The first and only time I’ve done acid, I was on a nude beach on the central coast of California. The shore was empty save for the five of us, fully clothed, and an older gentleman stomping around in the waves, fully nude. I sat cross-legged on a towel and appeared deceptively at ease, playing with sand, gazing out at the water.
Unlike natural psychedelics, LSD is unmistakably chemical. It did not make me feel at one with nature so much as fearful of it. I watched, uneasily, as freckles swam around on my thighs like tiny autonomous bumper cars. I dipped my hands into the sand over and over, observing how the granules clung to my skin like sticky magnets. I watched the murky blue expanse in front of me as it tilted almost imperceptibly towards me, the water threatening to swallow me whole.
As I disappeared further into the trip, my physical surroundings were drowned out by the gravitational swirl of my mind. To this day, I don’t have the words to describe where I went, except to say that I was trapped in abstract thought, struggling to remember where I was, only occasionally registering that I was me — on a beach, okay — before disappearing back into the inky wormhole.
At some point, I took my friend Ian aside. Our designated sober guide. “I am losing touch,” I told him. “Am I okay?” I kicked at a loose rock in an attempt to stay present. He jogged a lazy loop around me, the visual drag of his body encircling me in a bind I couldn’t escape.
“You’re totally fine, Haley,” he said, slowing to a stop with a laugh that sounded menacing. “You’re good. We’re going to a concert after this and it’s going to be so fun.”
“A concert,” I said, forgetting what the word meant.
Several terrifying years later, known to the sober world as two hours, I came to: I was standing among my friends. I felt cool grass under my bare feet, a warm breeze against my skin. The sun had sunk behind the water and a familiar melody floated over us from a nearby stage. We’d made it to the show, and I’d made sweet, beautiful contact with reality.
I’ve been haunted by that acid trip for years. For a long time, nothing could convince me the mind-bending thought-spirals, which made me feel like an unwilling captive of my own mind, were worth the funny story. But it recently occurred to me that my trip, incomprehensible as it was, might be an apt metaphor for the human condition — and may be the most concentrated glimpse I’ll ever get into the way our minds control us.
A couple days after the show, as my friend Lydia drove us back up the coast, I proclaimed myself done with acid forever. “A bad trip is scary,” Lydia replied between drags of her cigarette, like the sage 21-year-old I believed her to be, “but next time you can just remind yourself that you’re tripping and pull yourself out of it, you know?”
This was a common creed among our group at the time — that a bad trip was one rational thought away from being good. But it never quite worked in my experience, because drugs warp your mental makeup, sometimes beyond recognition. That a particular line of thought might accompany you to the other side is never a guarantee. In fact, this is central to the appeal of most drugs.
This is also the prevailing catch-22, I’ve come to realize, of emotions in general. We are perpetually trapped in our current experience, whether the condition is clear to us or not. And knowing the truth, intellectually — I’m just tripping, I shouldn’t feel like this, I’m smarter than that — doesn’t necessarily change anything. You’ll still be high, or you’ll still be sad, or you’ll still know better. Because we see the world through whatever glasses are strapped to our faces at a given moment: rose-colored, psychedelic, the muted palette of depression. The truth, in other words, doesn’t always set us free. Begrudging this is the stuff of great literature, and probably many diaries.
I’ve often assumed that life’s ultimate pursuit was somehow learning to see beyond these limitations. To embody whatever is my “true” perspective, unencumbered by such trivialities as mood or hallucinations. And I’d do this by sheer force of wisdom, by letting my less evolved qualities shake off in the process of growing up, by reminding myself that I’m just tripping. But like that day on the beach, such clarity eludes me over and over. Emotions and delusions cling to my mind like sticky magnets.
I’m just now beginning to see this for what it is: human existence. I don’t think it’s right to assume that there is an authentic version of me, buried under all the moods. That very view is what has lead me to believe my emotions are something to solve, or my swings something to diagnose. It’s what makes me think, I just haven’t felt like myself lately, when what I really mean is: I just don’t like how I’ve felt lately.
It’s a separation I no doubt developed to cope, but which has the unfortunate side effect of making me believe there is some rendering of me that is true: I am good at writing; I have interesting ideas; I am a social creature. But these traits are just as ephemeral as moods. They ebb and flow like waves in a pool, greeting and then leaving me without my consent. Sometimes I cannot write, have no ideas, and don’t want to see a soul. My affections wax and wane, too. No one state is “me.” Or rather, they all are. I can no sooner escape that cycle than I can intellectualize my way out of an acid trip.
It’s hard to remember this when the tide rolls in, though, especially when it brings the best version of myself: happy, energetic, curious, empathetic. It’s far more satisfying to think, my work has paid off and I have evolved, than it is to think, this is temporary, ride it while you can, baby girl. But as time marches on, I’m beginning to see the latter as more forgiving. It may rob me of some credit when I’m buoyed by optimism, but it also means I need not panic when, inevitably, that energy dissipates like pee in a water park wave pool. Because it always comes back, unfortunately and fortunately.
Some time between the bumper car freckles and the cool grass, my friend Thos and I were standing in a sandy nearby parking lot, preparing to walk to the concert venue. “Want me to bring this?” He was holding my backpack up, staring at me. I stared back, confused and unsure. “We’ll bring it,” he said finally, kindly.
Later, we laughed about the moment. “I fully lost the ability to answer questions,” I said, dumbfounded by my brain’s capacity to change so completely. But in time, that surprises me less and less. As I round the corner on my 30th year, my capacity for multitudes — along with everyone else’s — has revealed itself as one of life’s only constants.
I always imagined that getting older meant inching towards a more static version of my personality, but it’s turned out to be more about embracing transience as a default. And treating ebbs and flows as marks of animation rather than proof of an unreliable self. Being high, in the end, is not so different from being sad or happy or fulfilled. Each is its own small unit of insanity, showing us parts of ourselves, blinding us to others, and then slotting in as another step on the road to being us, and being alive.
Animation by Madeline Montoya.