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Emma Irving: Too high a price

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Hallucinogen use is soaring, alongside scientific research on the potential benefits of these drugs. But my first (and last) trip illustrates the perils of psychedelics – especially in the lockdown-induced mental health epidemic


I knew something was badly wrong when time started to slide backwards. That’s when the madness began – slowly at first, then at the gallop. One minute I was marvelling at the pretty colours in the flowers on the kitchen table; the next invisible strings were attached to the muscles in my face and were pulling me earthwards; the same thing was happening to my usually pretty flatmate, who looked increasingly like a basset hound. 

I was initially amused – clearly the trip was working. But then time began to fold in on itself. My drug-addled brain could no longer hold the thread of chronology; I became convinced that the seconds were, in fact, going backwards.

Moments grew, and branched, and multiplied into infinity. I realised that meant that the rising panic I was feeling would never subside; it would only get worse as I got closer to the point of its inception. 

I began to shake convulsively with fear. Outside, the evening sky grew lighter, not darker. I closed my eyes and saw a swirling, dark vortex that was sucking me into it. I opened them, and the vortex was still there. The corner of the floor was sliding into it. 

I fought against this with the desperation of a dying person, which, on balance, I thought I was. But I kept plunging beneath the surface. Suddenly I knew, with terrifying certainty, that I was dead, that I had always been dead. The self that I once was, and called “me” – this self, two and a half decades in the making – dissolved into air. Then I lost any shred of rationality at all.

It is safe to say that my first and last foray into the world of hallucinogenic drugs did not go as planned. Earlier that Saturday afternoon, I had eaten a couple of squares of chocolate laced with psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, which looked and tasted harmless enough. 

Like many locked down Londoners, my flatmate and I were avidly searching for something to liven up our weekend (and were perhaps not alone in this general impulse: in the first nine weeks of lockdown, 25,297 drug offences were reported, up by a third on those reported in the same period the previous year). 

Of the drugs from which to choose, magic mushrooms seemed the least likely to go wrong. We had heard tales of the beautiful lights, mellow vibes, and wild laughter that would accompany a trip. Our most sensible friends had dabbled in them; one had even gone on a magic mushroom retreat. Gwyneth Paltrow talked about them on her Netflix show. The high looked lovely in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

For my flatmate, the trip would be all that had been promised. For me, the hallucinogens would induce a terror and delusion that showed how thin the line between reality and madness really is.

Yet when I googled aspects of my experience the next day, I discovered that thousands of LSD-lovers across the world are actively seeking out this very nightmare, convinced it’s the ultimate trip. 

It seemed I had come close to what is termed “ego death”: after an initially terrifying sensation of dying, one’s entire sense of self is eroded (I reached this point) before one is theoretically left with nothing but an enlightened sense that the universe is connected (but not this one). 

On message-boards like Reddit’s r/Psychonaut, a lively hub of 374,000 subscribers, posts about this supposed journey are commonplace. “Ego death is the ultimate goal of life,” reads one. “I was not in any way prepared for what was going to happen and what everyone has said about ego death is barely explaining it. It was probably the worst experience in my life but also possibly one of the best,” says another. 

Many claim that the experience leaves them feeling “like [they] finally understood the purpose of life.” It is true that, in some scientific research, this sense of transcendence has been found, in certain cases, to ease depression and anxiety in the terminally ill. 

But for casual users, heightened anxiety and psychedelic-induced PTSD are common side effects – along with a manic sense of depersonalisation that one may never escape. Many psychonauts are being driven towards something akin to temporary psychosis – in some part, it would seem, by the promise of spiritual enlightenment.

In any case: psychedelic therapy, whether for the treatment of psychological problems or as a DIY search for spiritual growth, is undergoing something of a renaissance. This is happening both underground, where the community of experimenters grows by the day, and above ground, at institutions like Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University, where a series of drug trials have yielded promising results for treatments of addiction, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

I say “renaissance” because much of the academic work echoes the spirit of the 1950s and ‘60s, when psychedelic drugs were closely studied and regarded as potentially transformative by the science community. According to Michael Pollan, author of the New York Times bestseller, How To Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, in the years between 1953 and 1973, the US government spent $4 million funding 116 separate studies of LSD, involving 1,700 subjects. 

But from around 1965, the dark side of psychedelic culture started to generate adverse publicity – bad trips, psychotic breaks, people hurling themselves out of windows. The initial mood of excited optimism gave way to moral panic. 

By the end of the decade, psychedelic drugs, which had been legal in most places, were outlawed and driven underground. In the 1990s, a new generation of scientists revived interest in psychedelics’ potential to heal mental illness. Today, it is big business. Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, which was the first of its kind when founded in April 2019, is supported by around £3 million in donations. 

A few months later, Johns Hopkins University announced a supersized version, with $17 million of funding. These programmes have already yielded intriguing results: in London, the team spearheaded work to show psilocybin can be used to assist psychotherapy for difficult-to-treat depression, to great effect; in Maryland, a study of 51 terminally ill cancer patients appeared to suggest that a single, large dose of psilocybin reduced anxiety and depression in most participants. 

In February, a clinic in Alberta began offering drug therapy to treat depression, anxiety, and PTSD. In small pockets of Europe, as well as Central and South America, you can go on plant-based psychedelic retreats which sound similar to their yoga equivalents: you eat vegan food, do “breath work” – and then pop some psilocybin.

Alongside this clinical work, use of hallucinogens is demonstrably increasing. In the 2020 Global Drug Survey – a huge annual report that tracks international drug-taking habits across 30 countries around the world – eight of the 20 drugs used most commonly were psychedelic and dissociative drugs. 

In their separate Psychedelics Report, which surveyed 26,000 people, the percentage of respondents who had used magic mushrooms increased from 8.6 per cent to 16.1 per cent between 2015 and 2020. Over the same five years, LSD use shot up from 8.5 per cent to 21 per cent. 

Drug use in general among middle-school and high-school pupils has fallen across the board. Yet, LSD use is on the rise – and the fear of the risks of the drug has fallen – among 13- to 17-year-olds. 

To add to the mix: in the 2010s, Silicon Valley became home to the new trend of “micro-dosing” LSD and mushrooms: consuming very low, non-hallucinogenic doses to improve mood and focus. At present, one in ten UK adults is currently micro-dosing, a 43 per cent rise since the start of the pandemic. Professor Adam Winstock, founder and author of the Global Drug Reports, is in no doubt: “We’re moving into a decade with a much stronger interest in psychedelics.”

Hallucinogens seem set to be as much a feature of our own era as cannabis was in the 1960s, cocaine in the late 1970s and 1980s, and ecstasy in the 1990s. Among the reasons for this (unexpectedly) is modern working patterns: one quarter of Brits now say they have a side hustle – secondary employment – which makes the prospect of a sweaty cocaine comedown that stretches into the working week seem all the more unattractive. 

By reputation, hallucinogens can wreck a lifetime, let alone a day at the office (a reputation not totally undeserved). But this is not the experience of most of today’s users who, anecdotally at least, take a more strategic approach than their predecessors, planning when and how much to consume so as not to wreck their careers. 

One magic mushroom consumer tells me a hallucinogen comedown is like an “afterglow” that makes him feel “euphoric” and “connected”. All this meshes, of course, with the contemporary cultural obsession with “wellness” and “returning to the natural”. The quest for spiritual enlightenment through magic mushrooms – which can be grown in one’s bedroom – can easily seem to be the next logical step after yoga, pot plants and seaweed wraps.

Increasingly, hallucinogens are also being turned to not for recreational purposes but as self-medication – markedly so during the current mental health epidemic precipitated by the pandemic. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, the rate of depression has doubled since pre-pandemic levels to the point that it is afflicting one in five adults, with the young being one of the highest risk groups. According to the Prince’s Trust happiness and confidence survey, which produced its worst findings in history at the start of this year, one in four young people in the UK has felt “unable to cope” since the pandemic began. 

For many, hallucinogens are a more attractive proposition than Prozac or Venlafaxine from their GP: over half of LSD users say they do so to enhance wellbeing, while a further third do so in an attempt to deal with a specific emotional problem. More than one in seven reported use to address a psychiatric condition. 

“It’s definitely some sort of escape,” says Peter, a 24-year-old photographer with a gentle, halting voice who has taken mushrooms around eight times. “If I were to take a big dose, it would definitely be to forget about the current situation, being cooped up all the time. It’s a cheap vacation, a trip without having to pack any bags.” 

Like the present pandemic, a psychedelic drug experience can be transformative, of the individual and of society. Both illuminate the extent to which the condition of the world we inhabit is dependent on how we feel, think and perceive. The insights associated with hallucinogenic enlightenment – the self as illusory, impermanence as fundamental, suffering as inevitable – can seem particularly timely in the midst of a pandemic that teaches the same essential lessons.

When I describe my experience, Peter and many others are keen to assure me that next time will be better. “You just weren’t in the right environment,” says Kamala, a 31-year-old artist who grows mushrooms in her bedroom. “You’re clearly just very sensitive to the dosage. Try it next time with a guide and you won’t have any problems.” 

It’s hard to imagine someone suggesting such a roll of the mental dice with an ecstasy pill or crack. And, to be fair, different drugs present different dangers: less than 1 per cent of users have sought emergency medical treatment as a result of taking hallucinogens. Compare and contrast the familiar image of A&E waiting rooms full of the casualties of alcohol abuse.

That said, it is important to emphasise that hallucinogens can still have serious repercussions for mental health. The Psychedelics Report is quick to point out that “taking any drug at a time of emotional crisis tends to exacerbate rather than settle the problem”. 

Persistent psychosis – a series of continuing mental problems including visual disturbances, disorganised thinking, paranoia and mood changes – is one possible long- term effect. Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) is another: in plain language, chronic flashbacks that can strike more than a year after the drugs are taken. Both conditions can occur after a single trip and are more prevalent in those with pre-existing mental health issues. This makes their unregulated self-treatment for psychiatric conditions all the more worrying.

Those who have reached the edge of desperation are, by definition, among the most vulnerable in society, and hallucinogens may seem to offer an “instant cure” or shortcut to addressing the root of their problems. “It’s a completely internal experience that allows you to face trauma head on. Mending your soul, mending your mind,” says Peter. 

A seductive promise for anyone struggling, who already doubts their grip on sanity. But those most at risk of a bad trip are precisely those who may be most attracted to push their bodies and minds to the limit. Psychedelics seldom affect people the same way twice – precisely because they tend to magnify whatever is already going on both inside and outside of one’s head at the moment of consumption.

It is easy to dismiss bad trips as a kind of temporary mania that will soon be forgotten, even laughed off. But although a chemical launched the journey, it is also true that everything I experienced, I experienced as if it were real: these are events that took place in my mind, psychological facts that were neither weightless nor ephemeral. 

Sometimes they rise unbidden, and I am swept back for a moment into the horrors of that night: my vision tilts, my heart pounds, my hands grow cool. The traces these experiences inscribed on my mind remain indelible and accessible, as real – if not more real – to me as any other.

There is no doubt that under certain, carefully-administered conditions hallucinogens may prove to yield impressive results – such as those achieved at the labs of Imperial College, where test subjects are screened, carefully prepared and monitored, accompanied by expert guides, then offered therapy. But for those of us who have chosen to explore these drugs recreationally, without a forensic eye or sceptical mind, the consequences are wildly unpredictable.

Yes, hallucinogens might help you tune in, but they could also force you to drop out. I am yet to discover whether the terror of that night will dissipate over time; I hope that I may one day come to feel – for whatever reason – the serenity and enlightenment that many people seem to experience. But until that point, I will be sticking to banana bread and Netflix, safe in the knowledge that not all trips are worth embarking upon.