It’s time to get real: Bad Trips happen.
This special blog introduces April, one of four amazing Trip Guides Miriam is now working with. It is a deeply personal and haunting ‘trip report’, so if you’re looking for a breezy and fun read I wouldn’t read on because this isn’t it. Reading this cautionary tale highlights why Guided Tripping takes such care in preparation, set and setting, and other aspects of the intentional use of psychedelics: it speaks to almost all the ‘don’ts’ we know of. So buckle up, take a deep breath, and learn about a process that unwittingly prepared April to become such an excellent Guide to others.
(Besides April’s, all the names have been changed. Because privacy.)
If you’ve ever tried to interpret a dream, you know that context is everything. When I recollect the details of the bad trip that I still describe as the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me, the frame of context around the experience is what makes this more than just a crazy acid story. It’s the context that gives it a soul, my soul.
I was fifteen years old. That may seem young. But, this was simply the world I lived in and I didn’t live there alone. I was what most teenagers around me were: rebellious, artistic, curious, and profoundly insecure. I was the last of my girlfriends to lose my virginity at the age of twelve, the last to pick up smoking and drinking, and one of the last to use marijuana and finally LSD or “acid”. While my friends had moved on to experiment with MDMA, heroin, and most especially meth, acid almost immediately became my drug of choice.
There were two profound themes that drove my intellectual pursuits and nearly all of my behaviors. Most simply stated those were connection and cosmology. But in my underdeveloped understanding, they revealed themselves to me as sexuality and the fear of death.
Sexuality to me had been a muddled tangle of innocent courtship and unwanted attention that felt more like unspoken transactions: action for acceptance. I know I’m not the only woman with adolescent memories filed under the inner utterance, “If I do this they’ll like me.” But, the more I gave the deeper the hole of ‘worthlessness’ sank. A perilous self-judgement was growing and the burrowing shame would have perpetual side effects.
I’d been deeply religious growing up but in an inquisitive rather than a faithful kind of way. When I was young, while my family sat in the middle amongst the congregation, I would sit in the front pew with my bible and a notebook. I was filled with curiosity until I asked one question too many and my teachers and pastor couldn’t give me a reasonable answer. It was impossible for me to abandon my analytic nature and just “follow faith”. So, I abandoned faith and started on what I thought was the rational path to atheism.
Where religion had failed me, acid opened a doorway to explore the unknown without limits, not even my own. On multiple trips I experienced what felt like the opaque skin of logic pulled back and the cosmos in its unfathomable complexity was simply there, existing, owing me nothing but giving me all the understanding of the universe. I found myself delving into existential theories to friends and edging on the concept that both excited and terrified me: eternity.
These ineffable experiences were like church to my hungry mind and I took my chemical communion almost every weekend. My plan that night, like most weekends, was simple: bus downtown, find acid, trip in my favorite city spots, play it cool on the way home in mom’s car, enjoy the rest of the trip with my best friend, Nathan, by the community pool. The changes to the itinerary that night were slight. A friend, Stacey, was just starting to experiment with acid and we’d planned a sleepover trip. I quickly scored some blotter, the most basic LSD sold on the streets on tiny squares of paper. Stacey took one tab. I’d built up a bit of a tolerance but also an appetite for a stronger experience. I took two.
After an hour wandering around the courtyards and fountains waiting for the tingling fingers of eternity to creep up my flesh, I determined the blotter was bunk. Stacey was disappointed, but I was determined. She tagged along behind me as I hunted all the corners of bridges and the transit station where tab-slingers might still be lingering. When I finally found a dealer, there was a kind of frenzy of buyers around her. She had an altoid tin filled with blotter and she collected cash and dealt out tabs ambidextrously with a quickness. Down the hatch went one for Stacey and two for me, and just in time to meet our ride.
My thoughts spun, “There’s no way that the second dose could hit this fast. But if what I’m feeling is the first dose, then I’m in for more than I bargained.”
It was common tripper knowledge that your average blotter took about 45 minutes to hit. However very strong acid or high powered liquid acid could take longer, up to twice as long. But usually you knew what you were getting based on price. And strength wasn’t cheap. It’d been an hour and a half since we’d taken the first dose, deemed bunk, and fifteen minutes since we’d taken the second. Sitting in the front seat with my mother’s boyfriend making small talk it came over me in waves of fret. My thoughts spun, “There’s no way that the second dose could hit this fast. But if what I’m feeling is the first dose, then I’m in for more than I bargained.” The strongest dose of my life had started in a speeding metal box filled with dread and anxiety.
We made it home and immediately headed to Nathan’s. Unlike most of us, Nathan didn’t do drugs. He didn’t even smoke. But he was a creative weirdo like the rest of us and found that he fit in better with the stoners and the freaks than he did with any of the other cliques in school. His study of Japanese ninjutsu intersected with Navaho warriorship training by way of his sensei who led both. I found Nathan remarkably wise and insightful as well as graceful in a peculiar kind of way. I wasn’t the only one that found his dancing both mesmerizing and disturbing. It was like watching human movement played backward.
Our platonic friendship was precious to me and from a deep place he felt like my own makeshift guru, a distinction I don’t think he ever actually wanted. I was anxious to see him that night as my barings on the benign world were beginning to melt. We three retreated into his little room.
He shared a room with his brother. But the walk-in closet was just big enough for a single bed and he’d reassigned it as his cave. The sheets and the little shelf were black to match the painted black walls and the black curtain that blocked out the existence of the rest of the bedroom. Only black light filled the cave and we huddled together looking into the glowing whites of each others faces: our teeth and the whites of our eyes. Stacey was all smiles and giggles but I was on another plane entirely.
My body had disintegrated, all of our bodies had. We were only the expressions of our teeth and our eyes. There in the glowing dark I felt like my whole life were merely an insignificant shiver on the orb of eternity. There was no past or future, there was only now. There was only eternity and all the distinctions (different times, objects, emotions, ideas) that I thought made up such a complex reality were an illusion, and not even an elaborate one. The jubilant interaction of Nathan and Stacey was so far from me. I couldn’t fathom joy from where I was. They too were part of this all encompassing eternity and yet their laughter felt sinister.
My body had disintegrated, all of our bodies had. We were only the expressions of our teeth and our eyes.
Nathan then climbed up the walls of the narrow room like a spider. This was a skill I knew, logically, he was capable of and behavior that was in no way out of the ordinary for this physically expressive artist and actual ninja. But, there in my echo chamber of eternity and menacing laughter, the way his body moved up the walls to the ceiling filled me with horror. The suggestion that he was a demon or something darkly divine started to grow. I also seriously started to question if I was not in fact dead and this was what came afterward. A lifetime of Christian fears of hell started to rise out of the darkness.
I could feel numerous dimensions that made my existence feel stretched out and cumbersome. But I couldn’t see them. And just as I felt impaled on all the invisible dimensions, Nathan produced a black light sensitive blue ball and threw it so it bounced on every surface and landed back in his hand before looking at me with a wide smile. To me they weren’t walls, they were the invisible dimensions made visible which confirmed two things: they are real and closing in on me, and that Nathan was reading my thoughts. I’d already been riding on panic through the whole experience. But at this point, my panic broke into a gallop.
Somehow through a rush of adrenaline I was able to crawl out of the cave muttering something along the lines of “No. Can’t. Gotta go.” I’d left the other two clueless as to what was going on. And only now did they have any idea that something was wrong. In the living room I couldn’t figure out where or, more importantly, what a door was. Nathan tried to comfort me and had me sit on the couch. He sat on the adjacent overstuffed chair and Stacey folded onto the floor in a heap of innocent self-amusement. I gazed at Nathan trying to understand. He said nothing but simply sat beaming a benevolent smile down at me. What was starting to become clear to me was this: I was dead and Nathan was God.
I looked down at Stacey on the floor, below us. She was dead too and she’d already been judged. She’d already been damned. But why hadn’t I been judged yet? Why hadn’t I been damned to hell?
“What am I?” I asked Nathan.
“You are everything.” He responded warmly. But this didn’t warm me. This twisted inside my terror and seeded a new revelation. God needed a new mate and I was saved from hell to be his, for eternity.
My memory of how we moved from the living room out the tiny distance to the community pool are a blur of that seed twisting and knotting inside me: an eternal coupling I didn’t want and an alternative that was inconceivable. And worse I had to pretend to want it. That seed was planted in a dark hollow of filthy transactions and it crept and gnarled. Nathan was trying to get me to relax and sit by the pool but his approach I did not take as such. I reached out to hug him. He hugged me back. I clenched my gut and tried to give him what I thought he wanted. I kissed him. He was surprised and the reaction sent me reeling backwards toward the pool. Somewhere in the gravity well between the edge and the bottom of the pool, I decided that the fall was my decision and my fate. The judgment was final.
In the water, again my body disintegrated. I was an orb, orbiting. I needed to become one with the water. I spun deeper and deeper into the pool, orbiting, and trying to breath the water. Fortunately, our body, no matter how convinced our mind is, resists such suggestions. I clenched around the resistance as further judgment that I wasn’t even capable of uniting with water.
Nathan had thrown off his boots and dove in after me. I came to the surface screaming. I dove back under but he pulled me out again, still screaming. That was when I saw it. Hovering before me was a black orb devoid of life, sucking small streams of light trying to escape its pull. It was the absence of God. It was the absence of consciousness. It was true hell. And, I was an orbiting entity barreling toward it.
Though I could sense the sensations happening around my body, they were trivial details that felt transparent and pixelated like a film of a film of a film. The descent into hell was the only reality with any weight or any truth. My judgment was final and the descent would be excruciating.
The screams from my face felt tight and pulled back like my whole face was only my stretched open screaming mouth. My memories of the paramedics pulling me out of the water and onto a stretcher are as personal as memories of movies. Even though I know this was the part of my experience that was most violent, most carnal, it’s also the most distant. These are the memories that feel simultaneously traumatic and unlived. I didn’t even notice that they’d bound my ankles and wrists with zip-cuffs. I had to be told about it later. My agony was focused on the descent.
My consciousness was being ripped from me one detail at a time as it rose to the surface. I mumbled my timetables and the alphabet, anything that I didn’t care about losing. Experiencing each part of me shredded off, I tried not to think about my boyfriend or Nathan or my mother. All the while I was orbiting which to the outside world was just thrashing. The screaming continued. It was the only expression that made sense as I descended further and further into hell being torn apart one bit at a time.
One of the firefighters looked like my boyfriend and I thought of him. The experience of that love violently stripped from me wrenched my body into convulsions. A scream pushed out of my throat so loud and harrowing that for a moment it was all I could experience. It deafened all sounds and sights; the scream was my smell, my taste, and raked over all touch. I continued to shred and descend as they loaded me into the ambulance. Once inside the vehicle, finally, things were quieting, even my voice. It was pity I felt replacing what’d been taken, pity and hopelessness, and eventually exhaustion.
The ordeal at the hospital was not peaceful. But with force and negotiation they got charcoal into my system and within a couple of hours hell had faded. For some reason when the nurse removed the IV from my hand it had squirted onto the floor and she’d left it there. So when my feet finally touch the ground, I landed in my own cold blood.
My reflection in my own bedroom mirror, upon my final return home and to reality, was a grisly sight. I was every bit the madwoman of legend and lore. The hair was a mangled gnap of violence and filth, the face caked with dirt and streaked with tears. Everything was depleted of spirit and teetering uneasily on bloodstained feet.
In the aftermath, I felt shamed and isolated. A local paper had reported on the disturbance and had even used my name, even though I was a minor, in an article about the drug “overdose” that woke up three neighborhoods. But, even those who didn’t see the article heard the gossip about the girl who’d taken acid and gone insane. I tried to talk to Nathan, but even that was difficult as the event had been traumatic for him as well. Stacey had been simply driven home that night. She had very little desire to talk about it or have much anything to do with me afterward.
I needed help and I pleaded to my Mother to take me to see a therapist. She said we couldn’t afford it but I think she was also still in denial about what had happened and “therapy” meant facing it as “reality”. Instead, I took solace in one of my school notebooks and started carrying it everywhere I went. I wrote everything I thought and felt. Eventually, my reputation evolved from the acid girl who went insane to the girl who’s always scribbling. I suffered from trauma memories and flashbacks that made the next nine months challenging at best and suffering at worst. But it also made me desperate for answers and ingrained written introspection into my being.
It wasn’t just psychopharmacology that I needed to understand: what had happened in my brain. There was also some spiritual calling. Even though my experience could be called horrific, in the months that followed my spirit felt lighter. I felt that there was a connection to something beyond my understanding, something eternal, and I wanted to understand it in a way that wasn’t terror.
I took comfort in the knowledge that it wasn’t about me. The universe owed me nothing. And I started on a path that fell between atheism and faith. I wanted to walk parallel to absolute uncertainty and be comfortable there. I wanted to explore mysteries without the need to define. So started my lifelong curiosity about mysticism, comparative religion, mythology, and anything that played along the edges of eternity without needing to name it.
This is why I say it was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me. It was humiliating but it was also humbling in the most generous way. That one experience broke my pattern of partying and people pleasing and started something new.
I was not cured of my struggle. I was simply let in on the knowledge of what my struggle really was. The universe didn’t owe it to me, I owed it to myself, and the universe gifted me the insight to begin.
In no way can I say that after my bad trip I was any less an insecure teenager seeking meaning in the mundane. But, it did change the trajectory of my life. In the same way that the deepest recesses of myself were the germinating place from which my nightmare grew, so also was it that after the nightmare I found that the remains of those dark tentacles reached all the way down into places too dark to see clearly before. Shadowed and foreboding, yes, but there was flung wide a window to the soul.
I could see more clearly where my fatal self damnation and my need to be validated and therefor saved by others was taking me. I was not cured of my struggle. I was simply let in on the knowledge of what my struggle really was. The universe didn’t owe it to me, I owed it to myself, and the universe gifted me the insight to begin.
Twenty years later, writing this, I find the canals carved by dark tentacles, long dead, are widened with years of exploration and yet still tender to glide along. But I can run along the curves and find the deep places. There is shadow there still, but there too is light.
Epilogue: All the don’t that was done
With all the research and the training to become a guide for others on their psychedelic journey, recounting this story and seeing all the red flashing signs of things gone wrong is almost laughable. This story is a deep part of who I am. It is also the most complete cautionary tale I’ve heard of how not to approach these experiences. The following is all the don’t that was done.
- At age 15, the prefrontal cortex is still developing. The parts of the brain used by adolescents for decision making and problem solving while the brain is still developing, the amygdala, is also affected while on LSD. I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, fifteen is too young.
- The substance was untested and from an unknown, untrusted source.
- Because it was untested, I ingested more than I wanted to ingest. And, obviously the dose was much too large.
- The substance was taken in an unsecure location. Therefor, take off was confined in space and in attitude. An environment where one has to keep hidden their altered state is breeding ground for paranoia and anxiety.
- In my experience, I was isolated: there was no expectation that anyone would be concerned with anything other than their own experience. The only people who knew that I was in an altered state either couldn’t guide me because they were, themselves, tripping or were not tripping but had no intention of guiding me.
- The tiny black cave was the wrong environment. It was dark, distorted, and claustrophobic. The best environments feel airy, comfortable, spacious, and well lit or colorful.
- I didn’t share my anxiety or fear until it was too late. And I continued to not share what was happening with me so the pattern of drawing my own elaborate conclusions and confirming them continued.
- The care of my physical state was rough and apathetic. Police used force (zip-cuffs and rough handling that left a series of deep bruises). The paramedics were unsympathetic and cold. And hospital staff was forceful and apathetic. The bare minimum didn’t even include cleaning my blood, let alone my face. People, and especially people in an altered state, need their physicality tended to with compassion.
- Aftercare was non-existent. Instead I was publically shamed and had no one to talk to.
- My privacy was violated.
- When the need for professional help came, it was not fulfilled.
This list is one of the reasons that I’m passionate about guiding psychedelic experience. I know first hand that it can be a horrific experience and that it can be a profoundly poetic experience with rich and lasting meaning. But, something with that much power is best not handled recklessly.
With compassionate and professional guidance, psychedelics can open the gates to awe and the liquid-light canals into ourselves.