In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Drug Experiences” first ran in our July 1979 issue.
Marijuana and I have a long history together.
At the high school I attended, pretty much everyone smoked pot. Even though I was a smart kid who cared about my grades, I liked to get high before class because it intensified my focus. When I was straight, I would find myself daydreaming, but when I was stoned, suddenly everything my boring teacher said was fascinating.
Going to concerts in college, I discovered how marijuana enhanced my connection with music. It seemed I could feel the song, like the notes and chords were tangible. I pursued a major in the performing arts, and weed let the creative part of my brain go into overdrive. It was as if I had removed some inner voice that would tell me an idea was stupid or a project was crap.
Over the next two decades I had a range of romances and made some good friends, yet I spent a great deal of time alone, going out on the porch after work to enjoy a couple of hits and ponder the ironies of life. Sometimes a great artistic epiphany would wend its way into my mind. Other times these moments were just therapy, a way of figuring out some important truth about myself.
In my late thirties I met Mr. Right. But Mr. Right’s job required random drug tests. Worried the secondhand smoke would show up on his test, I seriously curbed my marijuana use.
Another decade or so passed, and some states (not mine) began legalizing marijuana. My cousin brought me a big bag of legally purchased weed when he was passing through town. I stashed it in a storage area behind the garage and would refer to my trips out there as “visiting Cousin Bobby.” On a recent vacation I went to a weed dispensary for the first time. I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store.
Now that Mr. Right has retired, I can smoke more freely. I’m at the age when all my body parts are starting to ache, and marijuana is more helpful than arthritis medicine. Sometimes I’ll sit outside alone, indulge in a few hits, look at the stars, and take a deep dive into my thoughts. It’s like running into an old friend.
Today would have been Einstein’s one hundredth birthday, and the media are taking us aside to Explain What He Meant, lest our continuing bafflement (why do they assume we must be baffled?) dampen the celebration. One pathway to understanding Einstein’s cosmology that the newspaper hasn’t discussed is chemical alteration of consciousness. Marijuana, psilocybin, and LSD, by changing our relative viewpoint, can bring us an emotional understanding of Einsteinian truth that just isn’t available in, say, high-school physics.
My own chemical enlightenment about special relativity took place a few years ago in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Late in a Sunday of tripping (marked by reverent visits to the graves of Henry James and Margaret Fuller and a less-than-reverent wander around the tomb of Mary Baker Eddy), I leaned back against a tombstone and slipped into reverie. The acid was revealing the immense deliberation of nature — how the cirrus clouds above and the branches of the trees and the swell of the hill I sat on were not random but ordered, symmetrical in themselves and seamlessly interlocking. Clouds and trees and hills were all one entity. And I’m in it too, I thought, and so thinking, I (as myself) ceased to be. I stopped being illusorily independent of the universe. Now I was the hill, the tombstone, the sky. No borderlines of body or mind. I felt the true I, heard the one note that we and all we sense are merely harmonics of. I did not disappear; I became manifest.
Since that moment I’ve never understood how Einstein could baffle anybody. E = mc2 simply means that there is one energy that is everything. “All graceful,” as the Grateful Dead once sang.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I openly identified as queer, and it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my only child that I was able to articulate that I am nonbinary. During pregnancy I became increasingly uncomfortable with the performance of femininity associated with motherhood, confirming my nagging suspicion that I didn’t fit into any gender boxes. At first this was distressing. I felt like something was wrong with me. I loved being a mother but hated being a woman.
By the time my child turned two, I’d started to list they/them pronouns in my e-mail signature. In the last few years I have cut my hair and picked up a second first name (or, as my now-four-year-old child calls it, my “fashionable” name).
When I first considered hormone-replacement therapy, the prospect terrified me. I spent hours traveling down Internet rabbit holes full of transgender trauma stories and detransitioner rhetoric. Antitrans sites argued that pursuing what I so desperately wanted would scar my mind and body forever. Still, my need to inhabit my nonbinary identity was stronger than my fears, and I began taking testosterone.
The bodily changes I thought would be hardest, like vocal shifts and increases in libido, turned out to be the most healing. My voice now sits in a lower register that feels comfortable. My child and I regularly have sing-along dance parties, something I never did before because of how my high-pitched voice bothered me.
I’d been scared into thinking testosterone would turn me into a sex-crazed monster, but instead I simply experienced more spontaneous desire. “Bottom growth” — the enlargement of the clitoral tissue — made intimacy novel, and I felt a new sense of playfulness in my sex life.
When I started my gender transition, I thought I had sworn off femininity for good. No more gender performance that didn’t feel right! Less makeup! No florals! As I began to masculinize, though, I had a yearning for extralong nails. I perfected my purple-winged eyeliner. My chest stopped bothering me. My small breasts have now become a source of pleasure. Instead of feeling like a mask, my femininity is a crucial part of my identity as a nonbinary, transmasculine person. I am everything that I want to be, and I have testosterone to thank for it.
The first time I saw beauty in my own face, I was twenty-two years old and high on mushrooms in a hotel room full of passed-out hippies. Everyone else — my sort-of-ex-boyfriend and his friends — had gobbled their mushrooms hours before. But I couldn’t trust my mind, which often spiraled with undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, so I’d nibbled my portion slowly, easing myself into a slow, controlled high. By the time it arrived, I was soaring alone in a room heaped with dreaming bodies. I tiptoed into the bathroom, curious what treasures it held.
When I turned on the light, I saw in the mirror a vaguely familiar stranger whose beauty excited me. Her eyes lit up as questions ran through my mind: Is that me? Has that always been how I look, or is it the mushrooms? Is that how other people see me? I thought of the two handsome boys who greeted me every day on Haight Street in San Francisco. “Hello, beautiful,” they’d say with a smile. I was so certain this word could not apply to me that I’d always attributed their compliment to sympathy. (My abusive relationship with my sort-of ex was a badly kept secret.) Staring in the mirror, I saw who the boys were talking to.
But which me was the real one: the awkward girl who had met me in the mirror every morning for years, or this magical woman? I climbed up on the counter to get a closer look. Once I was nose to nose with my reflection, my face made sense to me for the first time: The crazy waves of red hair I was forever trying to tame were wild flames leaping around my face. The boxy nose that had always bothered me now seemed befitting a Tolkienesque sprite. The eyes I’d always deemed beady now looked like pools of sparkling curiosity. I pressed my forehead into hers.
When I woke the next day and searched for that woman in the mirror, she was gone. But seeing her had shifted something inside me for good.
When I was five years old, my elementary school held an assembly that included a special visitor, Harry the Habit Kicker. (Harry was actually our school resource officer in a giant bear costume.) He wore a shirt that read SAY NO TO DRUGS, and he carried a white bag with BAD STUFF scrawled across it. Harry demonstrated the consequences of drugs by placing the bag into his mouth. We all watched in horror as he jumped around, waving his fuzzy arms frantically, then fell to the floor, dead.
I pressed my sweaty palms against my rib cage to suppress my panic. Cigarettes, according to Harry, were also drugs, and therefore invited death with each puff. I realized at that very moment that my mother must stop smoking.
I confronted her later that night as she sat on our creaky patio swing, a lit cigarette in hand.
“Why do you smoke, Mommy?” I asked, staring squarely at her. She’d taught me to always look people in the eye, because an honest person would never turn away from the truth.
Avoiding my gaze, she took a drag, released the smoke into the air, and replied, “So I can blow a kiss to the sky.”
She continued to swing as the sunset turned into starry night. She never did quit smoking.
On March 4, 2022, I admitted myself to a mental hospital. I’d had a panic attack at work the previous day and was convinced I was going to hurt myself or someone else. The psychiatrist prescribed me numerous drugs, including Ativan, Abilify, and sertraline, but none of them seemed to help. I continued to have thoughts of harming someone.
When the psychiatrist increased the dosages, my symptoms only became worse. I started to hear voices emanating from my food. I couldn’t remember what happened some days. Other days I felt like I didn’t exist. My jaw dislocated four times, and I had to be transferred to the ER for treatment. The ER doctors thought the antidepressants I was taking had caused the dislocations via “drug-induced dystonia,” an involuntary contraction of the muscles, but the psychiatrist continued the medications anyway.
After three weeks in the mental hospital I could barely move or eat. I couldn’t go to the restroom without help, and I was drooling uncontrollably. I was admitted to the ICU, where I was given IV fluids, a urinary catheter, and a feeding tube. The diagnosis: neuroleptic malignant syndrome and serotonin syndrome, two life-threatening conditions caused by reactions to psychiatric drugs. The ICU doctors said that the doses of Abilify and sertraline I was on were much too high for my height and weight. I received treatments for the syndromes as well as speech and physical therapy to help me learn how to speak, eat, and walk again. Eventually I made a full recovery.
I have since been diagnosed with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder involving thoughts of harm. I am seeing a psychiatrist every month. So far I have declined all medication that’s been offered.
I attended my first ayahuasca ceremony after participating in many other guided explorations involving psychedelics. The ayahuasquero’s wife oriented us to the night ahead by saying, “If you feel yourself dying, go ahead and die.” I understood what she meant: we had to let go of ego to find the wonder and safety of trust.
Sure enough, soon after I drank a second cup of the ceremonial liquid, I felt that I was dying. Then came cosmic visuals too beautiful to describe.
As the long night wore on, though, I began to fade. I curled into a fetal position. I knew the better choice would be to open my body, but I felt exhausted and wanted to sleep. Still the ayahuasquero kept singing, and the tobacco juice we’d taken at the beginning of the ceremony would not let me drop off.
Soon the ayahuasquero’s wife began to sing a song about dandelions: how the Earth grows through them, and water flows through them, and wind blows them away. It was a beautiful metaphor for a life of surrender. What’s more, dandelions are something I identify with. My first name is Dan, and my last name means lion. I titled a self-published poetry book Dandelions. I imagined that the ceremony’s organizers had googled my name and improvised this song just for me.
A little while later I felt the urge to sing a song I knew with the refrain “All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you.” When I finished, I heard someone crying nearby.
In the morning we all shared food and conversations about our experiences, both difficult and wondrous. A woman asked if I had been the one who’d sung “All I Ask of You.”
I told her I had, and she gave me a big hug. “I’ve been so angry at my father,” she said. “When I heard that song, all the anger left me.”
Her father had died a year earlier. On his deathbed he’d told her that she was the light of his life, but she had never received an inkling of that from his words or actions. In the song she had felt her father’s wounded stoicism and his love for her, and she’d forgiven him.
I packed up and said my goodbyes to the ayahuasquero. “And please thank your wife,” I requested. “Her song about dandelions is what gave me courage through the journey.”
“I’m glad you came,” he said. “My wife didn’t sing, though.”
It turned out that the singer was the woman who had forgiven her father. She’d sung the song I’d needed to hear so that I could sing the song she’d needed to hear.
In college I was pulled over for not coming to a complete stop at an intersection. My car was searched, and I was given a ticket for possessing a bud of marijuana the size of a thumbnail.
I wanted to fight the citation, but I was told by the county prosecutor that it was only a misdemeanor, no different than a speeding ticket. He lowered the fine, and I paid, naively thinking it would just go away.
Soon after that, I graduated and began applying for teaching jobs, but my career was thwarted by that ticket. One principal regretfully told me he had to rescind his offer. At another school I was escorted off the grounds once the background check was completed. I secured a position as a long-term substitute, and I loved my classes, my students, and my department. After a year and a half, however, the district hired a new human-resources director, who changed the policy regarding criminal records. My principal told me he would not be able to hire me back the next year.
After losing three jobs due to a pinch of marijuana, I resolved to get my record clean. I paid a lawyer a few thousand dollars and returned to court. This time I actually got to see the judge, who was dismayed that such a small amount of marijuana had plagued me for so long. He promptly expunged the ticket, which allowed me to finally advance my career.
I was fortunate that I could hire that lawyer. I know countless others are unable to afford it.
After having two babies in the span of sixteen months, I felt like I was stuck on a roller coaster that never slowed down. Just as one would fall asleep, the other would wake up crying. Postpartum hormones gave me hot flashes and juiced up my PMS mood swings.
Maybe I’d watched Mary Poppins too many times as a child, but I’d genuinely thought being a mom would come naturally, as if birds were going to sing along with me while I did laundry. But the harder I tried, the more I resembled Ursula, the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. As the months went by and my mental state continued to decline, my desperation grew.
My kids were still in diapers when I had an honest talk with a mom friend of mine. She said she had experienced the same feelings and suggested I try a little pot to help regulate my emotions. She pulled a half-smoked joint from a can in her pantry and sent it home with me.
Many times in my life I have achieved a peaceful state by meditating or taking a long walk, but as long as I was tethered to my kids, my alone time was limited to a quick trip to the backyard for a single deep breath. So I tried the joint.
It worked. After one hit I felt sane again — or, at least, human.
It was easy enough, whenever I ran out, to score a little of the devil’s lettuce from friends. I never knew how strong it would be, however, or how long the high would last. The unpredictability eventually outweighed the relief, and I began to abstain. I spent a lot of years more stressed than I needed to be.
Nowadays in my medicine cabinet, beside the Tums and the Advil, I keep a vial of CBD oil that gives me all the calming benefits without any of the surprise side effects. What a game changer this would have been in my early days of motherhood.
Long Beach, California
When I was stationed on a Navy submarine in the 1970s, my fellow sailors and I bought black hash on the Spanish black market, smuggling it past Spain’s Guardia Civil, the naval dock guards, and our own security guards on the submarine, most of whom were stoned during their watches. I know because I was one of them. There wasn’t a place on the ship we didn’t smoke, including the control room during midnight shifts.
The most memorable place I got high was on the lower deck, where the missile tubes were located. Our ship had sixteen nuclear missiles, each armed with ten to fourteen warheads, yielding forty-one kilotons apiece. Hiroshima was destroyed by a fifteen-kiloton bomb. At maximum capacity our submarine could have leveled more than two hundred cities. The U.S. had forty-one of these nuclear submarines in its fleet — “Forty-One for Freedom,” they were called. The crazy thing is that, when I’d joined the Navy, I’d believed in this idea.
The more I got stoned, though, the more I questioned our purpose. Taking deep inhales of the hash and listening to Pink Floyd on headphones, I began to see the insanity of mutually assured destruction. I certainly wasn’t the only sailor who felt this way. More than a few of us doubted we could follow orders that might annihilate the world. That gave me comfort. There were at least some of us who wanted peace.
The Sea Ranch, California
I was twenty-one when I tried marijuana for the first time. I was at a party with my friend Patty, and a bong was being passed around. Rob, the guy I had a crush on, was there. Thinking it might make me more confident around him, I decided to take a hit. I hadn’t been paying close attention to how the others smoked from the bong, though, so I tried to wrap my lips around the outside of the glass cylinder. The bong was pretty large, and I was having trouble making a seal with my mouth. It looked like I was giving it a blow job.
Patty saw what I was doing and laughed. “You’re supposed to put your lips inside!” she said.
My face flushed, and I did as she said, breathing deeply and hoping the high would kick in as quickly as possible.
It turned out that Rob had noticed my technique and was impressed. We ended up dating for six years.
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
As a young child I had recurring ear infections, and every time I took antibiotics for them, I had an allergic reaction. When I was a teen, I had a snowboarding accident and was given Vicodin in the emergency room. Rather than feeling relief, I suffered hours of anguish from side effects until the medication wore off. In my early twenties I got a hepatitis B vaccine before traveling abroad, as recommended by the CDC. Within hours of the injection, my arm, neck, and back were in so much pain that I called the hospital to report the symptoms. The person I spoke to said that if the pain were related to the vaccine, I would have felt it immediately. I was angry at their dismissal and resentful that, once again, a drug that I’d been told would help me was causing such discomfort.
I decided to take my health into my own hands. I got a bachelor’s degree in holistic nutrition, studied plant medicine, and began using natural remedies for all my ailments. I ate wholesome food, improved the diversity of my microbiome, and practiced yoga and meditation to minimize stress. I felt confident that, by keeping drugs out of my body, I was keeping myself healthy.
When the COVID vaccine became available in the fall of 2020, I passed on it, even though I was an essential worker. I had faith that my body was strong enough to heal from COVID on its own and believed my choice was not putting anyone else in danger.
I was shocked when the first stranger asked me if I’d been vaccinated. Since when was it OK to ask people about their personal medical choices? Then the judgment started. As word spread that I had refused the vaccine, I was associated with a political party that I’m not a member of, religious beliefs I don’t hold, and conspiracy theories I don’t believe. I overheard people discussing “anti-vaxxers” with such disgust that we sounded like pedophiles. I stopped going out in public because I was afraid of being villainized for my vaccination status.
When one of my coworkers found out I wasn’t vaccinated, I was harassed so much at work that I started having panic attacks while pulling into the parking lot. People I had thought were friends avoided me. I had never felt so alone, and I became severely depressed. For the first time in my life my health was suffering from not receiving a drug.
Wynde Kate Reese
Jay, New York
It happened on a steamy July morning near Pittsboro, North Carolina. I was in the company of three people I had done a lot of psychedelics with, and we had inhaled some good MDA (a wonderful drug, later maligned due to increasingly poor quality) in a quantity no one was keeping track of.
My eyes, as they usually did on the drug, seemed to be flipping in my head like a pair of venetian blinds gone berserk. At dawn, we had managed to drive out to a friend’s place in the country. We were eventually scattered around the front porch, trying to say goodbye to the two friends we’d awakened at that time.
What happened, happened simultaneously to the four of us — our auras became wonderfully visible, but only to each other. They glowed around our whole bodies like soft neon.
Joe stumbled over to me, excitedly mumbling something about the wonderful shade of yellow surrounding me. He was awash in indigo blue, as was Chris. But our somewhat paranoid companion, ________, was glowing a fiery red. It was, in our minds, a sort of confirmation of his state: he was the angry, confused, dazed one. He had become increasingly paranoid over the summer, even when he wasn’t tripping. At seventeen, he had suddenly become a living symbol for all that redness means: danger, anger, extreme urgency. He stood on the porch alone, glowing innocently red. We stood in the yard, feeling like beautiful jewels, watching him. As he came toward us, the glows faded and disappeared.
The upshot of all this, for three of us, is a singularly beautiful memory, and the reinforcement of a belief in all that auras can indicate. For ________, he flipped out totally seven years ago, two months after this incident, and as far as I know, he has yet to relocate in a more coherent reality.
After college I spent a year teaching at a bilingual school in Honduras. Another young teacher named Dylan and I bought some marijuana and brought it back to the house where we lived with our fellow teacher Conor, who had gotten his hands on a DVD of E.T. We were all going to smoke pot, drink Cuba libres, and watch the movie. We didn’t have a pipe or rolling papers, though, so Dylan, who was experienced in these matters, made a pipe out of an apple. Or maybe it was a toilet-paper roll.
I was interested in Conor, but he didn’t seem to be making any moves, despite all the time we spent together: lounging in the airy, bougainvillea-filled courtyards of coffee shops, reading Kurt Vonnegut out loud to each other on our veranda, and galivanting around the country on the weekends. I thought Dylan was cute; I’d even admired him from afar at college. But in Honduras we butted heads often, and I considered him aggressive and a player: he had a girlfriend back home in the States and, seemingly, a new one in Honduras. He preferred to spend his Sundays watching American football.
That evening, stoned and tipsy on the couch between the two of them, I put my feet on Conor’s lap and my head on Dylan’s. I previously had kissed only two boys, but that night the drugs took my inhibitions away, and I ended up convincing each of them to kiss me while the other was out of the room. Their responses were very different: from Conor I felt nothing but nervous energy, whereas Dylan was eager and engaged.
The next morning I wanted to hide in shame, but we were living under the same roof. As Dylan left for lunch with a friend, he touched my head in a strangely tender way before going out the door.
About a year later Conor told us he was gay. Another year later Dylan and I got married on a mountain in Georgia, with my grandfather officiating. It’s been almost eighteen years since then. I still wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t known how to make that homemade pipe.
Oak Park, Illinois
I have never had a good experience with drugs. I always burned myself on the pipe when it came around, and I freaked out on edibles. I became the designated driver while my friends got high in the backseat.
My younger sister, though, was a pro. In high school she tried anything that came her way. By that time I was living across the country and had distanced myself from my family. When I got a call from my parents saying my sister was in the hospital after a failed double-suicide attempt with her boyfriend, I was blindsided. They had swallowed a lot of pills and whiskey, but she’d thrown it all back up and called 911, saving both their lives.
She got sober, and a few years later she got married, found a steady job, and moved into a house in the suburbs. The only drugs she was doing were prescribed by her doctors, but there were a lot of them: for depression, insomnia, physical pain. Nothing worked, so her doctors kept changing the mix. Her husband was still using illegal drugs and couldn’t keep a job, so they got divorced. After that, she started partying again.
She came to visit me one New Year’s Eve with her dog and her best friend. On the way to my place they got pulled over for speeding and had to hide the open container of vodka. That night she woke up and vomited all over my couch, her dog, and herself.
My sister reunited with a high-school boyfriend and got clean and sober once more. They were engaged, and she was happy. She was about to get a new and better job. Then, in a moment of poor judgment, she grabbed a can of compressed air, took a hit, and died. Her fiancé found her body on the bathroom floor.
What she needed, drugs were never able to provide.
In the recovery room after my mastectomy, I had an exhilarating conversation with my husband, Joti. My mind felt like it was on fire: I was smart, confident, and funny. The doubting voice that normally dogged my thoughts had vanished. I wanted to feel like this all the time. I didn’t know it then, but I was still high on the opioids from my surgery.
When my euphoric state dissolved into paranoia, I held on to Joti and asked him if I really had cancer in my lymph nodes, too. “Did I imagine that?” I whispered.
“No,” he replied sadly. “I’m so sorry.”
I crashed hard, crying and hyperventilating. I could hear someone on the other side of the curtain asking whether they should call a doctor. The nurses were probably thinking of sedating me.
Two days after the surgery I told my therapist I felt so low that I was tempted to take the oxycodone I’d been prescribed, just to improve my mood. She told me what I already knew: that it was OK to take the pills if I needed them for pain, but not if I was craving another high.
A couple of months after my mastectomy, the pill bottle remains unopened.
At the age of thirty-five I returned to college to finish the degree I’d abandoned fourteen years earlier. In photography class I befriended Matt, a twenty-three-year-old who was apparently taking his time strolling through school. His comments in class demonstrated a surprising depth, and one evening after class we began talking in earnest over coffee. A trust-fund kid, Matt had “come into some land” that boasted huge boulders, and he was anxious to photograph the landscape there. We decided to go on a photo shoot together that weekend.
The setting was wild and magnificent. As we climbed rocks and took photographs, our attraction for each other grew. Later he invited me to the house he shared with friends. The place looked like a cleaned-up version of a hippie commune. Pot use was prevalent, and there was talk of other drugs. When mushrooms were mentioned, it got my attention. I’d heard they would enhance one’s artistic capabilities. I told Matt to let me know if he ever got his hands on some.
Soon enough one of his roomies was able to order some mushrooms, and Matt got his share. When I asked to try them, Matt said that, from what he’d learned about me, this was a drug I should not experiment with. Something in his demeanor convinced me, and I simply said, “OK, if you say so.”
Another night he brought me to a party. On a glass table was some white powder that was obviously cocaine. I asked Matt if he thought I should try it, and, much to my surprise, he told me sure, but to go slowly and see how it felt.
I don’t remember how much cocaine I did. I do have vivid memories of playing crazily intense games of ping-pong in which I beat every opponent. I stopped only when everyone else finally quit, laughing and calling me the world champ. I was still wide awake at 5:30 in the morning as Matt and I got into his car.
Two days after the party my nose felt like a block of wood, and I couldn’t breathe properly. I went to the ER, afraid the damage was permanent. The doctor examined me, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You have a very bad cold. It will go away, but don’t ever do what you did to get this kind of cold again.” I haven’t.
I had been wanting to try mushrooms for a while and decided to do it while camping alone in the desert in Utah. I sat on a yoga mat, added a few bits of mushroom to my coffee, drank it, and waited. Nothing. I tried again, this time putting the whole bag into my cup.
Watching the ants run around my toes, I felt I could almost make out their thoughts. My vision became hyper-focused on my feet, and I began to feel separate from the body I inhabited. I thought of my father’s feet, which he had asked me to squeeze during his final days in the hospital before his death. The colorful rock mesas surrounding me seemed to gently dance. I could feel a strong emotion welling up within me, like a volcano about to erupt.
What followed was one of the most cathartic episodes of my life — a beautiful, spontaneous afternoon I will never forget. I headed to a nearby creek, lay down in the cool water, and cried out loud for my father and my sister, both of whom had passed away in the previous decade. It felt like I’d dislodged something that had been stuck inside me.
I walked along the shallow creek, removing my sandals and feeling the red sand between my toes. I could sense the pulsing energy of the water and thought of my boyfriend and how much I wanted to marry him someday. I thought about my grandmother, wishing she could see this place, and I imagined having a wedding in the desert.
I eventually came back down, ending the experience with a dip in the cold river. My first mushroom trip was exactly what I’d wanted it to be.
I grew up in a conservative, religious home, and my desire to please my parents and teachers led me to steer clear of any illegal substances. My twenty-something son, on the other hand, smoked pot openly. He and I often struggled to connect. At the age of fifty I was starting to see some downsides to my straitlaced lifestyle and wanted to better understand my son’s perspective. So I asked him to bring some weed for us to share during our family’s summer vacation at a lake house in Wisconsin.
I took a drag on the pipe, held in the smoke as long as I could, then exhaled. After a minute or so, when I didn’t feel anything, my son recommended a second hit, and I complied.
I sat outside in a chair, staring at the white birches along the lakeshore in the soft evening light. The trees began to look curiously flat, like paper cutouts. I remarked to my son that my depth perception was impaired. Then I realized that I could no longer move my arms or legs. Nausea grew in my gut as time started looping. Only bits of the world penetrated my consciousness: my sons shouting, “Breathe!”; my wife reciting the Twenty-third Psalm as my family held me; a police officer telling me, “It’s OK, you’re just having a bad trip”; EMTs loading me into an ambulance. Each episode seemed to happen over and over.
I awoke in an emergency-room bed. The nurse gave me water and told my wife that hospitalizations for THC overdoses are common, and this experience had recently befallen her son and a local pastor. My doctor later told me that the THC content of marijuana today is often ten times higher than it was in the seventies.
My one and only experience with marijuana may have been a failure, but I did succeed in bringing my son and me closer: he hasn’t smoked since.
St. Louis, Missouri
In the late seventies and early eighties my younger sister’s boyfriend was a married man and major drug dealer. He bought her a house in the mountains of New Mexico where he could spend time with her, sometimes taking her with him when he flew to Mexico for “business.” She was stoned most of the time when I visited. I didn’t understand how my intelligent, sensitive, creative sister could settle for this lifestyle. To this day she insists that she loved her boyfriend, but the destruction of her psyche was obvious to me.
It became even more apparent when one of the drug deals went bad, and her boyfriend, now wanted by the FBI, went off the grid. Terrified and alone, my sister called me, convinced she was being followed, which may or may not have been true. I persuaded her to fly to where I lived and took her to see my therapist.
Eventually she sold her mountain home and went back to college, earning a degree in art therapy. Her boyfriend was captured and is now serving a life sentence in a federal prison.
Whenever I hear people talk about the fun they’ve had while experimenting with drugs, I always think of my sister and the other people involved in providing those good times.
I smoked marijuana for the first time when I was in college. Once I realized that altered states of consciousness were available, I wanted to explore more.
From the spring of 1966 through the fall of 1968 I took LSD five times, but I never had the ego-dissolving, one-with-the-universe trip that I wanted. I just got good and stoned, watched the clouds do things that clouds don’t actually do, and came back down.
After two and a half years of not finding what I was looking for, I attended an introductory lecture on Transcendental Meditation. I was underwhelmed. A guy in a jacket and tie talked about a bunch of techniques that seemed too ordinary. No mention of auras, chakras, or any of the far-out stuff I would have liked to hear about. Nonetheless I wanted a new direction, so I started TM.
It soon became clear to me that what I’d been seeking was not an altered state of consciousness but a higher state of consciousness.
I am still on this path. About ten years ago I met a man who also did LSD back in the day, and he told me about having that ten-hour shot of supreme ecstasy that I’d so badly wanted. Then he said, “I spent the next thirty years trying to get back there.”
That would have been me. I am deeply grateful that I did not have the drug experience I wanted all those years ago.
I began experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a young age, starting with drinking whatever was left in the adults’ glasses after my mom’s parties. I could never get enough and didn’t know how to stop. What started out as fun almost cost me my life on many occasions.
I was still using when I became pregnant. In an attempt to quit, I went to a drug-treatment center, but it asked for four thousand dollars up front. Back to the dope house I went, scared and hopeless.
Luckily I had a sister who never gave up on me. With her help I entered a state-funded treatment center for women, where I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. I thought he would be reason enough for me to stop using, but my addiction was too strong. I returned to the treatment center, then lived in a shelter with my son for two months while attending twelve-step meetings twice a day. Later I volunteered at another shelter while taking care of my son and doing what I needed to do to remain clean and sober.
I have been substance-free for thirty years — no slips, dips, or weekend trips. I am employed at the hospital where I gave birth to my son. My mission is to be of service to anyone struggling with the disease of addiction.
Vikki Thomas Forte
I was just looking for a mellow high and an interesting night on the bayou in Monroe, Louisiana, in town to visit an old friend and check out what the Deep South is famous for — ’shrooms. Having earlier in the day traded ten hits of just-back-from-Berkeley, four-way windowpane for two hundred large mushrooms, my friend and I were catching up on each other while the mushroom man prepared our potion.
It was no trouble to drink the six-ounce cup of tea he gave each of us. Tasted pretty good actually. After we were finished, he informed us that the two of us had just ingested the juice of fifty mushrooms (fresh, big, black bayou ’shrooms). We had both done a bit of acid in our time so we thought everything would be cool.
My friend took off down the street to play some music with other folks while I sat down to sort some slides for a show later in the evening. Within five minutes, sorting became extremely difficult. After ten, I gave up and lay down on a bed, laughing hysterically. I continued getting off, extremely rapidly, alone in a strange house in a strange town. Time — timeless — the psychedelic speed-up of a hundred moments and thoughts into one. Tripping!
Eventually I tried meditating to keep from freaking out. The hallucinations were getting very intense, much more so than I had ever experienced. Soon I was so high that I could hold out my arm and not even see it, there were so many hallucinations. Reality? My grasp on the situation was fading fast. Still alone — after an hour? Two? Don’t know. Hearing things.
Then the paranoia hit. The reality that here I am in this house with a bunch of illegal mushrooms, not to mention various and sundry other substances. What to do? Hearing sirens — real or imagined? They’re coming to get me. All this energy I’ve got, they can detect it, they know. . . .
Somewhere amidst this setting for total freakout my friend came back to his house. Looking in his eyes I knew he was as high as I was. A little talking and I realized how freaked out I was and had enough sense to eat a couple of downs. The downs put me out and I lay down, but my mind was still just buzzed, and it left my body for a period. The best way I can describe it is that everything was vibrations, interacting. I felt fully conscious but it was a totally different experience and I didn’t know what to make of it. Thought and communication — all on a vibrational level. How strange to see things this way. . . .
Good morning, Bill, geez, that sure was some Saturday night! Need some breakfast! After that and some packing and a long goodbye, I was cruising east on Trailways, one long blond freak with backpack and a quart of mushroom juice, sipping slow this time. A long ride to North Carolina and lots of time to sort it out.
Well, the sorting out took months, but the juice was gone as soon as a few friends in Carolina knew I was back. That was five years ago, and recently I’ve been thinking of making a run down to Louisiana. See what my old friends are up to!
Tryon, North Carolina
The needle slips into my arm, a bee sting of warmth. I pull my eye mask down, sink into the beanbag chair, and allow the soothing music to transport my mind to the baby I lost seven years ago. Tears stain my face as I realize I would not have found my purpose in life if not for my baby’s death. A river of stars appears above me, and I travel through the spinning darkness to a vision of my living children holding hands and running in a field of sunshine. I feel a profound sense of love and connection.
I work as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in a clinic that offers ketamine experiences to heal crippling PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders. We hear heartbreaking stories of childhood abuse, accidents, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts. Many people come to us because psychiatry has failed them: the slew of medications they have tried have had more side effects than benefits or just haven’t helped much. They are looking for a new way forward.
When I first heard about using ketamine for these conditions, I was skeptical. I believed the true healing power lay in plants: ayahuasca had shown me the closeness of death and the precious nature of each relationship in my life, and mushrooms had grounded me. But after my first journey on ketamine, I was convinced.
At the end of the two-hour session, I place my hands on my legs and squeeze, now back in my body. I have healed parts of myself that I wasn’t aware were broken.