Memoirs of a Psychonaut
when i arrive at Andy’s house, I’m ready to go. I know from past experience my body often goes into shock from hallucinogens; even though its a muggy July night in Pittsburgh, I’m wearing a T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and a hooded jacket. I’m carrying a bag full of pot brownies, Kleenex for when my sinuses drain, two boxes of sparklers, a quarter ounce of dried mushrooms, gummi worms, glow sticks, and a notebook to record any drug epiphanies the night may afford. Once, while tripping, Andy wrote a note to the pockets on his cargo shorts, begging them to please never run away. God forbid I have a thought like that and lose it before it can be committed to paper.
As a rule we’re well prepared for trips. Our ever-expanding drug arsenal includes a variety of misfit items that may come in handy at any point during the evening: glow-in-the-dark finger paints and poster board, a Jesus action figure with extendable arms, silly putty, Zen koans, water balloons, pop rocks, a Dictaphone, an African drum, pomegranate juice, a Ouija board, feathered masks with matching boas, Gong’s Mother Egg album, yoga DVDs, sunglasses, Tarot Cards, and metallic pinwheels.
It’s best to have all sorts of items ready because we never know where the trip will lead. There are a variety of directions in which it could go, depending on the type of mushroom we ingest, how many we take, and our mental state prior to the journey. There have been trips that leave Andy and me doubled over in convulsive fits of laughter, when we can barely breathe from hours of uncontrollable giggles. On those nights all it takes to set us off is something as simple as looking at our hands or our reflections in the bathroom mirror. Sometimes we have a visual trip. I’ve seen cheetahs in my back yard climbing trees, Technicolor trains traveling through the park by my house, entire bodies of water breathing, and bright orbs of light floating around my kitchen like fuzzy, celestial pinballs. There have been auditory trips, too, in which I can hear the sound each tree in the forest makes, combine them, and form a transcendent, divine note. Other times it’s a mental trip. I re-enter vivid dreams. I leave my body and wander around the neighborhood unobserved. When I close my eyes, dams burst, worlds collapse, and my physical shell dissolves into a brilliant fist of light.
Our favorite trips, though, are the ones that take us beyond the visual and auditory to a realm where physical reality is an afterthought, a stepchild of pure consciousness. I ride the wave that threads in and out of the now, let my ego melt into the folds that have kept it in check, and give myself permission to be enveloped by the current of impulses I’ve been conditioned to ignore. My pupils dilate. The room melts. And I take off. It’s down this path we hope to travel tonight.
As I cut through the lawn and head toward Andy’s front door, I think of all the times he and I have wandered down his street with a head full of psychotropic drugs. On those late afternoon journeys, we laughed like fiends as we watched his neighbors prune their shrubs and water their hedges. From behind dark sunglasses, Andy and I studied the normal people riding bikes and playing basketball in the cul-de-sac. We tried not to be too obvious, to let on that we had special eyes hidden behind our special glasses, but we usually had to run full speed back to his house for cover when the weight of our collective insanity became too much for us to cloak.
Andy and I share more than an interest in enthnobotany and a love of drugs. We share a path—or rather, share the goal of finding our respective paths. Andy is the only other person I’ve ever met in the Pittsburgh bubble who is willing to go all the way—to risk his sanity for the sake of self-expansion and to lay himself on the line, time after time, to peel away layers of Catholic schooling and engrained societal norms. I feel safe with Andy because he accepts my flavor of crazy, and I accept his. We’ve known each other for a decade and he’s seen more aspects of me than I let out even to my family. Andy’s seen Concrete, Uptight Corey, Freaking Out Corey, Obsessive Corey and Fuck it All, Let’s Just Have Fun Corey. And still we’re friends.
Since Andy moved to New York and I moved to Miami, we’ve spent many afternoons talking on the phone—me telling him about a Tarot reading I’ve just pulled or describing the dots of colors I see floating around my apartment. We discuss his yoga classes and cleansing diets, my Reiki sessions and Transcendental Meditation initiation. It was Andy I told about my past-life regression and my astral projection experiences, and it was me he called on the thirteenth day of his lemon juice-cayenne pepper-maple syrup fast, when he was tuning out reality, Space Cowboy style. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who also believes there is no such thing as physical reality and is willing to do whatever it takes to ultimately shed the illusion. He and I share the belief that beyond their recreational uses, hallucinogenic drugs can take the ingester on a cosmic journey through self, to transcend the physical shackles and arrive, egoless, at The Core. Though they aren’t the only way to get there, mushrooms have proven, time-and-again, to be a natural, reliable path, and growing them has given us the means to frequently indulge.
Andy is home for a week between waiter jobs, mooching off of his parents, and I’m back in Pittsburgh for the summer, working on my thesis and mooching off mine. I keep telling myself this will be my last summer at home, that, at twenty-six, it’s time to move out, move on and get on with life. But I recall saying the same thing last summer, and the one before that. And the one before that. Seeing Andy is the first social thing I’ve done in nearly two months (excluding going to the movies with my parents and my daily trips to the senior-citizen gym six miles from my house), and we both know, on some level, what this means; we have a very short time to ingest a whole lot of mind-bending goodies.
At 8:30, we each down a pot brownie, which should help with nausea. Because of my inability to do remedial math that involves adding simple fractions, the brownies I made earlier in the afternoon from our friend’s homegrown pot are more than two times as strong as I had intended them to be—a quarter ounce in ten brownies instead of an eighth in twelve. Fifteen minutes after I eat the last chocolaty morsel, the telltale signs of being stoned set in: I stop caring about what time I have to wake up in the morning, my blood feels as though it’s a cool mercury river, I begin to think almost exclusively about cake batter ice cream and kettle chips, and I can’t help but note that Andy’s shaven head and thick eyebrows make him look like the Dalai Lama.
It’s been months since I’ve tripped and years since I’ve shed my ego and stepped outside the confines of myself. Even though I’ve ingested mushrooms, LSD and Morning Glory Seeds more than fifty times, there have only been a handful of experiences I still consider to be truly transcendent. On those few evenings I transformed into something I didn’t know I had the potential to be—a seamless entity floating in the abyss of the Universe, a purple fractal dangling between notes on Beethoven’s Symphony Number Five, a churning puddle of water spinning faster and faster until all that remained was an empty eternity where Everything and Nothing were two petals on the same lotus flower. The “I” I had previously associated with was skirting the threshold between stem and bud. I had seen a ruby city populated by huge, cone-headed energies. I’d been a shaman, taken a ride on a spaceship with aliens who made clicking noises, gone to California and driven on the PCH in a baby blue convertible in 1953. Then, when I came down, I tried to pretend I was normal, as if it were another day and I knew where to go from there. I had lied myself into believing things would be the same from that point forward.
The grass is still damp from the rain earlier in the day. My shoes slide as we traipse through Andy’s backyard to gather wood for a fire. It feels good to be outside, to have the whole property at our disposal and know that his parents are away for the weekend and won’t bother us. Andy’s mom and dad love Jesus and George Bush, neither of whom has a place on our agenda. They don’t know that Andy has been to Crazy Town dozens of times. His parents believed him when he claimed to want a pressure cooker for Christmas so he could make raspberry jam, and would be horrified to find he intended to use it for inoculating mason jars full of bird seed, Tyvek, and drugs before he placed them in the makeshift fish tank incubator beneath his bed.
We take our time piling twigs and logs in the fire pit, making sure to have plenty of wood ready for the night ahead. When the stack reaches five feet tall, we go back to the kitchen for the next course.
A little after nine we sit across from one another at the kitchen table and each eat two cuts of Liberty Cap mushrooms Andy brought from New York. They’re one of the few strains we haven’t grown or ingested, and I’m excited about the prospect of traveling to uncharted mental realms. Each of these tall, thin mushrooms looks like a half-cooked piece of angel hair pasta wearing a droopy rain hat. Andy tells me they’re grown in the Pacific Northwest and are two times more potent than most other strands. In the off chance they aren’t strong enough, I’ve brought a bag full of dried, home-grown Mexican Cubencis mushrooms—the kind that take those who ingest them to the Necropolis and make shards of turquoise light shoot from every living organism. I’ve just picked and dried them—my entire crop—and the thought of a good cup of mushroom tea has had me giddy for weeks.
Before he left New York, Andy ground his dried mushrooms in a coffee grinder (which he has solely for the purpose of preparing drugs), making sure to pulsate the blade so as to not damage the heat-sensitive psilocin, the active chemical. Then he mixed dark chocolate with the shrooms and formed two three-inch medallions, which he placed in aluminum foil and put between layers of clothes at the bottom of his duffle bag.
I gag as I eat the dessert, though it doesn’t taste as bad as some of the other ways we’d prepared mushrooms in the past. There had been drug salad, drug-stuffed olives, mushrooms doused in honey, smothered with cream cheese icing, embedded in oatmeal, floating in baked beans and sandwiched between two pieces of bread in a peanut-butter-and-drugs sandwich. We’d eaten them fresh, steeped them in tea, infused them in grain alcohol, ground them into a chunky powder and rubbed them on our gums—all the time trying not to dry heave or worse, throw them up. Any way we could get the mushrooms down the quickest and least painfully was the winner. It’s not so much the taste that upsets me, it’s the texture and the way the stems squish in my mouth like wet hay or a moldy sponge. On top of that, I know stomach upset is an inevitable side-effect of ingestion; even if I plug my nose as I chew, my brain can’t forget the nausea my stomach has experienced during past trips.
As soon as we finish the drug medallions, Andy and I return to the back yard. It’s almost completely dark by now, which means our pupils won’t be bothered by light and can adjust gradually to the dilation. After a few tries, Andy starts the fire and we take our spots on a warped picnic bench several feet from the flames. I watch the purple and orange fingers embrace and twist as they reach toward the sky. The more I focus on the fire, the stranger my body feels. Breathe, I tell myself. Don’t fight the drugs—be one with the experience.
Nearly an hour after Andy and I ingest the mushrooms, I begin to twitch. At first it’s as if my body has made it a point to resist gravity. My frame is trying as hard as it can to support the weight of the atmosphere, but the smoky air is heavy, like cement. Sitting upright, let alone attempting to stand, is beyond the scope of my skeletal system. The harder I try to remain perched on the bench, the more my shoulders crumple and my posture slackens.
When Andy heads to the house to get more wood, I start to see and hear things. One of the neighbors is setting off fireworks, and I briefly forget where I am. There’s a part of me that wonders how I’ve become unstuck in time, à la Billy Pilgrim, how I’ve ended up caught on a battlefield in Gettysburg during the Civil War. This seems like a reasonable conclusion to arrive at, and I don’t invest too much time or energy trying to unpack it. It’s only a matter of time, I know, before some crazed soldier carrying a musket creeps out from behind the tool shed and blows my face off. What will Andy say when he comes back and finds me in a puddle of my own blood with the side of my head gone? Despite my failing motor skills, I gather enough energy to crawl up the hill and hide behind a tree.
I’m dizzy. The world is flashing at me in bursts, like I’m trying to read a flipbook under a strobe light. I stagger around the yard and wait for Andy to come back down the hill. My face is numb, as are my hands and feet. There’s a ringing in my ears, and I wonder if the brain static that’s been building up since my last trip has finally begun seeping out the openings in my head. Maybe Andy will hear it, too, and will be able to extract and decipher the muddled message it contains, which I assume is something too profound to be understood by the unaffected ear.
“Are you all right?” Andy asks as he throws huge logs onto the fire. The flames dart up in bundles, their purple arms reaching ten feet in the air. He looks concerned as he stares at me, which makes me wonder if I should be worried. One side of my face burns from the heat and the other is cold, like damp Play-Doh. I squeeze the clammy skin and imagine how a ball of flesh would feel apart from the cheek it’s always known. I decide it would be like holding a huge, raw scallop.
Am I all right? I don’t know. I guess that depends on what one means by “all right.” The twitching has gotten worse, and in addition to the violent whole-body jerking, there’s a quivering that started with my hands and is traveling through my upper body. I’m out of my mind on an assortment of drugs I’ve consumed after a ten-mile run and twenty-two hour fast, and I’ve only just begun to come up. Oh, and there’s a woman in a red cloak standing over me, whispering things into my ear in the language I’ve convinced myself the inhabitants of Atlantis spoke. Other than that, everything’s swell.
Somehow I make it back onto the bench. I try to sit up and focus on the flames, but it’s a losing battle. My body has resigned to return to the earth, to be absorbed by the ground and to sink into its warm fibers. The next thing I know I’m lying on a patch of damp grass next to the fire. I have no idea how I got here or how much time has passed. My knees are bent and I’m staring at the sky, which is melting into a thick purple soup. I swat my hand at it and the air feels as dense as tar. Then it too disappears, and all that’s left is a black void. I wonder if I’ve closed my eyes, but when I poke my eyeball with the tip of my index finger, I find they’re wide open.
The night speeds up. I die. Fifty-seven times in a row. I can’t say how or why I know this, but it seems truer than anything that’s happened all day and perhaps in my entire life. After each death I leave my body, stand next to the fire and briefly mourn what’s happened. There I am on the ground, but here I am, too, narrating, she said. Time accelerates and I snap outside the moment. Over the course of several minutes I weave in and out of my body, in and out of the life-death chain. I see things how they really are, without the confusion of the senses to muddy my slice of the universal consciousness. What worries me even more than what’s happening is my complete acceptance of the whole sequence, as though it’s the same sort of seamless transition one would feel switching lanes on the turnpike or surfing between television channels.
“I keep dying,” I finally mumble to Andy, whose huge pupils stare at me with a combination of panic and intrigue. Cat eyes, I think. Meow. “And that lady over there is helping me.” Though the words make sense in my head, they come out slurred and at varying pitches. My tongue is too heavy to say much more; it crumples into a pile on the side of my mouth.
Andy scans the yard and turns back to me. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I don’t feel so good,” I tell him. “Maybe we should go inside.” I repeat this several times, though I can barely get myself up onto the bench, let alone walk the fifty yards through his lawn toward the driveway.
Being outside is overwhelming; there are too many variables and possibilities I can’t process. Finally, Andy hoists me out of the seat and loops his left arm beneath my right shoulder. I’m dead weight—since I’ve died—which strikes me as incredibly ironic. I giggle as he pulls me along.
“But what about everyone else?” I ask as we stagger away from the dwindling fire. Before he can answer, I turn around one last time to bid goodbye to the people we were sitting with.
“Who are you talking about? It’s just the two of us.” Andy’s got that look, the I wish I was as fucked up as she is face, the expression that one of us usually has on a trip when the other takes off.
I don’t want to argue with Andy, but it seems pretty rude to leave the party we’re throwing. These people may just be bright orbs of energy who have opted to remain out of corporeal focus, but I still want to be a polite hostess. Andy assures me it’s okay to go inside, where he promises there will be new friends to meet. I send a telepathic message to the group and tell them I’m sure we’ll meet again.
Somehow we make it through the backyard and to the driveway. Most of my weight is being supported by Andy, who is trying to keep me vertical with one arm and shining the flashlight on the ground with his other. I know how heavy my body is, and I wish I could be more help. I’ve got the sinking sensation I normally feel right before I faint, as well as a ringing in my ears that means I’ve got a few seconds before my body gives up. The last thing I’m conscious for is when my knees buckle halfway up the driveway.
Sometime between thirty seconds and forty-five minutes later, the world is spinning and I’m trying not to fall off of the chair I’m sitting on in the kitchen. Andy stands next to the sink and rests his hips on the counter. He turns to face me, and I watch his mouth move. His lips are flapping up and down and there’s noise coming out of them, but the motions don’t seem to line up with the sounds, like a badly dubbed film. He’s laughing and saying something about more drugs, and I think I’m nodding. But then the sounds coming out of his mouth shift sharply to the side, and I realize I’m hearing him from a different angle. I look to my right and see myself standing there, arms resting on the table, listening to the whole conversation.
How many of me are there? I look around but there are just the two of us, wearing matching gray shirts and khaki shorts, standing next to each other like twins from parallel earths. We’re trying to be attentive and take in the conversation as best we can, but we don’t know what to make of this funhouse with its purple floral ballooned drapes, mirrored tables, and tiny bowls of apple-scented potpourri. Time shifts again, and my selves combine and jump forward. Now I’m on the leather couch in his family room with my head buried between two tan cushions. What am I doing here? Andy’s sprawled out on the couch perpendicular to mine, swatting the air with his hands-a cat chasing an invisible ball of yarn. He’s put on some sort of easy listening music, and all I keep hearing is the line Let’s make your dreams come true, which seems at odds with the dozens of times I’ve already died this evening. The surround-sound speakers make it seem as though the voices are coming out of the wood in the walls, as though the house is serenading us.
“Andy, I think you need to know this. I may have lost my mind.” As soon as I slur the words, this truth hangs in the air like the dying embers of a sparkler. The longer it sits there, the more true it becomes.
“I knew it was only a matter of time before something like this happened,” I tell him. “One foot in reality, and the other out. Well, I’ve made the leap—there’s no going back from here.” I state this casually, as if the events of the evening could lead to no other conclusion, as if the past two-and-a-half decades was nothing more than the stretching routine before the real tap dance.
Andy doesn’t discount the possibility I’ve lost my mind—that’s what I like about him. Nothing is too far out there for Andy to at least consider. He nods and asks me to explain, but I can’t articulate the panorama of thoughts. There’s a part of me that knows I’ve crossed an invisible threshold, knows the piece that’s always kept me tethered has been cut off at the root and fed to hyenas. I can feel the sections of my brain that are normally gray and unresponsive flash on like a Lite-Brite, and I can’t decide whether or not this is a good thing. So I change the subject.
“I think you need more drugs,” I chant to Andy. “More drugs. More drugs. More drugs.” When I’m really fucked up, I feel a compulsive need to push drugs on everyone less gone than I am. I roll back and forth on the couch, my knees pulled tightly to my chest, and moan. It bothers me that I have no idea how I got into the living room or how long we’ve been there. The room is still spinning, and I’m fairly sure there’s a woman with glass eyes and a wooden tail sitting on the rocking chair, watching me unravel.
“I want to make sure you’re okay before I have any more drugs,” Andy says as he watches me roll. “Maybe you should eat something to bring your blood sugar up.”
This thought has occurred to me, though I try to resist the urge. I’ve fainted in the past from dips in blood sugar, and Andy knows this. He’s seen me have hypoglycemic lows on several occasions, both on and off drugs. Not only have I lost my mind, but I’m worried I may not be okay, physically. It’s so hard to gauge how the body feels on drugs because normalcy is a hazy recollection of a previous state of existence, a memory from an almost-forgotten past life. The numb cheeks, the tingly limbs—is it the drugs or is my body telling me something’s wrong? Should the slurred words and mental confusion, the lost time and the dizziness, be a cause of concern? It occurs to me I may not be the best judge.
But do I really want to come down? It feels like I still have so much unfinished work to do, so many things to learn on this journey that I haven’t let myself experience. To come down now would be like quitting the marathon before the final lap.
When tripping, there are two things that bring you down the quickest—food and 1,000 milligram Vitamin C tablets. Never have we had to ingest Vitamin C to prematurely end a drug experience, though we sometimes have it on hand. During past trips, once we’re sufficiently satisfied that we’ve gone the whole journey, Andy and I agree to eat something. This is usually a collective decision, one we make only when the mushrooms have run their course and we’re tired, starving, and ready for a debriefing session, which always follows a trip and can last till dawn.
Andy brings me a peach and I stare at it like it’s a severed baby head. The thought of eating it repulses me, but I know it will make me feel better, and that Andy won’t have more drugs till I put something in my stomach. I feel guilty that I’ve become the needy one—that Andy’s trip is being consumed by my sickness. I want him to have a good time and to be able to let go without having his energy sucked into my black hole. After staring at its furry face for so long it melts into an orange puddle, I lift the peach to my nose; the fruit smells sweet, like honeysuckle. I eat it slowly, taking a series of small bites and chewing solely with my front teeth, then lie back on the couch. When it’s gone I’m still too weak to get up and move around, so Andy gets me two small chocolate bars, which I down immediately.
Time has lost all meaning—what does 11:46 really stand for, anyway? The thread of moments has unraveled to the point where one second doesn’t precede the next; it’s as if they’re all a jumbled up mess on the parkway—a sixteen-car pileup waiting to be untangled. Then, for no particular reason, the moments become unstuck and expand like an accordion. I bolt up on the couch. Andy jumps, too.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I say to him. Andy nods, seemingly happy that I’m doing better.
The walk across the room and down the hall is long, and I almost fall several times. I focus on the spot where the wallpaper stripes meet the floor, but know this isn't helping me stay anchored; maroon lines are spilling onto the wooden panels and the entire room is full of patterned rays. When the dizziness makes the stripes swirl, I close my eyes, only to find the red rows imprinted behind my eyelids.
Somehow I end up in the bathroom. For a good long while I stare at my face in the rectangular mirror. My skin looks splotchy and freckles creep across my forehead; if I concentrate hard enough I can make them come together into rows and bunches, and am able to reassemble my face as though it’s a broken saucer. My flesh swims in slow, undulating currents, rippling toward my heart in a steady tide. I stare harder at my reflection and can see myself getting older, progressing quickly from my twenties to thirties and forties. My flesh sags and dark bags form beneath my eyes. Now I’m sixty, so tired and sad. Seventy, eighty, ninety, with gray hair and yellowed teeth, shriveling like a giant raisin. It’s not real, I tell myself. It’s your Id playing a joke on your Superego. I blink, and I’m back to myself again, pupils fully dilated.
I walk into the kitchen, where Andy’s brewing water for mushroom tea. He takes the contents of my bag, runs it through the drug grinder and places the gray powder into the pot. His hands move quickly and deliberately, progressing through a set of motions I’ve seen him do countless times. It’s like watching a pianist play a concerto. I’m fairly certain I don’t need more drugs, but these are the ones I grew, the ones I’ve been pampering and watering for almost five months, watching them progress from spores to mycelium cakes to thin, gangly shrooms. They’re my babies—all natural, organic, beautiful. To not have any would be like baking a cake without even tasting the icing.
There’s a part of me—the old self, the one who speaks from a place of normalcy and societal constraints—who thinks I’ve already taken too much. She tells me to be sensible, that it’s nearly one a.m. and I should think about sobering up rather than putting more chemicals into my already shaky and drug-riddled body. She wants me to eat some Twizzlers and then go home to bed. But now there’s this other self inside of me—a parallel self whom I’ve met on several occasions tonight, who has combined with the old me to form a new über self—who knows, without a doubt, that instead of taking too much, I haven’t had enough. This self knows I’ve pushed it far, but can still go so much further. She asks Andy for a small cup of bitter, murky mushroom tea, then chokes it down with a plugged nose and a crooked half-smile. She doesn’t gag, not even once.
Corey Ginsberg is a recent graduate of Florida International University’s MFA program. She has approximately four dozen publications, in prose and poetry. Her work is forthcoming at The Los Angeles Review, Subtropics, and Memoir(and), among others. Her favorite memory of a front porch is from her childhood home in Pittsburgh. After watching Mary Poppins, Corey and her friends convinced themselves they could fly if the wind was strong enough. They went out to the wrap-around porch with trash bags during a windstorm, and tried to catch a gust. Corey realized that afternoon that she cannot, in fact, fly.