Athena describes her circuitous journey from a religious upbringing, which serendipitously introduced her to psilocybin. The mushrooms brought her to foreign lands, presented her with new friends and a multitude of experiences. All this has led to the founding of Psanctuary the sacred mushroom church. What more might the mushrooms have in store for her?
On Easter Day 1990, the year I was born, I was baptized into the Episcopal church my mother grew up in. St. John’s was a very small church that my family was a big part of. Grandma was the secretary, and my aunt was in charge of the youth Sunday school and helped organize events, church potlucks, reading clubs, etc. I distinctly remember her putting the bulletin board together, however often, with news happening within the church or with thoughtful words and sayings. My uncle sang in the church choir and was also actively involved in the parish.
Soon after my birth, my mom and dad (technically my adoptive dad, but by all rights my dad), began driving trucks over the road for a living. This required them to be gone for long periods of time; ergo, my aunt and uncle stepped up to help raise me and my brother. I’ve always said it takes a village, and my family reflected that when tough decisions needed to be made to help support us financially.
Sundays at church were always required. We knew that no matter what we did the day or night before, we were expected to attend. If we were staying with a friend, and their family went to church, we were encouraged to attend with them. While my parents were not as active in the church during my youth, there was never a question about whether or not we should be attending. I believe this was a core contributor to the person I am today.
I had my First Communion in first grade. I remember being so excited to partake in the Holy Communion and tasting the wine. It was bitter and I thought, Next time I'll dip my wafer. I went to a private Catholic school in second grade, where they made me repeat the First Communion class. I recall being frustrated that they made me do the work over, but then being OK with it since I already had the exact same book at home to reference for schoolwork. I understand now their standpoint on it, while still also finding it silly.
Second grade was also when I went to All Saints church camp for the first time. My first full overnight week! My mom and aunt also went to this camp, and I was so excited. From then on, camp was my favorite activity each summer. I learned so much about myself and others there. Camp provided mean opportunity to explore the type of person I wanted to be, in a judgment-free environment. We were encouraged to ask questions.
Second grade was also the last year I'd be in a “regular” schooling program. My grandmother and aunt were both educators trained in the Montessori method. My aunt had found a Christian-based homeschool community, where you'd meet twice a week and work from home the rest, with the homework sent home with parents. She went in and created a branch of her own through this school to begin homeschooling my older cousin. Once my aunt had made the decision to teach school this way, my mom quickly also moved us into homeschooling.
I did third grade over the summer and began fourth grade in the new year at this school, called Dorothy Sayers. My brother and I were therefor at least two years, maybe three, before my aunt and grandmother decided to move in together and open their own school, the Ross Griffin Resource Center. At its peak, the school had 30 children in grades PreK-12.
Because of this environment, I was able to explore other interests and have them applied to my school credit. I was a competitive dancer, having begun lessons at age 3. I was actively involved in my church youth group. I was an active facilitator at All Saints church camp. I believed all these things would be my life. In some way I was going to continue to be involved and build my life around these core systems, where I felt love, acceptance, challenges, accomplishments, growth, safety.
I began smoking weed at age 14. Many of my peers had already begun. I was pretty prudish about it — I wanted to know where it came from, and I wanted to know I was in a safe place, around safe people. My younger brother began selling it, so I justified that and trusted him to get it from reliable sources. We would meet peers at church just to have smoke sessions after. This is undoubtedly where my association of church with the use of entheogens began.
My brother was taken into police custody at age 13 for “intent to distribute” or something like that and given a citation. I remember going home and hiding the gallon bag of weed in his room so our mom wouldn't find it. When my mom found out we were still smoking not long after the arrest, I was on a church trolley hop. She called and yelled, “How could you do this knowing your brother was just arrested??” She was so disappointed in me. I cried and cried. With my best friend by my side, I spoke with my priest that day. He said, “We all make mistakes; it's going to be OK.”
I graduated early at age 17 and began college at the University of Louisville. This is when I stopped going to church. Priorities shifted around school schedules, work schedules to pay for school, the university dance team, and everything it came with, like boyfriends and other distractions. I just “didn't have the time” to continue being involved in all the things I so loved. My friends were moving away or also busy adjusting to “adulthood.” Life was changing. I stopped smoking weed mainly because of my college boyfriend's views on it. He could be a borderline alcoholic, but I’d better not smoke. It wasn't worth the fight to me. I was so busy, but I'd sneak some here and there. By the end of our relationship, I caught him smoking. The hypocrisy floored me.
By senior year I had started having panic attacks at dance practice. I remember going to my primary care doctor and complaining about stress and anxiety. I wasn't sleeping or eating properly. She quickly asked if I wanted to go on medication. I had seen my mom have some unpredictable reactions to medications, plus I had always been reluctant to put anything in my body that wasn’t natural, so I just as quickly said no. Was it that easy? She then told me UofL had free therapy for students. Well, OK, I'll try that, I thought. After my first “complaint-fest” and the therapist’s acknowledgment of the workload I had taken on, I felt ten times better. Why was this not suggested sooner? Or had I just not been paying attention? Just having that listening ear and outside perspective helped immediately, and that one visit was just what I needed. I graduated at 21 with a Bachelor of Science in Communication, the first person in my family with a college degree.
My 20s brought a lot of personal adjustments. I began smoking weed regularly again. Let someone tell me I can't, I thought. I started comparing my timeline of events to others. Questions like, “What are you going to do with your degree?” and “When are you going to get a real job?” started popping up. Not from family so much, but from the outside world. I've always said that my goal is to be happy and I am going to do what makes me happy. I had a lot of jobs. I left a lot of jobs. I moved to different states. I traveled the country. Louisville would always be home, though.
Most of my friends had already tried mushrooms at music festivals or during their college careers. I remember thinking at one point, Oh, I'm too old to try mushrooms now, but maybe one day. Again, all those safety measures needed to be considered. But around the age of 26 a lot had happened and I decided, OK, I'm ready. I started actively talking to more people about it. Thinking about who I could trust to sit with, who I felt comfortable with. I landed on my older cousin, who is much like a sister. We kept trying to organize something, it just hadn't happened yet.
Then, in December of 2017, my aunt tagged me in Eric's post. He had just gotten an investment and was looking for a local assistant. I was in another big transition and had been talking to my aunt about my ideal job, and she thought this might be a good fit. I gave her some pushback. I didn't know anything about mushrooms! She encouraged me to just see what it was about. I interviewed, and that same day Eric asked if I wanted the job. I said yes, having no idea where it would lead.
In March of 2018, I flew down to Jamaica for my first mushroom experience, which happened to be on a mushroom retreat! I couldn't have asked for a better set and setting. I was actually in a pretty good headspace going down there, and I was going into the experience curious and open-minded. Pulling up to Doranja House I immediately felt like I was back at church camp. Here I was, on an island surrounded by strangers, and yet that feeling of love and acceptance was there.
My first dose I took 2.5 grams. The whole group ended up being under a pavilion due to rain. As the onset happened, I thought to myself, The rain is like a baptism. How beautiful and enriching the rain was! Courtney and I didn't know each other at that point, really, but that experience solidified our friendship in my eyes. We had the best time putting our faces into a bush covered in raindrops.
While I was there as a participant, it was difficult not to also be involved in the behind-the-scenes action. I was observing how the week was playing out. Obstacles that came up, how they were handled. It was interesting, to say the least. Going into my second dose came with a little more baggage. I did 5 grams that night. The rain came down again and again I thought about baptism. I felt heavy on the ground. When I closed my eyes I saw visuals of little machines going to work in my system and thought, Oh that's good, they're off to work, I'll let them be.
Eventually a facilitator came over and helped me stand up. I felt solid and we took a couple deep breaths. She said to me, “I don't think you need to be in here.” To which I replied, “I think you're right.” I stepped outside the pavilion and walked out to the fire where Eric was. After a brief encounter with some fire ants, I stood there with my hand on my heart looking up at the massive sky. The stars were shining so bright! I felt connected with it all and began to cry.
From a distance you could hear a Jamaican evangelical church service happening. Right in front of me I could see our own kind of service happening, trying to combat the noise with music. As I stood outside of it, I felt so grateful we were all allowed to go to service. To explore our own beliefs. How beautiful was it that we could all be? I stepped away from that dose feeling completely solidified in my involvement with the retreat center. This was exactly where I was supposed to be. Everything I had done before was leading me here. All my life skills would be an asset to building this community.
Fast forward a bit, and by July 2020, I had helped build a successful mushroom retreat center for those struggling with mental health. I have helped facilitate and witnessed hundreds of people find peace and understanding pass over them. I would often say I couldn't have dreamed this job up.
Covid and other unseen forces saw me leaving the retreat center. What comes next? I wondered. How do I continue working with the mushroom to help facilitate spiritual connections? I found myself pretty bummed out about the entire situation. Until I got a text from Eric saying, “We could open a church.”
At that moment, I thought back on all of it. Again, everything has led to this point, and here I am back at church. All the things that were a core foundation of my upbringing are coming full circle. I truly believe I am here to facilitate all my ancestors' dreams into a reality. The mushroom found me when I started looking for it, in the most beautiful way. I will honor it with reverence and to the best of my ability.
As long as this story is, there is still so much more depth to it all. Eric, Courtney, and everyone who has played a part in my journey, I appreciate you all. The blood, sweat, and tears you've put in. The path you have paved for me to be here today. I accept my role and hope to be a pillar in the world we are building.
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