The looming effects of shrooming

Feb. 20, 2004, midnight | By Olivia Bevacqua | 16 years, 11 months ago

Messing with nature's mushrooms can produce toxic highs and even more dangerous lows

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

Senior Alex stares intently at the feet before him. Clad in spotless Nikes, they move steadily ahead—one in front of the other, grazing the sidewalk, over and over in hypnotic repetition. It takes him a full minute to realize that these are his feet, swinging forward on legs that are somehow outside of his control.

As his feet carry him down the streets, he is not wondering why he has this mysterious power over appendages he cannot feel. Alex is under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms, a powerful, illegal, hallucinogenic drug.

Psilocybin mushrooms, popularly known as "shrooms," contain two active chemicals, psilocybin and psilocin, that lack therapeutic value and have a high potential for abuse. The mushrooms typically cause hallucinations that can affect sight, sound or touch when eaten; they also provoke quick emotional changes. Alex is one of many Blazers who have tried mushrooms, succumbing to experimentation despite potential legal and physical repercussions.

The powers of fungus

Notoriously wild hallucinatory effects are one of the main appeals of psilocybin mushrooms to the teenage market. Senior Rachel's eyes widen as she describes the visual illusions that characterized her first experience on mushrooms. "It was amazing. I was watching flowers on the bedspread bloom and close. My friend dropped something on the blanket, and waves in the fabric rippled out from where [the object] had dropped," she says.

In addition to distortion of reality, decreased self-awareness can lead to adverse physical reactions. Alex remembers a friend who defecated inside his pants. "He was mad paranoid and afraid to go to the bathroom. If you're trippin' real hard, nothing will affect you," he says.

A more common hazard of ingesting psilocybin mushrooms is the ever-present risk of consuming the wrong type of mushroom or one that has been laced with an additional drug, according to Richard Grapes, an undercover detective for the narcotics enforcement branch of the Montgomery County Police Department.

For the person who eats a misidentified mushroom, the mistake could mean stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea and even death. Some Blazers have witnessed the results first-hand. "My friend started throwing up a purplish reddish color and getting really cold. He was asking for his mom," says junior Carl with a faint smile. "It was kind of spooky."

Even if the mushroom is properly identified, it is not uncommon for nausea and vomiting to occur during the first half hour after ingestion, according to the web site of Partnership for Awareness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting drug awareness among youth. The chances of becoming ill increase if the user combines his psilocybin experience with other drugs.

Costs of the thrill ride

Psilocybin drug trips are deeply psychological. Emotions become amplified and can change erratically, according to Grapes. While some Blazers describe periods of peaceful introspection as part of past mushroom experiences, the pendulum can swing either way, from passive thoughts on the meaning of life to periods of panic. If an element of anxiety is introduced during the trip, the negative emotion can be magnified many times.

Senior Michael experienced this phenomenon when his parents called him while he was under the influence of mushrooms. "That blew me so bad," he says, shaking his head. "I couldn't talk at all. I wanted to answer them, but the words coming out of my mouth made no sense."

In some cases, depression and panic can emerge suddenly with no apparent cause. The second time that Rachel tried mushrooms, she went to a party and had an anxiety attack in which she imagined she couldn't breathe. "I felt like there was this hole in my throat that wasn't getting filled," she says. "I was scared and kept trying to explain to people but couldn't communicate what I was feeling, which made it even worse. By the end of the night, I was crying. It freaked me out a lot."

One of the worst things about experiencing a bad mushroom trip is that once the negative feelings start, the victim can do nothing except wait until the effect wears off, according to several Blazers. "You only have so much control over it. My friend was having a bad trip, and I remember him repeating at one point, ‘I wish this were over,'" says one senior.

Typical mushroom trips last from three to six hours, which can be miserable for someone experiencing paranoia or depression, according to the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services web site. Even after the intense period of hallucinations, there is often an additional two- to four-hour time period in which it is difficult to sleep and discern reality. Rachel remembers the lingering effect after her initial high had faded. "It felt like it was never going to wear off, like I was going to be depressed forever," she says.

A lifetime changed by an evening of fun

Though Rachel's sensation of unending depression was an illusion, psilocybin mushrooms can have an impact that reaches far beyond the hours during and immediately after a shroom trip. Even an average dose of mushrooms has the potential to do permanent mental damage, according to Steve Moreno, a substance abuse counselor at Suburban Hospital.

One of Moreno's patients hallucinated spaceships and "little green men" during a bad trip and was admitted into a psychiatric ward shortly after. Ten years later, the patient still needs a guardian to oversee his finances and lacks the average mental capacity of someone his age, according to Moreno.

"Some people come back from the trip and return to normal, while others stay in that world [of altered reality]," says Moreno. "When they recover, they may demonstrate signs of mild retardation."

Though most Blazers were unaware of permanent damage that could be done by mushrooms, some reported that their psilocybin experience was powerful enough to make them wary of trying the drug again. "I don't really want to do shrooms again. It's too long and too intense for me," says Michael.

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