I’d heard of bad trips before, but I put them in the realm of other impossible things I could never imagine happening to me, like being in a plane crash or becoming paralysed. I knew those possibilities existed, of course, but I felt somehow exempt.
The very definition of a bad trip is highly subjective, which only adds to the mystery. Psychedelics alter your perception, and a bad trip is defined by your own experience, and the way you interpret it. I’ve heard some people say that there is no such thing as a bad trip, and that you can change any trip into a positive one with the power of your mind. My guess is that those people have not experienced a trip so bad it took five months for me to get my life back.
Albert Hoffman, the “father of LSD”, documented the first-ever bad trip. He wrote: "My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms… A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul.” As terrifying as that sounds, Hoffman continued to advocate for LSD even after its criminalisation in 1966, due to his belief that it could be an important tool for unlocking human consciousness.
The day of my own bad trip started quite unremarkably. I was hungover when I woke up, but I still decided to drop a tab with three of my friends, the third or fourth time I’d ever taken acid. We walked up to the Wellington Botanic Gardens. It was a Sunday and the weather was beautiful. A perfect day for a trip, I thought. The gardens were crowded with loved-up couples, tourists and loud families, all coming to admire the scenery.
At first the trip, the internal scenery of the mind, was pleasant, and we all started feeling giddy. I began to notice people looking at us, imagining their judgment of four students acting strangely. I was torn between succumbing to the trip and retaining the self-awareness that usually made me a functional member of society.
About an hour in, we walked up to a grassy hill and sat down. The rest of my group were chatting, but I went deeper into my own head. I made the mistake of thinking about acid flashbacks, which, in that moment, I interpreted as acid unlocking a traumatic repressed memory. I started to see a hallucination of a woman, who seemed like she was from the past, dressed in 70s attire. This seemed to confirm my fear about flashbacks, and I gave an audible gasp of fear. That was the beginning of a hellish 20 hours.
I managed to say to my friends that I was getting really bad vibes. They, however, were clearly on a different plane. We decided to walk back to the university hall where I lived.
I was spiralling, and I didn’t know how to stop it. I started seeing negativity everywhere. But what I’d experienced so far was just the tip of the iceberg. When I got to my room I tried to put on soothing music to calm myself down. Hands shaking, I searched up 'Sea of Love' by Cat Power, and pressed play. The acid and my state were too powerful to be turned around by the normally beautiful song, which became terrifyingly distorted and warped. This sent me into a full-blown panic. Everything around me became hostile, ugly, disgusting and scary.
I texted a friend. Sarah was my guardian angel, calming me down, distracting me, grounding me. She knew nothing about drugs but was amazing at dealing with a crisis. Over the hours she stayed by my side, I experienced the most hellish hallucinations – it was like being trapped in a nightmare. I closed my eyes but I couldn’t escape. All I could do was wait it out, and remind myself that this state was only temporary, but it felt like it lasted for days and I was barely clinging onto my sanity.
It was like the drug had latched onto my fear and panic and was churning out reflections of it. I had created my own private hell and saw my fears come to life, some that I didn’t even know I had. I saw a valley, filled with visions of the most horrific things that I could possibly think of. The visions were strangely one dimensional, as if I had looked up on Google Images what a stereotypical bad trip would look like. I saw masked men with weapons staring at me dead in the eyes, dead bodies in puddles of blood, animals being killed.
Eventually, the vivid hallucinations dimmed to sinister shadows. Still, even sleeping pills wouldn’t work. I was so depleted of any “feel good” chemicals that it was impossible to calm my mind. I finally slept, and I woke up feeling triumphant. I wanted to put this awful experience behind me, chalk it up as painful memory at most.
And I did my best to compartmentalise the horror of my bad trip, and to go about my life like everything was fine. But it was a short-term solution, and it didn’t stop anxiety creeping back into my life. I was struggling to sleep, ruminating, and I started to feel like I had gone crazy. The bad trip was defining me, and it felt like I would never be happy again.
I started researching PTSD, and resonated with most of the symptoms: re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive recollections (flashbacks or nightmares); avoiding places and activities that reminded me of the trauma; difficulty sleeping and concentrating; persistent negative beliefs about myself, others and the world; detachment. It was all there, but because my trauma was not typical of PTSD—such as witnessing violence, or experiencing assault or rape—and because it was from a choice to take an illegal drug, I didn’t feel like my experience was legitimate.
I felt more and more disconnected from the world, and began to feel I had ruined my life. I dreaded going to bed because it would be dark and I would be alone with my thoughts and imagination. I looked for hallucinations in shadows, bathroom stall doors, and walls. I was so afraid of going crazy that I was going crazy. The opening jangly chords of 'Sea of Love', which used to be a beautiful song, immediately transported me back to my room.
None of my friends that day had a bad trip. I didn’t know anyone who had gone through something even remotely similar to me. I couldn’t talk to my family about it. My friends who had done acid didn’t know just how bad a trip could be; those who had never done it viewed LSD as this mythical scary thing, and my experience had just confirmed their fears.
The Internet allowed to me find others and read stories about those who had experienced a bad trip. Of course, you don’t always find what you are looking for. Amid the success stories, there were harrowing tales of institutionalisation, years of trauma, psychosis, unemployment, isolation. I alternated between tentative hope and overwhelming despair. I went to counselling, and it helped with the healing process. Sure, my counsellor was a middle-aged Christian woman who I don’t think had touched an illegal drug in her life, but she did her best to help me work through the trauma.
My relationship with drugs is strained now, to say the least. People seek out recreational drugs for the positive effects, but there is another side. In a way I was humbled, because before that trip I thought I was invincible, and now I realise that you aren’t always in control when you take mind-altering substances.
I now volunteer with KnowYourStuff and DeepSpace, two harm-reduction groups. KnowYourStuff provides drug-checking at festivals, among other services, and DeepSpace offers peer-support care to those going through difficult emotional and psychological experiences at festivals, including challenging psychedelic experiences. I wanted to take my own experiences and transform them into something positive.
A year after my bad trip, I am okay. It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, but I learned a lot, and grew even more in the aftermath.