A Bad Trip Won’t Kill You. But it Might Make You Wish You Were Dead.
I was pretty set on how I was going to approach this week. I knew that I wanted to write about the clandestine factions of the environmental movement. I thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to the Self Immolation in the Best Possible World essay. There was a great quote I was going to deploy and a man I was going to memorialize but then research got in the way and it felt confused and poorly thought out, which is pretty much in keeping with the entirety of the subject. Ethically correct and strategically hollow. Had it been more pessimistic it might have gone somewhere but it wasn’t so it didn’t.
Then I realized it was going to be Halloween (and likely is Halloween or even more likely was Halloween). So in honor of America’s only likeable holiday I decided to write about my one and only paranormal experience.
Granted I’ve done a lot of psychedelic drugs and lived a strange life so there are points at which the highly weird has waved its hand in my face. Even the story I’m going to relate takes place in this context, but has been verified by a second party (although yes, the other party was fucked up too).
There’s a renewed interest in ‘cosmic horror’ that is playing out in film and television, although film itself might be dead and shambling. Stories that fall into this framework are generally concerned with the soul-crushing awareness that forces far beyond our control are not so much hostile towards our species as they are indifferent. This awareness, at least as far as my reading goes, generally drives the protagonist insane. There are monsters, but on the whole we are just incidental bit players in larger dramas. This seems uncomfortably close to the experience of living ‘normal life’ except instead of eldritch gods we have traffic and the nightly news to remind us of how unimportant our hopes, dreams and comforts are.
Then there is the sort of ‘folkloric’ horror that is exemplified by a film like Midsomer in which a modern and rational person stumbles into some variety of indigeneity or degenerate past. I suppose we could lump a variety of films into this framework, though it gets somewhat messy. HBO’s recent miniseries The Third Day is another example of this. I find the stories that fall into this compartment of the genre to be particularly silly. There is nothing so horrifying as our own culture, and any depiction of a departure from it sounds like a dialing down of the level of terror that humanity experiences on a given day.
One of the classifications in the genre is ‘apocalyptic horror’ of the type that predominates in zombie stories. Again, I have a fairly hard time believing that an event that led to the downfall of human civilization in the 21st century would be any worse than simply living in the 21st century. Fighting my way through a shambling army of rotting corpses would likely be an improvement over working in a cubicle. The take home from these stories is that humans are the real monsters. And while this might be the case, I wonder why we’re never offered a zombie utopia. All the shitty things people do occur in a particular milieu and in the absence of that it seems equally likely that a societal collapse would provide us with an opportunity to transcend our shittiness rather than ramp it up.
I’ve seen a fair share of media directly draw upon psychedelia for scares. While I’ve had extremely bad trips in my life, all in all it is consensus reality that is truly terrifying. I would rather confront the world of spiritual significance in all its ugliness than live in the endless purgatory of a well-ordered brain. Being locked in a never-ending loop of normalcy is just as frightening as an encounter with madness. Psychic horror rings true where so many other sub-genres miss the mark.
And this is where I finally arrive at the beginning of a point. The history of psychedelic studies could very well be the set-up for a subversion of horror tropes. It’s got Europeans penetrating the Amazon in search of mystically significant plants. It’s got fussy academics in a laboratory uncovering the foundational components of a radically different worldview and grazing the hull of mysticism. It’s got cultish charismatic leaders and true believers hurling themselves with abandon into the architecture of their minds. It’s got the CIA chucking someone out a window as they experiment with mind-control. It’s got a stripped down clinical world ready to introduce indigenous knowledge into the arena of psychic suffering. It’s at least as much a tale of stolen magic as it is a story of scientific progress and colonialism in all its grim triumphs haunts the mansion of the modern mind.
There are numerous ethnographies of the indigenous cultures that have kept and held sacred the visionary plants of the psychedelic pantheon. It is far less the case that the modern white guys studying these things have been able to grasp a cosmology that is in tension with their advancement through the rungs of popular and professional recognition.
Combined with the realization on the part of nation states that these departures from the states of consciousness brought on by cars, refrigerators, television and single family homes were a threat to the reproduction of labor power under capitalism, we get a less thorough engagement with what these substances have to say to our culture, the one we’ve so enthusiastically forced upon the world as a universal good. It might be the case that the infantile grasping of western empiricism has taken up the (renewed) study of these substances too late to save us from ourselves. Thus do sacraments become drugs.
Of course there are celebrations of the white men who ‘pioneered’ the study of these things, such as Gordon Wasson, who provided the Western imaginary with psilocybin and only ruined one indigenous woman’s life and faith to do so. And there are the self-aggrandizing depictions of a band of merry pranksters forcing themselves into the interior of Mesoamerican shamanism in search of ayahuasca offered by Terrance McKenna, who in the grim light of 2020 looks clueless and embarrassing.
But perhaps I’m not extending sufficient agency to the organisms themselves in this discussion. While non-Western epistemology extends agency to the non-human world, our Abrahamic mode of knowing denies voice and motive to plants and fungi. They are accidental occurrences riding a wave of natural selection, not beings with knowledge and reason. But even with a dismissal of them to the realm of silence it is still evolutionarily advantageous to hitch a ride with people (a la The Botany of Desire), even if we’re going over the falls.
With this being said, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. We have little understanding of the arc of thinking of figures such as Alexander Shulkin, a man who was filled to the brim with contradictions; or Richard Doblin, one of the driving personalities in the mainstreaming of psychedelia; or Stanislov Grof, a psychiatrist who went so far out of the box that he fell on the floor.
All this is to say that I can’t figure out why the hell the monoamine oxidase inhibiting alkaloid harmine used to be called telepathine.
Or, more to the point, I can’t figure out who started calling it that and why they stopped. In the work of Dennis McKenna, brother of Terrence, entitled Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca, he discusses a number of botanists working in the Upper Amazon in the latter half of the 19th century who recorded the widespread use of a diversity of psychoactive plants. These early sojourners occasionally participated in ceremonies with the people whose traditions they were examining.
It is strange that ayahuasca has only been an object of interest for ugly Americans for the last 20 years or so. Considering the relatively early western contact with the sacrament, literary works by both Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and the proselytization of Terrence McKenna one would think that it would have been afforded a position of honor in our pharmacopia. Perhaps it’s that we’re so loaded up on other drugs and hate and folly that we simply can’t handle it.
In the early 1900’s chemists began isolating alkaloids from botanical specimens collected by these field researchers. Evidently aware of the reputation of these plants in the cultures that they were taken from, chemists originally referred to the alkaloid they were extracting from Banisteriopsis caapi as telepathine. This seems an appropriate moniker. All sorts of weird stuff happens on visionary substances, one of them being the (apparent) manifestation of psychic phenomenon. Thus, the weird fluorescent alkaloid in B. caapi received an honorific that inserted a tiny bit of paranormality into a wound carved by the exacting knife of quantitative study. In the present, searching for telepathine on Wikipedia will just result in your being redirected to harmine.
This chemical is produced in a number of plants but in especially high concentrations in the aforementioned B. caapi and in Peganum harmala, the Syrian Rue. This herbaceous perennial, which derives its scientific name from its relative abundance of monoamine oxidase inhibiting alkaloids, occurs in the wild throughout the Mediterranean and is happy to migrate with human assistance. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine, and for a wide variety of ailments. It has talismanic importance in some cultures, guarding against witchcraft. It’s as good at taking down an evil spell as it is at banishing tapeworms.
As an added benefit, its seeds are super cheap and readily available on the internet. While it is intoxicating it has avoided any scheduling in the U.S. (although the Aussies will lock you up for having it) and so there’s no anxiety attached to waiting for it to arrive in the mail.
A tea made from a couple of grams of seeds doesn’t taste bad and produces an experience that’s not entirely unlike being drunk but without the requisite stupidity and bad decisionmaking. There’s a lucidity to it that you don’t normally encounter in things that get you high.
On the downside, if you’re taking the wrong medications it can kill you by inducing serotonin syndrome. Among many traditional users of plants containing these alkaloids the dosages consumed are reported to be far in excess of what it would require to temporarily inhibit monoamine oxidase. It is thought that these higher dosages induce a visionary psychedelic state distinct from what one experiences when it is combined with plants rich in demethyltryptamine.
With that said, ingesting any of the serotinergic drugs after consuming harmine and harmaline is far different than taking these substances on their own. Monamine oxidase inhibition turns the dial way up on mushrooms, LSD and smoked DMT. The experience is deeper, longer and far more in control. There is no turning on the TV and popping a benzo to wait it out. It has you.
I was something of a regular smoker of extracted DMT in my early thirties and there wasn’t a moment of these experiences that wasn’t fascinating. It was not unusual to encounter elves, angels, guardian spirits and blueprints for multi-dimensional apparatus. Smoking DMT is the psychoactive equivalent of being shot from a cannon or leaping from an airplane. It is exhilarating and terrifying and healing and where the boundaries of these things might be is not clear.
At a point I tossed my stash of DMT in a fit of paranoia. When I turned it around and was no longer under the impression that a no-knock warrant was going to result in early morning flash-bang grenades and armed SWAT cops killing my dog I felt extremely sheepish. These are not the kind of drugs you can just buy. You have to work for them.
So I was excited when a friend extracted some DMT. I figured we’d smoke and then hang out swapping stories afterwards. I had recently gone off of antidepressants for what felt like the thousandth time in my life and while I was on shaky ground it freed me up to experiment with Syrian Rue. I was drinking it in the evenings and hoping against hope that it would deliver me from the searing anxiety I was experiencing. My nighttime tea was mellow. I didn’t encounter the wild and chromatic world of what I thought of as the ‘true’ psychedelics but it soothed my miserably nervous brain and body somewhat.
Knowing that MAOIs could strengthen and lengthen the effects of smoked DMT I brought Rue seeds that I had punished a coffee grinder with and we drank about 2mg each, steeped in hot water, both of us feeling the stonedness of it. I was excited. I wasn’t someone to shy away from a drug at that time, excluding the ethically and culturally disgusting morass of cocaine, meth and heroin.
After sitting around and smoking spliffs for an hour he offered me the first session and I took it. I laid down on his bed with a bowlful of pot that I liberally sprinkled with DMT crystals. I invoked my patron, a tripartite mushroom spirit, and then hit the pipe. I heard the all-encompassing hum of the come-on.
Instead of gates of gold or welcoming spirits I was plunged into darkness. I felt as though I had been dipped in oil. Faces appeared before me, angry and distorted, hostile to my intrusion. I don’t remember all of what I saw, but I remember what I felt. I remember thinking (and this is the exact phrasing) “What the fuck is this shit?” I don’t even recall what ‘this shit’ was, just that it was noxious, offensive, horrible. And then it appeared.
Floating above a parched and dead plane was a thing that looked much like a rhinovirus, a ball wreathed in spikes that radiated menace and hatred. I was overwhelmed by the horror of it and a certainty washed over me- I was a bad person. I always had been and I always would be. There was no saving myself from the knowledge of my debased failure to be good. What I had thought of myself up until that moment was shattered and pulverized- I was not powerful. Not kind. Not loving. Unforgivable.
I lived in this state for what felt like a lifetime and I knew I deserved it. This was hell and I was just catching a glimpse of what was in store for me as I aged and failed, crawled my way towards nothing but death. Aeons later I started to surface but the filth was upon me and in me. Panic in my throat. Panic in my chest. In my stomach. Behind my eyes.
There came a time when I could move though I did not want to. I stepped out of my friend’s room into the kitchen where he sat at a table, looking alarmed as I entered. He said, “I could feel that.” He went on to say that as he got higher from the tea he had attempted to ‘breathe in’ to my trip, settling into a meditative state and then trying to expand into what I was experiencing. After some sustained effort he had opened his eyes and given up, and at that point, upon withdrawing, he felt a wave of rage and disgust emanate from where I had dosed. He said he had felt frightened, concerned that I would emerge from the room in a homicidal frenzy.
I told him what had befallen me. That something wrong had occurred and that I was consumed by thoughts of my own wretched evilness, every great and minor sin I had ever committed infused in the cells of my body. A physical and spiritual degradation had occurred. I didn’t know if I would ever be alright again.
Over the course of an hour I chain-smoked rolled cigarettes and unburdened myself of my transgressions, but the burden went nowhere, staying inside me, coming home to roost. I didn’t want to go home, to ride my bike through the city streets filled with a possessing spirit who craved me prostrate and weeping. I didn’t want to go home to my fiancee, a person I’d come to hate over time, whose heart I would inevitably break when I reached my breaking point.
Things were never the same. I deteriorated. Waking life was breaking me and the spirits of wild had been driven from within me by that wicked orb.
What do I make of this? Do I interpret it through the empirical lens of the modern monster in which the sickness lives inside us? Or did I fall victim to something? And what of my friend’s perception of this experience? Was it merely the product of two stoned minds convincing themselves that a prosaic event was something else, an effect of non-localized consciousness or spiritual forces so malignant that they were experienced by two minds? And what of his experience? Was it my rage and disgust or was it the rage and disgust of the plants themselves? When psychedelics are an object of worship it is difficult not to take a harsh trip personally.
I choose to remain ambivalent. It’s a good story regardless of interpretation. I’d rather it be secondhand, an anecdote relayed instead of a direct experience, but we don’t always get the succor of ignorance we wish for. Among enthusiasts there is a tendency to regard all trips that don’t result in a psychotic break as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ rather than ‘bad’. The thinking here is that hard trips contain wisdom and knowledge that may be difficult to come to grips with but that is necessary for spiritual development.
I think I can get on board with this. The experience detailed above was the fall of a psychic hammer upon a nail that had been put in place by a far different experience of glowing love and forgiveness. In tandem they served to remove the corrosive and toxic masculinity and anger that had animated my life for many years. It hurt terribly, but sometimes terrible pain is the best teacher.