Jim Harris Was Paralyzed. Then He Ate Magic Mushrooms.
Nov 9, 2022
After becoming paralyzed from the chest down, the mountain athlete found an unlikely ally in recovery: psychedelics
“New studies show that psychedelics may be anti-inflammatory without the negative side effects of other anti-inflammatory drugs. Because the chronic inflammation associated with head trauma is a known barrier to healing, the ability of psilocybin to both reduce inflammation and promote the healing itself is potentially groundbreaking. “It produces an effect that allows healing to happen organically,” Hoffer says…”
Against all odds, Jim Harris was walking. It was exhausting, and he thought he looked like Frankenstein’s monster—stepping forward with his left leg, then throwing his unresponsive right leg around to meet it. But there he was, at a music festival, getting around with the assistance of a walker, eight months out from a spinal-cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down.
In November 2014, a snowkiting accident in Chile changed how the mountaineering instructor turned adventure photographer moved through the world. His days, once spent exploring the alpine, were now filled with rehabilitation exercises in a gym. So when a friend and former physical therapist invited him to the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California, he jumped at the chance to feel like a regular 33-year-old again.
Yet as he settled in to listen to the show, in a grassy field surrounded by tall trees and gentle peaks, he didn’t feel regular. He couldn’t drink alcohol, because it seemed to weaken his remaining nerve connections, and although he’d decorated his walker with LED lights in an attempt at festivity, it didn’t really work. “The disability made me feel like an outsider,” he says. Then someone offered him magic mushrooms, which are packed with the psychoactive compound psilocybin, and he took them, thinking he might finally be able to have fun.
The String Cheese Incident, a Denver-based jam band, played that night, but Harris doesn’t remember the music. He remembers the pink and orange sunset, though, and the way that the clouds seemed to form a pattern of repeating shapes. He’d long had an appreciation for nature, but as a photographer for the likes of National Geographic, he’d also set the bar pretty high.
“There was a level of elitism for me. I wanted the pointiest and biggest peaks and the most dramatic sunsets,” he says. There, however, in the middle of the crowd, watching the setting sun peek through the trees, he realized nature didn’t have to be extreme to be profound.
Reveling in nature’s beauty is common for people on hallucinogens, but something surprising happened to Harris that night. He commandeered an acquaintance’s padded knee scooter so he could rest one leg at a time and still sway to the music. In the middle of a switch, he discovered that he could pick up his right foot and pull it back toward his butt. He tapped his right hamstring with a finger and the muscle contracted—a muscle that had been completely unresponsive since his injury, even in the low-gravity environment of a pool, despite eight months of physical therapy.
With wonder and some degree of hesitation, he showed his physical-therapist friend. They marveled together at what had been impossible for Harris earlier that day. He felt excited, but also confused. He’d been looking for a recreational experience, a way to feel normal and connect with other people. Instead, the trip was therapeutic: his mind and body communicated in a way that they hadn’t since his accident.
The next morning, Harris woke up afraid he’d imagined the whole thing, or that he’d lost his newfound ability while he slept, but his hamstring was still firing. The neuromuscular connection that had formed the night before wasn’t going anywhere.
Today, almost eight years after his injury, Harris has made a recovery that once seemed implausible. He still thinks he walks a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, but he gets around with just the help of a cane—and when the season is right, he skis or rides a mountain bike. Although it may sound far-fetched, Harris’s experience was not a fluke. In the past two decades, researchers have found overwhelming evidence that psychedelics are beneficial for mental health, and now they’re exploring the extent to which they can promote physical healing, too.
Rachel Mabe is a writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Mountain biking has become a favorite activity for Harris, picture riding near his hometown of Carbondale, Colorado (Courtesy Jim Harris)
Richard Nixon’s war on drugs brought psychedelic research to a standstill in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act, but the field entered something of a renaissance in the early 2000s. One seminal study was led by Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist and professor in the departments of psychiatry and neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University. In 1999, Griffiths began designing a study that would avoid the pitfalls of early psychedelic research, much of which failed to abide by the scientific method.
Take the oft-cited 1962 Good Friday experiment, for instance, in which a graduate student overseen by Timothy Leary brought 20 Harvard Divinity School students to a Good Friday service and gave half of them psilocybin and half of them niacin, a form of vitamin B3, to evaluate the effects of psilocybin on the human psyche. While those dosed with psilocybin did report profound experiences, there was a fatal flaw: the difference between the control and test groups became apparent as soon as the test group started tripping, so there was no effective control group.
Griffiths, on the other hand, created a legitimately double-blind study published in Psychopharmacology in 2006. He recruited 36 healthy volunteers who regularly participated in spiritual or religious activities to try and prove, in a controlled setting, psilocybin’s ability to induce meaningful, mystical experiences. Over the course of two or three eight-hour individual sessions, participants took either a dose of psilocybin or a stimulant known as Ritalin that is used to treat ADHD—and produced more of an effect than niacin. They were then given eyeshades and headphones playing classical music and directed to lie down on a couch, while study monitors stayed close by in case participants needed them. They were administered the other drug at their next session. At a 14-month follow-up, well over half of the participants reported that their psilocybin experience was “among the five most personally meaningful and among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.” A single dose led to a sustained increase in well-being and life satisfaction. Griffiths’s positive results and rigorous study design helped garner support for additional research into psychedelics.
Since then, psychedelic research has gone mainstream: universities across the country are looking into possible applications for substance abuse, anxiety around terminal-cancer diagnoses, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s become a popular subject on the most mainstream of news outlets.
Before he had time to reconsider, the wind slammed him onto the ground, breaking nine vertebrae and paralyzing him in the middle of the chest at T7.
While early psychedelic studies primarily used LSD, researchers now favor psilocybin—which has similar effects but a different chemical makeup—because the name doesn’t carry the same stigma. MDMA, commonly known as molly or ecstasy, is also being heavily studied. Both are still illegal at the federal level, although public opinion and state laws are changing. Washington, D.C., and cities in Colorado, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington State have all decriminalized psilocybin, and Oregonians voted to decriminalize it statewide and legalize its use by specially licensed therapists in the 2020 general election.
When ingested, a dose of psilocybin—typically somewhere between 10 and 50 milligrams—results in what is often referred to as a “trip” that lasts about six hours. During this time, users experience changes in mood, thought, and perception as well as visual and auditory hallucinations. People often have mystical or spiritual experiences and feel connected to nature, humanity, and the universe. And while all of this is remarkable, how and why would it help an injured man walk?
Psilocybin is thought to be effective at promoting healing because it stimulates neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt through new neural connections, and neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons. “Psilocybin increases neurotransmitters in the brain, by making the healthy neurons more sensitive to circulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin,” Mark Wingertzahn, chief science officer for the psychedelic company Wesana Health, explains. “The changes in brain chemistry reverse atrophy and increase the neurons’ ability to rapidly repair damaged neurons, allowing them to begin their normal signaling process. Longer-term beneficial effects of psilocybin are believed to be related to regeneration of neurons and neuronal pathways that may have died.” This might explain what happened to Harris—the psilocybin reawakened the dormant neural pathway from his hamstring to his brain.
After a week in a Chilean hospital, Harris was flown to a hospital in the United States (Courtesy Jim Harris)
On November 24, 2014 Harris was snowkiting through a field in Punta Arenas, Chile, alongside two friends, with a rainbow overhead. They were practicing with their kites before embarking on a 350-mile traverse across the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. When a gust of wind swept him off the ground and carried him across the field, Harris felt concerned, but calm. He was still so low that he had to pull his knees up to avoid catching an ankle on the uneven terrain. He considered trying to force his way back down, but he only had on sneakers, not skis, and worried about blowing out a knee. Then, before he had time to reconsider, the wind slammed him onto the ground, breaking nine vertebrae and paralyzing him in the middle of the chest.
Harris lay unmoving in a Chilean hospital for a week before he was flown to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, near where he grew up. There, doctors made a 14-inch incision in his back, decompressed his vertebrae and fused five together. Within a few days, Harris could wiggle the index toe on his right foot—with a lot of effort. Three weeks later, he could engage his quad and lift his leg a couple of inches. In early January, he left his surgeon, who wanted to keep him immobile for several more months, for Craig Hospital in Denver, an institution devoted to spinal-cord and brain injuries, where doctors recommended he move as much as he could tolerate. The five months that he was treated at Craig were almost entirely filled with physical therapy and exercise. By the time he attended the music festival in July—seven months after his accident—he’d come a remarkably long way, from paralysis to getting around with just the help of a walker.
Still, Harris could not get his right hamstring to wake up. He’d spent hours focusing on that in particular, because in his mind, it was the one thing that kept him from walking normally. Sitting with his eyes closed, he’d tap the muscle and imagine activating it. He thought he could feel something, maybe, but it didn’t result in movement. To accomplish that, it turns out, he needed psilocybin.
At Craig Hospital, Harris speaks with a medical professional about his recovery (Courtesy Jim Harris)Harris doing physical therapy at Craig Hospital (Courtesy Jim Harris)
Just one study has ever evaluated the connection between psychedelics and spinal-cord injury. In the early 2000s, researcher Victor Arvanian led a team at Stony Brook University that gave paralyzed rats a combination of LSD and neurotrophin-3, a protein that helps new neurons grow from stem cells. The rats dosed with both substances recovered at a much faster rate than control groups that received one substance alone or nothing at all. This was significant in the world of spinal-cord injury, where advancements are notoriously slow, but Arvanian’s department decided to stop using LSD in his experiments.
Now two different studies are evaluating psilocybin’s impact on individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI): one group at the University of Miami and another from the Imperial College London, in collaboration with the nonprofit Heroic Hearts. In both cases, researchers are studying TBI that co-occurs with post-traumatic stress disorder, which has already been studied in relation to psychedelics—making these studies easier to get approved. While TBI results from physical trauma and PTSD refers to persistent psychological issues due to witnessing a traumatic event, they have overlapping physical and emotional symptoms like fatigue, irritability, and anxiety.
The studies’ methodologies are notably different. Michael Hoffer, principal investigator of the research being done at at the University of Miami, has designed a study around microdoses of psilocybin in combination with CBD (a cannabinoid derivative). At Heroic Hearts, Grace Blest-Hopley’s protocol involves two big trip-inducing doses over the course of a week. This difference is important because there is still so much scientists don’t know about how psilocybin works, including seemingly fundamental things like dosing. “Is a microdose just a step along the ladder to a psychedelic effect, or does a microdose have one effect and a psychedelic dose have another effect?” Hoffer asks. “No one knows.”
People often have mystical or spiritual experiences and feel connected to nature, humanity, and the universe. All of which is remarkable, but how and why would it help an injured man walk?
New studies show that psychedelics may be anti-inflammatory without the negative side effects of other anti-inflammatory drugs. Because the chronic inflammation associated with head trauma is a known barrier to healing, the ability of psilocybin to both reduce inflammation and promote the healing itself is potentially groundbreaking. “It produces an effect that allows healing to happen organically,” Hoffer says