Heather Jackson calls it the mother’s wall and it usually comes on very suddenly.
She can’t make regular decisions, like what to cook for dinner. She realizes the kitchen trash is full and starts to go to take it out and then discovers something else needs to be done and she sets the trash bag down, only to discover it eight hours later.
“I can feel the wall coming,” said Jackson, CEO of Unlimited Sciences, a psychedelic research company and a mother of two in a town south of Denver. “And I think the wall is coming because I need something to rest on.”
That rest comes in the form of a tiny capsule of dried, powdered psilocybin – psychedelic mushrooms.
Jackson is one of hundreds of mothers in Colorado who has begun a regimen of microdosing psychedelics to ease the mounting stress and anxiety of what it is to be a 2022 mother on the go. Some have joined support groups to help them with microdosing, some have gone to churches and religious ceremonies. Yet others microdose and do yoga or journal or take a walk with their kids or watch a Disney movie.
“I would say that previously, I was very disconnected from my body. I would actually joke I could have a severed arm and I would still be, like, typing, working like with one hand, you know, like everything’s fine,” said Jackson, whose youngest son, a 19-year-old, has special needs and requires round-the-clock care. “And so now that I’m very in tune with myself, I see it coming, and I know that I need to take the rest.”
Mommies who microdose are among the fastest-growing groups of followers in the psychedelic movement, according to industry observers and academics studying psilocybin.
Throughout the United States and Canada, clinical trials have shown that larger doses of psilocybin help treat anxiety, depression and trauma. One recent trial showed synthetic psilocybin treated drug-resistant depression as effectively as escitalopram, a common SSRI, according to Scientific American and the New England Journal of Medicine.
Those macro doses create psychedelic trips, which are described by users as eye-opening and life-changing. Sometimes they have visions that show them what they’ve done in their past – one physician mother described a high-dose trip that revealed that she once covered up her daughter’s mouth while she took a work call. Others say it took them on a journey that changed their perspectives completely.
But less is known about the efficacy and safety of microdosing, particularly among the mostly healthy mothers who are partaking, doctors say. For researchers, trying to suss out the effects of treatment or medicine on any healthy person is extremely difficult.
“It’s not so dangerous that it would be so obvious, but really we don’t have good epidemiological studies. Are there any bad outcomes? Are there good outcomes? There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Dr. Josh Woolley, an associate psychiatry professor in residence at the University of California San Francisco. Woolley is overseeing a clinical trial on higher doses of naturally derived psilocybin among healthy people. “And so people who are using, who are microdosing, what I would say is that they’re basically experimenting on themselves. We really just don’t know that much about it, but it isn’t without risk.”
That hasn’t stopped scores of moms from forming a largely secretive, burgeoning movement, complete with websites, social media support groups and doctors offering, on the side, to help people through the experiences.
The moms interviewed for this story, many of whom wanted to use first names only because the drug is still illegal, say the microdoses are so small that they barely register a buzz.
They tout the mushrooms as safer and less high-inducing than a glass of wine or a beer.
But they say the capsules, usually from 0.1 milligrams to 0.3 milligrams per dose, taken over a period of days, builds up in their systems and gives them more patience, more ability to cope, more organizational talent and more happiness in the throes of physically and emotionally difficult hours of child-rearing.
It dents some of the motherhood drudgery – laundry, bath time, temper tantrums – and brightens the good moments, creating newfound appreciation for life, they said.
“It’s just 10% helpful,” said Courtney, a mother of two who works in the cannabis industry and microdoses mushrooms. “You’re 10% more patient, 10% more joyful, maybe 10% more willing to play and roll around in the grass with your kids. And 10% goes a pretty long way. Sometimes that’s all you need.”
Some mothers interviewed, including Courtney, say microdosing mushrooms has assisted them enough to slowly stop taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medicines.
Tracey Tee, a Denver mother of one, who, after starting microdosing, said she now feels like “Tracey 3.0.”
“I started the medicine and it just changed my life,” said Tee, who runs Moms On Mushrooms, an online and in-person community offering microdosing courses and guided help on how to dose as a busy mother. “Microdosing just brings all your emotions up and it puts them right in front of your face to stare at. You have to stare at them and then when you do, you let it all go.”
Tee launched Moms On Mushrooms, or MOM, after losing her first mom-centric business during the pandemic, running comedy shows across the country. She said when she began microdosing, she felt a gaping need to create a space where mothers could talk to each other about what they were going through because the overall experience is very different than it is for someone without kids.
“This is done between ballet practice and doctor’s appointments and soccer,” she said. “We don’t get the luxury of just flying off to the Amazon rainforest for a month and doing ceremony after ceremony. We don’t get to go to Bali for two weeks and do yoga and eat fruit. We don’t even get two and a half hours to meditate every day. That’s not realistic for moms in this day and age.”
Experts who study women’s health say the notion of a “mother’s little helper” goes back several generations. That phrase was coined by the famous 1966 Rolling Stones song about Valium. Today, gift stores are filled with “mommy’s sippy cups” and “mommy needs wine” T-shirts. During Tee’s pre-pandemic comedy shows for mothers, called “The Pump and Dump Show,” she often watched mothers come in gaggles and blow off steam with large numbers of drinks.
“Moms are just struggling so hard right now, but many of us have moved past, I think, wanting to gather and just guzzle five bottles of wine and go bar hopping,” she said. “We’re craving something deeper and we’re definitely craving community. Besides, with every day that passes, I can guzzle less and less alcohol in general.”
Dr. Neill Epperson, one of the world’s foremost experts on women’s mental health and the chairwoman of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus, said the majority of people using SSRIs, or prescription antidepressants, are women. And she notes the World Health Organization has found major depressive disorder the leading cause of disease burden for women internationally.
“Parenting is freaking stressful,” Epperson said. “We have created a very stressful world for everyone and you have to understand that our physiology does not evolve as quickly as our environment has evolved.”
But Epperson said distress related to all of the things mothers are expected to do is not the same thing as a mental illness and shouldn’t be treated that way.
Epperson’s kids are grown, but she said when they were small, she was in the “chardonnay” generation. The idea of mothers “dosing themselves with various things,” she said, to help manage stress, or give themselves a treat at the end of the day, is not new, but there are now more substances to choose from.
She worries about microdosing mushrooms and she worries about measures to liberalize access to them.
“I feel like we have to slow down and do the research before we just, you know, all of a sudden start opening up all these treatment centers and saying, we know what we’re doing,” she said. “We don’t know what this does. Would you do that if it was cancer, would you do that if you were treating cancer? I don’t think so.”
Ariel, who lives in the north metro suburbs with four children, is in the medical business and wanted to use only her first name to protect herself and her ex-husband’s identity. She first tried psychedelics through the Sacred Tribe religious group. It was during the pandemic and she was going through a bitter divorce.
She now microdoses when she knows she’s going to have a stressful day. She said it helps put her in a more positive head space to parent.
“I’m in the process of making dinner and I forgot to send out an email or I’m trying to schedule appointments for the next day and my kids are fighting or screaming,” she said. “You know, we all have bad days. But I’ve noticed that when I have taken that time to get in the right head space at the beginning of the day, I have the energy that I need at the end of the day. ... Instead of adding to the energy of frustration and anger, I’m able to diffuse it with love and connection.”
Even though the Food and Drug Administration designated psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” in 2018 and 2019 for treating major depression and depressive disorder, mushrooms and psychedelics remain illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Denver County has decriminalized possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which means possession of them is a “lowest law enforcement priority.” It is still illegal to buy and sell them, and data from the Denver District Attorney’s Office shows there are still some prosecutions related to mushrooms, about 47 filings from 2019 to 2021.
In other counties, simple possession of mushrooms is still illegal, though it’s unclear how much of a priority it is for the federal government. The Drug Enforcement Agency declined to comment for this story.
Woolley, at UCSF, is running one of the first trials of naturally-derived botanical psilocin, the active ingredient in psilocybin on healthy people in the world, though he’s using larger, “macro” doses instead of microdoses of the mushrooms. The research will look at brain activity, blood work and the cognitive and psychological effects of mushrooms on the brain. The trial will also be paired with talk therapy.
Woolley is intrigued by the microdosing mommy movement because he understands their call for some help.
“How do you measure something that might make people have more patience with their children?” he said. “I have a 4- and a 6-year-old and I certainly would like that. ... But to prove it in a clinical trial? We’re talking about small changes that may matter a lot, but they’re much smaller than if someone is severely depressed and can’t get out of bed.”
Jackson became curious about psilocybin after her special needs son relapsed with a severe seizure illness after seeing miraculous effects and improvement from taking CBD. For four years, the teenager had moved from hospice, because he was having more than 100 seizures a day, to being a happy teenager. Then the seizures started up again, and Jackson felt helpless.
“I was a mess, understandably,” she said. “I couldn’t remember if I fed my kids dinner. I was just not doing very well. I was really, really struggling.”
Jackson was having symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when her son started having seizures again. Her heart was racing, she was sweating and panicking.
She did a larger dose of psilocybin with a therapist and a guide in the woods in 2016 and said she marks her life before and after that experience. Afterward, she had a deep understanding her son wasn’t broken, and she was better able to calmly take care of him.
After that, she microdosed 0.1 milligrams of mushrooms, three days on and four days off.
Jackson will often take several months off from it, until she feels that familiar wall coming up around her. She still sees a counselor.
“Fortunately, I was able to save my kid,” she said. “And then I was looking for something to save myself.”