Simone was hit by double tragedy. She says a surprising substance helped turn her life around

Until a few years ago, Simone Surgeoner had never taken drugs.

Now, at age 49, the Australian mother-of-four believes they turned her life around.

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“I’d never done any drugs, like I didn’t even fool around with drugs in my youth or anything,” Surgeoner said.

Yet her perspective changed dramatically when her father and partner died in quick succession. Struggling with mental illness, she tried magic mushrooms.

“When I took the microdoses (of magic mushrooms), it was just like, ‘Oh, I’m me again’,” she said.

Surgeoner is one of a growing number of Australians who are turning to illicit psychedelics to help with mental health issues.

An estimated one in five people in Australia suffer a mental illness each year – and some research suggests that more than a third of sufferers may not respond to existing treatments.

But with limited scientific evidence to support their use, and strict rules still in place, psychedelics are still a treatment that exists underground.

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A unique way to address grief

In 2015, the surgeon’s father died unexpectedly in his sleep from a heart attack.

“There were no warning signs,” she said. “It was quite a shock.”

Then, just six weeks later, her partner – father of her two youngest daughters – died of cancer.

Soon after, Surgeoner began a relationship with an American man and moved to the US to be with him.

“It was not a healthy relationship,” she said. “It was difficult.”

When the rocky relationship ended and Surgeoner returned to Melbourne in October 2018, her grief caught up with her.

With no money, nowhere to live, no career, and two young children to care for, Surgeoner was going through the toughest period of her life.

“I was in a really, really dark place when I came back, like just not coping. I didn’t want to get out of bed,” she said.

“I was a single parent, single mum for the first time, and I came back with nothing. I was still grieving.”

Antidepressants didn’t appeal to her so surgeons began to look into other alternatives.

She read a book that recommended something a little surprising: microdosing psilocybin – more commonly known as magic mushrooms. Microdosing typically involves taking roughly 10 per cent of a regular recreational dose.

As a therapist, life coach and mentor for nearly 20 years, she had always been interested in psychedelic-assisted therapy, where patients take psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and other psychedelic drugs alongside psychotherapy. But she had never taken them herself.

“I took other mushrooms for health reasons, so I was like, ‘This is just another health benefit, and it’s just working on a different level of my mind and my emotions’,” she said.

She said she felt nauseous for about an hour after taking her first capsule.

“And then I found myself to be really, really tired, like I just had to go and lay down and sleep, and that sort of wore off for about an hour. But there was no tripping or sort of psychedelic effects or anything like that.”

For the rest of the day she felt jittery – just sort of “not herself”, she said.

But in the days that followed, Surgeons felt elated and happy.

“You just feel like yourself on a really good day.”

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The biggest problem was getting more – psychedelic drugs such as magic mushrooms, MDMA and LSD are illegal in Australia.

She asked around friends of friends and eventually found a “trusted source” who knew how to get the drugs from the Dark Web.

She was a little nervous accessing illicit substances – but she found they worked.

“Rather than just sort of feeling like I was drowning, so I’ve got to a place where I’m feeling much better, more well-resourced, and things feel more stable,” she said.

Self-treating with illicit drugs

Surgeoner’s way of dealing with her darkness was unusual – but she’s not alone.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a revival of clinical research and public interest around the world in how psychedelic drugs can help people battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and other significant mental health disorders.

In Australia, magic mushrooms are still illegal and our drug regulation agency Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) doesn’t recognize any medical value for magic mushrooms, MDMA and LSD – microdosed or not.

Last year the TGA considered whether to reclassify those drugs but opted not to. If it had, it would be among the first countries in the world to recognize them as legitimate medicines.

But there’s growing interest. In March last year, the federal government committed $15 million to research investigating the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions.

UWA Researcher Adam Fielding is among the Australian scientists researching psychedelics and mental health. Credit: Sarah Polanski

And a Global Drug Survey released last year showed more Australians are turning to psychedelic drugs to self-treat mental illness and emotional distress.

Initial clinical trials with psychedelics by CSIRO scientist Peter Duggan have been promising, he said.

Australian psychiatrist Dr Tanveer Ahmed has noticed a “swell of interest” in psychedelic-assisted therapy, including microdosing magic mushrooms.

He wants to see psychedelics brought into mainstream therapy – but he says there’s still a lack of scientific evidence on the effects of microdosing psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.

“From a purely clinical view, there’s no evidence that microdosing is somehow potentially therapeutic for diagnosable mental illness, and the several patients that I’ve seen over the years, often when I just give them legitimate, mainstream treatments, they improve, and they don’t need to microdose,” Ahmed said.

“I can see the attraction to microdosing. It has a certain glamor about it … But it’s certainly not something that I, as a serious, clinical psychiatrist, can recommend.”

‘I don’t know how it works, but it works’

There is still a lot of research to be done on why psychedelic drugs help people with mental health conditions, but Surgeoner is just happy it helped her.

“I don’t know how it works, but it works,” she said.

She wants authorities to look into better ways of dispensing drugs such as magic mushrooms.

“Anything can be abused,” she said. “So I don’t think that’s a reason not to do it. You’ve got to get over the stigma of ‘Oh it’s drugs’.”

Before she stopped microdosing magic mushrooms last year, she decided to take a full dose.

“I’d never done a ‘magic mushrooms trip’. So I decided to do one on my own.

“And this is where it starts to sound weird and trippy – but in that, the mushrooms said ‘You don’t need to do me any more. You’re done.’

“So it was kind of like, the medicine itself told me that I was done with the medicine. So I stopped taking them and haven’t felt the need to take them ever since.”

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