Kathleen's Story

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

BrainFutures spoke with a real patient from a psilocybin-assisted therapy study to learn about the lived experiences behind the data on psychedelics. This is Kathleen’s story.

Kathleen is no stranger to depression, and usually “tends to see the negative side of life really easily.” So when Kathleen was first diagnosed with lymphoma, she found herself thinking “that’s cancer… that’s the end.” To her, a lymphoma diagnosis meant that the end of her life was near.

After expressing this fear to her oncologist, she was referred to see a psychologist, Dr. R, at the cancer center where she was receiving treatment. Kathleen says that Dr. R helped her process the depression that came along with her cancer diagnosis. In one of their sessions, Dr. R told Kathleen about a new study at the cancer center that he thought could help with her depression and fears about her mortality.

The study offered psychedelic-assisted therapy to cancer patients, specifically psilocybin-assisted therapy. When Kathleen first heard about the trial, she was admittedly skeptical, and notes that she’s from a generation that believes that psychedelics can make you “go crazy,” so she couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to take a psychedelic, or how it could help with her depression. It was clear that Kathleen was skeptical, but she trusted her psychologist. So after some further explanation about the treatment and its potential benefits, Kathleen decided to enroll.

The Preparation Stage

The trial that Kathleen joined was group-focused, meaning that the preparation and integration phases of treatment were done in a group setting. Kathleen had three other study participants in her cohort. She and the other participants got along really well, and more importantly, they trusted the therapists and facilitators running the trial.

“If you see a door, go into it—don’t run away.”

“We trusted those people who were talking and telling us what would be going on. And I think that was a very, very important aspect of it, that we had trust in them,” she shares. The therapists running the clinical trial assured the group that they would be with them every step of the way. They also advised the group to lean into the psychedelic experience and accept whatever may come, telling them “if you see a door, go into it—don’t run away.” Kathleen says this open line of communication helped engender even more trust between the therapists and the group of participants.

Before her first psilocybin session, Kathleen felt inquisitive, and was “hoping that things would break through that were impeding her from moving forward in life.” After setting this intention and preparing alongside the group, it was time for Kathleen to enter her first medication session.

The Medication Session

At the start of the medication session, Kathleen’s therapist presented her with a psilocybin capsule and a “chalice” of ice-cold water. He kindly instructed her to take it, a process Kathleen describes as “almost like a holy thing.” After being reassured by her therapist that nothing bad was going to happen to her, Kathleen put on an eye mask and a pair of headphones. The first song she heard was a lyrical chant, “Om Namah Shivaya.” The chanting in the song made Kathleen anxious, so she reached out to hold her therapist’s hand.

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

Kathleen says this connection helped reduce her anxiety, and she began to hear “extremely beautiful” music. She saw a tremendous, golden light come forth, which gave way into what Kathleen explains was a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mother holding a baby. Though Kathleen and the Virgin Mother did not communicate with words, there was profound sense of communication between the two. The Virgin Mother said to Kathleen, “You don’t have to be afraid. I’m here. I’m taking care of this baby.”

Just then, Kathleen was reminded of a miscarriage she had forty-five years earlier. She hadn’t thought about her miscarriage in years due to the pain it brought her, revealing that “Because I could not give birth to that baby, I [felt that I] was really inadequate. Extremely inadequate. Not only in that case, but in life.” Kathleen believed that she gave her miscarried baby to Jesus, so seeing the vision of her baby safe in the Virgin Mother’s arm brought Kathleen a tremendous amount of peace.

Later in the medication session, Kathleen began to see generations and generations of her ancestors. Prior to joining the study, Kathleen had done a lot of genealogical research on her family’s ancestry. She uncovered that many of her ancestors were peasants who lived to see many hard times. But while on psilocybin, Kathleen saw them in another light. She saw her ancestors at their weddings, experiencing joy, and explains that “there wasn’t just negativity, sadness, and brutality, but also happiness.”

Toward the end of her session, Kathleen recalls being on a beach, looking out into the waves. As the beach got cold, Kathleen went inside for warmth and continued to view the waves through a window. Eventually, she found herself back on the beach, viewing the waves again. She was drawn toward them and slowly began to wade into the waves. As she entered the water, Kathleen realized that the waves represented her cancer. In that moment, she was finally able to accept her cancer diagnosis, adding, “it’s there, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. I will die someday, and it may be from something else.”

The Integration Stage

After her medication session, Kathleen joined the group the next day to process and integrate their psychedelic experiences. One of Kathleen’s biggest takeaways was her experience seeing the Virgin Mother. She believes the baby that the Virgin Mother held represented her miscarried baby, or maybe even Kathleen herself. Either way, this moment left a profound impact on Kathleen’s belief that she was an inadequate person. “I didn’t have to feel like I was nobody anymore,” she adds. She also reports that seeing generations of her ancestors experiencing joy helped her realize that there is both negativity and positivity in life, but that positivity usually overcomes the negative.  

Kathleen says that her group cohort discussed death during one of their integration sessions, adding, “we’re not afraid of death like we used to be. I think that is one of the results of what went on in our brains – that we don’t have to be afraid of death.”


Kathleen says her depression is doing well post-treatment. “I have a new perspective. I see things differently than I did before. I’m looking more for the goodness,” she adds. She notes that she’s able to feel more compassion and empathy for other people than she used to.

“The sky is bluer now than it’s ever been.”

One of the biggest changes she’s noticed in herself is her growing appreciation for nature. “The sky is bluer now than it’s ever been,” she says. Kathleen says that psilocybin helped her learn that humans are a part of nature. Recently Kathleen has noticed some daffodils prematurely sprouting up in her yard. She goes outside to spread mulch on them regularly, hoping it will protect them until springtime.

Kathleen recalls one profound moment when she was on vacation, looking out over a river through some dark trees. While soaking up this beautiful view, Kathleen thought to herself, “Wow, life is wonderful. There’s beauty out there. There’s goodness out there.”