Dave Feschuk: ‘I was lost.’ Ex-NHL enforcer Daniel Carcillo says magic mushrooms saved his life and offer real hope for mental health treatment

Canada

In the more than five years since he last played an NHL game, Daniel Carcillo has resided in some frighteningly dark places.

Once an enforcer who traded punches in about 100 NHL fights, he says at times he’s found himself trapped in a downward spiral of depression and anxiety — mental health disorders that have been linked to the repetitive head trauma he suffered as a player. And though he has fought hard to get better — researching no end of treatments and spending more than $200,000 over a four-year period at various medical clinics in search of relief from a laundry list of symptoms that also included a failing memory, insomnia and impulse-control issues — a raft of prescribed remedies have proven, at best, temporary. Nothing worked for long.

A two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks who had largely cut himself off from the hockey community, thanks in part to his involvement in lawsuits against the National Hockey League and Canadian Hockey League, he was suddenly a man on an island. More than once, he says, he considered suicide.

“I was lost. I was lost in life,” he was saying in a recent interview. “Nobody really wanted to hang out with me. I could tell I was a burden to my family. I didn’t want my kids to learn how to grow up seeing the way I was acting. I just thought it might be better for me to be gone.”

But 13 months ago, he got a call from a former teammate who suggested an unconventional option. At the former teammate’s urging, Carcillo got on a plane to a location he won’t disclose to undergo a treatment that he says saved his life.

Carcillo was administered what’s known as a “hero dose” of psilocybin, an ancient psychedelic plant medicine commonly known as magic mushrooms. And though he described the experience as challenging — a hallucinogenic exploration of the darkest corners of his psyche — he says the after-effects have been remarkable.

The suicidal thoughts have left his head. The symptoms that made post-NHL life difficult have largely subsided. In short, he says he’s never been better.

“I’m doing phenomenally well,” Carcillo said. “I’m living my best life right now.”

In the 13 months since his eureka moment, Carcillo has become an outspoken advocate for the benefits of psychedelic drugs. This past week he was featured on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” wherein he travelled to the Peruvian jungle to partake in the ceremonial consumption of ayahuasca, a centuries-old psychoactive brew. Carcillo says the ceremony, a four-hour-long hallucinogenic trip that took place six months after he was administered the “hero dose” of psilocybin, brought him face to face with his deceased grandparents and helped him confront his fear of death.

“(Carcillo) has rewired his brain,” Rick Doblin, an expert on psychedelics, told HBO. “And because there’s new pathways built in the brain, it lasts.”

Those new brain pathways have taken Carcillo down a new career track. Along with continuing to pursue various legal actions against the hockey establishment — his lawsuit against the NHL, which alleges the league withheld information on the dangers of repetitive head trauma, is in the discovery phase — Carcillo has founded a company that’s researching psilocybin as a treatment for various mental health conditions. The idea, he says, is to bring what’s currently an underground treatment to mainstream clinics. He’s set a goal to help one million people escape the grim effects of head trauma, and he’s of the belief that psychedelics have the potential to help millions more.

“I really do believe this will help people and it won’t break the bank,” he said. “(Treating the effects of concussions) doesn’t have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was paying $1,500 a day to some of these clinics. None of it was covered by insurance. I couldn’t afford it. And if I couldn’t afford it, a lot of the people I’m advocating for certainly couldn’t.”

Psilocybin has been making its share of headlines of late. Earlier this month, Oregon passed a measure to allow for supervised psilocybin clinics in the treatment of mental illness. A handful of U.S. cities, among them Denver and Ann Arbor, Mich., have decriminalized the drug. The shift has been driven by a steady stream of research from a raft of universities — including Yale, Johns Hopkins and England’s Imperial College of London — that has suggested psilocybin therapy could have promising effects on mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Norman Farb, head of the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Psychedelic Studies Research Program, said the best research has serious scientists eyeing the intriguing potential of the drugs with a guarded optimism.

“When you’re on a psychedelic drug, parts of the brain start talking to each other in ways they don’t normally communicate,” he said. “And we know that some psychedelics like ketamine — which is further down the regulatory pipe than mushrooms or ayahuasca — have neuroplastic effects, which means it gets brain cells to start growing and connecting with each other in adults in ways you don’t often see. You put those two things together … and the big picture idea is that if you start rebuilding these connections you can start regaining function.”

The excitement about the possibilities of psychedelics has attracted a wave of investment in stock markets around the world. Which is not to say Carcillo is naive to the hurdles that lie ahead. Psilocybin remains illegal in both the U.S. and Canada, and in most places around the world.

“The main hurdle is stigma — the stigma toward these medicines brought on by the war on drugs,” Carcillo said. “And the way we beat stigma is science.”

The stigma, in some ways, comes from stories of “bad trips” — the notion that, if not used safely, psychedelic drugs can lead to ugly outcomes. While they aren’t known to be addictive, and while Farb said that biologically they’re “safer than Aspirin,” they come with risks if used haphazardly.

To that end, Carcillo said it’s crucial that the drugs only be used in the presence of an experienced and sober guide who understands the appropriate dose and protocol.

“You need a responsible sitter, someone who has guided people through this before who’s familiar with the medicine, who can create the setting to have a proper experience,” he said. “And the most important part is integration. After the ceremony, you need to work with that (sitter) and talk out what you see in the ceremony and relate it back to your everyday life.”

In other words, Carcillo said finding peace with the help of psychedelics hasn’t been as simple as popping a pill. He says his current well-being has been enhanced by a disciplined lifestyle, including appropriate sleep, regular yoga and intermittent fasting. Still, Carcillo said his own story, while it’s one anecdote, speaks to a yawning gap in mental health treatment options that’s important to fill.

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“People are getting really tired of the conventional mental health industry that’s just pushing antidepressants at people that rob them, a lot of times, of their feeling of meaning or joy while getting their symptoms under check,” said Farb. “And I think there’s a real yearning or hunger for, ‘There must be something else out there.’ That’s fed into the mindfulness movement. I think it’s feeding into the psychedelics movement. People are not really satisfied with what we’ve got, so the grass is always greener.”

For Carcillo, the future is certainly brighter than it was 13 months ago.

“There’s months that I take off of this medicine. I don’t need it at all. I feel great. That’s the thing that’s so special about this,” Carcillo said. “It’s not like big pharma saying, ‘Hey, I’m making a pill for you to be on for the rest of your life.’ No. We’re going to create a regimen you can be on for the next two years and be off for the rest of your life. That’s what you’re trying to do. It’s changed my life. And it can change a lot more.”

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