the bell, the black hole

The fire and the rose, as it were, became one. - Federico Fellini


Twenty minutes into my first acid trip, I realized that the heavily stylized filmic interpretations of LSD experiences I'd been watching all my life were not the exaggerations I'd always assumed them to be. They were in fact faithful representations. Walls really did drip. Edges really did bleed. Color and shape really did squeeze one another until it felt like my brain was folding in on itself, my consciousness slipping and sliding endlessly, with nothing firm or real enough to hold onto.

Terence (who by now had also come back inside) tells me that for several minutes, in the beginning, he watched my face transform with wonder as I stared, mouth agape, at various objects around the house shifting and morphing. Paintings, lamps, chairs. And I remember this. I remember smiling, squinting in curiosity, laughing. And in those moments when it got too intense, I verbally reminded myself that I wasn't new to hallucinations. "It's a good thing I've taken shrooms before," I said loudly, like a bragging child. "Because this is know?" He knew.

LSD plays with time, expanding or compressing it as, I guess, one's brain sees fit. There was a moment early on when Terence was right beside me and then snap! he was on the other side of the house, seemingly instantly. On the other hand, the two to three hours of "bad" tripping I did was interminable. But whether I was in a state of stability, sublimity, or hell, time divided itself up into what I'd later refer to as "segments". I recollect what I experienced sensorily, emotionally, and psychologically in these chunks of time. I suppose they are how my brain decided to make sense of what it went through. A library of tiny little multi-dimensional videos, filed neatly away in my mind. Fucking amazing, really.

One of the first segments felt like a conspiracy between color and geometry. Every surface burst into hexagons, or maybe heptagons? I remember thinking of chicken wire. And I do mean every surface, including skin - my own and Terence's. And no sooner had I noticed the pattern on our bodies than it was scales. Reptilian. A little weird, but nothing I couldn't handle. The scales began to lift and develop dimensionality. You know how it looks when you add a drop shadow to an object, in graphic design? That's what it was like. Only the shadow peeking out from underneath was both color and light. (One note I wrote soon afterward reads "it was like someone was using the pucker and bloat tools right behind my eyes".)

And then this segment - which was like an orientation to LSD's visual aspects - chopped itself up into smaller pieces of time, so there'd be minutes at a stretch where every surface was outlined in lime green and hot pink heptagons. Then electric blue and lavender ones.

Then suddenly the color/pattern visuals evaporated and everything went fuzzy and staticky, as if I'd been sucked into a television set left on after programming ended. Silvery-grey, glinting, snowy. I remember seeing Terence just a few feet away from me, made of the stuff. It was beautiful and so strange, and I marveled at the moment. I marveled at all of it. It really is like this. It really is the rabbit hole. I had no idea. No idea at all.

But for all the beauty, it was also incredibly overwhelming. Every second was more disorienting than the last. The air was thick, heavy, vibrating. I'd compare it to being underwater with your eyes open, just below the surface. Waves blurring the view when you look up at the sunny sky. Now imagine you can't get back above the water. You can breathe somehow, that's not the issue. But everything you know as normal and real - the world you want to get back to - is out of reach. And in fact you're sinking deeper, and you know you're going to stay under for a very long time. Can you handle it? Or will you freak out?

I freaked out.

No amount of telling myself that I was prepared for this helped. I was in over my head and I was scared. Deep down I knew I had a long night ahead of me, but I didn't want to face that. So instead I tried to speed things up. I chugged water, trying to flush the drug through my system. (It only refreshed the sour taste of it on my tongue, which, probably psychosomatically, then just refreshed the intensity of the experience.) I asked Terence over and over: "How long, do you think? How long will it last?" And I threw up. A lot. Gotta hand it to my body. The acid hadn't gone through my digestive system - it wasn't sitting in my stomach, it was coursing through my veins. But on some level my body knew to try and reject what I'd given it, in the only way it could.

Poor Terence. He had no idea what was happening with me. He says he realized pretty quickly that I was in a bad way. Indeed, I sensed his anxiety, despite the reassuring tone he adopted, and it made things exponentially worse for me. I grew panicky. What the fuck were we doing? We were in the middle of the desert, hours from anyone we knew. This is bad, I thought. This is really...this is bad.

It was about this time that I started singing my LSD song.

I call it a song now, because later I came to see it as such. As something funny and sort of poetically, tragically beautiful. But really, it was just a series of questions and statements. Questions and statements that I said over and over and over again, because I was lost and frightened and desperately trying to find a thread of reality to cling to. Because truly, I thought I'd lost my mind.

Well, that's not exactly right. I thought I'd broken my mind. Overdosed. Unhinged it, with toxic chemicals. Damaged it beyond repair. Do you know what it's like to be utterly and completely convinced that you're going to be committed to an insane asylum? I do, now.

Fucking. Terrifying. Beyond words terrifying. Mad. I've gone mad. That's it. It's over. Everything I had, everything I knew. Gone. I could see it already. Straightjacket. Wheelchair. Padded room. Oh, it's so sad about Ellie. She was so smart, so talented. Just a drooling mess now. I could imagine their pity, their revulsion. Deeper and deeper I sank in my conviction that it was just a matter of time. I wasn't coming back. I wouldn't be normal again. I'd be forever lost to my former self and former life, gazing outward at it, locked within the hell of my splintered mind. Heartbroken. For several of the darkest seconds of my life, I knew that had there been a gun in front of me, I might have tried to shoot myself.

But while 99% of me was sure that life as I'd known it was over, there was, deep within my brain, a bell ringing. Faintly, so fainty, I could hear it. Its ring was the promise of normalcy. A remembrance of it, far away through space and time. Some tiny part of me knew that this was just an experience, and it would eventually end. But that bell, oh my god it was so heartwrenchingly quiet, so unconvincing. .....ding.......ding..... I wanted to believe in it, more than anything I wanted to trust it, but the counterbalance of what the acid was doing made it so. very. difficult.

"Did I break my brain?" That was the first line of the song. And every "no" answer was a ring of the bell. I asked Terence this, over and over and over. He patiently reassured me I did not. But I was still falling down, down, and I didn't believe him. I scrambled for my phone.

"Are you looking at pictures?" he asked encouragingly.

"No," I said flatly, trying to focus on the electric blur of numbers before my eyes. "I have to call Mason. Will you call him for me?"

Of course he would, understanding that in this moment of unbearable fear, I'd need the friend who's gotten me through a dozen other moments of unbearable fear. I needed my friend of almost twenty years, and I needed him right fucking now.

"Yo," he answered.

"Mase," I blurted, putting him on speakerphone. "Mase, I'm in Joshua Tree, and I took LSD, and I'm really scared I took too much. Please help me. I don't know what to do."

And so it began. The phone conversation that would shape the next several hours of my first acid trip.  The conversation that would color and inform my experience, give it meaning and structure and even a theme. Simply put: friendship. Friendship on the most profound, breathtakingly beautiful level imaginable.

But first back to the song.

Naturally, Mason did everything in his power to calm and comfort me, from the bar in Las Vegas where he happened to be that Saturday night. (Yep, that's right. Me and my two hundred micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide parachuted in to my dearest, oldest friend's vacation smack in the middle of Sin City and hijacked the shit out of it. Not a single peep of complaint, the entire two and a half hours I kept him on the phone. Ladies and gentlemen, that is what you call a friend.) He told me I was going to be fine. That if I'd taken too much, I wouldn't be talking to him now. That Terence sounded coherent and sober enough to judge whether or not I really needed to go to the hospital, and they agreed I did not. That I just had to relax and buckle in for the ride. That everything was okay.

Still, I needed to hear the same mantra of assurances repeated time and again.

"Did I break my brain?" (no)
"Am I going to survive?" (yeah)
"I'm so scared..." (you're gonna be fine)
"What about dehydration?" (that's just the drug)

Wispy threads though they seemed, they were a lifeline to me as I dangled in the abyss. And so these questions I asked, combined with the answers I was given, became like a song over the course of the night. And it kept me alive. And if that sounds crazy, I understand. But if not for the anchor which was Mason's voice holding me safely in place, in that beautiful house in the desert, I don't know what I might have done in that first couple of hours. But it probably would have involved fleeing my own boyfriend and running out into the dark, dangerous night, desperate for help and relief. I know I wouldn't have even made it ten steps outside without falling to the ground, though, because I was physically incapacitated by the drug. I probably would have just lay down in the dirt and screamed.

This story is getting away from itself, I know, but holy hell is it hard to explain everything that was happening at once. But here's how to picture me in these moments: pinned to the cool white vinyl lounge chairs we'd flattened and pushed together in the living room. On them was a mess of blankets that I rolled around on, clutching the edges of the cushions for dear life, as I frantically tried to get my psychological bearings. I was terribly thirsty but didn't feel like I could drink. I was nauseous and dizzy and disoriented, and nowhere that I looked made it any easier. I had a dim awareness of Terence moving around the room, getting water, trying to help me. But looking at him only freaked me out more; his skin was unnaturally alive, shifting and oozing as if liquid. The shape of his face was distorted and ugly, and I turned away in fear that image would imprint itself permanently in my mind.  All I could do was stare at the phone, at the letters of Mason's name which glowed white in the slow-settling dusk. A life raft. His voice a rope thrown to me on an ocean of fire.

Fire. That was another thing. So hot. Not my body, which was cool, pleasantly chilly even, from air conditioning that felt like wind moving through the house. But my brain boiled with the heat of too much...everything. Too much color and light, too much fear, too much resistance. Because oh my god, was I ever resisting. Mason called it out. "Listen to me," he said. "Are you listening?" I was. "You have to stop fighting it."

A surge of fresh terror. "I can't!" How could I make him understand the depths of hell that awaited me, if I'd just give in to them? "Mase, I can't. It's too much!"

"Listen to my voice," he continued firmly. "You know this. You know this because you've done drugs before. If you fight it, it's going to be a lot harder. Just give in and let it happen."

I knew he was right, of course. I knew the only way out was through. But oh my god. The way my mind was melting, sucking the rest of me down into it. The helplessness was utterly terrifying. What would I find there, if I did let go? Where would I go? Letting go felt like jumping blindly into a black hole. Less giving in than giving up - on reality, and on sanity. (From my notes afterward: sanity a placemat that kept shifting under my brain.)

It didn't matter, though. It didn't matter one bit whether I wanted to resist or embrace the LSD that was blazing new neural pathways faster than I could take a breath. I was approaching my peak and any ideas I had about controlling or guiding my experience were long, long gone. I could no sooner stop what was happening than stop a roller coaster, mid-loop.

But the good thing about roller coasters is they go up, as much as they go down...

to be continued (only one more, I promise!)