Monday, January 9, 2017

A Trip of One’s Own

[ed. See also: Want More Productivity? Be Careful What You Wish For, and Micro-dosing: The Drug Habit Your Boss Is Gonna Love]

One day, while driving home to Berkeley after a poorly attended reading in Marin County, Ayelet Waldman found herself weighing the option of pulling the steering wheel hard to the right and plunging off the Richmond Bridge. “The thought was more than idle, less than concrete,” she recalls, “and though I managed to make it across safely, I was so shaken by the experience that I called a psychiatrist.” The doctor diagnosed her with a form of bipolar disorder, and Waldman began a fraught, seven-year journey to alter her mood through prescription drugs, a list so long that she was “able to recite symptoms and side effects for anything … shrinks might prescribe, like the soothing voice-over at the end of a drug commercial.” She was on a search for something, anything, that would quiet the voices, the maniac creativity, the irritable moods that caused her to melt down over the smallest mistakes. That’s when she began taking LSD.

Lysergic acid diethylamide is in the midst of a renaissance of sorts, a nonprescription throwback for an overmedicated generation. As pot goes mainstream—the natural solution to a variety of ills—LSD is close behind, in popularity if not legality. By 1970, two years after possession of LSD became illegal, an estimated two million Americans had used the drug; by 2015, more than 25 million had. In A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, Waldman explores her own experience of taking teeny, “subtherapeutic” doses of the drug. This “microdose,” about a tenth of your typical trip-inducing tab, is “low enough to elicit no adverse side effects, yet high enough for a measurable cellular response.” Her book is both a diatribe and diary. She offers a polemic on a racist War on Drugs that allows her, a middle-class white woman, to use illegal substances with ease, as well as a daily record of the improved mood and increased focus she experiences each time she takes two drops of acid under the tongue. Microdosing advocates argue that LSD is a safer and more reliable alternative to many prescription drugs, particularly those intended to treat mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Respite is what Waldman is chasing, a gradual tempering, drop by drop, of our fractured, frazzled selves. If the 1960s were about touching the void, microdosing is about pulling back from it.

I’d been on prescription antidepressants for about a year when I opened Waldman’s book. To say that mental illness runs in my own family would be an understatement. After listening to a very abridged version of my family medical history, my psychiatrist called me the “poster child for mental health screenings before marriage.” My sister, gripped with undiagnosed postpartum psychosis, once fantasized, as Waldman did, about driving off a bridge with her infant daughter in the car, and my mother killed herself by overdosing on OxyContin and other legal drugs a month before I graduated from college. Battle is the stock verb of illness—we battle cancer, depression, and addiction. But I cannot in good conscience say I battle my depression and anxiety. Rather, my madness and I are conjoined twins, fused at the head and hip: Together always, we lurch along in an adequate, improvised shuffle.

Like Waldman, I worry about the negative effects of taking an SSRI long-term. The daughter of hippies, a flower grandchild, I don’t trust the pharmaceutical industry to prioritize my wellness over their profits. I’ve long agreed with Waldman that “practitioners, even the best ones, still lack a complete understanding of the complexity and nuance both of the many psychological mood disorders and of the many pharmaceuticals available to treat them.” So when I finished the prologue to A Really Good Day, I set the book down and left my therapist a voicemail announcing my plan to wean myself off Celexa. Then I went on reading. I did not mention the new-old mystic’s medicine beckoning me—the third eye, the open door.

It’s surprisingly simple to get LSD. I asked a few friends, who asked a few of their friends, and the envelope arrived just a few days later with a friendly, letter-pressed postcard. Spliced into the card, via some impressive amateur surgery, was a tiny blue plastic envelope. Inside that was a piece of plain white paper divided with black lines into ten perfect squares: ten tabs of acid, 100 microdoses at a dollar each. (...)

If cocaine kept Wall Street humming at all hours in the 1980s, LSD today keeps the ideas flowing in Silicon Valley’s creative economy, solving problems that require both concentration and connectedness. Microdosing is offered as an improvement over Adderall and Ritalin, the analog ancestors of modern-day smart drugs. Old-school ADHD methamphetamines, it would seem, clang unpleasantly against Silicon Valley’s namaste vibe. Today’s microdosers “are not looking to have a trip with their friends out in nature,” an anonymous doser recently explained to Wired. “They are looking at it as a tool.” One software developer speaks of microdosing as though it were a widget one might download for “optimizing mental activities.” The cynic’s working definition might read, “microdose (noun): the practice of ingesting a small dose of a once-countercultural drug that made everyone from Nixon to Joan Didion flinch in order to make worker bees more productive; Timothy Leary’s worst nightmare; a late-capitalist miracle.”

Productivity is not Waldman’s purpose—pre-LSD, she could write a book in a matter of weeks—but neither is non-productivity, the glazed-over stoner effect. Waldman is instead insistent on the therapeutic value of microdosing. There is nothing, it seems, that LSD isn’t good for, no worry it can’t soothe, no problem it can’t solve. Once an afternoon delight of recreational trippers and high-school seniors, LSD has become a drug of power users: engineers, salesmen, computer scientists, entrepreneurs, writers, the anxious, the depressed. The trip isn’t the thing; instead, microdosing helps maintain a fragmented, frenzied order, little by little, one day at a time.

by Claire Vaye Watkins, TNR |  Read more:
Image: Tran Nguyen