Though I began researching Acid Test, a book about the revival of research into the use of psychedelic drugs for healing, in 2007, my interest in the subject really began 30 years earlier, when I was a college student at the University of Florida. The UF campus is surrounded by a rural landscape, including thousands of acres of palmetto and pine-studded pasturage used to raise cattle. My friends and I had learned to slip gingerly through barbed wire fencing and, keeping an eye out for shotgun-wielding ranchers, hunt for recently deposited piles of cow dung, from which sometimes sprouted the creamy, brown-tipped caps of psilocybin mushrooms. We plucked the mushrooms with rising excitement, as if we were pulling nuggets of pure gold from a mountain stream instead of fungi from cow shit. We knew the power contained within. Steep them in a pot with tea and drink, and before long we would see the world, and ourselves, from a novel vantage point. It was like being able, for a few precious hours, to climb above your life and view it from on high, a perspective every bit as revealing as seeing a too-familiar landscape from the top of a mountain. Instead of individual corn stalks or oak trees or buildings, you saw checkerboard patterns of fields, serpentine forests following the course of a river, villages arrayed around ascending spires of churches. You saw, for once, how it all fit together.
One experience stands out in my memory, because it is something that I have carried with me every day since. As the tea took effect, instead of feeling the usual lift, I grew increasingly entangled by anxiety. I began to obsess about an ethical problem I was struggling with, which generalized to feelings of inadequacy in life overall and my inability to find solutions.
The more I struggled against these feelings, the weightier and more intractable they seemed. I felt the weight as a physical reality, a huge boulder that pressed against my chest, making it nearly impossible to breathe. As I suffered under the almost unbearable load, I flashed on a vision of myself in which something became almost comically clear. The only reason why the boulder was pressing on me was because I was holding it. It was my choice to keep that weight close, in fact, I was straining to do so. Part of me was choosing to be anxious — as a way to avoid making decisions, or evade responsibility for them. To be free of that awful weight, all I had to do was open my arms, which I did. The stone, and the weight, dropped away.
Ever since, though it has rarely been easy, I’ve been able to see negative emotions as a choice, and the will to let them go as something I could develop, like a muscle. The more I practiced, the better I became, and I no longer needed the mushrooms to do it.
There wasn’t a moment I decided to stop doing psychedelic drugs. When I left the college environment they became less available, and I gained more responsibilities — a job, a family, a professional reputation — all of which made any illegal activity, and the potential health risks, unacceptable. But I never lost my interest in those psychedelic experiences, or forgot their profundity, and the lasting good they did me.
As my work on Acid Test progressed, I wondered, after nearly 40 years, after going youth to deep middle-age, how would I perceive a psychedelic experience now.
The more I wondered about it, the more I read about the work that’s being done using psychedelics in clinical studies and the scientific investigation of their potential to provoke life-changing mystical experience, the more I admitted that I needed to find out.
With a good deal of trepidation — possession of psychedelics is still a felony — I managed to obtain a plastic bag of dried psilocybin cubensis mushrooms, stiff, sticklike things instead of the soft, fleshy specimens of my memory.
From my research, I knew that the physiological danger of ingesting mushrooms was minimal. I did not have high blood pressure or heart disease — two potential risk factors. Also, my lack of any history of mental illness and my past experience with psychedelic drugs limited the psychological risks.
I had another advantage over my youthful experiences: I had never known what dosage the mushrooms we boiled up represented, or even what dosage was desirable. Now I knew that Roland Griffiths, a lead psilocybin researcher at Johns Hopkins, had found that a dose of 20mg per 70kg of body weight was the “sweet spot,” tending to bring subjects in his experimental sessions most of the positive experiences and all but eliminating the negative fear/anxiety responses higher doses sometimes triggered. In further research I discovered that each gram of dried P. cubensis equaled approximately 6 milligrams of psilocybin (though some sources said it varied greatly from batch to batch), which meant the 3.5 grams of the dried stuff I possessed — about 21 milligrams — hit that “sweet spot” almost exactly.
Now it was merely a matter of when — and how — to do it.
In my experience decades ago, I had never planned to do a psychedelic drug alone — though I had inadvertently ended up being alone while tripping once or twice. But I had a strong sense that another person’s presence would only distract me from the deeper experience I was hoping for. So with some small twinges of anxiety, I decided to go solo. At first I thought maybe I should wait until my wife, Lisa, was out of town. Then I considered the long, solitary days I often spent working at home while she was at her office. Knowing that the effects of psilocybin would wind down after just four hours, and pretty much vanish in six, I was able to calculate with confidence that if I ate the mushrooms immediately after Lisa left in the morning, I’d be past all but possibly the post-trip afterbuzz and perhaps a headache by the time she returned home ten hours later. When Lisa told me that on an upcoming Wednesday she’d be staying slightly late to go to post-work drinks, and Weather.com was predicting a partly sunny day with a high of just around 80 degrees and low humidity (it had been hot and sticky up to that point), I decided that was the day.
In the morning, I had coffee but didn’t eat anything, keeping my stomach as empty as possible for the mushrooms to exert maximum effect. Lisa left at about 7:30. I straightened up the kitchen, then got out the wood cutting board and a sharp knife. I retrieved the baggy of dried mushrooms from my sock drawer and began to chop the dozen or so ‘shrooms into pieces. The shriveled mushrooms — particularly the stems — were tough to chop and very unappetizing in appearance. But after about ten minutes I had a board full of finely minced shards. I poured a half bowl of granola, sprinkled in the shards, and topped it with plain yogurt. It tasted pretty much like a bowl of cereal, with only a tiny aftertaste that may have been more faint scent then actual taste. But it went down fairly easy if I tried not to think about what I was eating. I looked at the digital clock, which read 8:09 am. I put the bowl in the washer and went out back to water the garden.
As I held the hose on the hydrangeas, my thoughts raced pleasantly, due, I was pretty sure, more to anticipation than any drug effect. It was only when I began to skim the leaves out of the pool that I began to feel it. It’s hard to describe what “it” was exactly. My visual sense perked up. The light took on a more bristly, electric quality. The water and leaves swirling in the wake of the skimmer basket began to form patterns, which seemed to have some unnamable significance. My mind wandered and the task I was performing began to recede — though I wanted to stick with it as long as possible. I hurried as I felt the onward rush and managed to finish just about the moment when I no longer could summon the focus or interest to continue.
I put the skimmer away and thought I was now ready to let the ‘shrooms take me wherever they would. Still, though, there was something I wanted to do before I got too distracted. I climbed the porch steps and walked into the house. In the enclosed space, the room began to swirl around me. By “swirling” I don’t mean the kind of dizzy spinning, as when drunk. I wasn’t dizzy, just awash in the sense that everything — furniture, walls, paintings and decorations — all had a nearly animate presence, as if breathing or simply exuding energy. It took an effort of focus to walk straight and stay on task: I fished my iPod out of the drawer, put in the ear buds. The illuminated words on the iPod’s tiny screen throbbed and the multi-step process of programming took a force of will to complete. I wanted to hear some new songs from Regina Spektor, an artist I’d been drawn to recently, but barely managed to press the right prompts: Music-Artists-Spektor-Play All.
I hit play and went upstairs to my room, where I kept my computer. I debated whether I should look at my email messages. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to glance. The larger screen almost stopped me cold. Its vivid colors began to mix and swirl, far more interesting to me than the content of the text, which I read with great detachment and a dawning sense that I was no longer a part of the same world they came from.
Now I was beginning to feel physically overwhelmed. “It” came in great waves. The bed, made as always with a white quilt spread over three levels of pillows, beckoned. I lay down and sank deeply. It was such a relief to let go and not have to struggle against the currents that were roiling over me. The comfort was stunning, and not just physical. I felt a powerful security and refuge in this spot, my normal position in the bed in the bedroom of my home overlooking a quiet residential street. I closed my eyes savoring the peace as the music took over.
In interviews Regina Spektor always says she doesn’t write confessional songs, that lyrics about crazy things just pop in her head, having nothing to do with her or her personal feelings. But as I listened to a song called “Fidelity,” it seemed obvious in her voice that at least in this case, that wasn’t true. This was as confessional as it was possible to be. I didn’t consider it speculation. I could hear how private and close to her core those lyrics were. She wasn’t acting or emoting for the microphone. This was real, and painful. The emotion in her voice was overpowering as she sang the chorus:
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind all these words
I hear in my mind all this music
And it breaks my heart
I felt I understood her perfectly. I felt she understood me perfectly. As the chorus came around again her voice soared up the register of feeling and shot out the top. It surprised me much later, when I looked up the lyrics, that she was singing about “voices, words and music,” because what I was hearing so clearly was: I see in my mind, all this beauty, and it breaks my heart. I felt a deep communion with her; felt so keenly what had been haunting me most of my life — this overpowering connection to the beauty I saw and experienced all around me and the devastating knowledge that all of it was fleeting, ephemeral, impossible to hold on to. My hand brushed my cheek. To my surprise, it was wet.
From this point on, all of this recounting is horribly flawed and incomplete. So much of the experience defies description; nothing was linear or just one thing. Everything happened on multiple tracks, splintering kaleidoscopically in a way that can’t be rendered accurately into narrative. But I do remember losing myself in the softness of the bed and the bittersweet sound of the music, feeling an intense bond with the singer, eyes sometimes closing, sometimes opening, images strobing, Regina’s voice pouring into my brain and squeezing my heart. I was being swept away with sensation, images and half-formed thoughts ricocheting in my mind. At one point I looked down at my bare feet. They were no longer the feet I was so familiar with. The toenails appeared thicker and yellowed, an old man’s feet. I had a vision of my body aging around me, melting around the self that has been so unchanging from when I was a child and a teenager and a young man. This vision wasn’t horrifying or even particularly upsetting to me. I didn’t enjoy it, but there was no denying it was simply the way things were, or would be.
I felt I could stay collapsed in that bed and let the experience continue to roll over me like waves across a beach, but that suddenly seemed too limited. With resolution I stood up, and my scattered self seemed to reassemble within the limits of my body. Walking down the stairs felt oddly mechanical, but I plodded forward to the back door and opened it.
As I stepped beyond the threshold, I entered another world—like Dorothy walking into Oz. A slight breeze swirled the leaves and branches and blossoms of the garden, brushing the skin on my arms. Soft air and clear light caressed my face. Just then, the music stopped. It took me a moment to realize that the music in my head was actually in my iPod and the iPod must have run out of power. I took out the ear buds and a far more fantastic music flooded in, leaves rustling, birds chirping, insects buzzing, the distant shoosh of tires on the road invisible behind the trees. I sat at the wrought-iron table and put my feet up. The crystalline light astonished me. The air, neither hot nor cold, was invigoratingly dry. I felt energy radiating from my body into the air, mingling with the radiations emanating from all the life surrounding me. I scanned the back yard. The ornamental grasses had begun to shoot out golden tufts; the crepe myrtle, hydrangea, stone crop, petunias and geraniums all had covered themselves in blossoms. Figs grew large and heavy on the fig tree, which exploded tropically in one corner of the yard, and fat red tomatoes swelled on the still leafing vines in another. Tendrils of Virginia creeper and wild grape dripped from the pines across the back fence, persimmons hung from the persimmon tree like Christmas ornaments. I had seen all this the previous morning, and many other mornings before that. But now I had stepped into a page from an illuminated fairy tale. Just as that thought entered my mind, three large yellow butterflies appeared, flitting in spirals around me. I laughed aloud: I was in Oz after all.
And just as suddenly, the witch appeared, in the form of a dead pine tree that seemed to leap into the scene, leaning in from a neighbor’s yard. I didn’t normally notice this tree, as it blended in behind all the other leafed out trees that formed a wall of green at the back of the yard. But now its black, rotting limbs vibrated with a sinister presence. The significance of this as a memento mori was immediately apparent to me—death had reared its head in the garden. I knew this was not only a symbol, but a real threat, as a pine had a year earlier crashed across our fence and caused significant damage. I looked around, newly alert for any other discordant notes, and sure enough, I noticed that among all the glitter and flutter of the tree canopy, the leaves of a huge old tulip poplar had a shriveled look, as if something was sucking the life from them. I wanted to think it was just the impending fall, tired leaves getting ready to brown and descend. Or maybe it was a mild hallucination. But I sensed I was seeing something real. This was a sick tree, an even more serious threat, towering 100 feet above my yard. I climbed down the porch steps a little unsteadily into the yard. The tree rose in the far corner beyond a small brick patio where I’d put a wrought iron porch swing. Stacked in front of the swing were split logs from a chunk of the tree which had been struck by lightning and fallen in early summer, crushing a section of fence. I looked up the twisting trunks of the tulip tree, which threaded dizzyingly among those of the persimmon, a maple and a wild cherry. The trees seemed to twine around each other like a giant caduceus. I couldn’t separate one from the other, and the harder I tried, the more they began to snake and swirl. I brushed some dead leaves off the seat of the swing, which is rarely used, and turned around to sit. Then I looked up and…everything changed.
This was still my backyard, but it was something else entirely. Time cracked wide open and the present moment expanded endlessly like a series of trap doors. I looked up at the sky, somehow seeing the multi-layered reality. I saw that in normal life we lived as if moments were beads rolling by on a string, but that in fact, the awful sense of time fleeing was an illusion. Each moment had its own unfolding expanse. It was obvious, I could see it: a timeless space extending in all directions in a way I knew even then I would never be able to put into words. I was astonished and amused to think of humans tunneling through this infinite reality with our heads down, eyes locked straight ahead, completely blind to the truth. And though this was completely novel to me, I had an odd sensation that it was also familiar, as if I’d been here before.
As I’ve said, the act of writing this is creating a false sense of conventional sequence. In the event, it all mixed together. I can’t say which happened “first,” my sense of time splitting open, or a sudden awareness that the split logs, lined up at my feet, glowed from within. My son had left for school abroad just the previous morning. The fact that he’d come out without a word and chopped and stacked them on the eve of his departure now struck me as an overwhelming expression of love. His whole life appeared to me in an instant, the blue-eyed infant, the tow-headed little boy, the sensitive teenager, and now this soulful and gentle young man. I touched the logs and felt an almost painful surge of affection. It welled up and burst out in a rush and I heard myself exclaiming his name. I hadn’t meant to speak aloud, but it came out. I looked around. The boughs and bushes and flowers swayed and swirled in the breeze.
I noticed that the pool, though rippling liquidly in the sun, had pine needles scattered on the bottom, and the cracks between the cement blocks of the patio sprouted a lacy green weed. Garden tools and a broken-down wheelbarrow were scattered near a wall by the vegetable plot. Self-planted wildflowers overgrew some geranium pots at the base of the fence. But all these imperfections, even the dead and dying trees, had a beauty of their own. Everywhere I looked, the sometimes haphazard way I planted or maintained the yard seemed to work only to add to an overall perfection. Nothing seemed damaged or out of place or less than ebulliently and fulsomely alive, dancing in the cool breeze and sparkling sunshine, an absolute Eden.
The angle of view from the swing gave me an unusual perspective on my home—as if I was seeing it from some unaccustomed middle distance. As I watched, I felt myself flooding with love for my family. Images of them came to me one by one, not just images, but entire perceptions of the nature and features of our individual relationships and flashes of insight into how each of them saw me, as if I could look from their eyes. At the same time I was aware that this footprint of land, the house and garden, the imperfections and the beauty, were all the manifestations of this love I felt, that this little created space, this patch of time and earth, was the physical manifestation of my life, our lives together, and the love and labor we all shared. I saw it not only as it was, but as it had been over the years, and all that had gone into it, the panorama of often tedious and taxing effort we had put into creating and maintaining this little acre. I was looking now not just at my home, but the truest self-portrait.
It struck me that, consciously and unconsciously, I had been preparing for exactly this moment for weeks, months or even years. It was no accident I had planted and weeded and mowed all that grass, clipped all those hedges just days earlier. It was no accident that the morning was as fresh and clear as a mountain spring or that I had caught the garden at its golden end-of-August peak; or that the dogwood was gently nodding in the breeze and the ivy curling up the trunk of the cherry tree. I had planned it all, on some level of consciousness of which I hadn’t been aware, to reach this very moment. I stood up and stepped out of the shade into the light.
I can’t think of any other way to put this but to say the sky opened, and grace poured down all around me. Light itself had transformed into a palpable substance, spilling down as if from a fountain. But it was more than light. It was blessings of every kind, goodness incarnate, flowing inexhaustible and immutable from above. I didn’t say to myself, “What is this?” I didn’t guess. I knew, I saw, I was in the presence of God. This wasn’t a God with whom I could have a conversation, at least not two-way. I think I said, or shouted, “Ok, I am DEFINITELY not an atheist,” but God was mute, or rather, I understood, or perceived, that the only response God would ever make was the boundless bounty of beauty cascading over me. After the shock and awe, my first thought was that this gift absurdly overmatched anything I could possibly have deserved. I thought, and said aloud, “Why me?” Instantly, that seemed too pleased with myself. I could just look at this phenomenon that confronted me, this Niagara Falls of beauty pouring down, and know that I hadn’t been “chosen.” I was no one special. This was just what God was, a permanent condition that somehow had remained invisible to me until this moment.
As I stood there, my arms out, caught in the most miraculous sun shower, all the ways I’d been fortunate when I could have been unfortunate, all the times I had felt spared from disaster, or led to a good outcome, spooled through my mind’s eye. “Why me?” I said again. I saw myself as others might, raving in a psychedelic trance, pacing alone in my backyard talking to an invisible God, just like a street-corner psychotic, amused and awed by the thought.
Once again, a coterie of butterflies flitted around me. It was all too gorgeous to bear, and I felt tears streaking down my face. “Tears of joy” I thought, and then I felt the pain in the joy, the unbearable beauty of the world, and fell to my knees. I wondered if this was what mystics and prophets through the ages had seen, and if Jesus’ real suffering came not from torture or the burden of the world’s sin, but his realization of the untenable infinitude of this unstoppable grace.
I found my way to a reclining chair on the porch under a green umbrella. I’d searched for years for the perfect reclining chair, and just happened on this the previous spring — a perfect fit for my head and back that tilted to a balance point which felt like floating. Again, it struck me that it was no accident that this chair was here at this most astonishing time. I lay back and felt my body dissolving into the surroundings. My eyes felt heavy, and at times I couldn’t tell whether they were open or closed. I made an effort to look up to the porch, where I was surprised and comforted to see my yellow lab-hound mix lying with her chin on her paws, a touchstone of my ordinary reality fifty feet and a million miles distant.
I kept going away, disappearing into this indescribable timeless enormity, and then what seemed like days later looking back to the porch and seeing her still there. I felt my breath come slowly, a long exhale, then a moment of void, a moment that seemed like it could stretch on forever, followed by a deep sob of intake. I wondered if this was what dying would be like. “No way I can ever describe this,” I said aloud. I think I yelled it. I had never expected anything like this. I was gob smacked, overmatched, awed into a throbbing puddle of being, who for some reason had been made privy to…all this. Again I thought, “Why me?”
“Who am I?” I asked God . “Who the fuck am I?”
The waves of light just kept coming.
It’s odd that I can’t remember when that sense of being inundated by a sacred presence ended. I know that at some point, I had the realization that it was gone, and that the ineffable sense of knowing was gone too. I understood that even then, still undeniably feeling the effects of the psilocybin in my brain and body, some of my experience was irretrievably past. I could only “remember” a two dimensional version of what had been a four-dimensional experience — which is what I have recounted here.
Maybe the turning point came when I was shocked by the first unambiguously negative feeling of the day: Here I was having such an astonishing and significant experience, and I hadn’t even told my wife what I’d intended. In fact, I more or less hid my plans from her by omission — out of fear that she’d worry, or object. Now a thought hit me with sickening force in the gut: I’d betrayed her. Here she was going off to work at a job that at times oppressed her, staying long hours, while I was lolling around in our backyard doing drugs! I had a vision of her working so hard and humbly, giving so much of herself to our family, so unselfishly and so lovingly. I say it was a vision because it wasn’t a verbalized thought, but an image that embodied all of those qualities which I experienced as revealed truth.
I knew I would tell her what I’d done and seen, as soon as she got home, and apologize for not telling her of my intentions. I was so lucky to have the freedom that I enjoyed, and now I knew that I wanted to use that freedom to give my wife something. It came to mind instantly: Just that morning she was saying how much it bothered her that we had let our housekeeping slide recently, and that she didn’t have the time or energy to do anything about it before our daughter came over the coming weekend. Well I had the time. And I was determined to muster the energy. I’d seen God. Now it was time to clean the house.
I looked at the clock: It was 12:39, just four and a half hours since I had eaten the mushroom shards, though it seemed a timeless eternity. I figured I had six hours before she came home. I felt driven to get it all done before then.
I began by fetching the laundry from the dryer and trying to fold it, but I kept getting distracted. The towels were so plush and beautiful! I’d never really noticed them before, but now I saw in them all the time and effort my wife had spent to find just the right towels, and just the right furniture, and just the right décor — filling our lives with comfort and beauty to a degree that would be almost totally absent if it had been left to me. As this revelation reverberated, I realized I was sitting down, stroking the soft fabric of the towel, and not actually doing any cleaning. I forced myself forward, which took great concentration at first, but soon I was just cleaning, going through the whole routine I’d learned from helping her. I wasn’t hungry, but I was noticing the start of a headache, so I tentatively nibbled some fruit, then ate some more. I drank some water, then decided to try a beer, hoping to take the edge off the physical tension that was beginning to manifest now. The cold hops tasted ok, but did little to diminish the tension.
By the time Lisa arrived home, the house was clean, and I was almost completely in a normal state of mind. I told her what had transpired. She raised an eyebrow, but wasn’t upset. We went out to dinner and sat at an outside table, talking until it got dark.
The next day I marveled that despite the dramatic nature of my trip, nothing had really changed. I knew I would never forget what I had experienced, and that it would always be a source of inspiration I could draw on, reminding me that the world was filled with inexpressible beauty and goodness. But it was largely consistent with the beliefs I already held — admittedly, beliefs which were in part shaped by the psychedelic experiences I’d had as a young man.
Of course, I hadn’t expected to “see the light” so literally, or to be shaken to the core of my self, but there were no new set of beliefs or goals that emerged. I knew I had room to wonder if what I saw was nothing more than a drug-magnified version of the appreciation I’ve always had for the natural wonder of the world, combined with a chemical riot in the receptors of my brain.
On the other hand, the universe inarguably does shower us with all we need to live in a spectacular existence, and physicists insist that time clearly does expand in all “directions”, with no one “present” point that is in any way more real than any other point in the “past” or “future.” So what I saw that morning is arguably more in keeping with the best, most current cosmological understanding than what we think of as a “normal” way of looking at things.
Nonetheless, I was still just myself, pretty much as I had been…Except, as the days passed, and for quite some time, I felt an out-of-ordinary calmness and centeredness. I found it was easier to “be in the moment” consistently. Neither anxieties about the future nor regrets of the past jostled me into that jumbled state I’d so often fallen prey to.
So after thinking about it, I would have to say that if I had indeed arrived someplace that afternoon, it was a place I could only describe as “here, and now.”
I could only hope it would stick.
Tom Shroder is an award-winning journalist and author of the new book Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal. He is the former editor of Washington Post Magazine.