler’s Effect experiment.
The older we get, the more set these pathways become, whereas children use a much larger
neurological capacity and different neurological paths. After ages 6-12 the DMN is so
reinforced in the brain, it isn't normal or easy to find ways to think outside of it. The DMN is active by default. It is not surprising to me that my depression began around the age at which
the DMN is fully functional.
So what does the DMN have to do with psychedelics? The DMN is the part of the brain that is
deactivated by taking psilocybin. The quieting of the DMN allows for parts of the brain that
usually do not communicate during normal states of consciousness to be able to interact with
one another; a symptom of this being synesthesia, a common experience under the influence
It causes the kind of neuroplasticity seen in children; back to manual mode! The deactivation of the DMN leads to what has been referred to as an “unveiling of the subconscious”. This is the key to its effectiveness in people suffering from mental illnesses because much of these ailments occur from an inability to break from the unhealthy rumination and thought patterns (neural pathways) that the DMN oversees.
In the depths of my depression, there was always been something urging me to just hold on,
some indefinable notion and knowing that there was something more to hold out for. This is what I was reintroduced to in full during my psychedelic experience. Joseph Cambell refers to this as a phone ringing, the universe calling up, encouraging the individual to return to their true nature. The world we live in is so noisy, many don’t realize there is a phone ringing.
I felt like I had finally come home, and that home was me. This is an experience for which we need to introduce a new language, rather than relying on metaphor, to express. It felt as if the garden that is my mind was finally being watered after a ten-year drought. Every second, a new insight popped into my mind. The psychedelic experience is something I’ve jokingly come to regard as “philosophers catnip”.
I believe that the level of pain one can feel is mirrored by an equal capacity for pleasure, regardless of whether or not this has been felt before. Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. For those suffering from depression, the flipping of the coin is a particularly tricky matter. Psychedelics allow you to flip the coin; and suddenly, the deepest places of pain act as a catalyst for the greatest sources of energy, peace, and happiness.
Amy Bolton is a student at The New School completing a self-design Liberal Arts BSc degree focusing on psychology, philosophy, and social entrepreneurship. With her particular passion being in the application of psychedelics for mental health, Amy is the founder and president of "The Default Mode Network", a student-led organization focused on the expansion and accessibility of discourse surrounding psychedelics for mental health.
Working for Decriminalize Maine; an educational non-profit working on legislation change, advocacy, and harm reduction, Amy is also a part of Dr. Todman’s Psychopathology Lab at The New School for Social Research. Outside of her passion for psychedelic and mental health advocacy; Amy loves traveling, cooking, reading, and music.