Quite a few friends, especially those primed for a midlife crisis but for whom a red convertible or summer in Tuscany won’t cut it, have been toying with the idea of trying – or re-trying – LSD.
Acid is respectable again, or at least that’s what you’d think judging from breathless accounts in all sorts of mainstream books and journals.
Among the defenders – I personally prefer to think of them as offenders – of the new psychedelia, one of the most flagrant is a former food writer named Michael Pollan. He claims that ingesting substances like LSD, psilocybin, DMT, and toad venom helped dissolve his ego, and has gone on to write a best-selling book about it. How I Lost My Ego While Still Being Able To Cash Royalty Checks Addressed To It was not the title, though I’d definitely appreciate it more if it were.
Who am I, you might well ask, to aim such harsh criticism at a recognized and renowned expert? For starters, I’m someone who has almost certainly taken more LSD than Pollan, and possibly more than the combined intake of a small city. I’m familiar with those other drugs, too, all but the toad venom.
That in itself doesn’t give me license to pontificate. The world is littered with former and current drug users who will furnish you with opinions and doctrines as numerous and mutually contradictory as those offered up by all the world’s religions.
Pollan enjoys the advantage of having acquired an Ivy League education before starting to deconstruct his consciousness; many of the first-generation pioneers of acid, yours truly included, had barely started college or were still in high school when they began arresting their intellectual development with psychedelics. If a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing – my own life has amply demonstrated that – a lot can sometimes be worse.
I’m thinking of Timothy Leary and his accomplice, Richard Alpert (later known as Baba Ram Dass, or, among the irreverent Berkeley street kids, Baba Rum Dum). Both were highly trained and respected psychologists before they started messing around with LSD, which lent considerably more weight to their proclamations than if they had come from Joe Acidhead down the block.
Pollan would probably like to distance himself from the excesses and wrecked lives of the 60s – who wouldn’t? – but he comes across as Leary-lite, touting psychedelics as the cure for a host of ills, including some you didn’t know you had. When I was an impressionable yet idealistic young man, I read Leary’s 1966 interview with Playboy, in which he claimed that LSD would not only enable you to quickly transcend the spiritual and material realms, but could also cure alcoholism. Imagine my confusion a few years later when a regular visitor to the Leary household told me, “Oh, Tim hardly ever takes acid himself. His favorite drugs are Scotch and amphetamine.”
At least half of my fellow acid eaters from the 60s and 70s got strung out on substances ranging from cocaine to heroin to barbiturates and plain old booze, so I find it fascinating that LSD is once again being suggested as a cure for addiction. While it’s true that acid itself is not physically addictive (a claim and/or defense that seems to be made for every new drug that finds its way onto the market), “not physically addictive” and “not addictive” are two very different things. Marijuana, too, is not technically addictive, yet try taking it away from a long-term daily smoker (“It’s my medicine, man”).
LSD produces such drastic upheaval to “normal” ways of living that it’s hard to imagine taking it every day (I once managed 34 straight days before the police got involved, but my life had long since ceased being anything resembling normal). When I heard the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick disparage repeated acid use by saying, “It opens a door, but once you go through a door, there’s no reason to keep going through it over and over,” I retorted, “Do you really not understand how doors work?”
Now “micro-doses” are all the rage, which reminds me of when DMT was sold as “the businessman’s trip,” the idea being that you could go on a 45-minute psychedelic voyage during your lunch break, then go straight back to manufacturing or marketing corporate deathburgers in the afternoon.
I never experimented with LSD micro-doses (macro-doses were more my thing; it was not unusual for me to eat as many as 30 to 50 hits at a time). But I did try something similar with peyote, gnawing a button or two each morning for a couple of months. It was about a quarter of the amount required for a full-fledged trip, but I lived in a world continually imbued with a rainbow-edged tinge.
If the peyote buttons hadn’t started rotting, I would have carried on longer. This was the year (1970) when I was going balls-out in search of a spiritual awakening. The spiritual aspect, as promoted by Dr. Leary, was what had attracted me to LSD in the first place (that plus teenage kicks), but finding myself a few years down the road and still mired in mundanity, I felt it was time to give life a kick-start. Using drugs and abstaining from them, fasting and meditating and chanting, checking out nearly every religious and quasi-religious group in town, I thought I was really getting somewhere until it all came crashing down and I found myself penniless, homeless, and sleeping on a cement floor in Akron, Ohio.
In principle, I thought, my heightened spiritual state should have allowed me to transcend petty concerns like not having enough to eat or subsisting on the kindness of old friends and new strangers. If reality was merely a construct (“a crutch,” bumper-sticker wisdom had it, “for people who can’t handle drugs”), how could it so easily intrude on my supposedly enlightened life?
For years – even long after I stopped taking it – I sung the praises of LSD. “It changed my life,” I swore. “I might not be here without it.” The hippies claimed that acid emerged at the same time as nuclear weapons because it was the cosmos’s antidote to the apocalypse. That sounded perfectly plausible to me.
It would be decades after my last LSD trip before it sunk in that the drug, while opening me to new ways of thinking, seeing, and being, could also offer a profoundly insightful vision of a truth that just wasn’t true. Example: one bleak autumn day in 1969, tripping on 10 hits of sunshine, I decided the most important thing in the world was to go to the kitchen and wash the dishes.
Standing over the sink, confusing the sound of running water with that of a laughing mountain stream, I had a revelation. This rigmarole with soap and water was merely a symbolic ritual, not unlike the Catholic belief that a words mumbled over a goblet of wine would transform it into a cup of Jesus’s blood.
In fact, I told myself, it didn’t matter whether I used soap, or engaged with the dirty dishes at more than a perfunctory level. As long as I went through the motions, splashed a bit of water about, and operated with good intentions, the dishes would become clean and sparkling of their own accord. Food poisoning? Merely the delusion of a disordered world.
This ability to devoutly embrace concepts that made no sense swept through the minds of the 60s generation, leaving lasting damage. It may well have laid the groundwork for today’s reality, where the president can say something completely preposterous, contradict himself the next day with something even more preposterous, and millions of Americas don’t bat an eye. Highly skilled epidemiologists and immunologists explain how to protect yourself against the pandemic, and post-truthers who barely graduated high school assure you they don’t “feel” a need to fear the virus.
“Enlightenment in a pill,” many have pointed out, is a quintessentially American concept. Who’s got time for all that prayer and study and meditation and practice when there’s an easier, faster way?
But there isn’t. Therein lies the great danger of LSD and its dopey cousin, marijuana. By offering a simulacrum of spiritual and intellectual growth – a very convincing simulacrum at times – it takes you everywhere except where you need to be, which is doing the long, hard work of learning to live.
Not to suggest that books haven’t been written under the influence of one drug or another, but imagine that someone was selling a novel-writing pill. Just eat one and everything that comes out of your pen or computer will be pure brilliance. You could even specify what sort of book you wanted to produce, be it a light French romance, a turgid Russian epic, a gritty, cutting-edge roman à clef.
The idea sounds ridiculous because it is. If anyone could create an enduring piece of literature by buying and consuming a pill, all books would become suspect, all authors evaluated not by the character of their writing but the quality of their drug connection.
The books that retained true value would be the ones with flaws, with the occasional malapropisms or tedious passages. Connoisseurs would treasure them, but few would read them. The products of better writing though chemistry would go down more smoothly and effortlessly.
That’s precisely the case with chemically synthesized enlightenment. A well and consciously lived life is the greatest work of art any of us will ever undertake. There will always be a temptation to take shortcuts, not to mention that people like to take drugs, and will be glad of any excuse to do so.
But is there no reason, no justification, no potential value to the use of psychedelics, especially under the rubric of scientific investigation? There might be. Drugs like opiates create untold misery and destruction, but they also bring blessed relief for those suffering from painful injuries or illnesses. Though wildly over-prescribed, psychiatric drugs have enabled people with severe mental illness to return to a happier life. Psychedelics are often seen as an adjunct or even replacement for the multitude of antidepressants, mood elevators, and anxiety relievers currently coursing through the American bloodstream.
Perhaps some day science will find a way to use psychedelics in a measured way, guaranteeing results based on dosage and need. But as of yet it has not, and taking psychedelics remains more akin to playing Russian roulette with your mind. Just as with that deadly game, the majority who play may come away unscathed, but some will lose everything, and others will stumble through life mildly or moderately impaired.
I can no longer imagine what my life would be like if I had never taken LSD. After 40 years away from it, I’d like to think my brain has mostly resumed normal functioning, though I have no way of knowing that.
What I do know is that I enjoy – really enjoy – having a brain that works most of the time, and still appears capable of growth and development. Even acknowledging, as the hippies love to point out, that “everything is a drug,” that a plate of beans or a glass of water can also alter my physical and mental state, I’d prefer to avoid trading consciousness for a chemistry lab.
There will be those who will differ, sometimes radically, and to them I can only say good luck and knock yourself out. Though not, I hope, literally.