It was love at first sight when Emilio, a waiter, chatted up his new boss Emily on her first day at the hospitality business where they worked, and they became an item within months.
10 years later their relationship was unravelling, but they were willing to go to unusual — and expensive — lengths to fix it.
They still deeply loved each other, but in 2020 when the UK went into lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic they were forced to spend more time together and their relationship turned hostile, with daily arguments.
When the relationship was at its worst, Emilio punched a door in frustration after an argument, though there was never violence between them.
Emilio, 38, an introverted Italian with few friends, and Emily, 34, a Polish-speaking social animal, couldn’t find the words in their shared English language to communicate frustrations. Conflicts — as mundane as over how to stack cups in a cupboard — were often left unresolved.
“You care about each other, but you start bickering a lot and you start building resentment towards the other person,” Emily told Insider, adding: “We were headbutting at some points, going, oh my God, we are too different.”
The couple spent $6,000 they’d saved for their first home on ‘magic’ truffle therapy
When Emily shared a news article about couples therapy involving psychedelic drugs with Emilio in September 2021, it turned out he’d heard about it too.
They took a gamble and decided to spend $6,000 of their life savings — which they’d planned to put towards buying their first family home with their nine-year-old son — on “magic” truffle therapy to save their relationship.
“There’s hardly anything that can replace the experience in terms of material stuff, even if it’s a house,” Emilio said.
The couple spoke to Insider on the condition of using pseudonyms, since the experimental drugs used in their therapy are not legal in the UK. Psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, taken alongside psychological therapy, has shown promise in clinical trials for severe depression, but its use for couples therapy is far more experimental. The truffles the couple took were essentially the same as “magic” mushrooms, but at a younger stage of fungi development and still containing psilocybin.
Psilocybin is thought to empower each partner to find new personal freedom within the relationship, said Sarah Tilley, a clinical therapist specializing in psychedelic therapy who put together the program that Emilio and Emily, and 12 others, have taken part in. She uses the same dose as in the psilocybin depression trials, and bases the program on early research on couples therapy using ecstasy.
In many countries, like the UK where the couple lives, psilocybin is illegal. However, in Portugal — where the couple flew to take the drug — psilocybin is decriminalized.
Emilio and Emily tripped twice for eight hours in the same room, but didn’t talk
Before taking the drug, Tilley assessed if Emilio and Emily were ready to make a change, and checked for health conditions that might be worsened by the drug. They then decided what they wanted out of the trip during two preparation sessions, that included journaling and breathwork. The trip was followed by aftercare sessions to make sense of the experience.
“We approached it quite seriously. You’re not doing this for fun,” said Emilio, who was nervous about relinquishing control to the drug and chose to do a truffle session alone before taking the drug with Emily.
During two eight-hour trips together in the same room, they wore masks and listened to music — but didn’t speak with one another.
Emily saw herself as a witch being burned, which empowered her
Emily said she cried for two hours during one trip.
“At some point I was being a witch and I was being burned for the stance that I wanted to empower women,” she said. “I don’t think I was disempowered in any of my relationships, but I think I was insecure.”
Emily now embraces her “wild” side more, and doesn’t feel the pressure to be a “perfect” mom or wife as much.
Meanwhile Emilio, who embodied the anger of three generations of his family during one trip, gained insight into inherited aspects of his anger.
‘You feel completely naked’
It felt unfamiliar when the couple took off their eye masks after each trip, and were able to engage in difficult conversations.
“You feel completely naked. You’re very honest with yourself and therefore you’re honest with the other person,” Emily said.
In these moments, Emilio experienced a “gigantic surge of empathy.”
“You don’t reveal all your secrets, but you’re receptive and open. I think that helped us a lot,” he said.
Taking “magic” truffles temporarily relieved the couple’s stresses. But when everyday worries re-accumulated, they found they were more empathetic towards one another. Now, conflicts happen less and get resolved quicker.
Even their son noticed a difference in their behavior, they said.
“We still have our challenges, but all of a sudden you’re a blank canvas again,” Emilio said.