My friend Arsenio can’t stop talking about flies. It’s all he talks about. He’s convinced there are more flies in his yard today than there were yesterday. He texts me a video he took of a swarm near the fence marking the boundary between his property and his neighbor’s. I watch it and count eight flies.
When we talk or text, I try to switch to another subject. “I’m not interested,” he says, then goes back to grumbling about the flies.
He hasn’t always been like this. Over the years I’ve known Arsenio, other troubles would ambush his mind for a spell, then retreat. Challenges with a wild teenager, his ailing dog, or health issues of his own. But this fly thing is the worst I’ve witnessed.
Nell, Arsenio’s next door neighbor, owns a menagerie of farm animals, far more than the city’s zoning ordinance allows. For months, Arsenio good-naturedly looked the other way, but when she built a horse stall right up against the fence she shares with Arsenio, he noticed a definite uptick in the fly population.
He makes a bunch of fly traps from recycled soda bottles and hangs them around, but they don’t do much. When he notices horse manure piling up, he offers to help Nell clean it out, but she gets irritated and waves him away. He worries about the property value of his place. Will all the buzzing flies make it worthless? He can’t stop thinking about them.
“They won’t stay on her side of the fence,” he says. “It’s like I’m the Landlord of the Flies.”
A Deep Dark Hole
Arsenio looks like the maniacal ruler of an obscure despotic regime, with formidable eyebrows, a prominent schnozz, and a foot-long grey goatee. There’s a pent-up electricity about him, like he’s sending off sparks, especially when he’s focused on his work. A prolific “outsider artist” of some renown, he’s been written up in international art magazines and represented by galleries in Los Angeles and elsewhere. He makes so much art it fills every nook and cranny on his property, indoors and outside.
I once teased him that his artwork probably keeps him from killing the rest of us. He agreed and said I was lucky.
Arsenio’s earliest memory is of a deep, dark hole, threatening to swallow him up. He was raised on a string of dairy farms in Salinas, California, the workers mostly Portuguese-Americans like his parents. Arsenio Sr. was such a heavy drinker he couldn’t hold down a job, and the family moved around a lot. Arsenio Jr.’s childhood evenings were clouded with stress and fear. Every night, he would listen at his parents’ bedroom door for his father’s drunken droning to explode into a violent fit he’d inflict upon his mother, his sister or himself.
For more than 60 years, Arsenio has remained hyper-vigilant, unable to let his guard down. It’s as if a Geiger counter is strapped to his psyche, its needle swinging wildly at the merest hint of conflict – triggering his anxiety, making his palms sweat and his blood pressure surge. The fly mess has him constantly on alert, obsessively checking the horse’s stall next door through a hole in the fence while monitoring his own property with a hidden camera.
Arsenio calls one evening and says he wonders if the fly infestation is all in his head. Or is it really as bad as he thinks it is? Has he been lying to himself? He can’t figure it out. He thinks he might be losing his mind. Then the pandemic hits, and the months of COVID-induced worry and isolation are almost too much to bear. He stops making art. He tells me his life feels meaningless. He thinks about selling his property and moving far away.
A Brain Abuzz
I run into Arsenio’s daughter, Anna. She tells me how the other day she tried to talk to her dad about some work issues, but all he could talk about were flies.
“You, too, huh?” I say.
It’s gotten so bad that Arsenio wakes in the middle of the night and lies in the dark for hours, his brain abuzz. His doctor prescribes an antidepressant. It doesn’t help. Arsenio’s therapist suggests that when he sees a fly, he should ask himself, “Is this acceptable? Can I live with this?” He tries it but it doesn’t do much.
One night, Arsenio calls to tell me his friend Melvin thinks he should deal with the flies by microdosing magic mushrooms. Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in the mushrooms, could take the edge off his misery, Melvin explained, maybe remove a wing or two from the flies buzzing around his mind.
But Arsenio is doubtful. He had experimented with psychedelics in his youth, and it didn’t go well. The last thing he needs is to get all strung out. Melvin had assured him the dose would be so tiny, he’d hardly feel it. Arsenio is not convinced.
“Those bourgeois tech bros are all over that microdosing shit,” he says. “They’re remaking it and spiking it with Bitcoin.”
“It’s a mushroom, you nut,” I say.
“I don’t trust it.”
“To ruminate” is to chew over one’s troubles like a dog gnawing a bone. Obsessive, repetitive thinking can twist the mind and hijack one’s sense of reality.
“Rumination,” says neurologist Dr. Sharmin Ghaznavi, PhD, “is self-reflection gone awry.” She explains how when we ruminate, we set up negative thought loops in our mind like a warped vinyl record playing at the wrong speed. This constant inner drone of catastrophizing and self-criticism becomes all-consuming and impairs our ability to function normally and connect with others.
When we ruminate, we become more isolated, which in turn causes loneliness — a sense that our social needs are not being met. Loneliness increases the likelihood of developing depression, addiction, anxiety disorders, PTSD and OCD, and also makes them harder to treat.
“It’s as bad for your health as smoking, excessive drinking, and obesity,” Dr. Ghaznavi says.
Recently, neuroscientists have been studying excessive rumination, loneliness, and other mental struggles by observing how they impact the brain. In healthy brain functioning, brain cells (neurons) cluster together in regions, processing information and “talking” to each other via communication channels called circuits. Large numbers of circuits located in different regions form an interconnected structure of networks. If ever you find yourself constantly fixating on the same problem or dilemma, seeing everything and everyone (including yourself) as increasingly bleak and hopeless, it’s likely your default mode network is out-of-whack.
Composed of a direct line between two brain regions known as the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior singular cortex, this network is said to process information about our self-perception; it also affects how we see others and our capacity to feel compassion and empathy for them. When Arsenio is too fixated on flies to listen to his daughter or his friends, his default mode network is probably lighting up like a Christmas tree, while other networks needed for optimal brain functioning are sputtering.
One day Arsenio hits a wall. He’s had enough. He calls his friend Melvin, who sources some dried psilocybin mushrooms from a friend of a friend of a friend, and lends Arsenio a tiny scale to measure the doses. Arsenio starts with a microdose of .10 grams, which he chews up and swallows.
When Arsenio calls me that evening, I sense something different. Instead of being locked and loaded into his usual buzzing harangue, he matter-of-factly lectures me about money. If I would’ve just listened to his advice, he says, and spent my cash on expired steaks from the sale bin in the supermarket instead of all that fancy grass-fed shit I bought at that high-falutin’ meat counter, I’d have a suitcase of Benjamins under my bed and not have to hustle so much all the time. Then he moves on to the topic of all the cash I blow getting lit up in pool halls while aspiring to become a lady pool shark – when I could be drinking cheap beer and minding my own business at home. The fly fiasco never comes up.
“Damn,” I say.
“Damn right,” he says.
“I like you better when you’re obsessed with flies,” I say.
“That’s because before I ate the Mushroom I was always worrying about making other people mad,” he says. “Now I don’t give a hoot.”
The old Arse I know and love and sometimes want to strangle is back.
At Melvin’s recommendation, Arsenio sticks to a microdosing regimen: Take a dose, skip two days, repeat. Arsenio notices the most pronounced effects on his dose days, but he’s less bugged by the flies on his days off, too.
He tells me he feels lighter, the problems that inevitably surface are more manageable. He sends me links to articles and Youtube videos about recovering from childhood trauma or using mindfulness to feel more gratitude. He laughs at my jokes.
For most of us, resilience means the ability to respond to life’s challenges without falling apart. When confronted with a stressor, a resilient brain will bend, but not break, adapting and maintaining health in a process called allostasis. Brief periods of stress are actually good for the brain, improving immune function and some types of memory, but too much stress produces allostatic load: the biological wear-and-tear on brain and body that can lead to a cascade of health problems, including anxiety and depression.
According to a 2015 study in Neurobiology of Stress, “depression and anxiety disorders are examples of a loss of resilience, in the sense that changes in brain circuitry and function, caused by the stressors that precipitate the disorder, become ‘locked’ in a particular state and thus need external intervention.”
Our brain’s resilience is profoundly influenced by our various life experiences, especially those of early childhood. Growing up with a hard-drinking, abusive father, as Arsenio did, could make dealing with stress as an adult far more than challenging. Our genes also play a role in our brain’s resilience. But beyond the things we can’t change or control, what can we do to increase our resilience in the face of oncoming stressors?
Lifestyle factors, such as exercise, diet, and stress-reduction practices like mindfulness, have all been shown to shore up the brain’s resilience. It turns out that psilocybin and other psychedelics – which show promise for treating trauma, depression, addiction – are also powerful tools for boosting resilience, says Dr. Ghaznavi, who recently became Associate Director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Impaired social functioning is at the core of mental disorders, says Dr. Ghaznavi. It’s a problem for which psychedelics might be particularly well-suited. And the benefits of a psychedelic experience can last for months or years. “Psychedelic compounds can increase pro-social attitudes and behaviors, and a sense of connection with others,” she says. “They also have the potential to increase the brain’s neuroplasticity and make psychotherapeutic interventions more effective.”
The Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics is studying psilocybin with the theory that increasing the brain’s neuroplasticity – in other words, its capacity for change – can relieve suffering by helping patients quell the excessive rumination at the root of depression and other mental disorders.
Dr. Ghaznavi acknowledges that research into how psychedelics generate healthier patterns of brain activity is only just beginning. When asked about microdosing, she says there has been a lack of rigorous research involving such tiny doses. So far, the few studies conducted with psilocybin have employed larger, single or less frequent “trip” doses, but more studies are underway.
Arsenio doesn’t claim that microdosing psilocybin has completely knocked out his anxiety and fixation on flies, but he’s feeling much less haunted by them. He says he intends to continue his mushroom therapy regimen. And he listens with genuine interest when I talk now, instead of batting me down like a pest intruding upon the dark swarm of his thoughts.
If I had to choose between two versions of my old friend — the Landlord of the Flies or Señor Cheapola — I’d pick the Arsenio who gives me grief for spending ten dollars on a bourgeois hippie burrito when if I’d only gone to the taco truck a bit further down the road, I’d be out a mere seven bucks. I’m happy to see him suffering less. Now if he would just show me the exact spot in his fly-ridden backyard where he’s buried all that money he’s saved, we could both put this fly trouble behind us.
Melinda Misuraca is a Project CBD contributing writer with a past life as an old-school cannabis farmer specializing in CBD-rich cultivars. © Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.
- Amy F.T. Arnsten, Murray A. Raskind, Fletcher B. Taylor, Daniel F. Connor, “The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder,” Neurobiology of Stress Volume 1, (2015): 89-99.
- Brian S. McEwen, “In pursuit of resilience: stress, epigenetics, and brain plasticity,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, (June, 2016): 56-64.
- Bruce S. McEwen, “The Brain on Stress: Toward an Integrative Approach to Brain, Body, and Behavior,” Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science 6, (Nov 8, 2013): 673-5.
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