Picture this: You’re in a house in suburban Baltimore, tripping on four different drugs, watching grown men and women—including at least one grandmother—cuddle platonically on mattresses. Some are weeping, some are stroking each other’s faces, one is reciting the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” in a voice stunned by grief. There are candles and Buddha statues and a watercooler with crystals in it. Filling every room, blaring from Sonos speakers, is Mariah Carey’s version of “I Want to Know What Love Is.” You want to lie down yourself, preferably on a vacant mattress, but someone tells you to stay out of the sunroom because it’s “very angry.” The drugs you’ve been given have cute names, like secret agents: S and K and Ma, a blend of several “sacraments.” Their true identities are MDMA, DMT, psilocybin, and whatever the active compound is in kanna. Still, you feel good but not transformed. You fill up your water bottle. In the living room, a woman claims that Jesus visited her in the middle of the night and told her to pull up her kitchen floor, under which she discovered blood stains. The stains were from a girl who’d been made into soup and fed to the homeless. There’s a hammock in the backyard. You make a journey to it. You lie there, sipping crystal power. When you look at the tree above your head, the branches all burst into ghostly flowers, a continuous bloom. It’s like the tree is auditioning for a part called TREE. Per instruction, you haven’t eaten since lunchtime. Your stomach is in psychedelic pain. Your guide, a suburban mother who’s confessed to tripping over 500 times, is nowhere to be found.* You lie there, waiting for something bigger to happen. Because all this—the drugs, the group work, presumably the Mariah Carey as well—is supposed to cure you of your crippling fear of death.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed.
Why was I, a father of two young children, tripping in a house with a bunch of strangers? It’s a complicated question. At its root is something that happened to me the summer before. I was 44 at the time: no longer in the prime of youth, but certainly someone who anticipated a good thirty or forty more years of life on earth. My blood pressure is normal. I run regularly. I eat shitloads of kale. Aside from the occasional cheeseburger, I pretty much ascribe to the Mediterranean diet. But last July, climbing the stairs on an otherwise uneventful day of writing, my head exploded. I had heard about “thunderclap headaches,” and it was exactly that: a thunderclap of pain that began in my head and flashed down my neck, as though my spine were a lightning rod, before melting away. The experience fit the name so perfectly that I felt a bit of semantic pleasure.
Now, I get a lot of headaches. Little ones, migraines, the whole gamut. The neck thing worried me—I’d never felt that before—but I wasn’t horrendously concerned. I took a piss and went downstairs, feeling a vague lingering pain. I sat on the couch for a while and then called my wife, who insisted we go to the hospital just to be safe. In the car, my head started to hurt again: no thunderclap this time, but a slow storm rolling in from the horizon. By the time we got to the ER, I was crying. It felt like my head was being laboriously crushed. A nurse sat me in a wheelchair, where I started to howl, clutching my head as if I could maybe tear it off my neck. I threw up all over myself. The doctors seemed alarmed. I was past all pride at this point, bellowing like a madman, pausing only to heave up bile. They tried to give me an MRI, but I puked in the MRI machine and they had to start over. If someone had offered to kill me, I would have given them the thumbs-up. The world and my elaborate, one-of-a-kind past in it had evaporated: I was Present Pain. When the doctor returned with the results—“You’ve had a brain hemorrhage, a significant bleed”—they seemed obvious to me, as if someone had diagnosed me as a man.
Thus began a week in the ICU, the worst of my life. A subarachnoid hemorrhage is like a bruise in your brain—I heard this many times, from a battalion of doctors—and like a bruise, it takes a long time to heal. Even on Dilaudid and oxycodone, surfing in and out of consciousness, I had abominable headaches. I threw up for days, sometimes in front of my children. I had my penis shish-kebabbed by a catheter, which hurts exactly as much as it sounds. I was shaken from the depths of sleep, once an hour, for the same torture test: Where are you? What’s the date? Why are you here? I endured an angiogram without anesthesia—my heart rate was too low—which squirted my head with pyrotechnic bursts of pain. I discovered that walking is a triumph, a subconscious alignment of highly skilled maneuvers that requires a perfectly unbruised brain. Once a day, feeling like I’d stepped off the Pequod after a year at sea, I minced around the ICU with my wife’s help, the nurses cheering at the end of two or three laps, as if I’d won the Olympics. And I was in good shape, relatively speaking. If you ever want to remind yourself that we’re all animals, clinging to our humanity by the thinnest of threads, hang out in the neuroscience ICU of a major hospital. The guy next to me, fresh from brain surgery, couldn’t speak but only moan-bellow over and over again at the top of his lungs, as if calling for the rest of his brain to come home. He sounded uncannily like Chewbacca, when the walls of the trash compactor close in on him.
They never found the source of my bleeding—apparently a good thing—but it added to the sense I had of Death as mad sniper, poised to drop me for no reason. I was in His sights. Even being told by two neurosurgeons that the hemorrhage was a fluke thing, that it would never happen again, failed to assuage my dread. I wondered, perhaps to make my brain-clap seem less random, if my lifelong fear of death had somehow brought it on. It didn’t help things that it took me a couple months to recover, or that for some strange reason I felt compelled to keep it a secret from all but my closest friends. I was too nauseated to eat; I lost over 30 pounds; people stopped me in the halls at work and asked me why my lips were white. The two biggest toes on my left foot stayed numb, as if I’d dipped them in the grave. I worried about dropping dead while taking a dump. I was losing sleep. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night, heart drumming, that poor man’s Wookiee-like howls haunting my head.
So when I read about psychedelic therapy for terminal-cancer patients in The New Yorker, in an article by Michael Pollan, I was immediately intrigued. Here were people far worse off than I was, people staring their own deaths in the face, who after a hefty dose of psilocybin seemed to have made their peace with dying. They spoke of venturing into the void and then returning with an ineffable sense of well-being, of touching “the face of God.” The article made it sound like a miracle cure.
Which all leads me to what I was doing in a suburban house with a trampoline in the backyard, trying to swan-dive into my essential self. My guide for the evening had accepted my 400 dollars, the price for my journey, in tie-dyed pants. It was my own fault I wasn’t tripping very hard—I’d told her, out of nervousness, I didn’t want to travel to other planets—though I suspected she knew less about the “sacraments” she was prescribing to us than she purported to. (“Do you know that Peruvians drip ayahuasca into the eyes of their newborns?” she’d told me earlier. “All Peruvians?” I’d asked, and she’d blushed.) Still, I liked her, partly because there was something in her eyes that made me think of the Wordsworth line from “Elegiac Stanzas”: “A deep distress hath humanized my soul.” I sensed there’d been some suffering in her past. Many of the participants, I noticed, had the same benignly haunted look. An ex-physician told us that ten years ago she’d been diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer; she’d recovered, but couldn’t shake the feeling that it would return any second to finish her off. To allay her lingering fear of death, she’d enrolled in a psilocybin trial, and her “whole reality changed.” She divorced her husband and began to juggle motherhood and what full-time psychonauts call “The Work,” traveling the world to partake in aya ceremonies.
The more I talked to my fellow journeyers, the more I realized that almost all of them were dealing with death in some way. One guy—an ex-stockbroker who’d quit his job at a brokerage firm and was developing a health app called, mind-bogglingly, Nurse Ratched—told me he’d managed to purge his own fear of death by dying.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean I died on Ma. I stopped breathing for a long time. I couldn’t move or speak. But I was still there nonetheless. There was continuity—I continued.”
“You believed you were dead.”
He touched my shoulder. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I was actually dead.”
I nodded. Was he off his nut? Was it possible that if you “die” in Ayahuasca Land, it was somehow as real as brushing your teeth? Is our boring analytical mind only showing us half the truth? One of the four hallmarks of a mystical experience, according to William James, is the “noetic”: the conviction that the experience has illuminated some authentic truth. But don’t crazy people also believe—just as passionately—in their delusions? If I tripped hard enough, would I emerge with the conviction that I was immortal and could shine divine light out of my ass? If it got rid of my fear of death, would it matter?
The ex-stockbroker proceeded to tell me a story about a train running over someone, actually cleaving the guy in two and stopping with its wheel in the middle of his body. As long as the train didn’t move, the person was able to survive that way for a while. There was enough time to call his loved ones and have them say good-bye. I wasn’t sure what this had to do with me.
“Maybe you just need a deeper journey,” he explained.
That was it. Maybe I just needed to trip harder. To die without dying. I was determined, in any case, to try it.
I was not new to hallucinogens; in fact, I’d experimented with all manner of drugs in my youth. This was partly why the question of authenticity intrigued me. Over time I’d come to regard my drug experiences as resolutely inauthentic: quaint little escapades, akin to the stupid-drunk tales you trot out at parties. They weren’t trips so much as “trips,” pratfalls that made people laugh. Inevitably the stories ended with a punch line, the moment of disillusionment after I’d come down and recognized that the profound epiphany I’d experienced had been trite and farcical. There was the day, shrooming in Santa Barbara, when I brought a random twig home from the beach, convinced it was a priceless souvenir. Or the time my buddy Pete and I thought we’d unlocked the secret of the universe and wrote it down on a strip of paper, which we stashed in one of those wooden puzzle boxes with the trick latches. (When I opened the box the next morning, to discover what we’d written, I found SPECIFICITY INTO CHAOS.) Or the first time I tried Ecstasy. I bonded with a guy I’d never met, convinced he was the other half of me that Zeus had torn asunder. For two hours we sat with our arms around each other, listening to Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo habitual and trading awestruck faces as each new song became THE GREATEST SONG EVER. After I’d started to come down, and to wonder why as a straight man I’d been snuggling with a dude on the couch, I wandered into his kitchen and discovered that my soul mate had a “Garfield” comic strip taped to his fridge.
And I’d had some bad trips as well, which worried me. This is why I’d stopped doing mushrooms in college. Once, after a party in which I covered myself head to toe in mud, I returned to my dorm room to shower, only to discover too late that the mud was my natural-born carapace, my naked body the repulsive lobster-like innards of an alien species. I cowered in the bathroom for an hour. Far worse was the time, in my twenties, when I tripped by accident. My best friend from high school came through town with his rock band, and I stupidly ate a cookie from a bowl sitting on the dashboard of their van. It tasted like shit. When I looked up, the whole band was staring at me. My friend asked me solemnly if I’d eaten the entire cookie.
“Yes,” I said.
He massaged my shoulder, very gently. This was someone who traveled with his own drug supplier. “Just remember, no matter what happens, it’s only hash.”
The rest of the band passed a single cookie around, taking little nibbles. At dinner, my enchilada began talking to me. It was not a pleasant conversation. I don’t remember the details, except that the enchilada had a strong survival instinct. I ended up in the fetal position for eight hours, whimpering like a dog. For the next couple days I called in sick to my construction job, terrified I’d never return to normal. Except for the occasional puff of weed, that was my last experience with mind-altering drugs.
o it was with trepidation and hope that I ended up at a “psychedelic salon” at Red Emma’s bookstore, the sort of place whose Fiction section is smaller than its Prison Literature one. That’s how I met Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins and an expert in the field of psychedelic science. He gave a talk about the psilocybin study he was running, working with nicotine addicts to get them to quit smoking. (So far, they’ve had an 80 percent success rate at six months, about a 40 percent improvement over the best treatment on the market.) Unlike most of the journeyers I talked to, Garcia-Romeu is smart and scientifically-minded, with a handy chemical knowledge of the brain. He has a doctorate in psychology and publishes papers with titles like “Self-transcendence as a Measurable Transpersonal Construct.” If there was ever a trustworthy ambassador for the transformative effects of psychedelics, he was it.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together,” he explained to me when I met him a week later over beers. We were at a historic Baltimore watering hole called The Owl Bar, most likely the only patrons talking about the ruminative patterns of the brain. “That’s what they say in neurological circles. We think particular thoughts—obsessive ones, anxious ones, all those elements of cultural programming that we accept without questioning—and then it gets chemically easier and easier to think them. It’s like wearing ruts into a carpet. These pathways can be very unhealthy. Sometimes the only way to get rid of them is to reset them completely.”
“How high?” I asked.
He put down his beer and looked at me. “It’s supposed to be an epic experience.”
On his iPhone, Garcia-Romeu showed me a pair of circles meant to represent people’s brains. The graphics were taken from a recent Journal of the Royal Society Interface study, which involved doing fMRIs on subjects who’d either taken psilocybin or hadn’t. The first circle—a normal brain—had a few colored lines arcing across it, whereas the second one looked like one of the rubber-band balls my friend’s mother used to keep in her pantry. These were the neural pathways of a tripping brain. “On psilocybin, all these parts of your brain that don’t usually communicate with each other start chatting. It literally reorders your brain.”
I started to get nervous. I liked my brain the way it was. I mean, there were some pretty big issues there, no doubt about it—a proclivity for depression, an obsession with the mistakes I’d made in life, the whole death-terror thing—but I didn’t want a new one. I had no interest, for example, in leaving my wife. A friend had told me a story about a couple who’d done ayahuasca and had an epiphany that they should get divorced, then took a second dose the same weekend and had an epiphany that they should stay together. What if they’d stopped after the first trip?
In fact, there was something a bit contradictory about this whole idea of self-transformation. You were supposed to get back in touch with your essential self, to tsunami away all the cultural programming in your brain, and yet the psychedelic experience was all about losing one’s self. (Which is why Brian Wilson, in his admonition to acidheads, warned them to “hang on to your ego.”) How could you escape your “self” and find it at the same time? Probably, in the Journey People’s calculation, the ego is different from the self; one of the paradoxical teachings of Buddhism is that there’s a “self” and a “Self,” and that you have to lose the small to find the big. Over and over that night at the suburban guide’s house, I heard the “analytical mind” referred to with distaste. But it was the analytical part of my mind—the one that thought critically about the world, that saw the absurdity in life and death, that was able to write clear and concrete things as opposed to “specificity into chaos”—that I admired most. Who would I be without it?
On the other hand, Garcia-Romeu’s good-hearted advocacy was seductive. It helped that I liked him a lot. Bearded and benevolent, he’d ordered a Bushmills with his beer; in different clothes he would not have looked out of place on a Harley. He recently got a tattoo of a serotonin molecule with an oriole perched on it. He told me he’d struggled with depression in college but had found his calling in what he deems the “Renaissance in psychedelic science.” In ten years, he believes, psilocybin will be reclassified a Schedule II drug; there will be clinical centers, equipped with trained and certified guides, around the country. This is his life’s mission—not only to get to the bottom of why psychedelic therapy works wonders but to legitimize it as a viable treatment.
There’s some thought, he told me, that our brains have evolved to attribute special meaning to life-altering events and that due to their neurochemistry, psychedelics trigger such feelings. How else to explain the long history of psilocybin and mescaline use among ancient peoples? (Archaeologists have found sculptures of magic mushrooms—“mushroom stones”—dating all the way back to 1000 B.C.) This jibes with what Garcia-Romeu has seen in the lab: “Consistently, people in our studies rank their experience as one of the most meaningful events of their lives, right up there with the death of a parent and the birth of a child.”
I’d read the same thing in The New Yorker but still found this hard to believe. “The death of a parent?”
“That’s what they say. Even 14 months later.”
I told him about my disappointing “journey” at the suburban guide’s house. He seemed a bit disheartened by the whole ayahuasca fad, as if it were giving his work a bad name. Maybe there was some value in these drug-ins, but they didn’t sound all that useful to him as therapy: “The work we do generally requires two to three months, working one-on-one with the subject and building up trust. The idea is to plant the seeds very carefully, then let it storm.”
He seemed like a dream gardener to me, someone I’d love working with. I asked him if he could fit me into one of the Hopkins studies, but alas, I wasn’t a smoker, and the other available one involved dosing people blindly with various drugs. I wasn’t into being a guinea pig. For several reasons—not the least being my brain hemorrhage—I wouldn’t have qualified, anyway. If I wanted to experience the real thing, I’d have to find a psychologist willing to do it on the Q.T.
Now, here’s where things get a bit tricky. Because I did find someone, a trained psychologist, willing to work with me on the condition that she remain anonymous. Because for the time being, these are still Schedule I drugs we’re talking about and she could lose her license (or worse). So let’s call the trained psychologist S. Why did S agree to do this for me? I don’t think it had anything to do with money, though I was paying her for her work, of course. Like everyone else in the field of psychedelic science that I talked to, she’s a true crusader and wants to spread the word any way she can. I think she also wanted, sincerely, to help me.
So we made up a plan, compressed into a month because of scheduling issues: eight hours of “preparation,” followed by an all-day psilocybin session, followed by four hours of “integration.” The preparation, meted out in face-to-face therapy sessions, would take up most of the month. And quite honestly, these drugless sessions—essentially talk therapy—were a hundred times more useful to me than lying in someone’s hammock, watching the trees blossom. I told S about my life. I talked about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. I discovered that I still have Daddy issues. I cried, sober as a judge. I discussed my “intentions” for the upcoming session, all the issues I was hoping to address: my terror of death. My chronic insomnia. My on-and-off struggle with depression. My life-is-elsewhere syndrome. My desire to recapture some of the gleeful spontaneity I felt when I first started writing. As the intentions mounted, multiplying like rabbits, I began to invest psilocybin with legendary powers
“I should warn you that during the session, you might believe that you’re going crazy. You might also think you’re exploding.”
I shifted in my chair. “What percentage of people have bad trips?”
“A little less than half.”
“Give or take.”
“How bad are these trips?”
“Some of them are hellacious,” S said calmly.
This did not seem like a scientific term to me. I remembered my all-nighter in the fetal position. But I’d signed on to this thing; it would have seemed cowardly—an acquiescence to my thanatophobia—to back out now. What if I was transformed?
On the day of the session, S picked me up at ten thirty in the morning and drove me to her apartment. The sun was out, sparkling off cars and delivery trucks, and it seemed a bit unseemly to be doing drugs before lunchtime. At S’s request, I’d made a playlist on Spotify of various jazz and classical albums I liked. (Words were too distracting, she’d said, and could interfere with the session.) I’d also brought some old family photo albums, to peruse while we waited for the drug to kick in.
S, who for obvious reasons couldn’t commandeer any lab-grade psilocybin, had bought some magic mushrooms from a friend. I knew she had done this, but it was still a bit startling to see her pull out a Ziploc bag full of caps and stems. There was something dispiritingly undergrad about it. Also, it looked like a lot to me. Enough for more than one person. I couldn’t remember ever taking that much as a kid. Outside a lab, of course, it’s impossible to measure the dose perfectly, so the best S could do was guess; she worried that it wouldn’t be enough. (When I asked her what constituted too high a dose, she told me that for our purposes there was “no such thing.”) I couldn’t imagine getting them all down my throat, so she very hospitably tossed the shrooms into a blender and mixed them up with some OJ and berries. A purple smoothie. It was delicious, with a hint of umami.
It’s a weird thing waiting for a drug to come on while someone observes you from a chair. You feel a bit like a TV set. I fought the urge to put on a good show. I was also scared, nauseated, and making some teary costume-drama good-byes to my brain. Eventually the shadows on the ceiling began to interest me. Not deeply, but in a vaguely groovy way. I couldn’t tell if a piece of geometric art on the wall was actually three-dimensional or not (it was). I put on my sleep mask—or “night shade,” as S called it—and waited to confront the void. The night shade is a major component of psychedelic therapy; it’s meant to direct you brainward, so you’re not distracted by groovy shadows. The music, too, is designed to take you inside yourself—to lead you, Pied Piper-style, to “a wondrous portal.” Or so I imagined.
But there were no portals in my brain, or even portholes. Just business as usual. Admittedly, the music sounded fucking great. It was like a trip to the stereo store, except we were listening to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady instead of “Stairway to Heaven.” Still, I could have played a passable game of tennis. The only vision that came to me was that of an ice-cold beer. After a while, fighting off boredom, I started to wonder if this whole thing was an elaborate hoax.
“It looked like a good dose to me,” S said, perplexed. “It might have been a potency issue. Or you might be one of those people with an extremely high tolerance.”
“What do you do in those cases?”
“We up the dose.”
This is how I found myself in a hotel room a couple days later, preparing to take some LSD that S happened to have in her fridge. The only way we could fit the session in was to pull an all-nighter. I didn’t want to do it at home with my children upstairs, and S’s partner meant that her place was off-limits, so I’d booked a room at the Royal Sonesta with sweeping views of the harbor. Red and blue lights shimmered off the water, painting the face of the bay like smears of mascara. Yachts rocked gently in the dark. In the distance, giving us the neon finger, was the humongous guitar sign of the Hard Rock Cafe.
Like all hotel rooms, it was freezing cold. We had a portable speaker, a night shade, and the LSD. I’d never done acid before—had assumed I would die happily without trying it—but S assured me it was very similar to psilocybin. The main difference was the length of the trip, which was one of the reasons they didn’t use it in the lab. “Personally, I prefer it,” she told me. “Easier on the stomach.” Still, I was taken aback when she pulled two tabs from her satchel and told me to stick them under my tongue.
“Both of them?”
“Are they low doses?”
“Ordinarily I’d start you off with one, but we’ve seen how little you’ve been affected. Plus, they’ve been sitting around for a year.” S looked at me encouragingly. She didn’t seem worried. “I’d say we’re talking 150 to 200 micrograms.”
Later I’d find out that 200 micrograms was what Aldous Huxley asked his wife to inject him with when he was dying of cancer—in two smaller doses—but at the time it meant nothing to me. I melted the tabs under my tongue. Then I sat on the bed, waiting for my plane to depart. At this point, I half expected nothing to happen. S had to take a phone call, and I remember thinking that this was maybe the weirdest thing I’d ever done: sitting in a hotel room after dark with a near-stranger, waiting for a double hit of acid to kick in while she chatted amiably with her parents. Eventually, things began to look strange. I remember that my legs extended on the bed in front of me looked very long. Everything was long. I’d entered Long Land. The corners of the desk looked sharper and more protuberant. It was like I’d put on 3 1/2-D glasses. The chiaroscuro, too, was Vermeerian. Before long I began to swoon. It was like having the spins. After drinking the shroom smoothie, I had voluntarily lain down and put on the night shade, but now I had no choice: I couldn’t possibly sit up or look at things or move an inch. I lay there immobilized, trying to hold on to the fact that I was doing this for a reason—that I was supposed to go spelunking in the void and therapeutically return, purged of my fear of death. Then: BOOM.
Drug narratives are boring for the same reason that other people’s dreams are boring: Any attempts to describe the experience, which is by essence non-narrative, or in the very least experimentally plotted, come out sounding like dorm-room malarkey. You can’t make a plot without time, and time—chronology, cause and effect, some sense of action or drama—is what’s missing from the psychedelic experience. Time and, well, a protagonist. For about an hour and a half (or so I learned later, from S, because time had ceased to mean anything) I was completely obliterated. Blown into smithereens. I didn’t exist. The only thing that remained was a feeling, and even this is hard to describe, as it’s like no feeling I’d ever experienced before. It should be, in fact, impossible to feel. The best description I’ve found for it is the term mysterium tremendum et fascinans, coined by theologians to describe an encounter with the “Wholly Other”: a feeling of joy and demonic terror at the same time. Not two different feelings, mind you, but a single unbearable one. Huxley talks about it in The Doors of Perception as “the fear of…being overwhelmed, of disintegrating under a pressure of reality greater than a mind, accustomed to living most of the time in a cozy world of symbols, could possibly bear.” That’s how I felt: completely overwhelmed, though not by fear but by Joyterror. Even the notion of a “bad trip” was meaningless, though I could feel myself teetering on the edge of something evil. But the notion of “teetering” was meaningless too—I was on both sides of the precipice at once. The only thing I remember doing is crying, though S’s notes claim I said the following things: “intense,” “too intense,” “overwhelming,” “wow,” and “melting.” Rising action, climax, denouement. Not bad for someone narrating from the primordial void.
And then something happened. A tunnel opened up in the void, shaped something like a heating duct, though more attractive, pimped out with divine light, and at the end of this very long heating duct I saw my self. It was a joyous reunion. I don’t think I’ve been so happy to see anyone in my entire life. I conceived—in the way you sort of immaculately conceive things while on drugs—that this self, this Eric P., existed eight hours from now. I was looking down a time-tunnel, into the future. And this Eric from the future, no longer tripping, spoke to me in a small, faraway voice, assuring me that everything I was experiencing wasn’t real, that I’d merely taken a shitload of LSD. For the first time, the Joyterror relaxed its grip on me a bit and I was able to think, to understand that I was listening to music, and that this music was unspeakably beautiful, the shouting of angels. It was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (though I didn’t realize this at the time), and it was pouring down upon me from above. And then I felt something I will never forget. “Rapture,” I guess you’d call it, though it bears about as much relationship to the way I’ve used that word in the past as a sneeze does to an orgasm. The music became Beauty, and the waves of Beauty cascaded over me, rippling though my body, again and again and again. I was being bathed in it. A baptism. At the same time that I was being baptized by Beauty—and weeping, and trying to describe it to S—I was being delivered upward toward the source of the music, floating away from my body, ecstatic to leave the crummy, aging thing behind. I heard Eric P. talking from the end of the time-tunnel, saying This isn’t real or profound or unique, it conforms exactly to the Rapture as described in those Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets that come in the mail, but what I thought was: Fuck you, Eric, it doesn’t matter.
And then we floated back to earth, Eric and I, separate but within earshot, and the Beauty was gone. We hadn’t been raptured. We pulled the night shade off and took a look around us. The air vent on the ceiling rippled like the gills of a fish. The whole room was alive, pulsing in and out. We could see the world breathing. We thought about my mother’s Alzheimer’s, how meaningless it was that she was losing her mind, how cruel and senseless and obscene, and an image materialized of the Creator as a beast. He looked something like the Minotaur. We explained this to S, that God was a beast. We decided to take revenge on this beast, for the universe’s meaninglessness. We chased Him down and slit His throat with a sword, Theseus-style, and there was some catharsis in this. The blood of God was on us, and we liked it. As the night wore on, there were other epiphanies, ones that would sound trite in the retelling; suffice it to say that we forgave certain people that had wounded us, and lamented that we’d wounded others.
Eventually, the room stopped breathing and we began to feel more like a single person again. Then the only truly bad part of the trip began. Because S fell asleep on the couch—I don’t blame her; she was exhausted and I hadn’t been the most exciting company—and I was left to my own devices in a strange hotel room at three in the morning, too wired to sleep and feeling the seriously bad vibes of being my analytical self again in an out-of-whack world, wanting to leave the fun house but unable to find an exit. I paced the room, my clothes soaked with sweat despite the arctic temperature. The view across the bay morphed into an enormous Aztec mask blowing me a raspberry. It wouldn’t go away. The Hard Rock guitar, pointing up at the lonely dark, looked like the YOU ARE HERE arrow on a map. I tried watching TV, but the programming at 4 A.M.—Adult Swim and a show consisting of home videos of people throwing up—made me feel like I was still peaking. I wondered if the entire world had gone insane. Finally, just before dawn, sincerely losing my shit and feeling like my head had been gouged out like a pumpkin, I woke up S, who seemed alarmed by my appearance. As reassuringly as she could at five in the morning, she helped me into a cab and sent me home.
Did having my ego obliterated, then gradually resurrected, cure me of my fear of death? Was I transformed? In a year, I might have something different to report, but right now I have to say: not miraculously, no. Psychedelic therapy, at least as it was practiced outside a lab, did not solve all my problems. I still have trouble sleeping. I get badly depressed sometimes. And the biggie—my fear of death—seems to be in fine fettle. By experiencing the mysterium tremendum of the void, I may have even made it worse. Instantaneous transformation, I think it’s safe to say, is a seductive myth.
And yet I’m not exactly the same person I used to be. I feel the bottoms of my feet more acutely. I’ve stopped putting on sunscreen every time I go outside. I worry a bit more that I’m crazy, especially late at night. I feel exceptionally attached to my wife and children. And maybe it’s only a phase, but the idea that there might be another life out there for me, that I’ve somehow forsaken it, doesn’t haunt me so much. I suppose (and here the cliché takes over, my analytical mind is powerless) it’s called “being present.” Dr. Garcia-Romeu talks about re-acquainting people with what he calls “the beginner’s mind”: stripping away all the petty wants and concerns that we’ve mistakenly imbued with meaning, so that we can recognize again what’s truly important. I’m sure—and all the evidence seems to point to this fact—that he and S are helping people.
And there remains that feeling of euphoric beauty, of being—let’s just come out and say it—raptured. I don’t believe that I had a God-moment, or that I touched the oneness of the universe, or that I actually croaked and came back to life. As far as yoga-speak goes, I’m still on the Woody Allen side of the mat: “Students achieving oneness will move ahead to twoness.” Does that mean the feeling I had wasn’t authentic? It came from somewhere, from the chemicals in my brain, and the idea that my brain—this three-pound electric sponge in my head, made up of 86 billion neurons, with more connections among them than there are stars in the galaxy—created it kind of amazes me. This brain I had the good or bad luck to be born with can bleed spontaneously for no reason, and make me so depressed I can’t move, but it can also fill me with beauty until I weep. It can make me float to the heavens. For whatever reason, I have this superpower inside me.
A few weeks after my night in the hotel, I watched a video of *A Midsummer Night’s Dream—*a play that’s often staged as a kind of hallucination—with my kids. This staging, a Royal Shakespeare production, was particularly trippy; Puck and Oberon seemed almost demonic, dosing people with magic flower juice. I found myself sympathizing more than usual with Bottom, the woeful thespian, who undergoes a literal transformation when Puck gives him the head of an ass. When he wakes up as his old self again, he says he’s had “a most rare vision” that can’t be described. “I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream,” he says. “It will be called ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ because it hath no bottom,” meaning that it has no core but also that he, Bottom, is missing from it.
Later, after the kids were in bed, I sat outside on the patio, listening to Spotify drifting from the kitchen. Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not the End” came on. Actually, it was Nick Cave’s version, sung in his sepulchral baritone:
When you’re sad and when you’re lonely
And you haven’t got a friend
Just remember that death is not the end
I don’t know if you could call it a flashback or not, but I stepped out of myself. Or rather: split in two. No heating ducts this time—more of a feeling, a disunity, like I’d grown a second head. It was a starless night. We were listening to a famously morbid singer tell us that life goes on after death. Dream on, the analytical me thought, frowning, while the other me thought, unburdened of him: Dream on and on.
Eric Perry is a pseudonym for a writer who has contributed regularly to GQ.