The first time I tripped, I was seventeen, visiting K in San Francisco. I don't remember how it came up, but he had them, and I wanted to try them.
“What happens if I have a bad trip?”
“You won't have a bad trip,” he promised, “Just don't let your thoughts spiral. I just remember: I'm on a drug. I'm going to have fun.”
We ate them raw. They weren't unpleasant, just a peculiar kind of crunchy that became an equally peculiar sort of spongy, with an aftertaste that I can only describe as bluish. We lay on his bed as a slight queasiness came and went, became transfixed with a glowing plastic cube for an hour or two or god knows how long, really, and then he took me to Golden Gate Park. As we walked to the train, there were people all around.
“What are these people doing?”
“They're going to work,” K replied. We took in the street together, the crowd of people, all with somewhere to be, something to do. “Isn't it weird?”
K managed Muni, thank god. As we walked up towards the park, the trees began to come into view. In that moment, they were impossibly large. They were breathing, moving like giant, gentle monsters. Then they reached down with their great arms and scooped up my mind.
In the park, I was consumed by a playfulness I hadn't in felt in years. I felt like a little girl, dancing on the park's lawn. K sat watching, cross-legged, Buddha-like. He is an immensely comforting presence to me, I realized then, as he floated above the lawn, the edges of him shifting like a character from Waking Life.
The mushrooms pulled me out of a phenomenal depression that had engulfed most of my adolescence. I decided to put off killing myself, a decision I'm pleased about today. I don't think I was really going to do it—but the image of my past self is irretrievably tinted by the fact of my survival, so who knows. There are so many futures for every past; I don't know what would have happened if what happened didn't happen; I'm trying to somehow avoid emitting the cliché that mushrooms saved my life, but I really can't, and anyway, it feels tremendously petty to deny them the credit. To this day, in the armory psychedelica, I consider them the shield: heavy and protective, the surface the gnarled and knotted branches of the oldest tree.
Horizons (subtitle: Perspectives on Psychedelics) takes place every fall in New York. The perspectives on offer broadly fall under the umbrella of ‘do them,’ and if you imagine every sort of person who might be interested in such a thing, can come up with $155 for a ticket, and can show up to something at a prescribed time despite perhaps not believing in time, you'll have a pretty good sense of the crowd. There were researchers and theorists and depressingly few indigenous people, burners of course, people who I'm reasonably sure would describe themselves as radicals, libertarians, and worse, cops. I presume. I didn't meet any cops, to the best of my knowledge, but it's impossible that they were not present, at this conference, Illegal Drugs: Perspectives on Drugs (the illegal kind).
The cops didn't affect my experience outside the usual way that they always infect every moment. This is why I mention them: they are a pervasive presence in my psyche, and if I don't name them frequently, they and the attendant stresses and coping mechanisms that stem from living in a militarized panopticon will fade into the backdrop of invisible threads from which our world is woven. Then I'll never be free of them, even deep in the forest, even safe amongst the trees.
Michael Pollan was there too, for he has a new book out about psychedelics—How to Change Your Mind. I should mention here that I loathe Michael Pollan (I'm sparing you the pollen puns). It's not entirely rational, it's just that his approach to the entire universe is approximately that of a white guy on safari, for whom nothing is quite real. He wrote an entire book on the ethics of eating meat, eventually arriving at the conclusion that it's probably a bit bad, but he really enjoys it, I mean really enjoys it, so.
There are, unsurprisingly, tensions in the psychedelic community, in part because of Michael Pollan and his book, and really, what his book represents, which is the final blandening of psychedelics, the completion of their journey from magical sacrament to tech CEO passtime. As with any conference, the drama presented most prominently during audience questions, that time during which conference organizers ill-advisedly put microphones into the hands of anyone who manages to walk in the front door and appears sober.
The first talk I saw was Sarah Lappan and Peter Hendricks discussing their research on using psilocybin to treat cocaine addiction. Almost casually, in the midst of sharing a series of genuinely powerful first-hand narratives from their patients, Dr. Lappan mentioned that they the researchers don't condone using mushrooms recreationally. This struck me as an odd thing to mention to a room full of people who definitely do, coming from someone who almost certainly has. I mean, who goes into psychedelic mushroom research? You were really into chanterelles?
When she was done, the first question was immediately: what did you mean by that? And we were off. Dr. Lappan responded with something entirely unsatisfying about the possible dangers, like maybe you take mushrooms at a concert and have a bad trip, the asker went off about harm reduction, Dr. Hendricks weighed in finally and almost hit the heart of it. He said: Look. We are researchers at a public university. We are doing publicly funded research. Did not say: We have to say this. We receive funding from, amongst other places, the DEA. Hell, lady, there are cameras right there.
This is what I mean by drama—literally a performance, practically scripted. Don't get me wrong, I was into it. I delighted in what the woman in the audience was asking, even though the play was going nowhere. The researchers could say nothing other than what they did. But she couldn't just be silent. She was channeling anger, and beneath that anger, fear. Everyone was afraid. Everyone in the building was afraid of the cops. On stage, the researchers shouting: Don't you see? There are cops everywhere! We're trying to make friends with them, and you're ruining it. And the reply: Yes, we know. Don't leave us alone with them.
It's not unlike when gays were fighting for marriage, and queers were fighting to burn marriage to the ground, and there were arguments about subverting marriage as an institution and the allocation of activist resources and what it all boiled down to was: look, we are dying, and if you win this, if you can join up with them and be normal like them and be white like them you are going to abandon us.
And they did. Some of them.
There was a rift, anyway, and it burned painfully, magma seeping out, waters boiling, and it is still cooling and erupting and cooling and erupting. But this is how new land is born.
I didn't start transition immediately after my first trip. But it did plant a seed. It showed me: look, you can be happy. It opened the door for me to consider what happiness would look like for me. Slowly, over the next few years, with the help of the Internet, I figured out a hormone schedule, ordered the drugs from Vanuatu, and started to make myself who I wanted to be. I never sought a therapist's help for any of this. It's not just that I was afraid they would say no. I was afraid of putting myself in the position of having my experience evaluated by someone not party to it. So I didn't. This was my own expression of fierce individuality. I became my own science experiment.
This path isn't without risks, and so I don't know if I would recommend it to anyone who has better options. But I didn't; all alternatives seemed intolerable. In consequence, I never got a single, authoritative stamp on my identity. The evidence was never filtered through authority, never coerced into a definitive boolean value: yes, you are really trans. Instead, I had the powerful but somewhat unsatisfying answers of science. My model fit the evidence, and it seemed to be working, but always in a Bayesian sense, with an unbounded universe of possibilities at the periphery, doors held ever so slightly open.
While K meditated on the lawn, I went into one of the park's bathrooms, where old streaks on the wall were still dripping and the shadows were full of spiders, and some of them were even physically there. I did not like the bathroom. I would not have gone in, but the mushrooms demanded it.
When I emerged, K was no longer in his spot on the lawn. I walked over to it and looked around, my eyes darting across increasingly blurry trees. Okay, if K is gone, if I was alone—I started to think, and my thoughts touched the edge of a whirlpool.
“Hey,” K said, coming up next to me. He'd gone a few feet down the hill.
“See,” he said, “If you'd come out, and I wasn't there, and I wasn't anywhere around? That would be a bad trip.”
I've had several trips that could reasonably be described as "bad" since then. In the first, T and I had mushroom tea in our apartment, and my ego dissolved. I was wholly unprepared for it. I tried desperately to hold on to my self, which at the time was still squishy, still cooling. I only wanted to listen to Teagan and Sara. I walked and thought in circles, muttering, “they're Canadian. i'm Canadian. they're lesbians. i'm lesbians.” It's funny now, and it was funny then, to some part of me. Some timesliced laughter process allowed to run just after tick, but well before tock, when the world would reset to a moment before.
“You just have to breathe through it,” T advised, but I couldn't. The whirlpool had caught me off-guard, and I was sucked in. I eventually ended up on the bed, being born and reborn, floating in a miasma of my earliest memories and deepest insecurities, amongst them my favorite anxiety at the time: whether or not I was really trans. I wasn't yet out to my parents, and their imagined reactions flickered, mixing with childhood memories and implanted anxieties that I'd thought were long gone, but of course, were just waiting for me to return to the past.
This is what's really scary about ego death. Sure, you have to die, and that's not great—but then you have to be born, and it's in that space, right where we've rooted into the world, that our most potent unhealed wounds lie.
That trip was bad in the sense that it was not particularly fun. But it was useful. For one thing, it taught me that when the world is being ripped away, it's okay, it's going to come back eventually. This makes it much easier to let it go.
My more recent bad trips were undertaken with someone who was not safe or particularly good for me at the time, for reasons that are a few stories unto themselves. I was already in a tremendously low place. I likely would have ended up having some kind of breakdown regardless—but the acid certainly helped me along. Acid is the armory's finest dagger, whose infinitesimal point can tease apart the thread of moments. In those trips it peeled off my skin, rendering me vulnerable and receptive to my then-friend's poison.
I fell to pieces. I went to Iceland. I put myself back together. I named my dynamic with that person as abusive and got the hell away from it. I grew skin again. It all worked out in the end, and I grew tremendously from the experience. It was terrible, and I didn't love it, and I wouldn't trade for it, either. There have been times in the years since when I've wanted to return to that blown-open state, when I was nothing, and felt like I was going to die, and so felt like perhaps I could be anything.
But then people say the same thing about cancer. Cancer, which we treat with poison. The chemo kills all of you, but hopefully kills the cancer a little bit faster. Psychedelics are the psychic equivalent of this, in reverse. Fertilizer for the mind. Everything grows, trees and mold alike.
In the far right—no, farther than that—“red pilling” is getting someone to wake up to the truth of that world: that white people are under attack from feminists and communists and the Jews of course, and the master race must fight back by embracing fascism and white nationalism and, reluctantly, killing us all. The term comes from a movie by two trans lesbians, and I don't really know how they've factored that into their world.
Anyway, Unicorn Riot has an archive of messages captured from far right Discords, and Robert Evans analyzed how some folks there said they were red-pilled. Several of them mention LSD. “LSD freed me,” one says, I suppose echoing my own experience. Another says that in the beginning, he was watching Hitler speeches on acid. He also says that growing up, he watched Hitler's speeches with his dad every day, so I think we may have different definitions of “the beginning”.
A while ago, I was talking with my brilliant friend L about 90s culturejamming, the practice of fucking with people's expectations, creating noise and chaos to knock people out of the thrall of the capitalist machine. Underlying the practice was the sense that if you could just take people and shake them, make them look up, look around, and see what's going on, then they would be with you. Or, if not with you, at least heading in the right direction. There was a general sense that this strategy would not work for conservatives and authoritarians, that they lacked the requisite sense of humor; that theirs were paradigms of rigid order, and so anything which could rupture that order was a radical tool. Like putting acid in the city water supply and waiting for the great awakening.
Nobody ever tried that, perhaps because deep down, nobody ever truly believed it would work. No, who am I kidding? Plenty of people truly believed it would work. It's just that none of those people could get their shit (including, mind you, a truly monumental amount of acid) together. Probably a good thing, because they were demonstrably wrong. Here we are, in the future, where culture has been pretty thoroughly jammed, yet the machine churns on. Turns out, when you break open the world, people swarm out like fluttering, confused moths, and we fly into the light, yes, into any light we can find, and sometimes that's a burning cross. Turns out, you don't need to be funny to take advantage of chaos. You can just stand in front of people and lie to their faces until they believe every word.
Horizons closes with a massive panel of all their speakers. This panel, like Horizons, like the hippies it sprung from, like the MAPS board of directors, is incredibly white. Blow open the doors of perception, I guess, but not all of them. If folks dosing themselves into Nazism didn't do it, this should give lie to the idea that there's anything uniquely directional about the effects of psychedelics on the psyche, or the effects of chaos on the soul. Psychedelics let you see farther, but you still have to look. They let you crack yourself open and reorganize, but they do not dictate the new arrangement of your organs. They are stimulating and slightly euphoric, and that’s nice, but people can get excited about a lot of terrible things.
Michael Pollan was not present on the panel. But he came up, in a question that was even less of a question than the recreational mushrooms un-question earlier. The “question” was, why is this guy speaking for us? This guy who, just to pick one example of mediocrity, interviewed tons of researchers for his book, and quoted zero women. He gave more examples, this not-question asker. It was really quite a long and satisfying takedown.
One of the organizers responded with a story. Look, she said. I live in a very small, very red town upstate. A lot of folks voted for Trump. I don't talk about this stuff with my neighbors. But this book means that they are talking about it. It creates an opening. It's good for us.
She said some more words, but I'd stopped listening. I was thinking about who the “us” in “good for us” refers to, and how that question unavoidably, hopelessly, complicates the “good.” I was thinking of her, living up in Trump country. About how she is able to do that, and I am not. That's the thing about being white. You can always go stealth.
My family and I have begun having those talks, the ones that sound a little bit insane. We talk about leaving. No, fleeing. About meeting places near the border, about routes and waypoints, figuring out how much distance we can cover on foot, with two kids.
Perhaps it's just The Handmaid's Tale that's gotten under our skin, and we'll all look back on this and laugh. Remember when we were making plans to escape the U.S.? Ha ha.
But then you read the news. Today's terrible news is that the government is considering bureaucratically erasing trans people. What does “considering” mean? (Apparently, there is a memo.) What would the effects be? Who the hell knows, but it seems stupid to assume they're not serious, or the impact would be benign. We're coming up on two years of reasonable, level-headed people saying “oh that'll never happen” of things that, subsequently, did.
In response, Michael Pollan would like you to not take the bait. The most charitable reading of this is that he believes that the government is not serious about any of it, and are just using it as a political distraction (and indeed, it is quite distracting to think that I might wake up tomorrow to find that my passport and driver's license are invalid). But I don't know why an evidence-based man of science would say a thing so clearly not in evidence. More likely, he's saying: sshhhhh. Don't scream, you'll ruin everything. Just shut up. Just be quiet a moment. It'll all be over soon.
I'm sure Michael supports rights for trans people, in the same bloodless way he thinks that we probably shouldn't eat factory farmed animals. Michael is not a farm animal, he loves no farm animals, and so the proposition floats, held like a balloon. If the wind picks up, he can let it go before it cuts his palm, and it is impossible to escape this flesh-knowledge of fundamental safety.
I called it the psychedelic "community" before, but that sense of the word, to describe a group of people drawn together out of shared interest, it's a rather new one. In the older sense, a community is the people you have around you so you can make it through winter. It's the people who you may or may not like, but whose lives are entangled with your own so thoroughly that you have to work together. Community may condense through shared interest, but it is cemented by shared suffering, and when this is lacking, the rumbling tectonic processes of our social planet will open cracks and fissures and, eventually, there will be fire.
I've been a bit mean to Michael, here. He doesn't deserve it (but there are many things that have come to him that he doesn't deserve, and I think we can agree that, on the whole, he's gotten a pretty good deal out of them). All of us are a little bit Pollanated (I had to). We can't fit inside of ourselves the breadth of human experience, and we occupy positions of power and safety which we can never truly sever, and we have skin which we could not put in the game even if we wanted to.
So this is the work. The daily cutting of skin. Peeling back the layers of yourself and trying to tuck into your flesh experiences it cannot hold. Your skin will grow back. The experiences will reject. And so the work is to keep doing it, day after day, until you have taught your bones the meaning of justice. And this is daunting, and painful, and humiliating, and necessary, and there's medicines that can help, if you know how to use them.