How Magic Mushrooms Taught Me the Value of Personal Autonomy

A lightly fictionalized anecdote

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photo by Matthew J. Dolezal

Many years ago, in the midst of an art college gauntlet, I ended up having a modest, yet memorable mushroom trip. Back in those days, we did wild, artsy, experimental things, like taking illegal drugs with ex-girlfriends. Natalie had just broken up with me a few months earlier, which, incidentally, caused me to turn into a bitter old hermit.

During one of the rare occassions I found myself somewhere other than school or my studio apartment, I ended up running into Natalie at a coffee shop. I initially tried to avoid her, but she noticed me and seemed excited to see me, so we talked. I still had feelings for her, but I decided to play it cool.

We engaged in small talk for a few minutes, then began to lament the political climate under President George W. Bush, the “commander-in-thief,” as we’d say. The conversation evolved, covering art, music, religion, and psychology. Suddenly an hour had gone by.

In those days, our young, malleable minds were voraciously curious and we consumed as much information and analysis as we could, constantly revising our moral and political ideologies. I loved to contemplate Carl Jung’s conception of self-realization (which he called “individuation”) in my naive quest to, as Alan Watts would put it, become what I am. We had a lot to talk about, so we made tentative plans to meet again.

A week later, I found myself eating peanut butter and magic mushroom sandwiches with Natalie in the comfort of my studio apartment. Television’s 1977 album “Marquee Moon” synched up perfectly with the -inspired hallucinations that began appearing on the walls and ceiling.

After a few hours of listening to music, drawing, painting, and deliriously observing our pulsating surroundings, we began philosophizing again, picking up roughly where we had left off during our chance rendezvous a week earlier.

She seemed to know a lot about philosophy, often riffing on Kant, Hume, and Descartes. Sometimes this caused me to feel “out of my element.” But I had been devouring the work of intellectual kingpins like Carl Jung, Noam Chomsky, Erich Fromm, and Hunter S. Thompson, so our conversations seamlessly ebbed and flowed between various topics. It’s important to note that we were merely 21 years old, and in way over our heads here. With the gift of hindsight, I can confidently say that this discourse was sometimes incoherent. But we did come to some semblance of an overarching theory, which went something like this:

Art and music are forms of creative expression, inseparable from personal autonomy, although myriad masterpieces are produced in states of anguish and heartbreak. But, as noted by , creative expression is often a luxury borne out of privilege. These conditions reveal the dialectical nature of our constant struggle for autonomy in a world that sculpts our minds and demands our subservient labor. Even our decision to take these drugs was a seemingly revolutionary act. But indeed, we were living within this societal dichotomy; coercive forces versus uninhibited personal freedom. It seemed so obvious, so apparent, within the context of our giddy psychedelic disposition.

What felt like several hours later, I was lying on the couch, gazing up at the ceiling, but the spontaneous M.C. Escher art had stopped growing. Natalie was sitting on the floor cross-legged, about four feet away, paging through a dense art history book. She seemed so content.

Then it hit me: What does Natalie actually want? If she just wants to be friends, then I shouldn’t be thinking about coercing her back into a romantic relationship. I should value her personal autonomy. I should want what she wants, as far as her own life is concerned. That was the real lesson in all of this.

Obviously I didn’t say these things out loud. It was a personal moment of introspection, a silent epiphany, drowned out by the late-70s proto-punk that echoed throughout the studio.

Of course I still had feelings for Natalie, but in those moments I was able to reevaluate all of that. Here we were, having a profound experience as mere human beings, platonically contemptating the sociological intricaties of the world around us while under the influence of highly potent psilocybin mushrooms. Maybe we didn’t need to be “dating.”

Around this time, I was in the process of growing out of the religious fundamentalism I was raised with, though some vestiges remained. The experience chronicled herein may have been the beginning of the end of said dogmatism, eventually resulting in a deep-seated desire for others to live free from coercion and arbitrary heirarchies; free to determine their own destinies.

Natalie and I remained friends for several years, until we both moved away.

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Written by

Socialist. Herbivore. Husband. I usually write about politics, current events, and history. My work has also been published by The Hampton Institute.

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