LSD: The Gamble with Mental Health

*Disclaimer: This article in no way seeks to endorse or encourage drug use. It seeks to inform and discuss. Also, the experience described in this article is individual and NOT representative of all users.
*Trigger warnings: Discussion of drug use and suicidal thoughts.

“Turn on, tune in and drop out” was the message that American Psychologist, Timothy Leary, gave American students in the 1960s, thrusting the decade into a realm of experiment, mind-expansiveness and, notably, genius music – the birth of a new counterculture had begun. From the USA, LSD soon took residence in the United Kingdom where – though experiencing a decline in usage in the 80s – picked back up and became , yet again, popular with the generational youth for once whom it was intended for: but at what cost?

Artists, philosophers, writers and musicians have all been associated with the ‘magic’ drug that some claim aids them in both their writing and performances- even the much-loved Beatles talk of their LSD experience. If there is ever a performance that showcases the sheer creative power of LSD then watching Santana perform Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock is a must view and below he explains his experience.

However, as expansive and enlightening as people claim LSD to be ,there is of course, inevitable risks. Syd Barrett, the original lead guitarist and songwriter of Pink Floyd, truly showed society ‘the dark side of the moon’ as the same drug that fueled his creative energy was a catalyst for his mental decline.

There are internet rumours and speculation that Syd Barrett is the first famous -and rare -case of what is now known as HPPD ( Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder ), where one essentially experiences flashbacks of visual hallucinations experienced from a previous ‘trip’.

I spoke with Finn O’Hagan, a 21 year-old, Stirling local and avid hiker who claims to suffer from both HPPD and PTSD, after an acid trip went wrong:

“The first time I took acid was in June 2020, just as lockdown started to ease. I took it with my trip setter and she was completely sober. It was f*cking amazing.”

“It was 14 hours of sheer bliss.”

“I’d always heard that it was a good experience and that it really opens your mind. It’s nice to see what our brains are capable of given a different chemical balance. “

He also mentioned that he wasn’t big on any other drugs:

“I’ve smoked weed and I’ve done LSD and that’s about it. They were always relatively safe drugs compared to anything else.”

He then goes onto explain a second acid trip he experienced on Tentsmuir Beach, Fife, that same Summer:

” It was a bit overwhelming with the sun, wind, sand and the waves. Probably too overwhelming for an acid trip.”

“And I stupidly didn’t realise how much I was taking, so instead of taking 200 μ , my paper had gotten wet and I had taken two. So close to 400 μ.”

Finn explains what happened in the hours that followed:

“It was a f**cking horrendous trip. I ended up tripping out, freaking out and I had to call [my trip setter], followed by a 4 hour long panic attack while she had to come and get me and meditate me out of it.”

Finn O’Hagan, Photo Credit: Jake Field

“It was like time stopped existing, everything was out to get me and the world was swallowing me up.”

Finn -who has never suffered from any previous mental health problems- described feeling intense panic and anxiety that he had never experienced before during this trip, though in the aftermath, these began to wear off: “The trip got better and the next day I was fine.”

It wasn’t until 3 months later that what Finn describes as HPPD and PTSD started to set in, after smoking cannabis daily during the months that followed his last trip:

“I just smoked a joint that was way too strong and I started to trip again and it wasn’t a good trip – it was the bad trip and I had a 2 week long panic attack.”

“My eyes were going funny; I had visuals and I couldn’t look at bright lights and I was seeing lights on walls …and I had no idea what it was. “

The first ever recorded case of HPPD may have been in 1898, where an English writer, Havelock Ellis, reported intense sensitivity to light and colour for a long time after taking the psychedelic drug, Mescaline – similar to Finn’s experience.

After phoning his doctor thinking that he could have perhaps came down with a bug, Finn was prescribed Sertraline (an antidepressant), which was also used in another case of suspected HPPD of a 15 -year-old British male who reported similar symptoms after consistent cannabis use, that he claimed could have been laced with LSD.

Finn describes the toll that HPPD has taken on his mental well-being:

“…side effects of anxiety, depersonalisation and derealisation. You don’t feel like yourself ; you have existential dread and with derealisation- you just feel like nothing’s real.”

American Journalist, Andrew Callaghan, revealed to Vice News earlier this year that he had a diagnosis of HPPD in which he suffered similar side effects as Finn- describing experiences of depersonalisation and derealisation disorder for a few years and claiming that he feels like he is “living in a simulation” and “trapped” behind his eyes, after taking the drug psilocybin ( or more commonly known as ‘magic mushrooms’).

Finn reflects on the things that he claims went wrong during his second acid trip:

“We weren’t in a place that was familiar to me. We were out camping on a beach on an extremely windy and extremely sunny day surrounded by other people that we don’t know.”

“The acid is overall responsible for the HPPD and PTSD that I’ve got now but the weed is what pulled the trigger. And if I’d have known more about this, I definitely would not have done it or would have been a lot more careful. ”

“It opens your mind and once your mind gets opened, it’s very hard to close.”

When asked if he regrets the experience Finn states:

“I both regret and don’t regret it: the first part of the HPPD when life felt like it was ending and I wanted to kill myself – I definitely very much regretted touching acid, thinking that I’d never feel normal again.”

He also goes onto say that being 10 weeks down the line since first discovering that he potentially has these disorders, that his feelings are much more under control and he can reflect clearly on his experience.

“I don’t so much regret touching it now because it’s like I’ve almost got this new experience with bad mental health that I’ve never had before. Having this experience will allow me to empathise a lot with other people.”

Finn also talks about giving up any stimulant triggers of his HPPD and PTSD and has claimed to be sober from alcohol for 5 months now while also quitting caffeine and cannabis 10 weeks ago, and nicotine 3 weeks ago.

“I’m about 70% recovered. I’m on 50mg of Sertraline, I’m still very happy…It was just, the anxiety was causing me a lot of pain and my mental health nurse wants me to stay on that for at least a year while my brain balances.”

Finn O’Hagan, Photo Credit: Elliot Harris

When asked what message he would give to anyone else who wants to experiment with psychedelics, Finn says:

“…definitely be very careful on your dosage. Test your acid and be a 100% safe. I’m not saying don’t do it but be extremely careful with it because you can become completely non-functioning for a couple of months and it’s very, very scary.” 

Though there is still much to uncover of HPPD, there is definitely a dark side to what people claim to be an enlightening drug and although there have never been any proven deaths or overdoses attributed to LSD (except one case in an elephant), the detriment to mental health can be incredibly frightening. No matter if -physically- you’re well, there’s a reason why people coined the term ‘ego-death’.

Characters: The Hidden Pleasures of a Coffee Shop

There’s something about the ambiance of a quaint, cosy coffee shop in the centre of a historical city- with bustle on the outside and soft buzzing on the inside. A place laced subtly in life’s simple pleasures, like a cup of coffee that warms your hands, mouth and soul; surrounded by rustic beams and voices as dimmed as the four little lights dotted about the panels above you. There’s an unspoken tranquility about it; an almost celestial one that slipped through my fingers as I switched from a coffee-drinker to a coffee-maker in the middle of a worldwide pandemic: a simple pleasure no longer.

How hard can this be? I thought, yet it was fleeting as I examined the loud, intimidating machine in front of me competing with raised voices around me.

The smell of fresh coffee grounds dominated with a lingering scent of disinfectant, my feelings of tranquility and warmth, replaced with stress and an icy coldness from 8 hour shifts in masks and gloves with no breaks, to implementing distances on people who were once never apart. An atmosphere which I once considered as my place of escapism- that now ironically- I wanted to escape.

“Would you like milk with your latte?” I asked the young girl at the counter, though she needn’t have responded with words for her look of bewilderment from her eyes alone communicated my error.

Though in the days of dark adversity, I somehow found warmth in those dimmed little lights just one last time. There is one of life’s simple pleasures that resided here that my eyes would skim over without a second glance but one that became so essential to soothing the sores of my anxiety-ridden mind that will never be taken for granted again: Characters.

The importance of characters in life I have -until now- so greatly undermined. Some have hurt my stomach from laughter, some have made my eyes sore from tears, yet without them, my workdays would be unbearable. From the woman who stumbled in at 11am asking if we sold alcohol, to the middle-age mothers, with masks below their nose, declaring with bangles jingling on their wrists that Covid is a hoax.

Or the businessmen who meet every Thursday morning, focused and unaware of the chaos that surrounds them.

Even the students who sit quietly for hours on end, so unaware of just how much their stillness is needed. Or Peter, the jovial but equally as humble old man who despite being a famous artist, chooses to sit alone with a tea and scone in this dainty little place. Their diversity as characters has never been so admired as it is by the waitress that serves them. They’re little pleasures hidden in plain sight.

As the jingle of the bell signals the comings and goings, I can’t help thinking that there’s something about the characters of a cold, busy coffee shop in the middle of a world-wide pandemic: They’re what keeps it warm.

Image source: “coffee steam 1” by waferboard is licensed under CC BY 2.0