On Indigenous People’s Day weekend I planned on doing drugs.
For the past two years I have had about ten grams of Psilocybin cubensis and a couple tabs of acid in the freezer. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew were visiting my father in Vermont and the constant thundering of feet and periodic spells of crying (at least the ones not attributable to me) would be quieted for three days. I wanted to take advantage of the silence. And I would be able to smoke. I love to smoke while high. Otherwise I’ve been off tobacco for a good long while.
I didn’t do it.
First it was going to be Saturday. Then it was going to be Sunday. Then it was Monday and the opportunity had evaporated.
I don’t quite know why I choked. There are few things I have loved in my life more than psychedelic drugs. They’ve been a teacher, a partner, even a lover. They have scared the shit out of me and forced me to confront things about myself that I might have spent a lifetime ignoring if not for their intervention. I am fond of stating that while they may not have made me a happier person they have definitely made me a better person.
So why the hesitation? I’ve had bad trips. Really bad trips. But that wasn’t my concern. They’re rare enough that it’s statistically unlikely that I would have one. I’ve done them in far sketchier circumstances than my sister’s suburban backyard. And I’ve done them with shittier events closer in the rearview and on the horizon.
I have loved drugs since the inauguration of my adolescence.
Somewhat predictably my first experience of drugs was with tobacco. It was relatively easy to access. Lots of adults still smoked in the mid-90’s and it was easy to filch a cigarette from a dad’s pack when it was half empty. A friend and I hid in a sump. This is a feature of the suburban landscape that might not be familiar to all readers. They are ostensibly a means of managing the flow of water, but they also serve as a refuge for childish transgressions.
I thought cigarettes were awful, truly disgusting, and I was resolved to smoke them until I liked them. We walked back to my house and I passed out on the front lawn, my head swimming. The pine trees opened up onto a blue sky in autumn. I picked up smoking and didn’t put it down until I was in my early twenties.
Alcohol was another early edition to my repertoire. Parents were reliable in their tendency to keep intoxicants on hand and somehow were naive enough to not expect that their suffering children would avail themselves of the means they themselves employed to kill their pain. In the spans of time in which my parents were at work I would sneak mouthfuls of whiskey from the pantry, getting just buzzed enough to avoid detection.
On one occasion my best friend was moving to another town and we got utterly shitfaced on my parent’s liquor. I knew I was far too drunk to go unnoticed and so I had the kind of brilliant idea that could be expected out of a wasted 13 year old. My drunkenness would only go unobserved if I was asleep so I chugged a bottle of Nyquil.
I came to consciousness as I was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. I had been found in a pool of my own vomit in my parents’ basement. I told the paramedics what wonderful people they were and the nurses at the hospital were showered with love and compliments on their divine calling. It was determined that this wasn’t a suicide attempt and so I was allowed to go home. The next day, as my father was dumping liquor down the sink he would wave the bottles under my nose. I gagged and vomited.
I truly loved alcohol. I pursued it throughout my young life. I drank Angostura bitters and cooking sherry trying to get wasted. A friend and I would regularly wander through a vacant house in his neighborhood. We found a case of budweiser hidden in the attic and spent a week drinking it on a wooded hillside. I was a good beer drinker and kept away from hard liquor until it was available at which point I drank that as well.
Like any kid with an interest in consciousness alteration I smoked weed. My earliest experience of this was smoking shaky garbage out of a modified soda can. I got ridiculously fucked up, laughing, spacing out, trying to express profound ideas that when spoken aloud seemed facile.
My younger cousin was similarly drug obsessed. This was not surprising. His father was a long time user of everything but had a particular affinity for heroin in his youth that bled into a cocaine haze in the late 80’s. He spoke openly about everything dangerous. I loved him for it.
He would revisit the crimes he’d committed in his younger life, terrifying and alluring stories of muggings, stare-downs with stick-up men when he was running drugs for the Strong Island Boys and fights he’d been in and won. For a thirteen year old he was an intoxicating enigma. It’s only in adulthood that I’ve been able to recognize how poisonous his effect on my life had been.
Both me and my cousin were incorrigible pill fiends. We stole everything we could from our parents medicine cabinets, at least anything with an orange label warning against driving. This was our litmus test for acceptable drugs and we took nearly anything. It was the early nineties and there was no wikipedia to tell us what exactly it was we were taking.
One day my cousin discovered a joint in an empty pill bottle and two rohypnols. We are still unsure of why these were in his mother’s possession. The joint was quite a find. Very young people lack access to glassware and generally have little skill in rolling cigs, joints and spliffs. To find an assembled and unblemished knuckle bone was an incredible stroke of luck.
We planned on smoking the joint in his father’s backyard, but in his manic periods he could show up out of nowhere to talk at us for hours. Sometimes these discourses were war stories, sometimes they were celebrations of Rush and the drumming of Neil Peart and sometimes they were obvious delusions. He was convinced that the neighbors were undercover cops and that they were survielling him. He claimed they were trying to break into the house surreptitiously. This was crazy but also normal. We were used to it.
For some reason we acknowledged the joint in our possession. He wanted to smoke it with us. For a 13 year old me this was as good as it was likely to get. Doing drugs with my super-criminal uncle seemed like exactly where I wanted to be. The three of us smoked in the backyard and re-entered the house to play Metallica songs ineptly (I was on guitar while he played the drums). It was heaven.
The next weekend I returned to the same house containing the same people. Once again my cousin and I smoked weed in the backyard. Instead of joining in for an encore of our partying the week prior, my uncle entered the basement that served as my cousin’s room enraged. We thought it was a joke initially but it abruptly became clear that he was deadly serious. His wife had smelled it and he stated that we were putting his children in danger. We both became alarmed. He threatened to call the police and have us taken away.
We were kids. We did not consider how remote the likelihood of him actually calling the police was. This was a man who kept a sawed off shotgun under the couch in a houseful of children.
His face was a horrible mask, a rictus, and he was sweating. Both my cousin and I were terrified, crying and begging him not to have us taken away. He took a can of catfood from the pantry and opened it, then held it underneath my cousin’s mouth. He told him that he would call the police if he didn’t eat it. I offered to eat half and my uncle refused. It would have to be his son.
It seemed like it took forever for this to happen. Time dilated and then ripped in two. The moment was frozen in a three dimensional structure that was infinite. Tears ran down my cousin’s face as he brought a spoonful of cat food towards his quivering mouth. And then the prestige: My uncle didn’t really want him to eat that cat food. He just wanted to make sure we didn’t get into the habit of smoking weed every weekend. The guy who gave us cigarettes was concerned about this.
In junior highschool I hung out with a group of boys who were all very committed to weed. We would smoke shitty pot out of a shitty bowl in a shitty basement. Then we would play Super Mario World and eat garbage. I would suck doritos dust from my fingers as I walked home. I wish that my high school years had followed this pattern but it was not to be. There were several attempts on my part to acquire harder drugs. One of my classmates sold me ketamine that upon closer inspection was baking flour. I was a safe kid to do this to.
By high school I was drinking all the time. I spent my weekend nights destroying myself. I loved it until it became terrifying and even then I kept it up. Every few weeks I would black out and do something absolutely fucking insane, like fightclubbing myself half to death or leaping onto subway tracks.
I was divorced from all of that after a lengthy period in a ‘therapeutic boarding school’. I assert, to head off my own doubting mind, that I was cured of alcoholism by my connection to Alcoholics Anonymous. Though I’ve done a great quantity (and variety) of psychoactive substances in the intervening 22 years, I have not taken a drink. For a long time drugs were not a part of my life either.
AA is a weird thing. It’s probably the most significant mutual aid society in the world. It is, with exceptions, an organization with no hierarchy and a decentralized organizational form that runs almost entirely on volunteer labor and member financing.
It’s also got an amorphous mystical streak, a working class syncretism that draws on the creatures of the Christian pantheon and pairs or replaces that with a grounding in the AA cosmology. There’s a generalized spiritism that pervades the membership in which people receive prophetic dreams and come into contact with the divine. AA’s eloquent co-founder Bill Wilson was particularly revered. Saying “I’m a friend of Bill’s” is a kind of speakeasy password for people on the water wagon to identify one another.
Bill Wilson was and remains an interesting person. For the purposes of this essay it feels necessary to say that Wilson first achieved sobriety after a profound spiritual experience while undergoing the “Belladonna treatment”. Belladonna is a powerful (and deadly) deliriant with the alkaloids scopolamine and hyoscine doing the heavy lifting. For reasons that aren’t clear to me this was a commonly applied treatment for alcoholics in the youth of the 20th century, and while people are more likely to experience horror or heart attack from it, apparently it put just the right amount of tweaking on Wilson’s brain to bring him to God. Later in life Wilson had a number of therapeutic treatments with LSD and recommended it as a means of achieving the spiritual experience that successful sobriety requires.
I clued into this when reading the history of Alcoholics Anonymous in a book entitled Not God. I decided that if the founder of AA had endorsed psychedelics as a means of getting closer to divinity then who was I to poo-poo them. But I wanted something different than acid. I’d taken an interest in mushrooms, the eating kind, the wild edible kind. I loved how they looked. I loved their expressiveness, that they were essentially the orgasm of a being that lay hidden beneath the soil. I knew that some of them were visionary.
I also loved stealing. This was not considered appropriate behavior for a sober member of AA but I was an outlier in a great many ways. Borders Books, the now defunct chain of bookstores, had a strict no-chase policy for shoplifting and so I stole from there shamelessly. I would just walk out the front door with a stack of books. One day amongst the field guides I found The Mushroom Cultivator. I took off with it.
I was disabused of my visions of growing mushrooms and getting really sober on them when I began reading the book. It was trafficking in terms I didn’t understand and it became clear to me that I would have to acquire skills and knowledge that were beyond the grasp of a high school dropout. As for so many adolescents at the dawning of the era of computing I had fuck all in the way of learning skills. Even acquiring genetic material was a problem. I had no internet access and less of an ability to identify mushrooms in the field. With my hopes dashed I put the book aside in my collection of stolen fictions and guides.
I maintained my sobriety for a long time, taking no drugs and drinking no drinks. Even after an unexpected and verbally explosive fight with a sponsor that was the final straw in my active participation in the fellowship I stayed clean.
It wasn’t until I had been in Arizona for a few years that I resumed my acquaintanceship with cannabis and I did so with gusto. It was not long before I was smoking everyday and for the most part I experienced few ill effects. Almost everyone I was friends with smoked, and while they probably weren’t doing so when they awakened in the middle of the night it was commonplace enough to convince me that I did not have a problem. All things considered you could very well have built a house out of the quantity of weed I smoked between 2007 and 2016.
Not long after this I was introduced to psychedelics. A woman I was seeing was gifted some dark red DMT, which at this point I realize was a fortunate novelty. This coloration of the drug is called “jungle spice” by drug nerds and is thought to contain alkaloids other than Dimethyltryptamine. As far as I can gather this is a result of the solvent used to extract the drugs from an acidified solution of mimosa hostilis root bark and lye.
I smoked it in her bed. It smelled like a dream about burned plastic and in a matter of seconds I was watching elves marching in a conga line from every bit of materiality in the room. They were happy, joyous and free. Just to observe them was to have information imparted to me about the nature of materiality. Chairs and dust and wall sockets weren’t inert objects. They were bursting with spirit. They contained the language of eternity within them.
Not long after this I had my first experience with psilocybin. The same woman had scored extracted material. After many years of interest in the substance I am still not clear on how this was accomplished. The internet is replete with instructions on how to do so that are quickly refuted. Most of the ‘teks’ for producing it are beyond my understanding.
We dissolved it in water. It tasted awful.
A half an hour later I was walking in a circle in a broken fountain filled with stagnant water and considering the possibility that I was involved in an exchange of information- that the fungus was somehow experiencing what it is to be a human being while I was experiencing what it is to be a mushroom. I woke the next day with a profoundly bad headache. I vomited with such force that I shit on the bathroom floor.
It is important to say that not only were these experiences that did not harm me, they were experiences that made me feel wonderful. My mood has really never been stable. I have a hard time navigating a normal life and my experiences of an abnormal one had been similarly horrible. I felt as though these insertions of the bizarre and transcendent were the missing piece, that they would make me whole.
It wasn’t long before I was growing mushrooms, a development that was endlessly pleasing to me. It felt like a victory over my younger self’s inability to learn. The acquisition of this knowledge involved a great deal of trial and error and I felt proud of my tenacity in the face of repeated failures. It didn’t really occur to me that I was growing drugs in a rental and that this might be a dangerous thing to be doing. I also started extracting DMT from a large quantity of root bark I had acquired. Again, I felt like a genius.
Things went well for a time. I explored my mind and expanded my universe. A spiritual life that had been in decline for many years was given renewed vitality through my contact with the images and entities of the psychedelic state. The world was full of life and spirits were erupting from it.
Unfortunately I was also falling into deep and lengthy depressions. This had been a problem before the psychedelics entered my life and would remain long after I’d put them on a shelf. In addition to these periods of deep, disabling sadness I was also becoming increasingly paranoid. This is a tricky subject for me. Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.
In addition to drugs, teaching and grad school I was also involved in protest politics. I co-hosted a show on pirate radio with friends, got arrested once and got nearly arrested a ton of times and was outspoken about where I stood on things on my social media accounts.
This coupled with my history as a defendant in a federal terrorism case left me with a shaky foundation on which to engage in other felonious behavior. This was made worse after I and a number of friends made FOIA requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Tucson Police Department.
We received no records from any of these agencies and I thought this was a very bad sign. As we had all been arrested by TPD, I had been arrested by the FBI, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety had been found to be surveilling social media accounts of activists around this time the idea that there were not records in these agencies possession was not just unlikely but impossible. As they are allowed to ignore the mandates of the Freedom of Information Act if the party they are related to is the target of an investigation I became terrified. I kept doing my drug stuff but at a cost.
Eventually I left Arizona. I moved back to the home of my childhood. I started growing mushrooms again. But they weren’t working. I attribute this to my long use of SSRIs.
The classic psychedelics are all serotonergic, meaning that they bind to the receptor sites that are the loading dock for serotonin’s regulation of ‘normal’ consciousness. There are a number of changes in this neurotransmitter system that occur with the long-term use of these antidepressants. Because of serotonin’s relative abundance after the inhibition of its reuptake there is a pruning of receptor sites. This means there are fewer places for classical psychedelics, which are all serotonin analogs, to dock. This diminishes the power of the medicinal experience of these drugs.
This was a frustrating phenomenon that I attempted to circumvent in a variety of ways. At the point in time I’m discussing my only reliable access to psychedelics were those that I could produce myself. So it was mushrooms that I tried hammering away at this problem with. I took very large doses in excess of 10 grams to little effect. I tried mushroom enemas (there is historical precedent for this among the bits of mesoamerican indigeneity not destroyed by the arrival of Europeans on the continent). Neither of these seemed to work and so for a while I abstained.
Not long after I had an absolutely miserable experience with a psychiatrist and decided that I was done with this regime of care. I chucked my sertraline in the toilet and was determined to weather whatever miserable withdrawal symptoms occurred. None did, or at least none that I noticed and after two weeks I downed a ten gram dose that transformed consciousness into a brief but memorable visionary immersion in a world other than my own. I was thrilled.
For some months I did okay. I was mercifully unemployed during the months that preceded the 2016 election which insulated me from interacting with the hateful white working class and their paymasters.
My father and I had plans to move to Vermont. I was stagnant on Long Island and thought that perhaps opportunities would open up for me in a different place. This wasn’t very strategic thinking on my part. A rural area in decline was not a place to reinvent oneself economically. We also had plans to start a business growing specialty gourmet mushrooms, also a stupid idea in hindsight. It’s a fact that most small scale mushroom growers go out of business within a couple of years and we would suffer the same fate.
But I didn’t realize either thing early on. I threw myself into the renovation of the barn into a growing space. I was alone a great deal of the time and this didn’t bother me at all. I liked the solitude and hanging about with the dogs. I liked getting stoned at night in the twilight and quiet of nowhere.
My mushroom supply had been diminished by my repeated ten gram efforts. I had about five grams remaining in addition to a bag of Peganum harmala or Syrian Rue, an herbaceous perennial with high concentrations of the alkaloids harmala and harmaline. These chemicals are necessary components of the ayahuasca experience (although different plant sources are used in the preparation of that particular sacrament). They act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, preventing the gut from deactivating these consciousness altering compounds. While they are absolutely necessary for orally administered DMT with psilocybin it simply turns the knob up to 11. Taking an MAOI is extremely dangerous for anyone on SSRIs, leading to a dangerously high level of serotonin. This will bring the sufferer to death’s door. I was impossibly happy to have cleared the hurdle of eliminating psychiatric medication from my body.
The trip was fascinating. I lay in a field on the property and closed my eyes. A deep red blossomed. Music played in the distance. I felt the euphoric bodily sensations of a mushroom high with nausea lurking around its edges. I made my way inside and laid on the couch. Then the visions began.
The first thing to say is that there was a spontaneous composition occurring throughout the experience in which complex musical arrangements unfolded, shifting from an odd synth composition that followed a tessellated worm burrowing through time and space to a somber piece on the piano accompanied by falling rain. There was a deeply felt love throughout and then abruptly it was gone, leaving my back on planet earth, exhilarated.
This was the last transformative experience in my psychedelic life, though there is an argument to be made that all of life is psychedelic- it’s just that we have always been experiencing this one with few interruptions for most of our lives. We are wildly high. We simply don’t realize it. For the next many years I would experience a profoundly bad trip.
I used mushrooms and LSD periodically throughout this time but they were dulled and muddy, not quite horrible but disappointing. Sometimes I would cry quite a bit which felt cathartic but didn’t deliver me from the misery I navigated day to day. During one LSD experience I had a golden hour in which I felt none of the fear, shame and despair of the prior two years only to be returned to my baseline of spiritual agony.
Perhaps this is why I avoided another foray into psychedelia last weekend. Not for fear of a cataclysmic experience- life itself has been cataclysmic- but a reticence to rock the boat. I have my little schedule of eating, of talking with my mom, of watching television and it’s far from perfect and definitely not what I’d wanted out of life but it’s manageable. That it happens everyday following the same patterns allows for a feeling of control. I know when to take my psych meds and how long it takes them to deposit me into the bliss of unconsciousness. I know that I’ll have at least one good idea about what to write next as I cycle uphill.
I miss that brave person who would step out into the unknown. Being him was amazing. He was a comic book character come to life with chiseled cheekbones and perfect ways of saying ‘fuck you’ to the villains in his story. He never could have anticipated where this story was headed and his ability to avert disaster is very much in question- it seems as though the plot had been outlined long ago, script intact, with pencils only awaiting the ink of experience before it went to press and waited for him to begin reading his own exploits.
It’s assured that I will take these substances again but when is not clear. I yearn for them and the strangeness they engender. I miss the freedom from my own small concerns, the big ideas that arrive like a meteor, tearing a hole in the ideological atmosphere of my life.
But it won’t be today.