Josh Bishop, 41, was executed by the State of Georgia and died on March 31, 2016. His last words were ones of repentance and love.
Josh lived a Dickensian childhood in the modern era. He grew up under bridges in Milledgeville, Georgia, in group homes and foster care, often hungry or afraid. He loved the outdoors, though, and later—wholly without bitterness—described golden days of his childhood as ones where he could fish for food or fry up green tomatoes left out for trash by families who had more than they needed. Everyone who knew him as a boy recalls his sweetness, eagerness to help others, and his devotion to his mother.
Unlike the street urchins of the Dickens stories, however, Josh was never saved by a kindly, wealthy gentleman—or even by the State agencies charged with protecting abused children. Instead, he fell into drug and alcohol abuse and at age 19 made horrible mistakes that were not otherwise in his character. His addiction, and what came of it, cost him his life, and he wanted youth growing up in similar circumstances to learn from his story.
In the bleak and alienated world of Georgia's Death Row, however, Josh found that he could be loved by others and by God, and he came to flourish there as an artist and as a man. He was embraced by the Shertenlieb family, who ministered to him, visited him, and taught him that no is one beyond the reach of forgiveness and redemption. He was baptized as a Catholic.
He taught himself to draw, and, having little else to offer, gave gifts of his art to his friends and family—and even other prisoners and guards. He began to read ("Anne Frank blowed my mind!") and never tired of discussing the Old Masters, Sturgill Simpson songs, or the beauty of the natural world. He was accepted and cared for by others who came to write and visit him—Amy and Ryan Dunn, Gene and Kathi Gunter, Timothy Tew—and he blossomed in their love and friendship. He was a friend to them, too.
In his last years, working with a clinic at Mercer Law School, he taught close to fifty students lessons about justice that they could never learn in a classroom. He offered abject apologies to the families of his victims, and was comforted in the grace offered by a number of those he had hurt. His heart bled for children who lived without hope for a better life, and did what he could to encourage teenagers who struggled with bitterness or apathy. From his prison cell, Josh reached others with his kind and open heart. He bore others up. He made the world better.
In his last hours, Josh comforted his friends, prayed with us, reminded us to take care of one another, and sang "Amazing Grace." He hoped that his death would "take away from the pain and add to the peace" of those he had hurt. His continued concern for the suffering of others while he faced the ultimate penalty showed that the evil the State wanted to stamp out was not there, and all that was lost was the potential of a redeemed soul to do good. If there is justice in heaven, if not on earth, he is painting with Rembrandt and humming along with Merle Haggard
I decided to hang myself with an extension cord in the rafters of my garage. I decided to do a quick test run to make sure the beam would hold before saying my goodbyes to my family. During the test run, I slipped off my chair and actually hung myself. The panic I felt during those few moments I was dangling was all it took to convince myself I should live. I needed desperately to tell my mother I loved her before I went. My father too. I could only think of getting out of it, so I could give them their well deserved goodbyes, and let them know how much I loved them. When I luckily managed to get my footing back on the chair, I realized I wasn’t ready to go. I had so much love left in me. I felt like it gave me a second chance to realize I didn’t want to go through with it. I’m doing well now. I have two beautiful girls, and a man who would give me the moon. I’m happy I had a botched run, because I’m sure I wouldn’t have realized how i really felt if I got to text my final goodbyes.
LSD's impact on the brain revealed in groundbreaking images thanks to 20 volunteers at the Imperial College, London.
David Nutt, the government’s former drugs advisor, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, and senior researcher on the study, said neuroscientists had waited 50 years for this moment. “This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics,” he said. “We didn’t know how these profound effects were produced. It was too difficult to do. Scientists were either scared or couldn’t be bothered to overcome the enormous hurdles to get this done.”
The brain scans revealed that trippers experienced images through information drawn from many parts of their brains, and not just the visual cortex at the back of the head that normally processes visual information. Under the drug, regions once segregated spoke to one another. Further images showed that other brain regions that usually form a network became more separated in a change that accompanied users’ feelings of oneness with the world, a loss of personal identity called “ego dissolution”.
In Aeon, A good trip Researchers are giving psychedelics to cancer patients to help alleviate their despair — and it’s working
‘Patients would tell me that they’ll never be able to get out from under the rock that hangs over them and that their psyche is always filled with the fact they have cancer,’ Stephen Ross said. ‘But those feelings evaporated under the influence of psilocybin. They almost uniformly experienced a dramatic reduction in existential anxiety and depression, and an increased acceptance of the cancer, and the changes lasted a year or more and in some cases were permanent.’
Ross, the 42-year-old director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at Bellevue Hospital in New York, is an unlikely apostle for psychedelics. He became fascinated with end-of-life issues when he was growing up in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades and his physician mother took him to hospice centres. ‘She introduced me to the concept of a good death,’ Ross said. ‘When I was an intern at Columbia, I spent three months in the cancer wards and I watched people die there,’ he continued. ‘But those were bad deaths, full of anxiety and pain, and we didn’t learn anything about palliative care.’
Ross is part of a new generation of researchers who have re-discovered what scientists knew more than half a century ago: that psychedelics can be good medicine. At such elite research centres around the world as NYU, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and the University of New Mexico, psychedelic research is inching its way back to respectability,
John Tierney wrote in 2010 in the New York Times, Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again
Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins.
In one of Dr. Griffiths’s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was being administered.
In the New Yorker The Trip Treatment wherein Michael Pollan explores the current research into psychedelics that is yielding exciting results after being shut down for decades.
As I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.
“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
Many researchers I spoke with described their findings with excitement, some using words like “mind-blowing.” Bossis said, “People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”
Griffiths’s double-blind study reprised the work done by Pahnke in the nineteen-sixties, but with considerably more scientific rigor. Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.
Furthermore, the “completeness” of the mystical experience closely tracked the improvements reported in personal well-being, life satisfaction, and “positive behavior change” measured two months and then fourteen months after the session. .... Griffiths believes that the long-term effectiveness of the drug is due to its ability to occasion such a transformative experience, but not by changing the brain’s long-term chemistry, as a conventional psychiatric drug like Prozac does.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”
The case of Patrick Mettes
On an April Monday in 2010, Patrick Mettes, a fifty-four-year-old television news director being treated for a cancer of the bile ducts, .... His diagnosis had come three years earlier, shortly after his wife, Lisa, noticed that the whites of his eyes had turned yellow. By 2010, the cancer had spread to Patrick’s lungs and he was buckling under the weight of a debilitating chemotherapy regimen and the growing fear that he might not survive. The article, headlined Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again mentioned clinical trials at several universities, including N.Y.U., in which psilocybin—the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms—was being administered to cancer patients in an effort to relieve their anxiety and “existential distress.” ...Patrick had never taken a psychedelic drug, but he immediately wanted to volunteer. ...
Patrick made the call anyway and, after filling out some forms and answering a long list of questions, was accepted into the trial. ... After the screening, Mettes was assigned to a therapist named Anthony Bossis, a bearded, bearish psychologist in his mid-fifties, with a specialty in palliative care. Bossis is a co-principal investigator for the N.Y.U. trial..... Mettes was scheduled for two dosings—one of them an “active” placebo (in this case, a high dose of niacin, which can produce a tingling sensation), and the other a pill containing the psilocybin.
Bossis noted that Mettes was crying and breathing heavily. Mettes said, “Birth and death is a lot of work,” and appeared to be convulsing. Then he reached out and clutched Kalliontzi’s hand while pulling his knees up and pushing, as if he were delivering a baby. “Oh God,” he said, “it all makes sense now, so simple and beautiful.”.....
“From here on, love was the only consideration. It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light. And it vibrated.” He wrote that “no sensation, no image of beauty, nothing during my time on earth has felt as pure and joyful and glorious as the height of this journey.” Then, at twelve-ten, he said something that Bossis jotted down: “O.K., we can all punch out now. I get it.”
Great secrets of the universe often become clear during the journey, such as “We are all one” or “Love is all that matters.” The usual ratio of wonder to banality in the adult mind is overturned, and such ideas acquire the force of revealed truth. The result is a kind of conversion experience, and the researchers believe that this is what is responsible for the therapeutic effect.
Patrick Mettes lived for seventeen months after his psilocybin journey, and, according to Lisa, he enjoyed many unexpected satisfactions in that time, along with a dawning acceptance of death.......In April, his lungs failing, Mettes wound up back in the hospital. “He gathered everyone together and said goodbye, and explained that this is how he wanted to die. He had a very conscious death.”
Mettes’s equanimity exerted a powerful influence on everyone around him, Lisa said, and his room in the palliative-care unit at Mt. Sinai became a center of gravity. “Everyone, the nurses and the doctors, wanted to hang out in our room—they just didn’t want to leave. Patrick would talk and talk. He put out so much love.” When Tony Bossis visited Mettes the week before he died, he was struck by Mettes’s serenity. “He was consoling me. He said his biggest sadness was leaving his wife. But he was not afraid.”
Despite the encouraging results from the N.Y.U. and Hopkins trials, much stands in the way of the routine use of psychedelic therapy. “We don’t die well in America,” Bossis recently said over lunch at a restaurant near the N.Y.U. medical center. “Ask people where they want to die, and they will tell you at home, with their loved ones. But most of us die in an I.C.U. The biggest taboo in American medicine is the conversation about death. To a doctor, it’s a defeat to let a patient go.” Bossis and several of his colleagues described the considerable difficulty they had recruiting patients from N.Y.U. ’s cancer center for the psilocybin trials. “I’m busy trying to keep my patients alive,” one oncologist told Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, the trial’s project manager. Only when reports of positive experiences began to filter back to the cancer center did nurses there—not doctors—begin to tell patients about the trial.
Bossis ..... hopes that “the legacy of this work” will be the routine use of psychedelics in palliative care. But he also thinks that the medical use of psychedelics could easily run into resistance. “This culture has a fear of death, a fear of transcendence, and a fear of the unknown, all of which are embodied in this work.” Psychedelics may be too disruptive for our society and institutions ever to embrace them.
The Ferryman by Azam Ahmed in Granta
My wife will tell me I smell of death tonight. She will leave two plastic tubs of water beside our door, one for my clothes and the other to bathe myself. She does not allow me to enter our home on nights like this, until I have shed the odor of the dead.
My friends snicker when they see the steaming tubs of water, which she heats to break the chill. They laugh because my wife tells me when I must clean myself. My neighbors respect me, though it is true that a woman directing a man is unusual. But these men do not know what I owe her.
Erasing the smell depends on the manner of death, and over the past five years I have become an expert. The odor of burn victims, for instance, is easier to erase when the burns are fresh. A simple bath will do. The scent of the decomposed requires many scrubbings before it goes. One must shampoo their beard and brush under their nails. You cannot overdo the rinsing.
In five years, I have buried 748 men and I can tell you this: we are all hardened by this misery. Some have lost sons. Others land. But there is nothing so rigid as a man robbed of his humanity.
We once spent three days carting the corpses of fifteen dead Taliban, swollen with rot and fluid, into the pink deserts of Registan. We have traveled the whole of the south in his yellow taxi, carrying the bodies of the war dead for all sides: soldiers, police, Taliban and now, I think, the Americans. What Raheem Gul does not understand is that you cannot draw a line. I do not do this work for the government, or the Taliban, or even the men who I collect from the battlefield and return to their loved ones. All these years I have done this for God.
‘Every soul will taste death,’ the mullah says, reading from the Holy Quran. The men in the mosque, Raheem Gul and his followers, know more than the taste of death, I think. They have feasted on it and it has soured their ability to appreciate anything else.
It has soured mine, too, but in a different way. I can no longer eat cooked meat. The smell makes me ill. My wife cooks our rice and vegetables without lamb or chicken, a meal most Afghans would find poor. I think of her now, hanging wet clothes in the courtyard, boiling the pilau for dinner, heating the water for my bath over an open fire with bricks on either side to hold the pot.