How Hallucinogens Ruined My Life, sections I & II

I keep this site anonymous for various reasons. This post might be one of them. Nevertheless, if anyone is interested in the things that have shaped me, this essay sheds a little light. There will be three more sections.

(1)

It is now happening on a broader scale and with a quicker pace: states are classifying the plant Salvia divinorum (the Diviner’s Sage) as a Schedule One substance where it can keep company with Cannabis, Cocaine and LSD. Incidentally, not a single conclusive study has been made concerning salvia’s health risks, nor has it been identified as a contributing factor in a single death or a criminal action. While I admit I am amazed that salvia remained uncontrolled for as long as it did (for it is powerful), the fact remains that there is no evidence upon which legislators can justify this criminalization. Nevertheless, the measure will pass essentially unopposed — because that is what people expect.

With salvia, for the space of a couple years in this country the portals to the roots of spirituality and art were thrown open; but without effecting any ebullience or revolution; only a few magazine articles and some idiotic videos on YouTube. Now policy makers are quietly sealing them up again. What does this mean? Should we infer from this situation something about the state of our culture? Have we perhaps lost our hunger for experiencing the mystical and the profound?

Salvia came and went like “cold polished stones sinking through a quagmire”: that is, darkly, quietly, without making so much as a ripple. It created minimal culture as far as I know. And I lament this lapsing of an opportunity.

Personally, I have had a complex relationship with hallucinogens. I credit them for some of my life’s greatest experiences and have gained through them what the years have confirmed to be neither spurious nor mendacious insights. But they have also exposed me to horrific insecurities and anxieties — and what’s worse, deep within me, they have established the unshakable sense of my own incompetence, as if I shall never quiet be able to leave childhood behind. Now that that part of my life has passed I cannot read or write a word, I cannot listen to music, survey a beautiful landscape, speak with friends or contemplate my future without being contaminated by the memory of those days. My life unfolds in this shadow.

Although my gratitude to hallucinogens cannot be estimated, I approached them with immaturity and a lack of knowledge and I have suffered for it. For this reason I deeply resent how our culture treats them. By placing them on the Controlled Substances list they have outlawed them and therefore lost control of them. This is an irresponsible policy. Among the great Kabbalists a man could not begin his study until the age of forty, as in Zen one was advised not to seek satori without a guide — for they understood the dangers inherent in these fundamentally positive endeavors. How much more than should a culture of caution and respect be built around things as psychoactively potent as salvia, psilocybin and peyote? To outlaw is to turn one’s back upon realities. But healthy cultures find ways to incorporate those things which threaten them. If only accepted and legitimized, my heart races to think what rituals and institutions people of talent could build upon a base of entheogens.

The intent of this essay, however, is not to editorialize upon public policy or the symptoms of cultures, but to clarify to myself the role that hallucinogenic substances have played in my life. To what extent are they responsible for shaping my ethics and my aesthetics? And though I become frustrated when people suggest my years of usage were a straying from the straight path (can any formative experience ever be considered a mistake?), I also want to detail in what way, ultimately, hallucinogens have ruined my life.

(2)

New Year’s morning of 1997 was the first time I tried LSD. I was fourteen. We were at my aunt and uncle’s in Massillon. The house was full of family, dozens of people, with the children aged five to seventeen confined to the basement while the adults sat upstairs talking and drinking. I brought two tabs, one for me, one for my younger cousin; but he decided against it and I took both. The circumstances proved fortuitous, for no one wanted to pay attention to anyone and I melted into the background, wandered the large house and observed, like a deranged anthropologist, the bizarre interactions of my family. And there was much to see that day. Two of my aunts and my grandma got into an argument, the fire of which rained down upon the men as soon as they sought to intervene, and all grew more comic and absurd while I sat in the corner of the kitchen sipping a soda and smiling at nothing in particular. Eventually my grandma and an aunt locked themselves in separate bedrooms and wept; the men drank more furiously and another aunt piled all the children into a van to take us to an arcade.

I sat in the front seat, gripping the dashboard while we sped up and down the hills of Massillon passing the vacant snowy fields and bare woods, the rest of the children squealing in the rear. I did not know what to expect. I had always imagined hallucinogens conjured realistic figures or sensations while the rest of the world continued as normal. For this is the clinical definition of a hallucination. Instead, I was pleased to see that everything was transfigured, brightened, and made more real by conversely acquiring the aspect of a cartoon. I was giddy and could not stop giggling. I felt myself as distinctly different from everyone else, but I did not understand in what way. As if any too great jostle might send me out of the world. Now I believe this experience would be more accurately defined as a vision.

The day passed memorably and enjoyably enough. At three in the morning I was still awake, and in the aftermath of the experience I walked quietly around the sleeping house trying to understand why I had never noticed before the strangeness and beauty of the world. A warm benevolence seemed to enfold me. I paused in the livingroom. Through the wide window I watched the snow falling softly through the channel of a floodlamp against a backdrop of silent pines, accumulating in the darkness.

Within a month I had taken LSD a half dozen times. No single experience ever recreated the innocence and benevolence of the first. But I did not see this as a problem for feelings and notions which had been only suggestions that first time began to strengthen. Even then I knew this meant change and growth. And the changes were indeed precipitous.

Chronologically, my life warrants a division as peremptory as the Before Christ / Anno Domini of calendrical history. Before that New Year’s morning skating mostly defined my life; afterwards LSD was the pillar of my existence. With the former, however, there was a pre-estabished culture to guide me and a community to accept me. We acquired our values from watching skate videos and reading Daily Bread; we congregated at the skateparks and shops to give expression to our joy. With the latter I found no such institutions. I recruited my friends so that at least we had a community. But all that meant was that we were huddled together on our unreliable raft adrift on an immense and dangerous ocean.

Hobbies must afford us the opportunity to be active and progress, otherwise we derive no satisfaction from them. With skating I could always learn more tricks and had my goals set firmly before me. Yet, once consumption of LSD became my hobby in what way was I supposed to progress? By taking more LSD? Basically, taking acid, like watching television, is conducive to passivity and inertia. This lack of an external goal ultimately made me turn my eyes inward, but that was many years later. In the beginning all I could think to do was find ways to intensify the acid trip.

Very quickly I abandoned skating because it could not be done while tripping. The music I used to love — the distorted, energetic rage of Black Flag, Sex Pistols and The Ramones — I started to find stupid and irritating. My skating videos and magazines reflected nothing that was going on inside my head. I threw my old hobbies away.

Instead, the Beatles and Rolling Stones songs my mom played while cleaning the house suddenly sounded very different to me: sinister in their strangeness, compelling where I once thought them weak. I started listening to The Doors, which lead to Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which led to William Blake. I began reading. My parents, who had struggled for years to get me to read anything besides comics, were ecstatic to see the small library growing in my room. They never asked how, without a job or an allowance, I managed to acquire the books.

Was the acid alone responsible for these changes? Or did its use simply coincide with an inevitable intellectual flowering, making any assumed causality a sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy? It is an important question. Of course now when I look back at my childhood I see clearly those things which were my precursors: my obsessive nature, my love of details, the need to be alone, an interest in bugs and plants, a few recurring dreams, and one night where I recalled in reverse all my memories until I arrived at my first memory and in wondering what was beyond that felt a shiver run up my spine. But everyone creates their own precursors in retrospect. Can I be certain that without the aid of hallucinogens those dissimilar components of my personality would have coalesced and spiritualized, instead of others?

To be sure, it is not as if the acid touched my tongue and instantly I understood philosophy and hungered for knowledge. The opposite is more likely. I took LSD with the same mentality as when I played videogames or read comicbooks; sometimes I took it while I played videogames and read comicbooks. An acid trip was entertainment, pure and simple. Three facts alone are responsible for my interest in intellectual things. 1) My obsessive nature, and 2) I could not take LSD every day. Therefore, on those days when I could not trip, for whatever reason, I had to find some way to satisfy my obsession. I read about Albert Hoffman, who synthesized the drug, and Timothy Leary, who was its Johnny Appleseed and Pied Piper. In one book I learned about peyote and psilocybin, and in a second book I would read about their use in the shamanic rituals of the Chichimeca and the Tarahumara. I even acquired a basic understanding of brain structure, of neurons and serotonin receptors in order to get closer to LSD. And yet all this study was hollow and incidental. It was merely an acid surrogate.

The third fact, alluded to above, was that intellectual things simply fit better with the psychadelic experience. Although invoking this experience for those who have never had it remains impossible, I can say that visually there is a colorful and baroque quality, a sort of window-pane of geometries through which one views the world that reveals the compositional excellence of even the most mundane still-life. And aurally there is a similar mechanism by which compound noises are dissolved into their parts and their musical potentialities enhanced. I remember hearing a frog croak once and being able to discern in its discordant voice every conflicting tone. To a degree, things perceived will conform to these acid induced specularia — but it is far better to find their match. For this reason I found my old music irritating and began to prefer losing myself in the prolific imagery of a Hieronymus Bosch painting or the counterpunctual intricacies of a Beethoven symphony. They felt more comfortable.

Again, to suggest I understood these things would be mendacious. This is particularly evident with my interest in literature and philosophy. Ideas did not concern me, only images and a sense of mysticism: whatever scrap or fragment of text provoked a shiver of the absurd or a suggestion of insight I clung to. An incomplete list of my favorite writers at that time and what I took from them might look as follows:

William Blake: He meant much more to me later on, but in the beginning I was attracted to his sense of permissible licentiousness (I realize now my mistake): “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”; “improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement, are the roads of genius”; “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” and so on. Also, I read that as a child Blake saw a faery funeral in his garden, and in a field a tree full of angels.

Charles Baudelaire: That he was said to have smoked opium, drank absinthe and lived with whores was the initial attraction. But then images such as the following seemed straight out of a delirium and have never left me: “with snow for flesh, with ice for heart, / I sit on high, an unguessed sphinx”; or “a favoring Goddess makes the desert bloom, / and where they wander springs transform the rock, / these vagabonds in front of whom unfurl / familiar empires of oncoming night”; or “whose thoughts like larks spontaneously rise / into the morning sky; whose flight, unchecked, / outreaches life and readily comprehends / the language of flowers and all mute things”.

Arthur Rimbaud: His impetuosity seduced me; that he called morality “the blind spot of the brain” clinched the deal. What is one to do with lines such as, “I have seen the low sun stained with mystic horror, / Lit with long violet weals like actors / In some ancient play”? After reading the Illuminations no could have ever convinced me that they were not written on LSD.

Franz Kafka: How can I explain what I loved in Kafka? How can anyone explain what they love in Kafka? Observe: “The crows like to insist a single crow is enough to destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows”.

Albert Camus: Every youth reads The Stranger. I was probably the only youth who read into it some sort of psychedelic sensuality and acid indifference to the vicissitudes of life: “and yet something has changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day . . . as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent”.

Immanuel Kant: I never understood a word of his, nor do I now. But I once read somewhere that a friend had complained to Kant that reading A Critique of Pure Reason had brought him to the brink of insanity. That was enough for me to continuously smash my head against this book as an epileptic smashes his against the ground: “Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer”.

In the end, what I took from these books was nothing more than a storehouse of images and partial concepts to strengthen the oddity of my acid trips — like a mouse might shred a book to make for itself a nest with the scraps.

Very soon I started making poor decisions. Because I did not have the patience to wait for the weekend I took acid during a finals day and failed two exams, math and English. I looked at the English exam later on: the penmanship was weak and nervous, smudged with sweat. Sentences did not end or instead began in the middle. Famously, with my family at least, I answered a simple definition question about plot with “a plot is . . .” followed by the humiliating whiteness of a blank mind. Later, when my parents sat me down to lecture me upon my disastrous performance I happened to be on acid again. While they threatened and pleaded I amusedly watched their amorphous features merge with the woodwork of the kitchen cabinetry. My father’s eyes were two unvarnished knots.

To appreciate the hallucinogenic experience is one thing, but I began to invest its behavioral consequences with misplaced value. Even when sober I incorporated the non-sequiters in conversation, the wide-eyed and fixed gaze, the inappropriate giggling and inattentiveness into my standard behavior. I gave my movements an exaggerated deliberateness as if I were unsure of everything. I was always rubbing my hands and feet together like an insect. Unsurprisingly I acquired a reputation as a moron and a kook. This did not help me get a girlfriend.

Eventually (and I have thought long and hard on how this happened, but without much finality) I began to suspect madness, and specifically schizophrenia, as a natural manifestation of what LSD artificially produced. One day I took the “S-Sne” volume of the Academic American Encyclopedia from the shelf and opened it to schizophrenia. The first thing to greet me were several beautiful, strange, impressionistic illustrations of cats with the caption reading “drawings made by schizophrenic patients meant to approximate the nature of the visual hallucinations”. They felt very familiar. Immediately and inexorably I became convinced that those suffering this form of madness simply had the good fortune to be departed upon an interminable acid trip.

Within a couple weeks I had checked out from the public library every book I could find upon the subject. My imagination swam with images of enlarged ventricles, ghostly MRI’s and molecular graphs of dopamine; I read about diagnosis and scoffed at treatments. I fantasized about straight-jackets.

But what I mostly enjoyed were the first hand accounts. Certainly there was nothing in them to admire. People spoke of alien commands, eternal judgments, abusive voices, the inability to distinguished their own thoughts from hallucinations, the inability to remember whether or not they had spoken a thought aloud. I read accounts of people slowly turning inward, secluding themselves in closets and the corners of rooms, feeling vast spaces open between themselves and others. Some wrote volumes of gibberish prophecy, others played the piano for days composing architectural pieces void of any emotion. I recall one man commented, “I am so afraid I can tell you even the people in that photograph have headaches”. A woman recounted vividly her experience of a catatonic stupor, of paranoia and anxiety so intense as to be a force, strong enough to snap tendons and crush bones. Another man described a vision of glowing coals raining down upon the world, and when his fear finally exhausted him he found himself in a field at night, the summer fireflies all around. Lives disintegrated and fell apart upon the pages I greedily read, and I envied every one of them. A few patients’ scattered remarks about a deepened appreciation for art or sense of spirituality was all I required to justify my feelings.

Who can comprehend how certain, obviously degenerate ideas can take hold in a mind and so twist understanding as to make a person desire most that which would destroy him? I began to romanticize madness; I wanted to be mad. I questioned my parents about the mental health of our ancestors. I researched volunteer opportunities at local institutions in order to be near the insane. I increased my LSD intake. Syd Barrett became the template by which I sought to mold my future, to become an acid casualty after having created some mystified and little understood songs or writings. I drew pictures of Barrett playing guitars without strings, with voids for eyes, without a hair on his head, with crushed quaaludes melting upon his vacant face.

Although a thousand doors had been thrown open to me and I habitually read books on history, science, philosophy and poetry, although I practiced music with vigor, in the end I could only envisage one future for myself — and that was in the asylum. A melancholy vision to be sure, but not a regretful one. Indeed the sadness added to the charm. I am not interested in analysing my own fantasies, but I would not be surprised if someone found in this one some sort of regressive, nursery-like yearning, and a fear of the world.

My asylum had rooms full of light with lace curtains on the windows. Everything was purified, but not cold. The nurses handed out blue vitamins, the orderlies declined to carry clubs. My asylum had a garden. Spacious and full of the sky, yet enclosed by walls which never ended and afforded no breach. But who would fear those walls? I wanted to be within them. Warm, asphalt paths led maze-like around it, hedged with daffodils in the spring, asters in the summer and chrysanthemums in the fall — winter, of course, would never come. The bushes, lawns and trees were always lush, though slightly unkempt, on the good side of unruly like in an English garden. From the northern corner where I could view both sunrise and sunset without the rays ever burning my eyes (no winter, remember, nor night) I eternally dwelt upon the soft grass, beneath a massive poplar tree. There I sat, out of my mind, perpetually distracted, sometimes horrified, sometimes swooning with joy over trifling things. The sound of running water and the chatter of birds would always be in my ears. My mind would conjure plaintive melodies.

For several years this was my highest hope: a perverse Garden of Eden.

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~ by Peter on April 4, 2008.

9 Responses to “How Hallucinogens Ruined My Life, sections I & II”

  1. Mesmerizing read. . . great post!

  2. Stunning. Absolutely perfect writing. I am not big on obvious causality but I can say for sure that the drugs have done no damage to your intelligence or to the grace, poise and balance of your prose. There is a clear and distinctive voice behind the immaculate technical skill. This is the kind of writing that can be held up as a template, as an exemplar of the possible in modern prose. Absolutely captivating, leads the mind gently through time, ideas, images, I wish I was a better writer so I could write better comments, that is how good this is.

  3. Astonishingly good. I kept highlighting things to focus on here and then finding another perfect line. In the end this:
    ‘My father’s eyes were two unvarnished knots’
    because for me it perfectly captures the poetry in acid. I really, really enjoyed this Peter. Superbly done.

  4. Thank you all, your comments have made this a very happy day. And to read the whole of such a long post!? — You are too good.

    Stay tuned, the following sections are the truly interesting ones.

  5. i’ve spent several days Peter, trying to formulate an adequate response to this and just can’t do it justice in words.
    It evokes feelings and memories too complex to capture and convey. You have incredible power in your words. Truly. They resound like the deep bass sound of an ancient bell.

    Sorry sweets – iz best i can do – not EVEN gonna keep trying to chase that rainbow of reaction. And wtf with me and alliteration today? ~smooches~

  6. In your blog, the dotted patches of humour make the darkest bits of your writings deeper and immune from bohemienne personal-tragedy myth-making.
    This is a rather touching piece to me, there was this Big Pink Tablet Within Which Unholy Mixtures Dwelled, that altered my inner spaces –
    Chatting up liquid concrete as walls breath and beat, acquantaincing oneself with the asylum-for-a-future you mention: it’s a rather popular mental resort many visit more often than they ought to. God knows how we choose our holidays.

  7. Peter, this perfectly captures every fleeting memory that I have tried to grasp hold of in my life. It is as if you have taken my fragmented acid bathed mind and made it a new. When I woke up this morning… I felt like nothing would make me feel in touch again. Your eloquent words filled me with something I had thought I had lost. Instead, I find my faith in humanity fresh and alive. Alive like the multi-colored sky after dose after dose. I cannot begin to write like you do. You inspire me to be better. To move people like your words moved me. I thought that no one could capture what I have experienced, or the sorrow I have felt since my inception with lsd. I once was lost, but now I see again through another. Truly amazing. Thank you.

  8. Youre words unlocked the doors in my mind which only Lsd did for me, words cant describe the nature of the trip, I imagine a cat has the same instints build in, being fully aware of where it’s surroundings are experiencing and potential dangers and sources of a higher power. I believe my mind has the sence of difference after experiencing acid. You are not alone

  9. A man after my own heart
    Beautiful
    Thank you Peter

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