“The vessel that takes you on this journey will safely bring you home.” My psychonaut smiles and says, “see you on the other side.”
I take a deep breath and put the tab of LSD on my tongue. It tastes metallic and nothing happens.
“How long should I hold it here?” I ask.
“As long as you want. But it doesn’t matter. It’s done now.”
The kitchen table is lined with acrylics, colored pencils, watercolors, and an assortment of paper. I want my first trip to be at home in a controlled space but we head out. I’ve agreed to sit outside for the first hour while I wait for the drug to take hold.
Cars start and stop at the light, people pass by, and the summer air goes unnoticed. Somehow my mind forgets I’ve just taken a powerful hallucinogen and it feels like just another day in Central Brooklyn. And gently, everything starts to wiggle in my peripherals. Something is stirring behind my eyes. The leaves on the trees start to twitch.
“I think it’s time to go,” I say. And we walk home in slow motion.
Immediately I take off my pants and lie down on the living room floor, my head next to the speaker. Music is playing but for the first time in my life, at age twenty-eight, it does not matter to me. My eyes are glued to the stucco ceiling. It’s undulating. I glance at my psychonaut. “Your eyes are the size of dinner plates,” I tell him.
“Yours are, too!”
His wide, familiar smile is eerie. I realize making eye contact is incredibly uncomfortable. My eyes dart away.
Time passes and my ability to reason or think outside the minute I’m living in is gone. My body has actually become a vessel and my blood, tendons, teeth, and muscles keep moving but I don’t know how. I am empty, I am full, I am nothing, I am the wall and the carpet. I am the walrus.
I paint. My brush dabs the thick, plastic chemical and I smash it onto a white page in huge blobs. Never before have I seen color like this. It’s electric. I try green. And then it’s red and turns purple. Suddenly I am drowning.
I am in a purple oval. My my bones and organs spill out. I have no reason to live. I’m wet and not breathing. My face tastes salty. I find myself on the couch and then the floor, this time in a ball, gasping for air. The heavy drums digging the hole I sit in suddenly stop. My cheeks are red and tainted. My psychonaut appears and reminds me to breathe. We suck air in and push it out in sync. The pink sacks in my chest move up and down. “Why don’t we paint with some yellow,” he says.
There’s a blank page. The yellow strokes are tiny and quickly become wings, a head, a bird. I am dazzled. Color is new again and I swirl and swab it around with tiny hairs on the end of a stick.
I loosen up again and avoid deep colors. The acid’s intensity fades away and I feel myself gaining control, getting used to the drug. The force behind my eyes and in my stomach starts to flow through me and I’m no longer repulsed by my body. Air ripples under my fingers and palms, and the Rocky Mountains on the map of the U.S. above my kitchen table flutter. When I wash my hands in the bathroom sink, my arms stretch into the porcelain like claymation. I am a never-ending Gumby. My sticky, spaghetti legs eventually hold my weight again and we walk to the same bench and watch the cars. They’re still starting and stopping.
The next day I’m drunk off of my first psychedelic trip. My nerves are connected to every stranger, every slab of sidewalk, every piece of garbage in the gutter. Everything is new. I fantasized for years about what tripping would be like but when the first crest rose behind my rods and cones, I instantly knew nothing. It wasn’t a feeling of “being high.” LSD operates on its own plane. My eyes descended into my mind and waves of cold, lonely purple filled my lungs.
I experienced synesthesia, a common side effect of LSD, when one sensual experience is perceived by another–feeling color, seeing sound. Minutes felt like hours on LSD and the purple made me afraid and suspicious of myself. My cosmic solar plexus was shattered and now I can no longer define fear. Nothing will be as as bad as seeing the underbelly of my own brain. It was yellow that lit up the cracks and crevices and I saw a different version of myself hiding below. Now that I knew what to expect, I was ready for more. What else could I find within?
My interest in LSD started when I was sixteen. Acid was not around me in high school but it was the colors of the music I listened to. During my junior year I received Barry Miles’ Hippie as a Christmas gift from my parents. I don’t remember telling them about it, but I had memorized the New York Times Book Review section featuring Hippie: there was a girl with freckles, like mine, and long dirty red hair, like mine, lighting a pipe with a match. It was the first time I saw someone doing a drug that wasn’t drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette. It called to me the way illegal things can.
Hippie’s pages are dense with oversized color photographs, blurbs, and quotes documenting the counterculture between 1965 and 1971. It’s where I first saw water inkblots projected behind bands and psychedelia in fashion and art. “TAKE A TRIP WITH the electric kool-aid acid test” jumped out in big orange and pink letters from a yellow circle. I knew that order of words “electric kool-aid acid test” from the spine of a book I had yet to read. Ken Kesey, the acid guru of the west, was first turned on to the drug by being a paid guinea pig for the CIA’s experiments with LSD. They thought it could be used for mind control. Instead it woke something up in Kesey. He started hosting large gatherings around San Francisco, parties where he invited The Warlocks (later they called themselves The Grateful Dead) to play as a house band, and passed out fliers: “Can you pass the acid test?”
Over my cereal bowl one morning I announced, “I’m going to move to San Francisco one day.”
“You should,” Dad said. “It’s beautiful there. I’ll come visit.”
During senior year my English class was assigned One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Hippie acted as supplemental reading about Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. Cuckoo’s Nest fascinated me, one of the first times a novel kept my interest. It illuminated the darkness of Kesey’s mind. Did LSD do that for everyone who took it?
In Hippie The Trips Festival poster, a non-stop spiral of black and white, played a trick on me spinning as it stood still. It was a three-day gathering of acid tests soundtracked by The Dead with “a baby’s bath of punch spiked with LSD.” Everyone in Hippie’s pants were wide, their sunglasses just for show either too small to see through or only tinted a feint orange, and their faces were painted with flowers and stripes. I wanted to belong to them. I loved the patterns, the blur and the fuzz in the photographs from stages and back rooms. I loved the rebellion of it all: free meals in Panhandle Park from The Diggers, the radical blasts of The Weather Underground, and pages of never ending collages of moving colors.
I went to my local Tower Records in search of The San Francisco Sound. I bought Jefferson Airplane’s Greatest Hits after seeing so many of their album covers in Hippie. Once I found songs I liked, I sought the albums they were on. I built a catalog of psychedelic rock while thumbing Hippie’s pages: Quicksilver Messenger Service, The 13th Floor Elevators, Moby Grape, Country Joe and The Fish, The Doors, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Love. I listened to these records and considered what it would be like to get stoned: is it wobbly? Does time crawl? The photos of chunks of hash and of people, I assumed, who were high, their heads tilted back, eyes in a daze, lured me into hippie culture. Drugs and fashion were far from my lexicon in high school so I sponged what I could through music and art. “It sounds like you’re an acid head,” my sister said to me, Led Zeppelin throbbing against our shared bedroom wall.
Hippie said an LSD trip could last ten to twelve hours, an amount of time I couldn’t quantify on drugs, describing it as life altering, something that can change your perception of the world and the self. I had never contemplated consciousness before so I didn’t know I had one to change. Would acid transform me? Would I lose my ability to function? To think? Walk? Speak? Could it knock something loose in me? I wanted to know so badly what acid looked like and what I could become but was afraid of causing life-long damage in my brain. I decided I could never trip. I was too scared.
Instead I decided I’d reach a peak while sober, flying high on music, studying its sounds and patterns. My 2003 edition of ‘Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time’ was taped together and never left my backpack. I spun records over and over again, pulling from Dad’s vinyl collection to build my own after he gifted me a turntable: Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, The Doors, and Steely Dan.
The first time I smoked weed was a spring day at the end of my senior year of high school. I slumped on the floor in front of our lockers and the younger friends I had fallen in with suggested getting me stoned. I was eager to try it but had no idea where to find it. I didn’t want to pass up a hippie opportunity and in the moment was unafraid of being found out by my straight edge parents. We gathered around what would be my first wooden stash box in a friend’s bedroom where no one else was home. The only first timer present, I learned the phrase “cough to get off.” Every blood vessel ruptured as I gasped for air, letting in bits of smoke, exposing me to my first drug. The world went quiet and I laid back on the bed. My hands rose and fell, swelling and ringing out like sponges.
I fell in love with the state of mind weed pulled me into but had to rely on others’ hospitality to get me stoned. I brought Hippie to college, a cozy hippie town tucked into remote Central New York State known for an infamous Grateful Dead concert and as a gathering place for outsiders, weirdos, and intellectuals. Early on after a smoke session in a friend’s dorm, I ran back to my room to be alone and listen to Dark Side Of The Moon because I wanted to hear what hippies before me heard. Because of my draw to all things hippie, I knew from many reruns of Vh1’s I Love the 70s and That 70s Show it was the druggiest of records. I wanted to slip under the music when I pulled headphones on. I wanted to slip back in time.
In Media Writing sophomore year I was assigned to write a documentary on my topic of choice. I picked LSD. I combed the library’s shelves of drugs, their histories, regulations, and what they did to the body. I interviewed a professor who had previously written for High Times as my primary source and he told me something I never forgot: Ken Kesey spent his life taking LSD after he discovered it. But every time he did, he was just walking through the same door over and over again, not gaining any spirituality or fulfillment. After so many trips he was just abusing the drug and the novelty was gone.
Kesey passed in 2001, and at the end of his life he and his mind was muddy: he was home but no one could answer the door. I was scared straight from using LSD but captivated by its mystery and vocabulary—flashback, tripping, psychonaut, dosemaster. I took two elective courses on drugs and society. I went to see the psychedelic art exhibit at The Whitney Museum in New York City twice. I loved the shiny plastic signs, the periwinkle and blue foam waves inviting me to lounge, funky outfits patrons wore, and the psychedelic rock playing in the galleries. I read Robert Greenfield’s biography of Timothy Leary, the acid guru of the east, who coined the rallying cry of the 1960s: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” Leary and Kesey both abused the drug making its danger all the more potent, showing me it could ruin my life by frying my brain.
I stuck to weed. By junior year I had my own glass pipe and gained enough courage, and wherewithal, to buy my own little green bag. Now I could finally experiment on my own time and get as high as I wanted. I taught myself to roll a joint and fell in love with the routine of smoking. I loved crinkling the bud between my fingers, the paper, the fire, watching white smoke fill my living room, and the buzzing in my brain. Weed was the attainable, safe hippie constant in my life. Stoner was a character I could play, my laugh a deep sputtering chuckle.
Just like the girl in Hippie, I wore a bandana above my brow and never took off the hemp necklace I braided. I grew my hair long, mixed my patterns just like I saw in Hippie’s pages, and became known on campus for my plaid pants, taste for weed, and opinions on rock and roll. I felt connected to the hippies that came before me but taking LSD was the furthest thing from my mind.
My second acid trip came a month after my first, when I found the yellow. But this time I wanted to be outside because I knew that’s where LSD is best eaten. The next month I would turn twenty-nine. Acid is not known as a city drug but anything goes in New York City. Nothing made me more nervous than an uncontrollable environment, but acid taught me that going forward is not knowing what that forward contains. I had two psychonauts with me this time, a safety net of experienced heads should anything go wrong. We dropped the tabs at my apartment and brought a packed bag with us to Prospect Park containing a blanket, a portable speaker, my journal, rice cakes, and water. Early on during the 20 minute walk I brought up the possible nightmares that were running through my mind.
“What if something terrible were to happen? Like a terrorist attack or if someone pulls out a gun?”
“Well it would be as if we were sober too, right?” My psychonaut said. “We would still have no control and we would go home.”
It was an answer I hadn’t thought of but as soon as the trees caught my eye I realized I’d never seen sunlight through the color green before.
We settled down between two trees just far enough from other blanket islands to remain on our own. It was perfect timing, right when the first wave of acid unhooks the mind from the body; thinking and moving become simultaneously complicated and unsustainable. I didn’t plan on outside forces changing the way I consumed myself. My skin flapped in the wind and I became aware of how truly disgusting the human experience is. Maybe it was my bare feet in the air or the presence of spit in my own mouth.
“I wish you could squeeze me out like a tube of toothpaste,” I said. “I am so disgusting I need to get out of this body. I am going to puke.”
“That’s how you know its working,” a psychonaut said. “It always makes you feel sick at first. I usually get gas.”
I rubbed my palms on my face, wiping myself onto my self. I couldn’t get my tongue out of my mouth fast enough. I laid back on the blanket and twisted my fingers up at the sky. “Here comes the lizard brain,” I said aloud. Already the changes felt familiar and comforting.
A long song mildly pumped through the speaker. We chattered making fun of each other and our mutual friends as the trees turned to worms. The sky was a big, empty blue. Being in the middle of the park showed me how tiny I was.
LSD erases the concept of the individual. Every stranger I saw made me wonder how they could hurt me. “Every person is unknown and contains darkness,” I said.
“I have darkness,” my psychonaut said. “I feel and see it. We all have it.”
I started wondering aloud about the choices I made since graduating from college. I left two very different careers behind to pursue writing, inviting a constant of not knowing and being beholden to myself.
“It’s frustrating to confront daily failure on days I don’t get my ass in the chair to write. Because when I don’t write I am a failure. But I am happy with my choices. Being chained to a desk all day brought me anxiety and panic attacks.” I paused and shifted. “Why am I trying to be something I’m not? Applying to formal jobs, going on interviews, and explaining why I’m the best candidate to be your email coordinator when it’s the last thing I want? What I want is what I have: to punch a clock and do meaningless tasks so my mind can wander. And when I’m not there I don’t have to think about it.”
I was far from the music programming job I was hired for three months after college. And even further from book publishing. There was no ladder for me to climb, like my peers, or make more money, like them. All I had to do was weigh coffee, grind coffee, brew coffee, exchange some money for less money, and have the same conversations with the same people every day. Being accountable for my writing was plenty of work.
For the first time I realized I was happy. I saw something I had never seen before: myself. I was tied so tightly to a tether I had woven, the acid greased my fingers, and suddenly I let go. The horizon and everything on it fell away like buildings crumbling into the sea. I admitted to my psychonauts a self-sabotage on a recent job interview and laughed it off until I couldn’t breathe.
LSD strips you of ego. That day I realized how exhausted I was by the charade of living up to a potential I didn’t want. For the first time I felt in control, aware of everything that could go wrong even though nothing was. I saw that darkness had been everywhere all along and that I would rather live with it than pretend it wasn’t there.
Tim Leary referred to ego-loss in his writing about LSD but I never saw it coming for myself. My psychonauts called it ego death: a complete loss of subjective self-identity. My life was not turning out like I planned—corporate radio, a salary, a 401k—but I was still OK. The daily questioning of my existence and wondering if I had made the right decisions were worthless. All along I had been too busy studying the past, in Hippie, and trying to reenact it to really see into my future.
My fear of not coming back from a trip “the same,” of acid puncturing my brain, ruining my intellect or emotional well being was eased. Who knows how much time passed before we got up off our blanket. Nothing mattered anymore. We wandered off the path into the mind maze and the woods swallowed us whole. It spat us into sunlight and we sat down on a bench by The Great Lawn watching people hinge and unlock their joints. We made it to the The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch, watched machines roar by, and the fountain waste gallons of water in the name of beauty. As we jiggled home someone said, “I feel like a brain in a jar.”
I read in Hippie LSD could open and expand your mind but never really understood what that meant. On this trip I saw that life is only now and there’s no reason to exist any other way, no reason to mourn the past or past choices. Everything felt meaningless. I felt meaningless and free.
Whenever I’m lost and uninspired, I pull Hippie off the shelf. Full of the music of my youth and the faces of strangers who impressed something onto me as they made tie dye, as they protested, as they danced naked, as they looked directly into a camera and saw right through it. They motivated me to follow my curiosity and instinct, even if I was afraid of what I could find. Now when I flip through the pages I see myself.
I’ve never liked authority no matter what shape it takes but it feels important after over a decade of study and a dozen or so trips to state that LSD is not a drug to be used lightly. It is also not for everyone. I believe any adult has the right to use whatever drug they chose as long as they educate themselves about it. Drugs can and will change the chemistry of your brain.
A lot of people use psychedelics to spark creativity or bond with others. Some even chase ego death (which isn’t always possible). Mine was not so much a loss of the self as it was a loss of the worst parts of myself. LSD blended my conscious with the trance and hallucinations of tripping. Too often I now have outer body experiences where I can feel myself hovering just at the back of my skull, watching myself realize I am alive. LSD changed the way I perceive the color green. It’s never been so bright. And people have become more clear: their realities, personalities, and intentions.
I just started a new decade in my life. I am 31 and am close to five years in the service industry in New York City. Day to day life is unforgiving and monotonous. But no one likes their job every day, that’s why they call it work. While routine and stability are comforting, the occasional LSD trip is how I fight against the norm. Tripping is a way to forget I am meaningless and simultaneously a reminder that everything is. I must remember to make my own meaning.
I use LSD a handful of times a year to reset my anxiety and bouts of depression. When tripping became a reality I started regularly interacting with, reality was something I wanted to detach from more. Acid greases my edges, allowing me to slink in and out of sentience. I use LSD for all the same reasons the hippies did: to rebel against the straight world, to experiment with my own human mind, and to find a new ledge to push myself over. It is my escape hatch that allows me to pop out of life for a while. But a trip always has to end.
Tim Leary died in 1996 of prostate cancer. He videotaped his death “for posterity.” On the footage his distinct jawline is shaggy, his sentences are a jumble, and his mind sounds like scrambled eggs. I feel aware of taking LSD too much, of abusing it. As I live my life with regular LSD use, I was right to be reticent and realistic to worry about mental harm. I know I cannot predict any trip the same way I can’t predict my life. But I can control what happens by making choices, not just about my career but about what I do and don’t put into my body. I quit drinking alcohol three years ago. I like it too much and it colored my life with a shade of shame I wish to never see again. Smoking weed has remained an easy constant, a way to take the edge off, to spark creativity, and to question it. I learned long ago it is mentally and socially addictive but have found balance over the years. My relationship to being what they call California Sober is a unique coincidence. I’ve wanted to move to California since I first saw hippies in Barry Miles’ pages parading San Franscico’s Haight Ashbury. But I never could quite get there. Maybe it’s the state of mind I’ve been chasing. And maybe the state of mind is enough.
In a world that constantly feels like it’s spinning out of control, I like to spin it a little faster. Losing control on LSD helped me find control in myself. LSD has taught me remarkable lessons that have changed my life. Nothing can stop me now. I’ve seen myself at my worst–drunken stupor, bad trip, panic attack–and have become numb to embarrassment. The freedom was in letting go, in facing my fears whether it’s a prison of my own mind or society’s standards. It’s hard to be afraid of anything when I’m no longer afraid of myself.