I entered the year 2020 with a sense of confidence I had cultivated from surviving my first year in New York City. I had moved the previous winter from Washington, D.C. after graduating from college and leaving behind a promising career in geological sciences, as well as a particularly important romantic relationship. I was hell-bent on pursuing a lifestyle overhaul: a career pivot to law, a refocusing on my queer identity, and an expansion of my mind.
And I did it. I worked two jobs, volunteered on weekends, made friends, and maintained a relatively steady level of happiness. As far as the material aspects of my life were concerned, I was well taken care of.
Now, if I had paid any attention to Maslowian portfolio theory in college, it would not have come as a surprise to me that material contentment did nothing to mitigate my growing hunger for spiritual fulfillment.
I became interested in consciousness after attending a talk at NYU in March 2019. "Interested" is likely an understatement. I became a bit obsessed after witnessing the lively panel discussion on science and faith between NYU Professor of Psychology Pascal Wallisch and Oxford University Professor of Theoretical Physics Ard Louis. I sat, one of a few hundred in an auditorium, waiting with baited breath for a self-affirming answer to the question: “Can science explain everything?”
As a geology major, I was a student of the material world - a philosophical materialist without the terminology to define myself as such. Prior to my attendance at the panel, I had believed that everything in the universe could be explained through scientific discovery. The main barriers to entry were simply time and effort.
However, Professors Wallisch and Louis quickly eviscerated the foundations of my belief. Of all of their differences, Wallisch (a proclaimed atheist) and Louis (a devout Christian) agreed on one thing: a line existed between the material and metaphysical worlds that science, no matter how advanced, could never cross.
I walked home to Brooklyn that night with a headache.
If empirical knowledge could take me only so far, what else could I do to expand my understanding of the world around me?
I began to read up on states of altered consciousness: psychedelics, holotropic breathwork, meditation, even (and especially) The Kama Sutra and tantric arts.
I fervently consumed information, desperate to get the bottom of it all. Why - if I was so secure in my agnosticism and in my limited personal success - did I feel such a deep need to fill a metaphysical void within myself? The short answer is that a metaphysical void existed within me to fill.
In college, I had attempted to stuff that spiritual vacuum with faith. I became a frequenter of the campus Hillel and Chabad, and I completed a Jewish student learning certificate in Torah study. However, the politicization of Judaism quickly disabused me of my faith, and as a queer woman, I resisted the subtle (and not-so-subtle) sexism of organized religion.
So, I swapped my Tallit for a yoga mat.
Somewhere along my journey of meditative experimentation, my aunt led me on a hike in Northern California. On or around mile 4, she recommended a book on psychedelics by Michael Pollan.
It began as a journalistic endeavor, she explained, which soon took Pollan down a road of personal discovery. She lauded it for its well-written prose and for its avante-garde subject matter. I made a note in my phone.
A few months passed, and at the top of 2020, I decided to take LSD for the first time. I spoke with friends who had tripped before and secured doses from someone I trusted. By June, I had found the perfect time and place. I would rent a house with a friend in the American Southeast. It would be secluded but accessible, in an area with low incidence of COVID-19.
I prepared diligently for the trip. This included months of psychotherapy, making amends with people with whom I had longstanding conflict, and confronting painful events of my past. I felt good. Stable. Much of the work I put into my mental state before taking LSD was transformative in itself. I was confident in my ability to remain calm and in control during the trip, and I went to sleep the night before with a feeling that was more anticipatory than nervous.
In the end, none of my preparation mattered. All of the therapy, the amends, the self-reflection - it did little to brace me for the confrontation with my inner self brought about by the drug. I, like thousands of Western appropriators of psychedelics before me (Pollan 114)*, had gotten much more than I bargained for during my first experience with LSD.
Looking back, perhaps the only thing that might have made a difference was the content of Pollan’s book, which I arrogantly excluded from my pre-trip orientation.
The acid caused me to completely dissociate. After 6 or 7 hours, I was left disillusioned and ardently devoted to the concept of collective consciousness, à la Aldous Huxley (Pollan 160). Once my companion explained to me what I had done and said in my dissociative state, I felt exposed and deeply ashamed of myself. To me, the actions conducted by my unconscious self, which had been driving my body during the trip’s peak, were monstrous. And I had nowhere to hide from them.
In the days following the trip, I sat in contemplative silence. I had taken the drug to discover myself, but I was left with infinitely more questions than answers. I was angry. I felt I had undone the accomplishments of the psychological labor leading up to the trip. I was desperate to make sense out of what had happened to me, and I was determined to learn from it.
However, I found it difficult to examine myself objectively because I couldn’t shake the intense state of vulnerability I felt post-trip. I needed space, solitude. I needed to be near something vast - something that resembled the void with which I had entered into a drug-induced staring contest.
I went to the beach.
I remember sitting completely still on a scratchy towel as my inner self squirmed in emotional discomfort. Staring at the ocean skyline felt like the universe’s hand on my shoulder. The people around me were a hint more like family than strangers.
I stayed until my pale skin began to burn, drinking beer, and breathing.
You haven’t been breathing this whole time. You're not very good at it.
I picked up my things and left the beach.
My feet stuck to the asphalt as the July sun pummeled the South Carolina road. I slipped on my sandals, which were no help, and their plastic soles sintered to my melting skin.
The truth is, I hardly noticed the pain.
I tried to take a few breaths as static images of the trip whipped around in my head.
Money. Money. It’s important to you. It’s everything to you, isn’t it?
My breath came out in contrived sputters as I rummaged in my tote for my phone. Sand scattered everywhere.
George Floyd. Sandra Bland. You killed them. You killed them.
I dialed the only person I knew with a 415 number, knowing that despite her relatively straight-edge existence, she had osmotically learned something about psychedelics by living in the Bay.
“Hi Aunt H,” my voice came out small, “I think I’m ready to read that book.”
How do you make it less? How do you put it back in?
You can’t. You never can.
Part of my journey to find the answers to questions raised by my first psychedelic experience included reading Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
Pollan takes you on a historical journey from 1943, the first chemical seclusion of Lysergic acid diethylamide-25 by Albert Hoffman, to the present day. He touches upon the Stanford and Harvard experiments, the evolution of psychoactive chemicals in the fruiting bodies of fungi, and the use of psychedelics as sacraments in Native cultures.
He discusses his own experiences on LSD and psilocybin.
Pollan's book helped me deconstruct the trauma of LSD-induced ego death, or the complete loss of subjective self-identity, which caused an epiphanic change in my psyche.
It's important to note that everyone experiences psychedelics differently, and for many people, the trip is enjoyable from start to finish. In fact, under the right circumstances, this is how all trips can be experienced. I want to make it clear that I am not advocating for the use of psychedelics as party drugs (though I maintain that's none of my business). I will simply caution those who are only interested in "the happy" to look elsewhere.
I describe my trip as traumatic, not because it was altogether unenjoyable. There were moments (hours, actually) of intense joy in which I was able to let go of myself and achieve profound insight about my life. For instance, during the initial stages of the trip, I was approached by a large turtle in the backyard of the house I had rented. My interaction with the critter evoked such a deep sense of gratitude within me that I audibly thanked him for coming.
I was simply ill-prepared for the eventual dissolution of self, unable to fully accept the opening of pathways for universal consciousness. To make matters worse, I felt horrendously sick throughout the experience.
When one's sense of self abates, it becomes clear that consciousness itself is spread evenly across the natural world. Turtles, plants, even the soil teems with energetic awareness. A brain on psychedelics may perceive consciousness as fluid; it can be channelled through the individual, providing a profound sense of interconnectedness to one's surroundings.
This interconnectedness made me feel responsible for both the good and evil in the world.
In addition to gaining precious insight regarding my family, friendships, relationships, and my place in the universe, I felt heavy with suffering. Ego -or privilege, in other contexts - makes it possible to ignore the pain of others. Take away the ability to turn the other cheek, and you are forced to examine your own complicity in oppression.
For me, this was too much to bear. My horror at my own complacency, paired with the physical pain of extreme nausea, caused my conscience to split. While my mind rocked back and forth in the fetal position, my body set out on a journey to relieve itself.
I shattered wine glasses, ripped my favorite books to shreds, scribbled nonsense in my journal, smashed all of the produce I bought that morning, and overturned the furniture. I even swallowed a vile of plastic glitter.
I turned into a zombie mobilized by existential dread: the last shred of sovereign ego trying to escape a tormented physical form.
To put simply what I learned from Pollan's book: it didn't have to be that way.
I had been so committed to undergoing this journey without a guide, in order to avoid the pollution of my experience by the suggestions or expectations of others, that I had neglected to install a safety net. There was nothing to remind me of the enduring reality to which I would inevitably return once the trip was over. Naturally, I believed I would be lost in the ether forever.
The mechanics of Pollan's own dissociative trip, as described in his book and in the video below, were built upon the research he conducted and the precautions he took. While he acknowledged that his self-dissolving trip was less like a journey he could change at will and more like "being strapped into the front car of a cosmic roller coaster," he seemed to be largely unafraid of what he saw, felt, heard, and believed (Pollan 260).
The way in which he prepared for and guided his trip informed me about my own experience. I realized that I hadn't failed a test of consciousness; I just wasn't aware of how to prepare for it. While Pollan describes having "slipped into the warm waters of this worldly beauty" facilitated by a Bach symphony and Yo-Yo Ma recording, I had slipped into colder waters, in silence, without a benevolent force to guide me (Pollan 269).
Yet, despite a vast difference between Pollan's psilocybin trip and my LSD trip, our main takeaways regarding depersonalization share considerable similarities.
Pollan describes a transcendence of regret; the part of you that remains after you lose yourself no longer wishes things to return to the way they were before (Pollan 269). There is no desire to reassemble the self. I have felt this feeling, augmented only by a duty to bring those I love with me - to wherever I was headed.
This absence of regret is one of the qualities that has persisted in my post-trip psyche. Despite the fear, the anger, the pain, I have no desire to assemble the pieces of myself back together to return to a state of less empathy, less connectedness, less love. I wish to remember the renewed feeling of responsibility for humanity - the horror at my complicity in the face of evil. Converting the epiphanic to the transformative requires work on behalf of the individual. To remember, to internalize, will take further effort.
LSD taught me some of the most valuable lessons in my life. Unfortunately, many of these lessons are beyond my ability to illuminate the abstract with words.
Fortunately, I seem to be in good company, as Pollan asserts, “Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt [...]” (251). Thanks, Michael, for letting me off the hook.
I resent the term "bad trip," at least as it applies to me. I set out on a journey, in good faith, to expand my consciousness and explore my repressed spirituality. I have taken only the first step in this journey, which was to change my mind.
* I highly recommend reading up on cultural appropriation as it pertains to psychedelic use in the Western world. See the link below for one article that discusses the issue.