Andrew W.K. on Psychedelics
"Words, of course, are going to fail me here."
Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine.
As I've mentioned here before, I grew up in southeast Michigan's lovely Ann Arbor, the wonderful, beating, countercultural heart of the Midwest (no disrespect to Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, or Madison). The radical spirit in Ann Arbor was robust in the 1960s and lingered on into the early 90s, when I was in my teenage years. This made for a confusing and oftentimes contradictory educational atmosphere, to say the least.
We were just coming out of Ronald Reagan's 80s. His wife, Nancy, of course, was vehemently anti-drug. Her "Just Say No" campaign rang loudly in my ears and in those of my classmates. We had been deeply and effectively influenced by all the anti-drug education. The idea we all shared was that if you took drugs—any kind of drug—you could die instantly. Or go insane. Or jump out a window like Helen Hunt in the movie Desperate Lives, a rather absurd anti-drug movie in retrospect, but terrifying at the time to a young boy who knew next to nothing. We were taught in health class that just one snort, or puff, or swallow of anything could kill you outright, or addict you for life. That's all it took to destroy you. It would be just as dumb, we were told, to drink bleach or break dance on a heavily trafficked highway.
Evidence that this info was an extreme exaggeration was all around us, especially in Ann Arbor. I had friends who smoked pot in elementary school. There were kids whose parents did drugs with them, and it was somewhat accepted. Ann Arbor itself was filled with potheads and a proud pro-pot history. Taking acid was about as common as drinking beer. And none of these people were dead or seemed especially crazy.
Even cops looked the other way. Ann Arbor was infamous for its laissez faire attitude toward smoking pot in public. True to point: Riding a skateboard downtown could get you a $50 fine, but smoking weed would only get you a $5 ticket. This was true until the 90s, when the city finally raised the fine… to $25. But the extreme fear of drugs stuck with me, and it wasn't until well after high school that I ever dared try them—at that point, I'd seen enough real-life evidence that what I'd been exposed to as a child was propaganda, not gospel.
In 2005, I found myself in Japan after five years of touring. I returned home to New York City with some Salvia, a psychoactive plant that can induce visions and is sometimes called "sage of the diviners," I'd bought there. It was the first psychedelic drug I'd ever done.
It was quite intense, enlightening in a way that was profound.
My band and I actually tried it a few times in Japan, to little effect. I remember feeling warm and tingly, and having some slight disorientation and small changes in spatial relationships—things that were farther seemed closer than they were, etc. But it was pretty low-key, nothing much to write home about.
Back stateside, a friend who had experience with the drug coached me through it. In Japan, I had done it wrong, apparently. I did as he instructed (I won't go into detail here), and nothing much seemed to happen. But then I remember coughing hard, feeling my toes get cold, and as I was about to hand him the pipe, everything disappeared.
I froze, completely shut down.
Now, I'd never had an experience like this before, and I've not had one since. Starting from the top of reality down, every object, every concept, every thought, every feeling, every thing began to rapidly disintegrate. The first thing that went was my eyesight. Not blind, per se, but I went into blackness. I was paralyzed, and my hearing also failed me. Everything melted away into nothingness, but into a nothingness that contained within it all.
Words, of course, are going to fail me here. But there was an undeniable sense that I was experiencing the world as it actually was. The other drug experiences I'd had before this didn't expose reality to me in this way. Through them I always had a sense of self, a point of observation that I understood to be "me." In those experiences, I was still seeing the world as I had always understood it to be, just with an additional type of enhancement or distortion. With Salvia this particular time, the experience had no relationship to anything previous. One marked difference—besides the paralysis, blindness, and deafness—was that there was no empty space. Everything was solid, as though I could see (though I couldn't see, remember) every molecule filling the air between me and the surrounding walls.
I'd also lost a complete sense of my own existence, and anything anchoring me to reality as I'd understood it. Not only could I not remember my name, or who I was, I couldn't even remember what I was, or even that I was or ever had been. I remember having a very real sense that I'd never get back to myself, or to the world as I'd known it before. It was quite intense, enlightening in a way that was profound.
It was also deeply terrifying. And it left me hungover with sadness and amazement for several days.
After the experience ended—it lasted only a couple minutes but felt like an eternity—day-to-day life seemed simultaneously more and less impressive, like I'd gotten a brief glance at a giant buffet of knowledge, but had to return to the very limited experience of being myself and living in this plane. It was as though our entire material view of life was just resting tentatively on the surface, a thin gauze that is hiding an inner structure that I got a close look at.
That said, I can't imagine staying in that state forever. Those few minutes took all the effort I had. I don't feel I need to go back. One of the oddest parts of the entire trip was that, as it set in, it felt strangely familiar, yet entirely alien.
Without being able to say exactly why, I feel confident in declaring that this most intense psychedelic experience of mine changed and improved my life forever. I've had many other psychedelic experiences since that ego-shattering Saliva trip, but none have gone as far and pulled reality out from under me as completely as that one did. It humbled me. I would never insist someone have any experience in particular, but I do believe this one changed me for the better. It offered me a genuine encounter with Truth. And more Truth can only lead to more good.
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