An LSD Trip Helped Me Quit Smoking
For 18 years I was a stubbornly addicted smoker, but I didn't break out of the bad habit until I took a tab of acid with my friend and realized how badly I wanted to leave cigarettes behind.
Photo by Jazzmin Nilsson
For 18 years I was a light yet stubbornly addicted smoker. Perhaps my habit was a result of growing up with a Dutch mom who handed me wisdom like: “Thijs, you’re 11 now. It’s time for you to learn how to roll smokes for your mommy.” There were periods where I’d just smoke one cigarette a day, and there were times when a pack wouldn’t see me through. But quitting—really quitting—was something I found I was able to manage for a week at most.
I was also a terribly annoying smoker. The kind that tries to quit for years by not buying his own packs, thus becoming the friend everyone avoids at parties (sorry, guys). I would smoke during school, but not during work. Like I said—light smoker, ridiculously addicted.
Earlier this year, I reached a few conclusions that seem completely obvious, but are still the kind of truths that addicts love to ignore:
- Smoking is a boring, useless addiction. The only joy in smoking is giving in to the addiction.
- There is only one moment out of billions of years of history in which I’m alive. What a waste to shorten that blip of time with something so boring.
- Going out with friends can be fun, but if we all went out for shots of apple juice instead, I’d be just as content. Smoking is more like a random compulsive activity than an actual experience.
Those thoughts started running through my head earlier this year, and went on for about a month. In the end, it was almost like something broke inside of me. I realized that smoking now filled me with self-hatred, and that realization came during a weekend binge on LSD.
It's always fun, LSD. It may have become slightly out of fashion since the 1960s, but I have always regarded it as a milder version of taking mushrooms—albeit a longer-lasting trip. The fear and panic surrounding it always seemed excessive to me, but of course everyone who takes it has a different experience.
As I was gazing up at the stars during that trippy night in spring, my best friend and I were talking about life and the three smokers' truths I mentioned above. I realized I had carried them with me for a while now, without ever making a disciplined decision.
I can’t describe it in any other way than feeling as if a switch were flipped inside me. Suddenly, I realized how ridiculous smoking was—why was I doing something that made me feel miserable? Of course I was completely spaced out, but the psychedelics helped me zoom out and break through my own frozen ideas about not being able to quit. I didn’t think, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I really need to quit soon. The only thought I had was: I don’t want to do this anymore.
"Sounds like a familiar story," says clinical psychologist Pål-Ørjan Johansen. Together with his wife Teri S. Krebs, Johansen has been conducting research into psychedelics and alcohol addiction as part of a research fellowship at Harvard Medical School. "We've heard of addictions to alcohol, heroin, and tobacco that were broken with help from psychedelics. The reason seems to be that substances like LSD can provide a moment of clarity that can help you see your existence as a whole and get a long-term perspective into certain personal issues.”
Research into the medical application of substances like LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) are still in their very early phases. The 1950s and 1960s are remembered as a golden age of scientific research into psychedelics, but that doesn't mean it wasn't problematic. Some trials weren't big enough to prove anything in particular, other experiments (carried out by the CIA) were horrifically unethical, and once the drug became illegal in the mid 60s it never fully recovered from the cultural backlash that ensued.
Research efforts have expanded in the last few years, but scientific psychedelic inquiry is still pretty small-scale. "There are three clinical research projects in the United States right now, and several more are being prepared," says Johansen.
Right after I published a version of this story on VICE in the Netherlands last month, the results of the world’s first research into smoking and psychedelics came out. Out of 15 heavy smokers who took part in the study, 12 remained smoke-free after six months of psychotherapy aided with psilocybin.
Krebs and Johansen found similar conclusions after their analysis of randomized controlled trials of LSD for alcoholism.“Those who had taken a full dose of LSD," Krebs says, "were twice as likely to decrease their alcohol consumption or remain abstinent, as compared with subjects who took a low dose of LSD or a placebo.”
I count myself as a success story, too. In the days that followed my LSD trip, I could feel my body craving nicotine, but there was nothing in my mind telling me to give into that feeling. I treated it like a mosquito bite: Just wait till it's over and it won’t bother you again.
About two months later, Argentina kicked Holland out of the World Cup. If there was ever a moment to start smoking again, that was it. I wanted to test myself and see if I had really broken my addiction, so I grabbed my friend’s cigarette, took a drag—and couldn’t imagine there was ever a moment that I had enjoyed smoking. It tasted like a night at a bar that went on for too long.
People shouldn't think they can just drop acid once and expect that it will solve any illness or addiction they have, of course. It just so happened that I had an experience with psychedelics in which I tried to figure out why I had been smoking for such a long time, and I'm generally the type of person who enjoys psychoanalyzing myself.
“It's hard work to quit after years of alcoholism or smoking," says Johansen. "Our opinion is that patients will need to have several doses of psychedelics in combination with treatment. It is no magic tool, but it can act as a catalyst for epiphanies and can make you ask questions like, ‘If not now, when?’”
I don't think I would have ever been able to quit smoking without that hit of LSD. I'd tried giving up in the past, but my lack of self-discipline always stood in the way. Some people say drug use is something that shouldn’t be promoted, but I’m still waiting for the person who will explain to me why I should be ashamed for my experience. I’m extremely happy that I’m done with smoking. And who knows? Maybe my next dose of acid will finally send me to the gym.