Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) blew into the public consciousness in the 1960s. Despite the drug’s negative consequences, “dropping acid” became commonplace in the young, hippy, flower-power generation. Eventually it went out of vogue due in large part to the high death rate that occurred during the “tripping” experience. Illegality also played a role in its demise.
Today, LSD is back in the headlines. The focus is not on its mind-altering properties, but for its healing potential. Certain experts believe it could prove beneficial for those with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), chronic depression, and even addiction.
Recently, while reading an article on this topic, I was nearly overcome by emotion. I took LSD once, only once, and it was a lifechanging experience. This is why I am now concerned about its possible use in behavioral healthcare.
I was a self-proclaimed hippie in college. I think technically I was a few years late but I loved the Grateful Dead, I was anti-capitalist and I grew dreadlocks and went to class without shoes. Beneath the surface, I remained a very diligent and responsible young man. Many of my friends did a lot of drugs. I didn’t, but I certainly was not an active proponent of the Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” War on Drugs.
My single experience with this drug occurred while in Berlin at the Roger Waters Show in 1990. Millions of people were celebrating the end of the Cold War. I was 20 years old and had just spent the past four months studying and traveling in Europe. I was happier than ever before. I had been exposed to the world and I loved what I saw and felt. I was with friends at this concert and felt safe, despite the crowd. I could never have anticipated how drastically my life would soon change.
About an hour after dropping this drug on my tongue, I felt a wave of what first felt like adrenaline, but soon turned into profound anxiety. It continued to escalate in my body as if there was a giant tsunami in my stomach that eventually crashed into my brain. I had heard about “bad trips,” which only served to ramp up my worry. what if in the middle of Europe, surrounded by millions of people and chaos, I have a “bad trip?” It got worse. The anxiety grew into sheer terror. All I could think about was going straight to the airport to fly home or finding a room where I could sit alone in a corner and wait for this horror to pass. My heart was jackhammering in my chest, my thoughts were erratic and disconnected. I would have done anything, even take my own life, just to get this nightmare to end.
Even now, the memory of this experience is so ghastly that just writing about it frightens me.
Witnessing my desperation, a close friend walked with me around the periphery of the concert for hours. Through an act of extreme self-will along with the soothing voice of Van Morrison (who I still love to this day), the panic eventually subsided. When morning came, I was so grateful for making it through the night.
I had yet to learn that the pre-LSD me and the post-LSD me would not be the same person. My first indication was that day at lunch when I temporarily misplaced my credit card. Normally, this would be a minor annoyance; instead I was treated to a surge of anxiety, not unlike what I felt the previous night.
Prior to the LSD experience, my body did not have extreme panic as part of its response skill set. I had certainly experienced anger, moderate anxiety and frustration; I could respond to vexations by getting pissed off, swearing, even lashing out. But I had never had a full-blown panic attack, never. That one experience with LSD permanently altered something inside of me that I wish to GOD had never happened. Decades later, I still experience panic attacks.
Because I work in the treatment field, I, like all of my colleagues at SunCloud, want the best, most effective pharmaceuticals for those who struggle with any aspect of mental illness. If psychedelics are properly vetted and undergo the same rigorous clinical trials as other medications, then these drugs might be an effective tool in the treatment process. I have got a great deal of faith in the science that can render such a determination. I also trust that this same science will establish who is and who is not a candidate for this new brand of medication. This must be an absolute priority. I fear that if this step is not in place, certain people, such as myself, might fall through the cracks and unwittingly receive these pharmaceuticals. This is a legitimate concern.
If I could turn back the hands of time, back to that night in Berlin, I would in a heartbeat. Imagine if I had said no, instead of yes, to LSD—my life would likely have been radically different. In many ways, I have built my life around minimizing these devastating issues. although it all feels normal today, surely living with less fear would have been far preferable.