Some say taking small amounts of LSD or psychedelic mushrooms can decrease depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. I decided to give it a try, with one mis-measured dose along the way.
by Katie Herzog
It was my girlfriend’s idea that I start taking LSD.
We had just left a Town Hall reading with Ayelet Waldman, the author of A Really Good Day, a new book about microdosing, or taking tiny amounts of LSD or psychedelic mushrooms on a regular basis. It’s a recent trend, and devotees say it decreases depression, anxiety, and chronic pain—and increases creativity, focus, and an overall sense of well-being. Silicon Valley apparently loves it.
Waldman microdosed to combat depression, anxiety, and mood swings brought on by PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Her life with PMDD sounded chaotic, plagued by inexplicable rages against her kids and husband, and she had tried dozens of prescription drugs to deal with it. Nothing had worked—except microdosing.
“You should try it,” my girlfriend said as soon as the reading was over.
“Is my period that bad?” I asked.
It wasn’t my period that was the problem, and we both knew it. Like Waldman, I have some anxiety. A lot, actually. Years ago, I’d been on Celexa, Lamictal, and an array of other medications, but they didn’t seem to have much effect besides turning my urine a deep Trumpian orange. Then one day, after several years on medication, I read online that these drugs are no more effective than placebos. That was good enough for me: One article on Reddit and I quit everything, cold turkey, against doctors orders, and felt no difference at all.
But the anxiety was still there—and getting worse. My girlfriend was the lucky focus of most of my anxiety, and I became obsessively, irrationally worried about her dying. I campaigned hard for us to move out of Seattle for earthquake reasons, and every time she left my line of sight, I was sure some disaster had struck. And that was before the election.
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I started checking in with her throughout the workday. Hey, I’d text her while listening to dire news on NPR and taking stock of my emergency bug-out bag, U breathin?? If I didn’t hear back right away, I’d become convinced that she’d choked on a baby carrot on her lunch break and was already brain-dead. How the fuck am I going to pay her half of the rent, I’d think and then text her again: Srsly. U alive??
I’d thought about asking her to get some sort of implant so I could monitor her vital signs remotely—or at least seeing if she’d enable the GPS on her phone—but maybe that wasn’t the answer to soothing my anxiety after all. Maybe LSD was. It worked for Waldman.
“Okay,” I said. “Now, where are we going to get acid?”
There have been no clinical trials on microdosing, but there have been more informal studies. The largest is ongoing, and run by James Fadiman, an elder in the world of psychedelic research. Fadiman, a Stanford- and Harvard-trained psychologist, was studying the effects of LSD on creativity and problem-solving back in the 1960s when the then-legal drug was reclassified and his research permit was revoked. At that point, LSD was one of the most widely researched drugs in the United States, and it had been prescribed to an estimated 40,000 patients for everything from alcoholism to autism from 1950 to 1965. And then, abruptly, it was over.
By the end of the century, only a handful of studies continued. It wasn’t impossible to get FDA approval, it was just really, really hard. “The government always said, if you jump through 19 hoops, you can study it,” Fadiman tells me, “except the 18th hoop was go back to the first one.”
In the last two decades, however, the hoops have begun disappearing and research on hallucinogens has picked up. While LSD continues to be studied abroad, in the United States, psilocybin, the psychedelic compound produced by magic mushrooms, is now the preferred substance for research. It’s simply less controversial. “Psilocybin doesn’t carry the cultural and political baggage that LSD does,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and the author of several studies on hallucinogens. “LSD was intimately associated with the turmoil of the 1960s. Most people don’t even know what psilocybin is.”
Fadiman’s current study, which is not FDA-approved, has between 600 and 700 participants who self-report their experiences microdosing with both LSD and psilocybin. And their experiences are overwhelmingly positive. People say that their moods are better, their minds are clearer, and their depression is less crushing after following his protocol. Some people quit smoking. Others start exercising and eating healthier. Overall, people say they just feel better, whether they are microdosing LSD or psilocybin. (Fadiman says he’s been unable to find any difference in the effects of the two drugs, at least in small doses.)
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Fadiman’s study is not a clinical trial, but his data is being used by scientists around the world who are beginning their own double-blind studies. Theoretically, these studies could be used to reclassify LSD and psilocybin from their current designation as Schedule I drugs, a designation that means, according to the federal government, that they have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical purpose. But with Donald Trump as president and Jeff Sessions as attorney general, reclassification is unlikely, at least in the next four years. “It couldn’t be worse,” Fadiman says. “But Sessions will probably have enough pleasure destroying the marijuana industry to ignore us.”
Currently, researchers at Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and the University of Alabama are holding clinical trials to study whether full doses of psilocybin can be used to treat smoking, cocaine dependence, and alcoholism, as well as studying the effect of psilocybin on longtime meditators and religious professionals.
Funding for some of these studies comes from RiverStyx, a multi-million-dollar foundation based in Kirkland and headed by 32-year-old Cody Swift. Swift happens to have access to a substantial family fortune, but like many of us, his first encounter with psychedelics came in college, as a student at the University of Puget Sound. While plenty of people may eat shrooms, have a spiritual experience, and then forget about it by breakfast, Swift’s first encounter was—quite literally—life altering.
“So much is happening on a level beyond our consciousness,” Swift says. “It showed me that this is not just a recreational tool. It’s a profound tool for understanding the mind.”
Swift decided to get involved. He called Johns Hopkins, which had just started a clinical trial on the use of psilocybin for treating cancer distress (the anxiety and depression that often comes with a diagnosis), and offered to fund them. They gladly accepted—because of government restrictions, the vast majority of funding for these studies comes from private sources—and over the next five years, researchers at Johns Hopkins treated dozens of cancer patients with psilocybin. Swift, in the meantime, got his master’s in psychology from Seattle University and joined the study as a guide. Guides are like designated drivers for the patient, but instead of making sure they get home safely, they calm patients when the walls start melting.
One of the trial patients was Carol Vincent, the owner of a small advertising agency in Victoria, BC. Vincent was diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2008, a largely asymptomatic but incurable form of blood cancer. Her cancer wasn’t especially painful, but it was stressful—and disruptive. “It was always at the back of my mind,” she says. “I was just waiting for the lymphoma to get me.”
In 2014, after six years of constant vigilance and carefully managing of her health, Vincent’s son sent her a link to the Johns Hopkins study, and she decided to apply. After an extensive screening process, she was accepted into the trial and flew to Baltimore to begin. It was the first thing she had looked forward to in years.
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The space was designed to feel like a living room. There was a couch for Vincent to lie on, a carefully curated playlist and headphones, and an eye mask to keep out the light. Her guides told her that if she saw anything frightening, not to run from it. That’s why they were there, after all—to deal with the fear. Vincent took her dose, and within 20 minutes began to trip.
Some trial participants felt anxiety or even panic during their sessions, but not Vincent. Rather, she felt a profound sense of connection. She moved from the deep sea to outer space, encountering a whale, a crab, a castle, a pirate ship, Russian nesting dolls, crystals, gems, a superhero wearing a cape. She heard herself laughing in her loved ones’ voices. “The visual experience was just astounding,” she says. “I found myself crying from how beautiful everything was.”
Vincent was left with a deep sense of peace that lasted much longer than the trip itself. “A couple of months later,” she says, “I was driving to work, and the tunes were on, and it was this beautiful sunny day, and I suddenly realized, Oh my god. I’m happy. That feeling I thought I’d never have again—it was back.”
Like many trial participants, Vincent considers it one of the most transformative experiences of her life. Even now, two years later, her anxiety and depression have lifted and she has a renewed energy and enthusiasm for life. “In this incredible universe that we occupy,” she says, “even cancer is not as big and terrifying as you think. It just seemed to put it in perspective.”
The study, along with a similar trial from NYU, was published in December 2016, and the results were striking: Of 51 participants, 80 percent saw “clinically significant” reductions in depression and anxiety after just a single dose.
It was surprisingly easy to get LSD. A couple of texts to friends who go to music festivals, and I had four confetti-sized pieces of paper printed with Popeye flexing. I dropped one in a beaker filled with distilled water, waited 24 hours, and drank five milliliters of the diluted acid with my breakfast the next day.
Five milliliters, it turned out, was too much. It was snowing in Seattle, and my girlfriend and I decided to go for a walk. We’d just crossed Broadway when the snow started to seem… different. Altered, somehow, more vibrant. We went into a Thai place, and Pitbull was playing on the stereo. This is the best song that has ever been written, I thought. That alone should have made me realize my microdose was anything but—but it wasn’t until I picked up a menu and saw the words were waving back at me that I realized I’d taken too much.
Microdosing is designed to be “sub-perceptual,” with none of the sensory effects associated with a full dose. There should be no visuals or body high: You should be able to go to work or class or court and no one should be the wiser. It’s supposed to make you better, not weirder, but when the server came to take our order, I suddenly couldn’t find words. I mentally willed my girlfriend to order for me. Tom kha gai, I thought. Coconut soup. Unbelievably, it worked, and I saw for the first time the true power of thought.
I was slightly disappointed when my girlfriend later pointed out I always get the coconut soup. I was back to normal by dinner and happy to take the next couple of days off.
The second time, three days after my first dose, I took a fourth as much. This was more like it. One of the much-lauded benefits of microdosing is increased focus and productivity, and when I sat down to write that day, the words did come more easily than usual. Under normal conditions, my work is punctuated by frequent breaks. I putz around the house, wiping down surfaces that have already been cleaned and rearranging books that are already in order. It’s not uncommon for me to spend more time wandering than writing. But on that particular day, I didn’t wander at all, and by the time I looked up, it was dark. This continued into the next day when I wasn’t microdosing, and I still got more done in an afternoon than I had the previous week.
That’s one of the mysteries of LSD—why the effects last so long. Despite all of the research, scientists still don’t understand exactly how it works. There is, however, plenty of misinformation to be had: In high school, before Google was there to answer pressing drug questions, I heard through the teenage grapevine that LSD makes your brain bleed onto your spine. That was enough to keep me away. I was further deterred when a girl in my class who wore long skirts and hemp necklaces stopped showing up to school one day: Rumor had it, a bad trip had rattled her brain and she’d been sent to live with her dad in Baton Rouge.
Like many rumors about LSD, this one turned out to be false. But the idea that hallucinogens can make you go crazy persists: For instance, on March 21, 2016, Casey Henderson, a 21-year-old Richland native and student at the University of Washington, was arrested after allegedly beating his girlfriend to death in what news outlets later portrayed as an “LSD-fueled murder.”
Neither Henderson nor his lawyer agreed to speak with me, but according to court documents, he and 22-year-old Katy Straalsund, also of Richland, took LSD they’d purchased on the street. Later, Henderson started to feel paranoid, allegedly believing that Straalsund was plotting against him. A neighbor heard him yelling and called the police. When officers arrived, they say they saw Henderson choking Straalsund, forced their way into the apartment, and started performing CPR. Two days later, Straalsund died from her injuries, and Henderson is currently being held in the King County Correctional Facility on a $2 million bond.
According to the Tri-City Herald, “There was never any indication of abuse in the couple’s relationship,” and Henderson’s friends say they were shocked by the news of his arrest. “At first I thought it was a fucked-up joke,” says Jacky Chan, who grew up with Henderson. “Everyone was just astonished. I’d never heard of Casey getting in a fight or even being aggressive.”
While stories like this, of people taking LSD and getting violent, are widely spread by the media, they often aren’t true. “When we’ve been able to investigate stories where someone takes LSD and goes crazy,” says Fadiman, “it almost always turns out it wasn’t actually LSD.” Fadiman says Henderson may have inadvertently taken N-bomb, another psychedelic administered by tab. “Unlike LSD, where if you take too much, you just trip more, with N-bomb, you can have some terrible side effects,” Fadiman says, including paranoia and rage.
Whatever happened that day, psychedelics can clearly lead to poor outcomes, and at the end of my month of microdosing, I started to suspect it wasn’t for me. My work was more focused than ever, but my anxiety wasn’t improving. On microdose days, I felt amped up, like I’d drank too much 5-Hour Energy, and I was no less worried that my girlfriend was going to get run over and die in the street than I was before. This, Fadiman says, happens to some people. Microdosing enhances your senses, and so, if you’re already anxious, it may become more pronounced.
For those people, he says, full doses could be more effective. This seemed counterintuitive: If a miniscule amount of a drug makes me feel like I’m hopped up on caffeine, won’t a full dose make me really freak out?
There was only one way to find out. And I still had one tab of acid left.
All of the researchers I spoke to said the same thing: Setting is key. I needed to go somewhere calm and quiet where I could close off the outside world and turn inward. For this reason, it seemed wise to leave the noise of the city, so I scoured Airbnb for the ideal location. I found it in a mother-in-law apartment on a tiny island in the middle of the Columbia River. The listing failed to mention that it was downwind of a paper mill and the air smelled of rotten eggs and dog farts, but, like the locals say, you get used to it. Soon after unpacking, I dropped the last little piece of Popeye blotter paper onto my tongue, lay down, closed my eyes, and let it begin.
Listening to the story of someone else’s acid trip is like listening to someone else’s dream: It’s boring. There’s just no way to convey how vivid it was at the time—how, when I stared at an unlit candle, it started to melt. How a blank wall became a sunset. How a mirror become a cave. Fadiman likens it to describing sex to a virgin: You might get the basic idea, but the retelling just can’t capture the act.
Acid strips the context from everything. Or at least that’s what I scrawled in looping, unfamiliar handwriting during hour two of the trip, along with We’re all just meat sacks and Life is worth living, which, in the clear light of day, I realize is a Justin Bieber lyric. These musings seem silly now, as profound as a Trump tweet, but in the moment it felt like I had tapped into some universal truth. I also felt moments of terror, as if I were trapped in my body, and then moments of great tranquility and freedom, as if I were floating through space with no body at all.
Eventually, after seven hours of visions and revelations, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When I woke up the next day, I knew immediately that it hadn’t worked. While the Johns Hopkins study and others show that hallucinogens can have a remarkable and transformative effect, one psychedelic experience was not going to fundamentally change my life. Any truths that I discovered evaporated soon after the drug wore off, but I did come away with one realization: There is no easy fix for my anxiety. The reality is, my girlfriend will die someday and I will die someday too, and coming to terms with that is going to take work, not drugs. LSD—whether in micro or macro doses—is not the solution to my problem, but, I finally realized, therapy might be.