Yes, it’s a lot like the old horror film “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”, only different. According to my understanding, werewolfism is strictly a full moon affliction, whereas an overenthusiastic youthful indulgence in psychoactive drugs can be a gift that keeps on giving.
I came of age in the San Francisco Bay Area of the late sixties, a magical time and place where a magical belief was embraced: the belief that you couldn’t have too much euphoric experience. This quaintly hopeful mythos held that the more psychedelic trips a person logged, the more that person would be transformed into a paragon of grooviness- even holiness. The tripper would emerge from the pharmaceutical cocoon transformed into an all-loving, all-accepting, walking beam of light, an avatar of enlightenment, a foot soldier in the inevitable awakening of Aquarian consciousness amid the wreckage of the Kali Yuga’s last days.
Turns out it’s not quite that simple.
In comparing psychedelic experience with a friend recently, he asked, “How was your set and setting?”, referring to the careful pre-trip preparations recommended by experts: soft light, soothing music, soulful company. My answer was “Nonexistent.” My friends and I would take acid anywhere: at high school, at the county fair, on random expeditions into the urban jungle, at drive-in movies where we would prowl about looking for strange girls, just like we had on beer. We would seek out weirdness and disharmony in a twisted macho rite of passage, testing the limits of our cool and, unseen by us in our immortal zeal, our mental stability. It was all fun and games until everyone got hurt.
After a few years of intensive tripping, I had friends who spun out dangerously and criminally, a few who took their own lives, and a few more who walked away from the hometown never to be heard from again. With me the effects were more subtle and internal. I would find myself hooked into “thought loops”, obsessed with gleaning the deep lessons of countless flashes of insight and almost seen epiphanies. I would find myself less able to communicate normally, and less interested in doing so. I would find myself equally amused by anything, be it a great meal, great music, falling in love, watching a spider on the ceiling, or sitting on the sidewalk talking to a drunk. I viewed these personality changes as positive evidence that the outmoded strictures of societal programming were being cast off.
Jackson Browne’s song “The Pretender” sums up beautifully the process of rebuilding that so many in that era had to undertake. Once one has dismantled oneself, stripping away the old beliefs and hangups and loyalties, one must rebuild, bit by bit, a persona and a story that resonates with the new understandings, and clothes the sudden nakedness. Several of my cohorts became bikers, others went back to school and built careers, some were Born Again. I embraced meditation and music, redemptive paths I walk to this day. The “old Jeff” is still present, of course, but also still changed.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky to have experienced what I did, to have explored my world and myself and yes, to have been tested, in that other-worldly light. I wear my experience like a Coat of Many Colors (or maybe kaleidoscopic armor). I am encouraged to see the evolution in the practices of the current crop of psychedelic voyagers, treating these powerful chemical agents sacramentally, with smaller doses and greater care for the psyche. I certainly feel compassion for and kinship with my fellow travelers, casualties, survivors.
I also feel a bit stupid for digging myself a hole and jumping into it. Seemed like a good idea at the time.