Tripping With My Mom

An unspoken, impenetrable chill kept us apart for years. ’Shrooms brought us back together.

The writer’s mother at 20. Photo: Courtesy of the Author
The writer’s mother at 20. Photo: Courtesy of the Author
The writer’s mother at 20. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

My first psychedelic trip happened when I was 22. It started with half an eighth of psilocybin mushrooms, a microdose, really. The few strawlike stems and single shriveled Cheerio-size cap looked too pitiful an amount to actually do anything. The room was filled with comfy leather couches, colorful lighting, and classic-rock music playing. I stared at the brightly colored lights through closed eyelids, wondering if I was seeing hallucinations or just phosphenes. A few hours later, I was in bed, attempting to sleep, my dreams swirling with a strange consciousness.

The next day, feeling normal again, I called up my mom, asking, “Did you feel much last night?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I definitely felt something.”

My mom had set the dose and declared herself “the trip guide” on our inaugural psychedelic journey. We’d already smoked pot together plenty of times and even tried MDMA, but I was skeptical about the ’shrooms. “I want to try them again,” I said.

“That’s all I had. But you can come over and smoke one if you want.”

My mom often joked that my siblings and I wouldn’t exist without pot. That’s because when she moved from Michigan to Alabama at 21, my father was the first person to smoke pot with her. Born in Detroit to a gambling, Holocaust survivor father and an abusive, dog-groomer mother, my mom was often left on her own as a kid, leaving her with a cheeky allergy to “rules.” As a teenager, when her seventh-grade class was pressured to take a sobriety oath in a drug-abstinence program, she refused: “I can’t promise at 13 to swear off all drugs forever.”

After class, the teacher talked to my mom in the hall. “I’m concerned that you’re going to become an addict,” she said.

“It’s not realistic to say I’ll never try something,” my mom argued. “I can’t promise that.”

Her personality has always been over-the-top, sober or stoned. Growing up, she was incorrigible when it came to making her kids laugh with wild story-time improvisations, usually involving flatulence and adult diapers. Before she had a rocking chair, she would rock in bed, a pillow propped between her and the wall, swaying as she listened to classic rock and Motown. I’d snuggle up against her, my eyes mostly closed, occasionally sneaking glances at this short, cute, energetic woman who was my mom.

The writer with his mother on his first birthday. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

With 13 years between them, my parents’ ages spanned the boomer generation. She was a theater major in college, tech and directing, done with the frigid winters up North, and he had already been through one career as a rock-band promoter. She met him at his family home to buy a baggie of weed. He was grilling steaks on the patio. From the turntable in the living room came “Can’t You See,” by the Marshall Tucker Band. It didn’t take them long to settle down and have kids.

When I hit my teens, I came to appreciate my mom’s honesty about her use of pot and other substances. “Everybody’s got something to help them cope,” one of Mom’s adages goes. “It could be religion or sex or food or running for an hour, but everybody’s got something.”

During the propagandistic D.A.R.E. era, those words felt radical. Starting in grade school, we memorized snappy songs about drug abstinence and role-played with police officers through different scenarios involving drugs and guns. Shit, the teachers even assigned D.A.R.E. homework. I came home one day in middle school complaining and upset about some redundant worksheet. “Here, let me see,” Mom said. She skimmed the page and cackled.

“What?” I asked.

Mom read the line aloud: “One puff of marijuana and you’re an addict.” She giggled.

I wasn’t surprised by her reaction. Mom distrusted a lot of authority, but I trusted my mom over what I was learning in school. The D.A.R.E. caricatures of dope fiends — one-dimensional machos who were only interested in drugs or hooking other people — didn’t look at all like my parents, my mellow father and my over-the-top mom, both successful people with three healthy kids.

As she rocked in her chair, listening to the radio, I asked her about strange-sounding narcotics mentioned in my homework. Quaaludes: “Basically alcohol in pill form,” Mom said. “Blegh, I got those in high school.” LSD: “It was intense … it was like major tripping.” And mescaline: “If you can get the real thing, it’s the best there is. It makes everything look like how you see underwater.” Most of these things she had only tried a few times decades before. She warned us about people who fried their brains doing too much acid, emphasized responsible use and doing substances at home where we were safe, and that we could only do these things when we were of “legal age.”

“But Mom,” I would remind her, “there’s no legal age for something that’s illegal.”

“You know what I mean.”

And I did. My mom kept her word on that too; we didn’t smoke until I was out of high school. Both my older brother and younger sister are completely straight-edge; they don’t drink and never had an interest in smoking. Perhaps nothing can ruin something’s allure faster than your parents beating you to it, especially in high school. Even more likely, it was my mom’s honesty. All three of her children came to her for life lessons, help navigating social situations, and even relationship advice. (That last one almost always ended awkwardly.)

The writer’s mother at 20. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

My dad was never as forthcoming. Though he didn’t smoke as much, he always tried to conceal it from us kids. Once while my parents enjoyed an evening smoke on the front porch, I stood in the doorway, absently listening to their conversation. When I finally spoke up, my father turned, shocked to see me there, and rushed past me into the house.

I never grew close to Dad. Child care was women’s work in his eyes; his was the family business. Even on holidays and vacations, he was mindful of some invisible emotional border, giving himself the job of camcorder-holder and director instead of participant. When I was 14, he had a major-depressive episode and was hospitalized for a month. He emerged heavily medicated, and almost instantly, everything about him changed — his personality, his calm energy, his drive. After several years, my parents ended up divorced, but my mom remained Dad’s caretaker. He was a ghost of himself, and my mom had to pick up the load of three teenagers, a family business, and the decay of her now ex-husband. Our house, which had hosted so many raucous birthdays and holiday celebrations over the years, grew quieter. My mother grew more isolated and alone.

I didn’t see it like that then, though. How much my mother had to carry. How lonely that must have been. I was another self-absorbed teenager, too busy reading and writing, playing my guitar, dating girls. Sometimes I’d feel like Mom was jealous of these short-lived romances, the time they took away from her, because she had, as one therapist put it, an “attachment wound” from her childhood. After high school, I gradually drifted away from my parents. Dad remained zombified by mental illness, and Mom and I had some bad fights around the time I moved in with a girlfriend in Birmingham. By 20, I rarely called Mom, rarely drove out to visit her at the family farm. But after a couple of years and a bad breakup, I missed her and needed some way to reconnect.

“Want to smoke a J?” I asked her over the phone one day. “I need practice rolling.”

She said, “Sure. I can show you how.” (After nearly four decades, her joints still sometimes turn out lumpy or clogged with a stem in the middle.)

Smoking soon became a ritual that got us hanging out again, a way of catching up as we rolled the dried flower in paper and then lit up. Once a week or so, I’d leave the city to make the 30-minute drive out to Mom’s, and we’d toke up while watching a movie or floating in her pool. Oftentimes when my mom took the joint it became a talking stick, her turn to sermonize and satirize while the ember burned out. “Mom, smoke it or pass it already” became a common refrain.

“Oh, whoops,” she’d say, relighting and puffing. It was during one of these rambles that I learned that mushrooms were one of the few things she hadn’t tried.

After a few failed attempts at finding fungus in the neighboring cow pasture, Mom got an eighth from a friend and said she’d split it with me. Soon after, I saw an ad for an at-home mushroom “science kit” — such things exist — and shared it with Mom. She placed the order, which came a week later with a bag of rye berries to cultivate the fungal substrate and a bag of soil in which to plant the baby fungi. Mom swore live music stimulated the fungi. “The mushrooms need you to play for them,” she’d say when a bag was almost ready to bloom. I was a classical guitarist, and my mom’s bathroom, her growing hot spot, had the best acoustics in the house.Shroom bags are very stoic audiences, but nonetheless six weeks of germination later and the bag was filled with tall, twisting, very phallic mushrooms that bruised bright blue when cut or pinched.

So Mom and I started tripping. A lot. The mushrooms made everything seem fresh. On one of the first trips from my mother’s homegrown batch, I remember watching the green nautiluses on her bathroom wallpaper breathe big and then small, their colors pulsing almost like neon light. They made watching movies with Mom, especially already surreal family favorites like Groundhog Day, super intense and enjoyable. And the music, my parents’ music, that I’ve always loved — CCR, James Brown, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Otis Redding — felt alive and experiential in a way that I’ve only seen my parents’ generation enjoy.

We tripped four or five times together between June and September — and I probably did it just as often with friends, frequently bringing them out to the country so they could meet Mom — and that summer felt like a season outside time.

One trip, lying on the carpet in my mom’s bedroom in the pitch-dark, I watched the silhouette of her doorway shift and move like a mouth while we listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Mom rocked in her chair, oohing and aahing at the colors and patterns she saw behind her eyelids. As I watched her, a central empathetic nerve fired, and for the first time, I saw my mom as a woman, a wife, a child. I felt almost euphoric, like I’d time-traveled back to see Mom before being a mother was a part of her identity. I saw someone whose own mother hurt her, deprived her of any semblance of nurturing. Someone who after two decades of marriage lost not just my father but her husband, her partner, to mental illness. Looking back, I have no idea how she did it. Looking back, I cringed at how I didn’t see her.

After hearing the end of the album’s sixth track, “Mother,” I turned to my mom and said, “I never understood the ending before.”

“What do you mean?”

“When he asks why it needs to be so high. He’s not talking about getting high. He means the wall inside us. How we build it up.”

My mom smiled like I’d just spouted some brilliant math. It was hard for my mother to let go of her kids being kids — no surprise given those abandonment issues her abusive childhood imparted on her. For over two decades, her social life had shriveled as she poured herself into her children. But just as tripping had helped me see her not just as a mom but as a person, it also opened her perception enough to see her kids as autonomous adults.

The writer and his mother in 2011. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

These mind-expanding experiences could be tiring, and to smoothen the comedown, Mom and I planned elaborate meals. We would cook together dense quiches packed with farm-stand veggies or heaping piles of creamy pasta. Our conversations turned to planning nature essays she wanted to write (she’s always got a pair of binoculars handy for birding), discussing the lyrics of music we love and the interesting (often scandalous) lives of the composers and songwriters who made them, or reliving the plays my mom volunteered to produce and direct at my old high school. “You remember when we did the Shakespeare Festival?” she asked once. I nodded my head, knowing what she was going to say next. “You said I couldn’t put James Brown in Macbeth. But everybody’s favorite part was watching the witches dance to ‘Get Up Offa That Thing.’”

I laughed because Mom was right.

Sometimes our post-trip chats were more somber. My mom and I were still both coming to terms with the falling apart of my father, who at this point was oozing out the last years of his life in a patient-care facility several miles away. We didn’t discuss it while in an altered state, but those psychoactive experiences opened us up to talking later about Dad and the fracture his illness caused in the family — how losing a father left me unmoored for so many years. He never taught me how to shave, how to deal with my emotions and anger, or how to better respect my mother.

It’s been several years since Mom and I tripped together. I guess we no longer feel the need to. We’re close again. Maybe the closest we’ve been since I was little.

Also, we’re a little too busy. I’m a father of a 7-month-old now, and being with a healthy baby is its own high. My mother is relishing once again in puppet shows, mostly of the pirate and/or dinosaur variety, adopting funny character voices so convincing she could be on a cartoon. Her caregiving style shows so much respect for our boy’s autonomy even though he’s young. She pays such close attention to his preferences, recognizes his small intellectual triumphs, and nurtures his creativity in a way that not a lot of people do with babies.

As a parent now myself, I marvel at how my mother navigated the line between her personal and her family life. Walking the line means sometimes slipping or stumbling over it. I could end this by saying that I’ll never do drugs with my children when they’re adults. But I’m my mother’s son, and so “I can’t promise that.” But I can promise, or at least hope, to be just as honest as she was. 

Tripping With My Mom