Mormons have these things called “firesides.” Essentially, it’s a once-a-month spiritually-themed TED Talk given by a local church leader to teenagers in the congregation. When I was about 16, I attended a fireside during which the speaker pulled out a laminated spiral nailed through the centre to a block of wood. He then held it up to a Sunday school room full of teenagers seated on metal folding chairs.
“The topic I’m going to be discussing tonight is deception,” he said as he started to spin the spiral. “Satan has an incredible ability to make things appear one way until we chase after them only to find out we’ve been deceived. Now, to demonstrate the power of deception, I want all of you to gaze into the centre as I spin it for 90 seconds.”
I obeyed his command and stared intently at the spiral until he lowered it.
“Now, I want you to look at the palm of your hand.”
I held my hand up to my face, and saw it simultaneously swell and shrink for several seconds.
“Right now, your senses are being deceived,” said the church leader. “And this is why people like doing drugs.”
And I thought to myself: “Wow. Drugs are awesome.”
I grew up in San Jose, California, the fifth of six kids. Ours was a typical size for a Mormon family—one that went back to the earliest days of the church in the 1830s. Outwardly, I’d always been completely faithful to the church. I didn’t swear. I never touched alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, or even myself. I went to three hours of church every Sunday and an hour of church class every morning before school. I paid 10 percent of my money to the church.
But inwardly, too many things about the church’s beliefs, history and policies didn’t make sense. Like how Black people weren’t allowed full membership until 1978. Or how the church believed the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. I kept these contradictions to myself.
It wasn’t until after graduating university and getting a job as an advertising copywriter that I met a fellow Mormon who was curious and authentic in a way I’d never seen before.
“What’s worse than 10 babies in a dumpster,” she asked me the first time we met. “One baby in 10 dumpsters.”
A year later, we were married in the Mormon temple.
A few years after that my partner confronted her own crisis of faith, largely centred on the church’s history of rampant misogyny and fuelled by a podcast called “Mormon Stories.” Each episode delved into a controversial Mormon doctrine, practice or historical event—and she binge-listened to dozens of episodes before announcing she wanted to leave the faith.
Around the same time, I’d discovered a YouTube lecture from a psychedelic enthusiast, advocate and figurehead named Terence McKenna. Hearing someone discuss the scientific, emotional, anthropological, psychological, and above all spiritual benefits of hallucinogenic drug use stunned me. And what stunned me even more was that McKenna described the psychedelic experience in a way that seemed strikingly similar to Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s description of his visionary experiences. In Mormonism, it’s never really explained how Smith initiated the visions and revelations he claimed to have received, other than him using a “seer stone” or “the power of God.” But as I listened to more and more of McKenna’s lectures, I wondered if perhaps Smith had used hallucinogenic plants to facilitate his experiences.
Shortly after, my partner and I left the faith altogether. My parents were supportive on the outside, but our relationship has never been the same. My partner’s dad responded with a 12-page letter outlining Mormon scripture and showing why he thought we had been deceived. Considering by that point we didn’t believe, his source material was no longer relevant. But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt.
Being out left us free to explore beyond our previous boundaries. First a former Mormon friend taught us how to drink, starting with hard cider and hard lemonade. Then, once we got the hang of that, I invited a co-worker over to teach us how to smoke marijuana.
I assumed the pipe he pulled from his backpack was a bong, but he called it a bubbler. I had trouble lighting it but eventually got about five good hits in between my coughing fits. A few minutes later, I was on the floor cracking up for no particular reason, and when I stood it was as though an optometrist had placed a new lens in front of my eyes; I suddenly saw the world from a sharper perspective. For the first time, I was high.
It was different from anything I had ever experienced. The chatter in my brain was gone; I felt I could see my co-worker’s aura; I had the sensation the whole world was made for me and had a glimpse of what people were thinking when they shouted, “I am Jesus Christ!”
Over the next year we experimented with marijuana a few more times. Each time I’d get really high, but my partner never seemed to respond to it. That is, until one night in June 2017, when about an hour after consuming an edible she stood up from our sofa, walked to a giant map of the world we had on our living room wall and announced that we were going to sell everything and move to Melbourne.
She spent the next hour outlining the whole process: the date we’d sell our home, how much we’d sell it for, and how Australia was a more enlightened society than a Trump-led America. She also diagnosed specific pain points we experienced as a result of Mormonism, and broke down complicated relationship dynamics in our marriage and families.
Six months later, we sold our condo—six days from the day she predicted and for $10,000 less. We then flew to Australia with a few suitcases and started over, free from the baggage of Mormonism.
It’s now been five years since we left the faith. In that time, I’ve experimented with acid, psilocybin, Amanita muscaria (including drinking my own pee to try to accentuate the high—which didn’t work), San Pedro, MDMA (which would be the absolute best if it weren’t for the depressing hangover) and even DMT, although I couldn’t figure out how to smoke it.
Beyond these boundaries, I’ve seen a Hindu goddess create primal elements through the act of singing, received an invitation to visit the underworld, witnessed the collapse of all matter, found myself back in the womb, seen the object at the centre of the universe, and felt what it’s like to open my heart to unconditional love.
I’ve entered each psychedelic experience not having a clue what would happen. It is the opposite of the monotony of modern-day Mormonism. In fact, psychedelics have taken me so far beyond the boundaries—mentally and physically—that I don’t even know how to interpret what I’ve experienced. And while that’s inspiring, it’s also deeply unsettling.
My partner now works in a new career as a software engineer in Melbourne. Although still painful, she’s abandoned Mormonism and embraced agnosticism. She’s also been very successful building a social life around non-Mormons for the first time.
I’m a creative director at an ad agency and still figuring things out socially. For instance, I still don’t know how to open a tab and make excuses not to go when invited to a pub. Throughout this time I’ve held onto aspects of Mormonism—specifically the idea that there are definitive answers—and this, perhaps, is to my detriment. But rather than following a system where disobedience and unbelief lead to shame, psychedelics offer me a glimpse into a world beyond boundaries.
I chose to escape and explore beyond the boundaries I was raised in. It opened my eyes to a world full of mystery and certainty, hope and despair, infinity and nothingness. But in any case, I prefer this over the comfort of self-deception.
This is a taste of Brandon’s upcoming book "Mormon on Mushrooms." For any questions on that, or his experience in general, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org