By Jason Schwab
After years of seeking refuge at the bottom of a bottle, Karen Shaw’s experimentation with psilocybin yielded unexpected discoveries… and a fresh start
Not long after Karen Shaw started microdosing psilocybin, a very distinct thought seemed to cry out, louder than the rest.
“One of the things I said to myself is I have to make my life more beautiful. I have to do things to make my life beautiful and happy.”
For months leading up to this point, Karen’s life felt far from beautiful.
Having deviated from her career to start a silversmithing business with her partner of 10 years, the venture turned sour early on as their relationship disintegrated. With both her professional and personal lives entwined in a deepening crisis, the depression and anxiety Karen had struggled with for decades intensified and began to close in.
Laying out the story from her home office in The Hague, at this point Karen paused and looked down at her teacup. A feeble laugh and a pixelated Skype connection did little to disguise her lingering pain.
“I’m a bit surprised. I thought I was over it. But there’s obviously still something there. I’m happy to be talking about it,” she said, lifting her chin. “They were bad days. Feeling like I could spiral into the depths of despair and not come out of it.
“I felt like I was hanging on for dear life sometimes.
“Just trying to keep my sanity and keep going. And of course, relying on drink too much.”
Alcohol had been a toxic ally during ongoing bouts with mental illness. Feeling trapped in a decaying business still reeking of her failed romance, Karen’s reliance on the habit grew.
“I think it was vodka at the time. If I’m honest about it, I was probably drinking between half a bottle to a bottle of it a day.”
Karen’s mounting dread and desperation, as well as her dissatisfaction with past mental health treatment, sent her searching for other solutions. Having stumbled across an article on microdosing a few years earlier, Karen decided it was an alternative measure she was willing to try. Living in the Netherlands, this was a significantly easier undertaking for her than it would be for many others.
“I bought a grow kit of magic mushrooms at a shop down the road from me. I grew them, dried them and I started microdosing in March 2017,” she said.
Following a protocol recommended by psychologist and psychedelic researcher, Dr. James Fadiman, Karen took a sub-perceptible dose of psilocybin mushrooms twice a week for six weeks.
“I would weigh out 0.2 to 0.3 of a gram and put it in a little capsule and take that in the morning. I would do that on Wednesdays and Sundays. They were my microdosing days,” she recalled.
From there, it didn’t take long for things in Karen’s life to start rearranging. Within weeks, she was finally able to pry herself from the doomed business and damaging relationship. While walking away was liberating, the reprieve was brief. At 59-years-of-age, having to join the unemployment line offered proof her life would have to get ugly before finding beauty.
“I was on employment benefits and I had the opportunity to do some courses in how to design what you want to do with your life. I remember feeling very insecure walking into those rooms, feeling everybody was looking at me. I didn’t want to be there.”
The early days of her microdosing experiment also proved a little bumpy. With some gentle coercion from the psilocybin she was taking, Karen was forced to embrace a deeper level of vulnerability and openness, which caused her to “feel a lot of anxiety at first. I think it’s because I felt that I actually had to face the problems I was going through,” she said. “It (microdosing) does make you think a lot more. It makes you analyze yourself and why you do things and of course that can make you feel uncomfortable.”
But as the days inched past, anxiety gave way to something else.
“There was a gradual realization that things were getting better. That I could handle things better. I was much calmer.”
Eventually, this shift unearthed another realization Karen would never have thought possible… She was now ready to say goodbye to an old and domineering friend.
“I started drinking less. I’ve not stopped. I might have a glass of wine, or some cannabis, a joint after work. But I don’t drink to excess. I don’t like getting drunk anymore. It’s not something I enjoy.”
Following a 10-week break, Karen began her second round of microdosing, and the insights continued to flow, alongside some unexpected opportunities. A few months after making the tough decision to abandon silversmithing, someone approached Karen and offered her work on a small project. Given her background in graphic design and website creation, she decided to take it on. Then, a crazy notion caught her attention.
“I thought, ‘okay, now’s a good time to start my own business.’ Which I did.”
Softly spoken and harboring a gentle temperament, Karen doesn’t come across as the bragging type. But as she described her newfound joy and contentment at growing her fledgling freelancing venture, she allowed herself a confident smile. Progress is going well. Networking events have filled her calendar as she seeks to expand her client base.
“Before, I just didn’t think I had it in me. But I haven’t looked back since.”
Throughout this time, Karen has continued to microdose on and off. She’s recently returned to it again, this time only taking one dose a week. As well as using psilocybin to climb out of a depressive slump, Karen found it’s benefitted her creativity, ultimately aiding her work.
“When you microdose, you sort of go into this flow state and become very, very aware of everything around you. At first, I could get very distracted. But once I could control it and focus it on one thing… well, you just forget everything. You get a sort of childlike delight. It’s difficult to explain,” she said, shaking her head.
“I feel I can enjoy everything much more completely than I have done for a long time.”
Digging into the depths of her artistic potential, Karen has also discovered a love of writing. With the freedom to explore a new passion, she’s since developed it into more than just a pastime, and now offers it as part of her professional repertoire.
“I always thought I hated writing. These days, I can spend hours getting the tone and the message right and enjoying the language. I’d never enjoyed that before.”
While she’s relishing a fresh start, Karen realizes the difference between her old life and her recent achievements is terrifyingly slim. Asked where she’d be right now, had she not purchased that mushroom grow kit… Karen was adamant she’d be worse off.
“I’d probably still be drinking a lot and just not enjoying life.”
Having come close to snaring a number of helpdesk positions during her time searching for work, Karen is grateful such an opportunity never came to fruition.
“I would have jumped at whatever came along. I’d be sitting behind a computer answering problem emails all day and feeling very bored and very unhappy with myself.”
While Karen’s career has enjoyed a kickstart, the most radical transformation has been unfolding internally.
“One thing I noticed is I actually like spending time on my own. I like being in my own head.”
This prospect, as simple as it seems, wasn’t an option for Karen before microdosing. Stuck in a never-ending game of cranial cat and mouse, she spent much of her mental capacity drowning out the pain of her thoughts and problems. When this got too strenuous, liquor was able to finish the job.
“My head was like one of those old telephone exchanges,” Karen said, tensing her hands all talon-like above her light brown hair to emphasize the analogy. “And it was a terrible mess. I didn’t know what my problems were. I didn’t know how to turn my life around. I didn’t know how to stop drinking. I didn’t want to stop drinking.”
The biggest gift psilocybin gave her, Karen said, was a “brain reboot”.
“It’s as if you had all this chaos in your brain then all of a sudden, it sorts itself out and all of the connections are working properly again. You can think more clearly and make better decisions.”
While the phrase “brain reboot” feels as if it was lifted straight from the greasy elevator pitch of a Shake Weight salesman, proof of Karen’s claim goes far beyond her words — it’s written all over her demeanor. The current portrait of Karen Shaw hasn’t a single brushstroke of the anxious scrapheap she spent half the interview describing.
“I think if you spoke to my eldest daughter, she would say that I’m a very, very different person now than I used to be.”
So different, in fact, that talking to this daughter wasn’t something even Karen herself could do back then. Difficulties communicating led to frequent confrontations. The shame she carries about for being inattentive to her children’s needs was just as easy to pick up on as her own emotional scarring.
“When you feel pain inside, it’s very difficult to connect with other people. You tend to lash out at them and not be aware of their situation and their feelings,” she said. “I don’t think I’d ever thought about my role as a mother before. I sort of just became a mother but never thought about what that really means. Which sounds awful doesn’t it?”
As Karen’s relationship with psilocybin deepened, so too did the frayed relationship with her eldest daughter start to mend. Being less swept up in her perceived problems, Karen’s empathy grew. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Karen started truly listening to her daughter.
“She’s much more willing to phone me about her problems and I’m not just able to help her more, but I’m happy to as well. I’m gradually getting this feeling that I want to be a role model.
“I want to show my daughters that you can work for yourself. You can be an independent woman and enjoy your life. I’d never thought that before.”
Admitting this was a completely unexpected development in her microdosing journey, the sheepish excitement that crept into Karen’s features betrayed her gratitude for it nevertheless.
“I’m even looking forward to being a grandmother. Before, that was something I didn’t want to think about. I thought being a grandmother meant you were old!” Karen laughed, but was cut short by the follow up: Is it possible a reconciliation may never have taken place?
“I think if I’d carried on like I was, then I really think we might have grown further and further apart. It’s awful to think that was definitely a possibility.”
Beyond the prospect of becoming a grandmother, Karen has much more to look forward to. Chief among all of that is a commitment to spend as much time as possible with herself.
Being at home, enjoying creative pursuits, cooking, and gardening now sit at the top of her list of priorities. The simple pleasures, it seems, are where she’s discovering vitality, as well as that all-important objective she set out to achieve back when her life fell down around her ankles — these days, Karen finds beauty where she’d never once cared to look.
“I can spend hours just watching the birds and the insects… Oh, and the spiders!” Karen added, an overt tinge of enthusiasm taking hold of her voice. Someone imbued with a healthy distrust of spiders might even describe her tone as bearing an irrational relish. “I find myself being blown away by the incredible beauty of their webs and how they made them and what clever little creatures they are.
“I even postponed trimming one of my bushes because a spider had its web up and it was obviously preparing for winter. I wouldn’t have thought that way before. I’m much more empathetic and feel very connected to everything.
“I bet I sound very silly now, don’t I?”
To those scared of spiders, yes. But to those working in certain research labs at Columbia and Yale, not at all.
Last year, a published study out of the Spiritual Mind Body Institute suggested cultivating a belief in being connected to something greater than oneself can “have profound impacts on people’s lives”. Having highlighted exactly where in the brain transcendent states are processed also helped researchers deduce that spiritual encounters aren’t just limited to religious practice, but can be brought about in many varied ways.
Potentially, Karen’s newfound love of spiders, and nature, in general, may be helping her build a brighter outlook and find greater meaning.
“Life is such a great thing. It’s all around us. The world is teeming with life and we’re just a tiny little part of this living entity,” she said, before more muttering about sounding silly again.
As for microdosing, Karen plans to continue with one capsule a week, for as long as she feels is necessary. Lately, the toughest thing about it is actually remembering to take the dose. Without a reminder set in her phone, she’s prone to forgetting it altogether. It’s a much different relationship with substances she’s still getting used to, but understandably, she doesn’t mind the change.
“I’m healing. I don’t know if that process will ever stop, because you’re always growing and changing. But it’s certainly put me on a different path and has me feeling a lot better about myself,” she said. “The world could do with a lot more microdosing, I think there are a lot of people who could benefit.”
About the Author
Jason Schwab: When a 10-week microdosing experiment helped Jason overcome a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety, he immediately became a passionate advocate for the widespread acceptance of psychedelics. A believer in the power of informed, intentional substance use to foster positive transformation, Jason knows that pulling people’s stories out from the shadow of prohibition is key to inspiring true healing on a global scale. A former journalist, he now travels the world seeking out the everyday men and women taking ownership of their health and wellbeing, making a real difference in their own lives, and consequently, the lives of others.