"If I was just doing it for fun I might enjoy it," Ashley says. "But I resent that I have to do this for my health."
About once a month, when Ashley Hattle has to take her powerful and effective headache medicine, she preps for the unwanted side effects.
She clears her schedule for eight hours. She gets out the finger paint. She turns on a Harry Potter movie. Why? "Because it's magic," she says. And then she downs 1.5 grams of psilocybin mushrooms.
Side effects include: walls that breathe, trees that shimmy, and clouds that morph in geometric patterns.
"If I was just doing it for fun I might enjoy it," she says. "But I resent that I have to do this for my health."
Her medical problem, cluster headaches, is the most painful thing a human can experience — worse than broken bones, childbirth and gunshot wounds. And story after story after story and study after study says psychedelics like magic mushrooms are about the best medicine.
But tripping, for Hattle, a 27-year-old advertising writer, is a pain. It's hard to write or make phone calls. She can't drive. She doesn't feel comfortable hanging out with most people. And she has to spend the whole next day recovering, feeling groggy and dull.
Let's call her unusual problem the Unwanted Tripping Problem. It's rare, but more common than many might think, and is becoming more common by the day. As the Psychedelic Renaissance rolls on, people are treating their migraines, chronic pain, asthma and mental health problems with psychedelics that once flourished only in the 1960s, such as LSD, mushrooms and ayahuasca.
However, no doctor is prescribing them these medicines. They wouldn’t dare. And no one knows exactly why they work, either — or whether they work at all. It’s entirely possible people like Ashley feel better because of a placebo effect.
For that reason — and the very real possibility of going to jail — most Unwanted Trippers stay anonymous.
A user on Reddit, who goes by name Mrheadpain, writes that he treated his chronic migraines by eating shrooms two or three times per week. "It's hard tripping all the time," he writes, "when you need to do things like work or drive or go to a social function. There were good trips but it gets old fast."
Similarly, user jerzeypipedreamz says they take two LSD hits about once a month to treat arachnoiditis, a pain in the spine. It "push(es) the pain out” — but they can't talk on the phone or do anything important for 12 hours.
There's still little scientific evidence that shrooms help migraines or LSD helps spine pain. But there is evidence that ayahuasca is healthy. And in the small subculture of ayahuasca, the Unwanted Tripping problem is common. Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drug from the Amazon, tastes unbelievably awful, makes the user vomit and feel paralyzed at high doses. Horrifically bad trips are common.
And users know it. At an ayahuasca ceremony recently, a man who had drunk the tea hundreds of times before said, "Part of me really doesn't want to do this." A woman who'd done it dozens of times said, "It takes every bit of courage I have to drink this." A man who'd done it fifty or sixty times had stopped doing it, saying, "I get physically ill just thinking about it." But people like them feel that, if they didn't go through these Unwanted Trips, they might slip back into depression or alcoholism or acedia — spiritual apathy.
Three years ago, when Patrick Hall was 49, he put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger.
Hall, like Hattle, suffers from cluster headaches. They're also called "suicide headaches" because the elected death rate among sufferers is 20 times the average. Trying to stay alive, Hall had tried virtually every legal medicine for the headaches, a long list which includes sumatriptan, lidocaine, verapamil, corticosteroids, lithium, morphine and others. Finally, he says he'd had enough.
The gun, though, jammed.
He slumped to the ground, overcome with grief, fear and shame.
Today, Hall is alive, sitting at a table in a wing joint in a strip mall on the edge of Denver, where a bustling server delivers more chips and salsa, and a Rams football game plays on the TV overhead.
As as he tells the story of his suicide attempt, his eyes fill with tears. He hugs himself as his body shakes. He has a hard time getting the words out. What saved him? "This medicine," he says. And he pulls, from his inside jacket pocket, a blue glass vial with a rubber stopper, full of a clear liquid that sloshes when shaken. He hands it across the table.
"LSD," he says. "LSD really helps."
Hall takes LSD about once every two or three months, putting on his tongue a standard dose of about 125 micrograms. It's given him his most pain-free year in the 31 years he's had the headaches.
Cluster headaches are unique among Unwanted Trippers, in that they have a strong body of scientific research suggesting that psychedelics really do treat them. A 2006 study shows that LSD and psilocybin breaks cluster headaches better than anything else. The next best treatment is a pharmaceutical, prednisone, which keeps cluster headaches away 45 percent of the time. LSD did so 88 percent of the time in the study.
Again, no one knows why. There are theories. Maybe psychedelics dilate blood vessels. Maybe they mess with your genes. Or maybe it's a cure for a bifurcated brain. Cluster headaches only happen on one side of the brain. LSD is known to connect parts of the brain that are normally separate, to make them work together. Maybe, by connecting the two sides, the brain starts working right again.
Whatever the reason, it clearly works. Before she found mushrooms, Hattle also thought about suicide, and wouldn't let herself own a gun for fear that she'd use it. Today, she’s alive telling her story.
Bob Wold, who runs an organization dedicated to people like Hattle, ClusterBusters, says that LSD and mushrooms are the best medicine available, and that thousands of people have gotten rid of their cluster headaches by using them. He uses magic mushrooms, too. Some people are able to dose as rarely as every six months; some have to do it every five days. Most try to dose as rarely as possible to be as healthy as possible, he says. (For the record, Wold does not get tired of tripping.)
Neither Hall nor Hattle would say where they got their drugs. They're worried about the law.
Hall's is an extremely strange story, one that many people will find hard to believe. He is saying that he owes his life to a drug that, if you believe government and media hype, kills you or makes you go insane or makes it feel like there are bugs crawling all over you or makes you jump out a five story window. Under no circumstances, we're told, does LSD make anything better. But looking into Hall's eyes, his story is believable, no matter how strange it is.
It makes you believe that the Unwanted Tripping Problem is just the way life is for some sufferers, that they have no other choice.
Psychedelics, however, have serious risks. They mix badly with some medications. They can be psychologically addictive. They can be dangerous for young people and schizophrenics. Deeply religious people and delusional thinkers often believe that their hallucinations are real, which has the potential to be really destructive.
But all the people we spoke to facing the Unwanted Tripping Problem say they trip in order to be good people, not bad ones — to be productive members of society, good family members and good citizens, not bad ones.
Deanne Nolan, for one, says that cluster headaches are ruining her life. No drug has fully helped her. She's a bookkeeper and a mild-mannered mom, and hasn't tried psychedelics because she has relatives in law enforcement, and breaking the law might put her kids at risk. If she ever does try shrooms or LSD, she says she'd do it reluctantly.
And, as the stories of more and more Unwanted Trippers surface, the conversation around psychedelics will change. Bob Wold believes the law will, too. After all, lawmakers and cops are human, and humans are more tolerant of people who break the law because they want to stop feeling pain than for people who break the law because they want to feel pleasure. Pain is forgivable. Pleasure isn't.
As for the personal struggles of people like Hattle, and the challenge of making the best of an unwanted trip, it's a new frontier in the world of psychedelic medicine — which, by the way, is flourishing, with conferences, newspapers and research organizations. The people who suffer from cluster headaches, for example, have their own organizations, conferences and newsletters, even sharing tips and tricks on how to trip.
They all offer advice: "Do not drive or operate heavy machinery. Avoid job interviews." But they also remind each other of the upsides: "sounds and sights become more vibrant and interesting … music is richer and sweeter, colors are brighter."
All this growing support is helpful, and hopeful.
"Some people have been doing for 10-15 years and have gotten used to it," Hattle says. "I'm still adjusting and learning how to make each trip a good one."
She'll get plenty of practice, because she likely has another mushroom trip coming up soon. If she can put up with some weirdness happening just once a month — breathing walls, melting trees, an especially magical Harry Potter movie — things will get better.
It’s healthier than suicide. Thousands of surviving Unwanted Trippers agree.