What Happened To My Mental Health After I Took Acid

Illustration by Ellen Mercer
Ed. note: Acid – or LSD – is a powerful hallucinogenic drug and illegal in the UK. The following includes a firsthand account of one person's experience with acid; it is important to note that the experience is different for everyone and, as with all drug-taking, carries an element of risk. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behaviour.
Psychedelics scare many of us. Even people who pop pingers like smarties and start every sesh with a line of CK (that’s cocaine and ketamine mixed – not advisable if you want to live a long life) will often tell you that they draw the line at psychedelic drugs like LSD (aka acid), psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
Perhaps that’s understandable. Taking a psychedelic is considered to be like drilling down to the groundwater of your subconscious. It is terrifying precisely because you can never be sure how deep you might go or how dark those depths might get. And of course, once you’ve plunged into the well of your own brain, how the fuck do you get back out? 
The prospect of being trapped in a mental abyss of our own making is enough to put most people off. Yet according to the latest research, far from damaging us, psychedelics (used with medical supervision) could actually be a great tool for hacking our mental health
"Given the nature of clinical trials, it’s difficult to say how long it’ll be before psychedelic therapy can be offered on a wider scale," says Dr Ekaterina Malievskaia. "But it’s possible that we’ll see it within five years." 
Dr Malievskaia is the chief innovation officer and cofounder of COMPASS Pathways, a mental health startup based in London. Alongside researchers at King’s College London, in December 2019 COMPASS published the results of the world’s largest controlled study of psilocybin, showing that the compound is resoundingly safe for human consumption when taken in controlled quantities. 

It's difficult to say how long it'll be before psychedelic therapy can be offered on a wider scale. But it's possible that we'll see it within five years.

Dr Ekaterina Malievskaia
"We are currently developing psilocybin therapy for treatment-resistant depression (TRD)," she explains. "Around 100 million people worldwide do not respond to existing medications." 
Their research into psychedelic therapy for TRD has been so promising that in 2018 it was awarded Breakthrough Therapy status by America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – only ever given to drugs which "demonstrate substantial improvement over available therapy".
The results of this and many similar medical trials prompted Professor David Nutt (one of the UK’s leading drug and alcohol researchers who was famously sacked from his job as the government’s drug advisor after claiming that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol) to write an op-ed in The Times, calling for UK laws around psychedelics – psilocybin in particular – to be relaxed. 
Nutt explained: "[According to recent studies] a single dose of psilocybin produced massive improvements in people who had been depressed for years and who had failed to respond to many other antidepressant treatments." 
Even some politicians – usually so fey when it comes to drugs – have come out in support of psychedelics. Last month in the US, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang argued in favour of legalising magic mushrooms to help treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. 
All signs point towards psychedelics becoming part of mental healthcare within the next decade. Having tried them myself, I can understand why. 
I first heard about the potential of psychedelics in 2016 when a team at Imperial College London scanned the brains of people tripping on acid. The images – of grey matter aflame with activity – went viral. 
About a year after seeing those scans, I first tried acid. I didn’t set out to experiment; I just wanted to party, I guess. I wanted to have a good time. And thanks to the renaissance in psychedelic research, it didn’t seem like such a dangerous idea. 
Over the coming months and years, I realised that I felt as though each trip led me to some higher truth about either myself or the world. 

Psychedelic therapy for treatment-resistant depression has been awarded Breakthrough Therapy status by America's Food and Drug Administration. This is only ever given to drugs which 'demonstrate substantial improvement over available therapy'.

"Psychedelics are very much about narratives," says psychiatrist Dr James Rucker, who heads up the Psychedelic Trials Group at King’s College London and was the lead researcher on the COMPASS Pathways psilocybin study. Acid and psilocybin, he explains, work in the same way on the same part of the brain, although an acid trip typically lasts longer. "They’re about the ways our brains create the narratives which help us understand who we are and our role in the world." 
Dr Rucker is jetlagged when we speak, having just flown back to London from Florida where he presented the results of the trial to scientists from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. "It went very well," he adds. 
Experimenting with different drugs to see how they impact our mental health is nothing new but such a positive reception is quite a turnaround. Up until now, a huge stigma has been attached to this area of research, which is why the likes of Nutt have been so maligned. 
"Drug catalysed psychotherapy, where a psychedelic is administered in the presence of a trained mental healthcare professional, was being developed way back in the 1950s and '60s, but prohibition in the '70s shut all of that down," explains Dr Rucker. "We’re really picking back up from, and expanding on that research."
As journalist Michael Pollan explains in his 2018 New York Times bestseller, How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, following the discovery of LSD in 1943, there was a period of fevered scientific research where everyone from Hollywood psychotherapists to the CIA and MI6 experimented with psychedelic compounds. After they were adopted by the counterculture movement, though – with former Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary predicting that users of LSD "aren’t going to fight your wars" or "join your corporations" – President Nixon made them one of the main targets of his war on drugs. Stories of psychosis and LSD-induced suicides were widely disseminated, sowing the seeds of the fear with which we approach them even to this day. 
Over the last 15 years, though, within academic circles at least, the stigma has been slowly lifting. 

I was in a room and UV rays were catching on dust particles, making them glow in the air like daytime fireflies. The walls were peach with sun and I put my hand up to make a shadow. The shadow is me, I thought, I know it; I know the forearm bones, the flesh, the skin, the fine hairs – all me, all shadow.

I remember when the Imperial scans went viral. The well-worn (albeit inaccurate) adage that we only use 10% of our brains sprang to mind; looking at the pictures comparing the brains on LSD to those on placebo, it was hard not to imagine it as some kind of Limitless-style brain-hacking wonder drug. As the study’s lead researcher, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris explained at the time: "The brain in the LSD state resembles the state our brains were in when we were infants: free and unconstrained."
This, it turns out, is one of the things that gives psychedelics their power. Dr Rucker tells me: "When you’re a child, the brain is in a 'plastic' state [in biology, 'plasticity' refers to an organism’s capacity to adapt to the environment]. Based on your early experiences, it is learning how to interact and think about the world." The way you behave in relationships, for instance, is something you learn through observation, interaction with those around you, repetition and your brain’s natural capacity to pick up cues from others. As you get older, the brain loses some of its plasticity (otherwise we’d never remember what we learn). 
Depending on the nature of your early experiences and the way your brain is built, you may end up repeatedly playing out the habits you formed in early childhood throughout your adult life, and find it difficult to break out of these patterns. 
"With psychedelics we think they temporarily put your brain back into that plastic state you were in when you were a child – not exactly the same state but something similar," continues Dr Rucker. This allows for a "therapeutic window of opportunity" where, given the right context and setting, a person is able to "gain some insights into the habits and narratives" that are causing them problems. 
Of course, not all of my trips were pleasant. Alongside the moments of joy and the profound wonder, the trips could also be frightening. 
On one occasion, I was in a room and UV rays were catching on dust particles, making them glow in the air like daytime fireflies. The walls were peach with sun and I put my hand up to make a shadow. The shadow is me, I thought, I know it; I know the forearm bones, the flesh, the skin, the fine hairs – all me, all shadow. I followed this thought as it scampered down a dark neural pathway. I am shadow. I followed it all the way down into myself, further down than I’d ever gone, until the light above me faded and darkness closed in. Down until everything was dark and the dark was fathomless and the outside world was a pinprick of light above me, and I was overcome with the dank smells of myself – of my own soul. 
Then I felt like I was swimming in a cold pool but rather than water, all around me was despair – a vast underground ocean of despair. This felt like the absolute truth, so true that it left no room for any other truths. In the whole world, there was only despair. 
When I came to from this particular trip, I realised I was crying and, judging from the concerned faces of my friends around me, had been for some time. 
Another time, my consciousness flitted between 2008 and 1992. In 2008 my father had just died. I was 19, studying English at university in Leeds. In 1992 I was 4 years old and living in Romania (where I’m from – I moved to the UK aged 6). I was in an Eastern Orthodox church with my grandmother and the priest, wearing embroidered gold robes, was striding up and down the aisle, swinging a gold thurible from golden chains. I knew that it was freezing midwinter but the smell of the incense made me hot from the inside. At the same time, I felt myself aged 19 at my father’s funeral and counting the letters of his name on my knuckles. I felt myself not crying. 
In the Orthodox church the priest sang and my grandmother told me to sit still because everyone was watching me. After my dad’s funeral I went back to uni but didn’t tell anyone where I had been. I did not tell them that my father had died. Simultaneously I felt the tension of being watched. I remembered the blood carved thick on the wooden Jesus’ forehead; the seat beneath me unyielding; sitting on my hands to keep from squirming because everyone was watching me. 

We think psychedelics temporarily put your brain back into that plastic state you were in when you were a child. This allows for a 'therapeutic window of opportunity'.

Dr James Rucker, King's College London
I know this reads like a fever dream but as Dr Rucker points out, the psychedelic experience is analogous to dreaming. "The idea with dreaming is that your brain returns to a slightly more plastic state and that accounts for some of the weirdnesses that we experience in our dreams. Plus, it’s your brain’s way of reorganising information into something more adaptive."  
His metaphor for explaining psychedelic therapy goes something like this: If you think of your narrative as the place where you live, then psychedelic therapy is a form of spring-cleaning. Before you clean, things look superficially okay but you know there’s dirt behind the sofa, dust on the windowsills and stacks of crap cluttering the cupboards. You pull everything out onto the floor and move all the furniture. For a while, it looks like a complete mess. But that process of pulling everything out – all those things you haven’t addressed for years – allows you to reform your relationship with them, or to throw them out. 
At the end of the cleaning, it looks like the same place but beneath it all, everything is much more ordered. 
After the despair episode, I went to see a therapist who helped me sift through some of the realisations I’d had on various trips. I realised, for instance, that my capacity to feel despair so vast that it blotted out the sun had stopped me from thinking about things like my father’s death because I thought that if I went down there, I wouldn’t make it back out. My therapist pointed out: "A capacity for great despair means you also have a capacity for great joy – but fear holds you back from tapping into either extreme." I’d long come to the conclusion that I only ever allowed myself to be totally, transcendentally happy and free of self-awareness when I was off my face. So this made a lot of sense.  
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have come to this conclusion without acid; at some point we all have to take stock of the difficult periods in our lives and look at how they have impacted us. But the psychedelic experience swept away any bullshit, leaving only a knotted core of truth.
I also know I was lucky. Even when I had unpleasant experiences, I still came away from them somehow lighter, feeling a sense of catharsis. This is likely because I’ve always done it in safe environments, surrounded by people I know and trust. I know this isn’t the case for everyone. 
I’ve also never taken so much acid that my entire sense of self or reality dissolved (known as 'ego death'). This happened recently to a friend on magic mushrooms and at one point he became completely certain that he was about to die. His anxiety turned to panic and panic turned to all-out fear. 

According to Dr Rucker, in clinical trials, under supported conditions, it is often the people with the biggest traumas who have the biggest breakthroughs in therapy.

"I finally realised that it was inevitable, that I was about to die, and so I decided to just accept it," he told me, a few weeks after the experience. Then he says he remembers floating up out of himself and looking down as his body withered, turned to ash and blew away. He considers the experience a good one: "I feel like I finally understand that life is impermanent, and that we aren’t individuals but part of a bigger whole." Still, he says he’ll never take psychedelics again. 
According to Dr Rucker, in clinical trials, under supported conditions, it is often the people with the biggest traumas who have the biggest breakthroughs in therapy. "The psychedelic element allows a shift in perspective. So, say a person had an abusive parent; they might shift from having a suppressed rage towards them, which manifests as a depression, to feeling compassion for the parent as someone who was also abused. I’ve seen it happen." 
Ultimately, for Dr Rucker, this is the unique way that psychedelics could help us: to embrace the dark as well as the light and learn to see it differently. 
"The difficult and dark things are also a part of our psyche," he concludes, "and understanding our relationships to our traumas allows us to understand ourselves better. It's not all about euphoria and happiness and free love." 
If you are worried about your relationship with drugs, please visit FRANK or call 0300 123 6600 for friendly, confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.

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