Where some find mental crisis in bad drug trips, others find opportunity
What is a drug trip for?
The Drug War is cooling and the Internet is becoming a drug dealer. And studies trickle in, and anecdotal evidence floods in, that psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms are some of the best medicines in the world. That insight is spreading, and the use of psychedelic drugs may be as common today as in the 1960s generation. About 30 millions Americans -- or about one in ten of us -- have used a psychedelic. It's being called the "psychedelic revival," and hundreds of thousands report being helped.
But there's a bad side.
I mean: a "bad" side.
About a third of American trippers using LSD and magic mushrooms have had bad trips, uncomfortable experiences that border on psychosis. The old cliche was that you'd jump out a window or hurt someone; much more likely, you'll rock in your bed, crying like a little boy.
I have some personal experience here, with a tea from a vine called ayahuasca. I'd heard it was a cure-all, and safe and gentle. My girlfriend's mom, who grew up in the Amazon, used it as a child, to cure her colds. It was basically children's Tylenol, in her telling, with some nice little daydreams thrown in.
But it kept giving me bad trips.
I mean: “bad” trips.
When I started, session after session, I’d swig the foul brain juice, and, after the euphoria climaxed with the cauterization of old wounds in the birthplace of light, my stomach would turn and my hallucinations would turn, too, and neon spiders formed and swarmed, and headless skeleton ghouls dragged menacing fingers across my xylophonic rib cage and a big-headed alien god flopped me on a cutting board and started crushing me to death with a wooden block. And the hallucinations all felt so much realer than any of this world here feels. You can’t control your ayahuasca hallucinations, but you can choose to accept or reject them. If you can jerk open your eyelids, you’re back in the room. And I forcibly shook myself out of those visions because I literally thought I would literally die.
Nowadays, there’s a growing army of help, from organizations like Zendo and Groove Medical Services. Plus online guides and on-demand coaching on Reddit and DMT Nexus. But that was less true in 2007, when I started ayahuasca. It was my first serious psychedelic, and I was as unused to bad trips as I was to the moon.
I didn't think I could take it. Who could?
During one of those early ayahuasca sessions, when I’d collapsed back into this reality, vomit spots at the corners of my mouth, having puked but not rallied, I fell to the feet of the leader of my drug religion and I begged him for advice:
"How do I stop it? When my stomach sours, my visions do, too.”
“You don’t stop it,” he said.
I ignored what he’d said and wailed on.
“Should I eat different foods or think different thoughts?”
There was a silence before he replied.
“The tea always gives you exactly what you need.”
I siffled my annoyance at this mystical blah blath.
“I get a lot of benefit out of ayahuasca,” I bobbled on. “But I can’t take these horrible experiences.”
He eyed me, hard.
“Yes. You can,” he said slowly. “You are a man.”
I walked away angry. Who was he to call me a man? All I’d wanted was some simple advice on how to weightlessly galaxy soar and insta-cure all my troubles without any discomfort -- and he had been no goddamn help at all.
The conversation about bad trips is a big one.
Though I know it sounds scary, and not at all how we were raised, I often suggest that my siblings and cousins should try some. They demur. Why? As much as anything else, as much as the iffy legality and the physical fears, it’s the fear of a “bad” trip. My kin -- who have built businesses, who have earned doctorates -- hear my stories of neon spiders and pass.
Researchers are finally re-starting to study these substances intently. They give them to subjects in controlled settings. Knowing how painful a bad trip can be, they go to extraordinary lengths to try to minimize bad trips and even understand them.
They administer low doses to experienced trippers in calm rooms with low lights and smooth music. A syringe full of antipsychotics -- the antidote for psychedelics -- sits in a doctor’s holster, ready for the quick draw.
This is a humane way to research a medicine. Liability is waived; fun is carefully managed; Geico approves; it’s easier to Facebook “like” a drug trip if the FDA signs off first.
But this wasn’t always the way psychedelic doctors operated. Used to be, they’d fuck with you on purpose. And some people say that crazy way might have much to offer.
In the 1970s, Salvador Roquet, a doctor in Mexico City, had a clinic that treated psychiatric disorders using psychedelics.
The journalist Walter Houston Clark participated in the sessions. On 250 micrograms of LSD -- a double dose -- Clark experienced the bizarre conditions of Dr. Roquet’s lab. Cacophonous music, lights that flashed on and off, videos of crude pornography, violence and death juxtaposed with clips of beauty, love and tenderness. The room full of tripping subjects writhed and moaned. Clark fixated on death. He regretted dosing. He denounced the doctors as “tormentors appointed by the Inquisition to drive me out of my mind.” He called it “a descent into hell.”
Then it was over. And the doctors showed “infinite gentleness and compassion,” calming subjects down -- via ketamine, in some cases, a powerful calming and sedative drug.
And Clark found this “bad trip” incredibly helpful.
“In my research with psychedelic drugs I often have found that the ‘bad trips’ are the best trips, especially when handled properly,” Clark wrote. “Dr. Roquet deliberately sets up a bad trip to bring the patient's worst fears and problems to the surface although this may mean, and usually does, a visit to his own private underworld where madness lurks.”
This lets the patient confront their problems bluntly; there’s nothing else you can do.
Roquet referred to his bad trip technique as "psychodysleptic," meaning "temporarily disruptive of the mind's functions."
The mind is something like a child’s toy train. The same chugging thoughts, about your fuckups or wins, your awesome past and your hopeless future, go thundering through your mind endlessly. It’s the story you tell yourself about yourself, and if you’re on the train, it’s hard to tell that it’s just going in a circle.
A psychedelic can derail your thought train, and jostle it over to a different track, one where it runs smoother, where it might finally go places. Of course, opponents rightly point out, psychedelics might just knock your thought train into a smoking pile on the floor. Psychotic breaks have been reported. Which is why Roquet’s style of therapy is unlikely to come back.
But there are certain psychedelics that naturally give you that bad feeling that Roquet engineered. Ayahuasca is one of them.
Sure, there are plenty of drugs that give you only good trips. Painkillers and cocaine and heroin trips are consistently blissful; and they ruin our people, because compared to those heavens, baseline existence seems unbearably painful.
It might be as simple as this: after you’re freezing cold or blazing hot, it feels good to be at room temperature.
Death, loss, pain, loneliness, lostness; these are as much a part of life as their partners -- joy, birth, wealth, purpose and siblinghood. To avoid loving someone because you might lose them? To avoid fatherhood because your kid might die? This way of thinking is impoverishing. To avoid psychedelics because you might have a bad trip? Maybe it’s the same thing.
If anything, I wish my “bad” trips had been badder. Or, I wish I’d gone deeper. You can’t control your ayahuasca hallucinations, but to some extent you can choose to accept or reject them. And I wish, when they started slipping sideways and hellward and into black holes, I wish I hadn’t flinched and fought to come up for air, but dove into the swirl and swam straight into “hell.”
Couldn’t I have learned something from hells and black holes? Even and especially hells that are only the creation of my own mind? What does my mind think hell is like? What’s going on in my mind, anyway? What better way have I got to peek at my psyche than psychedelics -- a word that means “mind revealing”?
Fear of a bad trip is part of larger disease in my life. Fear of displeasing people, fear of failing, fear of death. Bucked up by ayahuasca, I’m trying to face real-life versions of a “bad” trip: annoying neighbors, difficult work assignments, blunt conversations with siblings and parents, and the long terrifying afternoons when, as Carl Dennis writes, I get an inkling of what it means to be shut up forever inside one person, the windows barred.
And -- though this is an auxiliary effect and not the point -- I’ve found that, by accepting bad trips when they come, I’ve actually had fewer bad trips. And psychedelics have been allowed to do their work. And health, I hope, is coming my way.
I can take it. I’m a man. Without psychedelics, I don’t know if I would be.