The last time I ever tripped, I ate mushrooms I’d grown myself.
I just couldn’t seem to have a good time on psychedelics anymore. This rite, which I was once sure had shown me the face of God and flooded me with epiphanic ecstasy, had lately been rife with panic, disorder, disintegration.
Proponents say psychedelics aren’t addictive because lab rats will press the lever for them only once, whereas the poor creatures will pound unto death the levers dispensing cocaine or heroin. I was the outlier, the freak rodent that pressed again and again and again, despite trips that induced unspeakable terror and lasting trauma, desperate for another taste of the rapture that had characterized my earlier experiences. I hit the lever, and I hit it again, and I would hit it until I saw God or died.
The Last Trip
Quitting psychedelics was inconceivable to me back then. Sourcing must be the problem, I concluded. Street dealers went in for filthy lucre; but this was my sacrament, my medicine. If I could grow my own with the right energy, my reasoning went, I’d be back on top, my stairway to heaven spiraling high once again. The vintage pamphlet I’d bought with instructions on synthesizing LSD was far too labyrinthine; I’d barely passed high school chemistry, and only then because Sister Harriet had unexpectedly retired three days into my junior year. Mushroom-growing seemed elementary by contrast, and when my husband brought home a syringe of invisible psilocybin spores suspended in liquid, I took to the task with reverential fervor.
Like an anxious mother, I fretted over my spore jars, frequently checking the cabinet where they germinated in the secret dark until a web of snowy white began to crystallize against the glass. I breathed a sigh of relief; my manna. I transferred the soil to a styrofoam cooler over which I hovered breathlessly, waiting for just the right time to harvest: when the mushrooms had grown an inch or two, their heads hooded like medieval monks and weaving toward the light on tender fragile stalks, their caps poised to bloom into a gilled umbrella and drop an invisible rain of spores. I spread out my hands and blessed them with whatever scrambled patois of two-bit Sanskrit and new-age-inflected babble I would have employed back then.
The hallowed day arrived. We weighed out six ounces of dried mushrooms and slid them into a blender with juice. I can remember the taste even now: a strange gritty earthiness overlaying the citric tartness, like a muddied orange slice. The room began to change, the walls wavering and breathing, and I inhaled that familiar shift in the air when suddenly the very molecules seemed sentient, respirating and crackling with neon electric current. Undulating prismatic lattices overlaid every surface, swooping and diving and swallowing one another only to be birthed anew in richer complexity. Upon close enough inspection, every whorl in the hardwood floor, every pinpoint of surface collapsed and expanded into infinitely fractallizing visual symphonies, a honeycomb of eyes or fretwork of maximally intricate geometric patterns.
It was a sumptuous visual feast, as usual. But something was wrong. Very wrong. Just as soon as the spectacle of color and light assailed my blown-out pupils, a discordant, doom-laden note at the very heart of the cosmos seemed to strike my gut. I slowly laid down—a perceptively arduous journey—on our Persian rug. I turned to my husband, who was lounging on the couch as though everything was totally groovy and the greatest disaster ever to befall the universe was not occurring. I tried hard not to panic, which naturally increased my anxiety to a buzzing pitch of terror.
“Um, I think I really am dying this time,” I said, my words small brittle things against the onslaught of yawning fear, stammering staccato bits of Morse code barely traversing the few feet or million miles which separated him and me.
“You’re not,” he said, calmly.
“Does anything even matter at all?” I asked, my voice cracking with sorrow and fear.
“Everything matters,” he said. And I began to weep.
The Escape I Thought I Longed For
I was an atheist before I let that first hit of acid turn to pulp on my tongue. I’d sat in pews at a Methodist church throughout most of my childhood, but often overheard my dad’s cutting remarks about how liberal the Methodists were—he was raised Southern Baptist and adhered religiously to conservative politics. It was easy to dismiss it all as a surly, insolent teenager and relish the look of shock on my parents’ faces, because I’d never truly believed any of it, anyway.
I discovered booze and boys in college, and transcendence came in flashes fleeting and cutting that left me cheapened and hollowed. At my nadir, I attended AA meetings for a week in a church basement where I drank bad coffee and teared up when a woman named Nadine called me her friend. But after a week, I fled, humiliated by the vulnerability, humbled by the reality that I had everything—youth, a wealthy family, good looks, health—and yet found myself exposed in my own ragged heart as the lowliest of sinners in a fluorescent-lit room full of losers.
Booze remained my drug of choice, both stifling and magnifying my shame, until one evening in the spring of my senior year when a friend brought over a baggie of desiccated mushrooms. Three of us blended them with orange juice and sat on the threadbare couch looking at one another uncertainly and laughing nervously before shrugging and downing our portions.
My best friend and I stared at a page of National Geographic for what seemed like hours, trying to figure out what in the world we were looking at. (It turned out to be the woolly back of a Shetland pony in Wales). I listened to A New World Record by the Electric Light Orchestra and marveled at how the music cut in and out and came in swells. I could taste it. When we ventured outside it was like stepping onto a new planet. The night air bloomed with diamonds and every moonlit surface shimmered with a patina of magic. This is what I’ve been waiting for all my life, I thought. Wonder whispered from every crevice, and transcendence was mine at last.
Can you have a love affair with LSD?
Less than a year later, though, I was back to my pugilistic atheism. I embarked on a renewed quest to justify myself and spite my father, with whom my arguments over God typically ended in a teary, emotionally fraught stalemate. I read all the “new atheists,” eager to accrue rhetorical weaponry in my efforts to disprove the existence of a God I’d never bothered to earnestly seek.
The night I finished Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great,” I disgustedly heaved it under my bed in my lonely apartment. I acquiesced mentally with his arguments, sure. But why did it all feel so empty? Shouldn’t the truth feel invigorating and liberating? Instead, the world felt siphoned of life and mystery through the lens of the materialism I’d embraced.
So when a man who’d been hitting on me via social media asked if I wanted to take some LSD with him, I thought why the hell not. I was feeling reckless and moribund. Atheism was the truth, but geez, the truth sucked. Why not take a powerful drug with someone I’d never met?
He arrived with a comical artillery of hippie accouterments: incense, a singing bowl, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a copy of The Holy Mountain on VHS and a mysterious purple tome with brown butcher-paper pages called Be Here Now by someone named Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert who, alongside Timothy Leary, got fired from Harvard for his enthusiastic “psychedelic research”). We each ate a chemically-laced Smartie. He chanted. I pet my dog, a gnarly little street mutt I’d named Gene Hackman, and breezily awaited a lighthearted party akin to that college mushroom trip.
A rainbow started pouring down from the ceiling, a prismatic waterfall that captivated me so that I exclaimed aloud, “How does anyone ever have a bad trip?” He looked at me in horror and yelled, “Well don’t think about it!”
A person on psychedelics is highly suggestible, so of course, I went and thought about it. Panic set in as the black-and-white-checkered floors of my kitchen began to list and sway and my little dog skittered anxiously across them and barked.
I completely freaked out and asked my friend to call an ambulance. Instead, he set Be Here Now in front of me, and it fell open to a page with repeating phrases boldly printed, flanking a flaming Hindu god astride a warhorse: “YOU MUST DIE—MUST DIE.” My whole being shuddered with the horror of my impending death. My eyes darted and rolled like a petrified animal, searching for some cleft of comfort, some soul-slaking drop of water somewhere about this hell into which I’d fallen. There was none. No comfort, no refuge, nothing but terror and pain and alienation, forever and ever, unfurling horrifically into all eternity.
And then the sky split open and I was reborn in an explosion of terrifying light. “There’s so much more than I ever thought there was,” I gasped, quivering and heaving, a sluice of tears and snot carrying me up onto the shore of something resembling new life.
My love affair with LSD had begun. I would smoke salvia through a pipe marbled with wisps of blue and green; I would cower like a Macbethean witch above a steaming pot roiling with San Pedro cactus medallions; I would take mushrooms when I could get them. But LSD was my truest love. I took LSD on a plane; I took LSD on a boat; I took LSD before my waitressing shift. I took LSD with friends, but mostly I took it alone. For the next several years it would inform my life and become my religion. It would also drive me mad and expose me to demonic influences I didn’t yet believe in. But I loved it still.
What can take me higher?
After my homegrown mushroom debacle, my love affair with psychedelics was definitively over. But what could possibly take its place? What could take me higher, elevate me above this mess of suffering and mundanity called life? I disconsolately lifted the cooler lid to inspect my remaining mushrooms. A fine white snow of mold had overtaken and arrested the budding fungi. It seemed a fitting metaphor for my tortured relationship with psychedelics, which a creeping corruption had been defiling for years now. My thirst for transcendence had led me to the pit.
A few days later I sat on our porch and cried. I knew I would never take psychedelics again. My tears weren’t purely from relief, though. I grieved the loss of my companion, LSD, whom I’d personified into a cultish figure and deified into a Messiah. “But LSD is my friend,” I uttered aloud to the still spring air, giving rise to a fresh round of sobs. LSD is my friend. It may sound absurd to the uninitiated, those never rendered helpless in LSD’s ego-shattering chemical thrall, those who never suffered the disorienting coming-down experience of discovering there was still a workaday world populated by people to whom your lofty philosophical revelations sounded like circuitous nonsense.
But it was true. LSD was my friend. My mercurial, exhilarating, terrifying, abusive friend. Sometimes she brought a party. Sometimes she brought an epiphany punctuated by thunder and shocked through by lightning that seemed to issue from the very finger of God. Sometimes she brought a riveting trauma that ripped away my innocence anew and rent a deep wound in my soul. I loved her. I feared her. But I could never trust her.
A friend in Jesus?
A year later, I was eight months pregnant and sobbing at the back of a Christian church to which my husband had to practically drag me. I am not going to a Christian church, I had spat bitterly—I, the woman who was open to virtually anything except Jesus. Dolphins as extraterrestrial beings with godlike intelligence? Tell me more. Kundalini and crystals and chakras, Oh my! I’d spent years haphazardly piecing together my own cosmology out of Hinduism-and-Buddhism-lite, yogic philosophy, and a melange of new-ageism: a dash of this, a pinch of that. But Jesus was a step too far. I’ll go with you, but I’ll never be one of them, I hissed.
So why was I there, weeping to some worship song about a God-man I didn’t trust, with a singing bowl nowhere in sight? Who was this God? I thought I had met them all, including the Jesus of my Methodist youth, who to my darkened mind was a staid, stale figure no more captivating than the monthly ladies’ bell choir solo. But this one I didn’t know, and I loped warily around him, a coyote skirting the ring of firelight.
What if nothing is well with my soul?
My childhood friend’s toddler died while I was pregnant. I got one of those emails inviting me to sign up to bring a meal because Joella had been diagnosed with leukemia. I was shocked. I had seen my friend just weeks before, and she had spoken gently of Jesus again, and I prattled back with some of my new age banalities about how he was a manifestation of the divine like Buddha or the Hindu pantheon.
Three weeks later, Joella was dead. Just a couple of weeks earlier I’d sobbed over my positive pregnancy test. I was with child when I didn’t want to be, and my pure-hearted friend had a child robbed from her.
Within my new age circles, “The Universe” was spoken of as though it were a sentient being with agency. It was a way of soft-pedaling around the idea of God, of inventing a benign demi-deity that orchestrated synchronicities and bestowed gifts but otherwise remained at a safe, only vaguely personal distance. What kind of perverse calculus of justice was “The Universe” meting out here? “Love and light,” the standard new age salutation went. My belief system didn’t have a category for dead toddlers.
We walked past Joella’s open casket at the funeral. Her perfect little face, with its dewdrop lips and long eyelashes, rested in waxen repose. I sobbed. My friend hugged me and smiled. What the heck is this? I thought. My friend is comforting me at her own daughter’s funeral. Later, she emailed me to tell me I should listen to the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,” outlining the backstory of its composer and saying the song had been a great salve to her and her husband. I filed it somewhere in the back of my mind and forgot it.
In a rush of blood and water, I heaved our daughter out of my body in a pool in our living room. My icon of the Hindu goddess Kali looked on, the hair of the heads she’d severed gripped in her manifold fists, her tongue dripping with blood lapped up in her orgy of violence, human heads strung around her neck like a gruesome lei. She was the Destroyer, representing a necessary element of creation, or so I thought. According to some Hindu traditions, she was a destroyer of demons, a vanquisher of evil. (When saviors look like this, who needs demons, though?)
The air was warm the day I finally listened to “It Is Well With My Soul.” I’d thoughtlessly added it to a playlist that wafted through the screen as I sat on our porch with my children. My toddler son splashed about in a water table several feet away and my baby girl laid on a blanket at my feet, smiling and gurgling and exercising her limbs, feeling her way into the big wide world.
When peace like a river attendeth my way
The line soared heavenward on a velvety harmony, and I felt something like transcendence stir the fringes of my soul anew. I looked at my baby, her ice-blue eyes, her sweet rolls, her blessed perfection, her piercing tenderness. I saw my son with his laserlike focus on pouring water from one vessel to another, testing floatability. I saw in his furrowed little brow the endearingly precocious attention surfeit he’d had since he was an infant. I saw, in vivid, soul-cleaving starkness, what an exquisite gift they each were, and how utterly undeserving I was.
When sorrows like sea-billows roar
I saw Joella in her casket, where either of them could just as easily have lain. And my heart balked: who was this crucified God my friend trusted so much that the death of her child, an event I was certain would have annihilated me, couldn’t extinguish her hope?
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.
I saw Jesus, this suffering God I didn’t know, or wouldn’t allow myself to be known by, on the cross. And Kali, with her bushel of heads and her serpentine blue tongue, didn’t seem so triumphant or shocking or exotic anymore. The sanguine Buddha statuette on our bookshelf suddenly seemed naive, shallow, a half-baked sophist. Who could possibly account for, atone for, give any hope of redemption in this roiling crucible of absurdly copious suffering and dead toddlers and terror other than this Jesus, God on the cross? What kind of God does that? I marveled. For us, for me, for worthless, miserable, selfish me, who can’t even feel comfortable in a church basement full of alcoholics for fear her naked shame will finally be exposed?
My sin not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. Oh dear God. Jesus was the one all along. Kali couldn’t save me. Buddha couldn’t, either. LSD seemed to, for a time, but siphoned my soul in the end.
Buddha’s prescription for suffering was detachment, a cold-comfort prize and ersatz kind of hope that was really no solution at all. Detachment wasn’t transcendence; it was transference. “The Universe” stood at a distance and had nothing to offer but “love and light” platitudes, the delusionally evasive optimism of new-age rhetorical chintz.
LSD had seemed to obliterate my ego and resurrect me, but in the Sunday morning coming down after a trip, the cold light of dawn revealed a wasteland littered with half-baked axioms, exhaustion, and a certain kind of sorrow unique to the soul that has seen and believed in a nebulous greater power, yet still finds itself, sooner or later, sheathed in the rags of sin and shame.
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, oh my soul.
The truth came in a rush no less shattering than that first ego-death on LSD, but whereas LSD’s death was harsh, even assaultive, this revelation was unspeakably tender. I knew what Jesus had done for me. How could such devastating and bracing intimacy be contained in those two little words? They both exposed and shrouded me, defeated me and gave me life.
That evening when my husband got home I held the bronzed statuettes of Buddha and Ganesh in my hands. I’d torn Kali down from the wall. “These have to go,” I told him. He nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, they do.”
This was a dying-with.
Ram Dass was right about one thing: I had to die. Transcendence came not through scrabbling greedily up my own tower of Babel, but through dying with Jesus. Transcendence came not through assailing my brain with chemically-induced visions, chasing flickering holograms down a hallway with some ever-receding and ambiguous promise of enlightenment at its end, but in descent.
“He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” (Ephesians 4:10)
I had to die, yes. But this was a dying-with, a dying with someone who had traversed every dark corner of the cosmos and prevailed, a dying with someone who had already given his life for me. Those words uttered on my first LSD trip seemed uncannily prescient now: there was so much more than I ever thought there was, after all—it was just in the last place I thought to look.
I never could’ve reasoned or chanted or tripped my way into the absurd glory of the gospel: the only God who was truly transcendent became one of us. The only God who was worthy of offerings wanted only me and nothing else but would settle for nothing less. The only God that could offer me anything at all offered me everything.