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What the Drugs Have Taught Me

Hieronymous Bosch, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" [1]

Hieronymous Bosch, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”

3,793 words

There’s been a noticeable spike in the national debate about marijuana legalization, after CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta surprised everyone by announcing [2] that marijuana is not only harmless but helpful. It’s the first time I can ever recall cheering anything said by a CNN correspondent.

Prudishness about drug use tends to be an “Old Right” thing. Just about everybody I know in the New Right has used drugs. (Except Greg Johnson, who is a bit of a narc.) Old-time right-wingers tend to associate drugs with hippies, and worry that somehow drug use leads to liberalism (or follows from it). And they are often astonishingly ignorant on the matter. One prominent Old Righter of my acquaintance once referred in my presence to “dopers” “injecting marijuana.” Of course, as is often pointed out, the very term “drugs” is highly problematic. Dim as most stoners are, they can usually reduce Grandpa Simpson types to sputtering consternation with simple questions like “Isn’t alcohol a drug? Aren’t cigarettes drugs?”

These are legitimate questions, in fact. As most thoughtful people realize, in many cases it makes little sense which “drugs” are legal in our society and which are not. Alcohol is far more harmful to people than pot. And you never hear about exclusive pot smokers dying of lung cancer (there has been research on this, but it’s inconclusive). As Sanjay Gupta has pointed out – very much to his credit – far more people die every year from prescription drugs than from pot (which, on its own, produces about zero fatalities). And a similar case can be made for LSD, psilocybin (i.e., mushrooms), ecstasy, and cocaine. (I’ll discuss these and other drugs anon.)

But my purpose in this essay is really not to defend the idea of drug legalization. That case has been made quite ably by others. The only thing I have to add to it is to describe my own experiences with drugs, and how they have played a positive role in my life. And believe me, by the standard of my Old Right friends I am nothing less than a dope fiend.

I never did any drugs at all, believe it or not, until I was 34. It started with pot, which I was introduced to by an ex-skinhead who is now well-known in the Right-wing heathen scene. Initially, all I did was cough a lot. Then I was suffused with a kind of dizzy euphoria in which all physical sensations felt tremendously good. And I really wanted to eat. I remember that we walked up the street to a pizza joint near his place with the intention of drinking beer. But suddenly I was seized with a craving for Coca-Cola, which became indescribably delicious.

This is about as far as most people get in the use they make of marijuana: they pig out and get silly. But my first experience with the drug got me thinking about ways in which I could use it more productively. I wanted most of all to find out how it would affect my thought processes. What I found was that pot made it extraordinarily difficult for me to control my thoughts and to focus. It was definitely the wrong drug for meditation (for me, at least). Under certain circumstances it could also make me paranoid, especially if I found myself in an unfamiliar place around people I didn’t trust. On one memorable occasion, I drove home while stoned and actually got lost in my own neighborhood.

But these negatives were more than compensated for by the tremendous boost pot gave to my creativity. Moments after taking a single hit it was as if my mind relaxed and became unfettered. I would have multiple insights, and my mind would make connections I had never considered before. Now, the standard response of the anti-pot crowd to such a claim is “No, you only think pot made you clever. Actually, you just got stupid and didn’t know it.”

But this simply isn’t true. I know this because from my earliest experiences with pot to the present day, I have made a practice of writing down the ideas I have while stoned. When I read these notes the next day, I almost always find them not just coherent but genuinely insightful. The conventional wisdom is that pot makes you stupid. Actually, what it does is make stupid people stupider. But when used by an exceptionally intelligent person like myself, and under the right conditions, it enhances thought and creativity.

I believe that pot has actually played a significant role in my intellectual development over the last decade or so. One of its most important effects is difficult to describe. The only way I know to put it is that pot often seems to help me feel the truth, or untruth, of certain ideas. It’s quite easy to deal with ideas in a detached, abstracted way in everyday life. But while stoned I seem to immediately feel that certain ideas are right. I know this sounds strange, but that’s how it works.

It is as if my mind, under the influence of pot, connects the abstract idea to reality in a way that is difficult for me to do under normal circumstances. Right ideas feel indescribably right, and I am suffused with a sense unshakeable moral certainty. Just try watching Triumph of the Will or Fight Club while stoned, if you want to find out what I mean. In the case of bad ideas I feel overwhelmed with horror at their bad consequences, a horror I don’t normally allow myself to feel. Take my advice and never watch a presidential debate while stoned.

Around the time I was first smoking pot, I also tried cocaine. I was hanging out with a couple of guys, one of whom happened to be friends with a dealer. This fellow made most of his sales by hanging out at a seedy piano bar that was a favorite hangout for the over-forty gay crowd. So this is where we went to buy from him what they call on the street an “eight ball.” (I feel obliged to add that though I suppose I am pretty “hip,” I’ve never grown comfortable with the slang that surrounds the drug scene: “eight ball,” “bong,” “toke,” “smack,” all of it drives me up the wall.) This guy was later arrested and went to jail for a very long time.

Cocaine definitely put a spring in my step. I felt bold, self-confident, optimistic, and irresistibly attractive. It was easy to see why people spent so much money on the stuff. The skinhead and I once spent an entire evening snorting coke, listening to Johnny Cash, and talking about exactly how we would take over the world. (And taking over the world seems like a real possibility when you’re on coke.) But after maybe three weeks of using the stuff – in all sorts of situations, including at work – I just decided that it was time to quit. I was afraid that it could be habit forming, and I knew it was too expensive.

So, I just stopped. But what about all those celebrities like Tony Orlando (if, indeed, he can still be called a celebrity) who claim to have tried coke once and been “instantly addicted”? Well, I believe there is such a thing as an “addictive personality,” and also such a thing as a person with no willpower. Fortunately, I fall into neither category. So, for me it was as easy as just deciding not to buy anymore after my supply ran out. That was more than a decade ago. I haven’t done it since and I don’t miss it. Especially because I didn’t learn anything from it at all. For me, it was not a drug that led to any great insights. There were no new connections, no mystical mind-melds, no satori. It just made me feel like a badass. That was great at the time, but the next morning I just felt embarrassed.

Mushrooms were on another level entirely. I got these from a college student, of course. And they were quite special, since they came in the form of chocolate covered candies. Two of them exerted quite a potent effect – and mushrooms are, without question, the most important and powerful of the drugs I have tried. In a certain way they can be likened to pot. Similar to pot, mushrooms increase physical sensations – only more so. Under the influence of mushrooms I found that the slightest touch could be physically pleasurable.

Neither pot nor mushrooms produce literal hallucinations – at least not in me. (Although a friend told me that once he and his ex-wife, while high on mushrooms, both saw the Keebler elves busily scampering in and out of a tree behind their apartment.) However, pot and mushrooms produce amazing visual experiences while one’s eyes are closed. The difference between them is simply that, again, mushrooms are far more potent. With mushrooms you literally feel like you are undergoing some kind of profound, transformative experience. Just as on pot, I had plenty of ideas while on mushrooms. But on a mushroom “trip” the visuals often convey far more information.

I still have a record of my first mushroom experience, from March of 2002. I will quote a few passages of what I recorded, a number of hours after the effects had worn off:

“S. and I took the mushrooms together. Approximately 25 minutes later, I was noticing the effect. Walking out into the sunlight, I was flooded with an intense feeling of bliss. Everything seemed beautiful and fascinating. Colors were more vivid. The sunlight and air felt immensely pleasurable on my face. I felt more relaxed than I normally ever feel, and I began to smile and slow down my pace, lagging behind S. He would turn around occasionally and laugh, amused by my behavior.

“We walked up the street to the park. I looked at a tree, and suddenly identified the leaves with an ejaculation. I realized that the tree is in a perpetual state of orgasm and ejaculation. The tree is in a perpetual state of bliss – except when winter comes. I wondered what the significance of this was, and why my favorite season is winter. Is this a revolt against nature? I began to appreciate spring, and why people love it [N.B. After this experience, spring became my favorite season]. I began to feel that I needed to surrender to nature totally – that I had been resisting it. I have spent so much time talking about the Uranic and heaping scorn upon the Chthonic. I felt now the desire to lose myself in it.

“I stood on a wooden bridge looking down into a pond. Water was dripping over rocks, onto a muddy, mossy mass. S., still not quite ‘with me,’ said it was ugly. I thought it was beautiful, and wanted to smash him. I sat down on the edge of the bridge and stared at the water and rocks and mud. The sound of the water dripping was intensely sensual, almost sexual. I suddenly understand the Japanese, and why they build their gardens and ponds as they do. I felt completely relaxed and ‘focused.’ I realized that I needed to be focused in this way all the time. I needed to become calm, detached, and meditate upon simple, natural things.

“I thought about all my ‘problems,’ especially my financial ones [N.B. I was heavily in debt at the time]. It all seemed completely insignificant now. I felt an urgency in being detached, as if I had to leave these things aside. I was seized with the idea of quitting my job and just traveling around ‘working on myself,’ in Gurdjieff’s sense. The normal guilt I felt about incurring so much debt completely vanished. I now saw my creditors as the enemy, and then I saw the necessity of taking these bastards for all I could, for life is short.

“I kept thinking I wanted to lie down, but kept resisting the idea. Then I thought, why not? I lay down on the wooden bridge. It was at this point that the truly amazing part of the experience began. I had a thousand insights looking up at the branches and the sky. I thought again of nature, and of surrendering to nature. I thought about what I had written in my journal some days prior, that surrendering to nature is surrendering to death. But now I wanted to do this. I did not care if I died at that moment. I thought to myself that it was ridiculous to worry about being 34. I thought, ‘Saturday, March 16th, 2002, is the first day of my life.’

“I began to think that I needed to remember what was happening to me. But I realized I was making a mistake. I realized I should strive to experience without the use of language. I tried to stop all thought. I tried to have meaningful experiences, without thinking in words. This was very difficult. Earlier, I had told S. gruffly to ‘stop talking.’ I felt bad about this briefly, but then I realized that I could not be concerned with ‘ethics’ at the moment. My awakening was what was important. It was the first time I had ever truly understood the mystic doctrine of the necessity of going beyond ethics, ‘beyond good and evil.’

“We walked around the edge of the park. I was suddenly aware of the houses around me and felt conflicted about the people in them. They would never have experiences like mine. Yet at the same time I saw their houses as natural things, sprung up in the woods like a bird’s nest or a rabbit’s hutch. And I could hear their children crying. Weren’t they more ‘natural’ than I? Did their unthinking ‘naturalness’ make them more in touch with nature, or did it make them more removed from it? This thought disturbed me. At the same time I knew that the social world these ‘natural’ beings grew up into was one that twisted and distorted them. They were feeding this unnatural world with their ‘nature.’

“Around the time I felt the effects wearing off a bit, S. suggested we walk down the railroad tracks near my apartment (which I had never done in the eight years I had lived there). It was at this point that S. became a motor-mouth. I didn’t care. I had had my great experience. Now I was simply suffused with a feeling of boundless pleasure, energy, and goodwill. We exchanged stories about our families and experiences. I began to feel anxiety, however, about coming off of the mushrooms. I didn’t want this good feeling to end. But I told myself, ‘The times when you are not high are the majority of your life. You have to come back to normal experience, bringing with you what you’ve learned from this and figure out how to see the world as you have today, without mushrooms.’ I told this to S., who thought it made perfect sense.”

There’s more to that account, but I’ve left out some of the more personal reflections. I think it’s easy to see that what I have described is a classic mystical experience – a satori experience, certainly. There was no “delusion” involved here at all. Instead, it was an awakening. I awakened to aspects of myself and the world I had previously not appreciated sufficiently. And these realizations stayed with me, even after the mushrooms wore off. There was no way that I could continue to live my life in the same way, after this experience. And it is clear, furthermore, that the experience was not just at the level of feeling or emotion: my mind gave birth to new ideas, new connections.

I had a few more mushroom experiences after this one, each time experimenting with different forms of stimulation. (Like the time I sealed myself inside a walk-in closet with a strobe light and a stack of Ravi Shankar CDs.) I never had a “bad trip.” Certainly not one like my skinhead friend once had. He took the same mushrooms I did and then imagined that he’d cut off his penis. The worst thing that ever happened to me was just the occurrence of some profoundly self-critical thoughts. Still, I quickly realized the truth of the oft-repeated observation that drugs will get you there but they will not keep you there. My experiences had given me a glimpse of enlightenment, but they had not enlightened me. But at least I had a very clear picture of what I was aiming for – and still aim for. I had similar – but, interestingly, less intense – experiences with the LSD I acquired from the same college student.

I’ve never tried heroin. The closest I ever came was making tea out of dried poppies. I felt incredibly relaxed; entirely free of any cares and anxiety. But also completely free of any desire for sex, which just didn’t feel right at all. It was only after I got sick as a dog that I found out that the poppies you buy at the florist are often treated with a toxic substance – apparently just so as to discourage people from making tea out of them. In general, I don’t really see the attraction of opiates. I don’t want something that’s going to do nothing more than bliss me out. I want something that is going to excite me, and make me feel and think in new ways. I want profound enlightenment, not profound lethargy. Besides, heroin is extremely addictive. No one has ever become physically dependent on mushrooms or LSD. As for pot, people can be psychologically dependent upon it, but not physically addicted. Anybody who says otherwise is lying to you.

When I discovered ecstasy, I thought I’d found something even better than mushrooms. First of all, it gave me the classic satori experience. I awakened to the shear thatness of things. Their very existence became an object of wonder. Unlike pot or mushrooms, however, I didn’t want to just crawl into some hole and let images wash over me. Instead, I was suffused with energy. I wanted to get out in the world and do things, and have every possible experience. Ecstasy is sort of like a cross between mushrooms and cocaine. And the dangers of ecstasy have been grossly exaggerated. I was stunned a few years ago when ABC ran an hour long special arguing that it’s mostly safe, and even beneficial in therapeutic contexts.

Anyway, my first experience on ecstasy was simply stunning. I was in San Francisco at the time, and took the ecstasy with a friend in Delores Park. Around the time the drug was just beginning to wear off, a wild-looking black man with dreadlocks came weaving through the crowd (it was a sunny Sunday afternoon) crying “Have no fear, the Ganja Man is here!” He was selling pot cookies called “gorilla nipples,” and we bought several from him. But the Ganja Man left us with a stern warning: “If you were going through the jungle and a gorilla jumped out in front of you, your first instinct might be to bite off one of his nipples.” I had to admit that I had often thought that this is precisely what I would do if confronted by a gorilla. But the Ganja Man set me straight: “If you do that, though, you’re going to realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.” In short, don’t eat the whole cookie at once.

I’ve never been one to do anything halfway, however, so I ate the whole nipple as soon as he’d gone. Later I realized that this had clearly helped me deal with the “low” that follows ecstasy. Because the next time I did the drug it was not nearly so much fun. Shortly after the experience had peaked, the person I was with said something that was innocent enough, but negative. And it got me thinking. By the time I was done thinking a couple of hours later I had completely taken myself apart. Every flaw had been ruthlessly exposed, every past misdeed recalled in painful detail. Somehow I managed to pick up the pieces of me and make it back home. It was truly a dark afternoon of the soul, and I’ve never wanted to do ecstasy since then.

Of all the drugs I’ve described, mushrooms get my vote as the most valuable, most positive. Though I continue to use pot with some regularity. What about meth, you might ask? I’ve never done it. Like heroine, it’s powerfully addictive. And given that I tend to be attracted more to things that get me up and energize me, than to opiates and other downers, I’ve always been afraid I might like meth too much. It’s meth and heroin that fill me with doubts about “drug legalization.” My present position is that certain drugs – among them pot, LSD, and mushrooms – should be legalized. But there are others that, so far as I know, are too potentially dangerous and too powerfully addictive to ever be enjoyed simply “in moderation” and responsibly.

Of course, it’s possible for some people to ruin anything by taking it to extremes. In fact, it’s only when I think about other people doing drugs that the idea of doing drugs bothers me. Pot makes me think profound thoughts. It makes other people giggle. Mushrooms cause me to become one with the Absolute. They make other people see the Keebler elves. Ecstasy makes me realize what a miracle a daffodil is. But it just makes other people want to breakdance. To me these drugs are sacred substances, whereas to others they are profane. This really bothers me. But what should I expect? Drugs are wasted on most people, as is life itself.

Now, I’m not saying that drugs are the answer. I am not Timothy Leary. I’m not saying there’s hope in dope, kids. I’m just saying that in the right hands drugs can be tools that can lead to profound realizations. They can aid, not retard, intellectual development, and change lives for the better. But they are merely one tool in the seeker’s tool box, and they can become a trap if used improperly. Drugs are definitely not for everyone. I’ve used them with benefit, but now feel less need for them than I did before. Still, I would not be the man I am today if I had never taken them. So I’m glad I just said “yes” to drugs.