Acid trips and college furniture: Are psychedelic drugs the key to unlocking the mind?
Late spring of my sophomore year in college, my friends and I decided to have a house-warming party.
The small liberal arts school I attended required students to live on campus for two years. Having completed my dorm duty, I was moving into a dilapidated mid-century clapboard house with two friends. It was the first time I would be paying my own rent.
The party encompassed our house and the house next door, where more friends were living. The keg of beer had already been flowing for several hours when a friend pulled me and several others aside and asked if we wanted to drop acid.
“Sure!” we said.
The next thing I remember with clarity was taking a shower the next morning to try to make myself presentable before my mom got into town. Problem was, as I rinsed my hair, I felt myself being dissolved by the water and washed down the drain.
“Pull yourself together,” I thought.
My mom had driven several hours to help me pick out some furniture for my new room. I was so strung out and exhausted, I told her I wanted the first bed I laid my eyes on. Turns out it was horribly uncomfortable and squeaked worse than a rusty weather vane. I was cursed with it the rest of my college career. I hated that bed, and I partially blamed acid, which I never took again, though I confess to dalliances with other mind-altering compounds.
I’ve had cause to recall that last LSD trip, however, as I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
Pollan, famous for his books on food, could have shortened his subtitle to “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Everything,” because his premise is that just about every human endeavor could probably benefit by at least a small dose of mind-expanding drugs.
“I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps these remarkable molecules might be wasted on the young, that they may have more to offer us later in life, after the cement of our mental habits and everyday behaviors has set. Carl Jung once wrote that it is not the young but people in middle age who need to have an ‘experience of the numinous’ to help them negotiate the second half of their lives.”
He alludes to the theory that psychedelic plants may have been what spurred cavemen to develop language and argues that similar compounds could be used today to generate ideas grandiose enough to pull us back from the brink of climatological and socio-political disaster. Also, he exposits how they can alleviate mental illness and help so-called healthy normals live more satisfying, transcendent lives.
“Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience—something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper—could … shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways? The idea took hold of me,” he wrote.
Pollan’s powers of persuasion are formidable — I remember choking down handfuls of plain walnuts after reading his treatise on whole foods back in 2006 — but several hundred pages of his homage to tripping still left me uncertain. Yes, under the most generous interpretation, I could have cast my sensation of being washed down the drain as my ego filtering through the bowels of Mother Earth. But it was more curious than enlightening.
Were I to relay my experience to Pollan, he would probably say the problem was the “set and setting” of my trip, which have been found to have an outsized impact on the experience of the tripper.
“Compared with other drugs, psychedelics seldom affect people the same way twice, because they tend to magnify whatever’s already going on both inside and outside one’s head.”
This being the case, I would probably say that an earlier experience I had with LSD was more representative of its potential. That time, I was tripping on campus with some friends, who decided they wanted to go to a party. I was leery of having to act normal around others so I told them I was going back to my dorm room instead. Once I got there, and the walls started whispering about what a pathetic loner I was, I started to rue my decision. Just then, my friends came pouring in the room. I’d never been so happy to see them. They told me the party didn’t matter.
Had I harkened to the lesson of that experience, I would have seen that avoidance of perceived judgment drove me to isolation, where my loneliness made me miserable. In seeking to avoid emotional suffering, I ran right into its embrace. Sadly, I would continue making this mistake well into adulthood, even as I grew to see the maladaptiveness of it. It’s an axiom of human behavior that insight does not always — or even often — lead to change.
In this I see the flaw in Pollan’s assertions about psychedelics. Even if they allow us to glimpse other worlds, we still have to live in this one. Just as he asserted in his previous books that there is no shortcut to healthy eating, I would argue that there is no elevator to enlightened well-being. Rather, you set out each day making mindful choices, and, if you’re lucky, end the day having stayed on that path.
Author’s Note: Regular readers of this column may have noticed that I am not dispensing advice this week. In collaboration with DGO editors, I have decided to drop that format. From now on, Rocky Road will be a column dedicated to the mind and human behavior. I am still eager to hear your thoughts. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katie BurfordKatie Burford has worked as a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer.