Isolation, Despair, & Alienation|
Chapter 26: Psychedelic Information Theory
It is not fun to discuss the alienating aspects of psychedelics, and many advocates within the psychedelic community conveniently forget that some trips are not warm and fuzzy romps through a candy-colored wonderland, but are more like forced marches through the darkest depths of hell. The human existential melodrama of being constantly alone -- trapped in the walled-off corridors of our own minds for the duration of our lives -- is quite sad when you really start to think about it. And then, after a lifetime of living in our own unique mental prisons, we die (sigh). These notions of isolation and mortality take a bit of getting used to, but they are inescapable truths. You are the only one who inhabits your own body and headspace; you are the only one with your unique life experiences; you are the only one who can even hope to understand what’s going on in your own mind. We are designed to be prisoners of our own skulls from birth to death, and it is difficult to avoid staring this existential isolation square in the face while tripping balls on a few good hits of blotter.
Now some of you will no doubt argue that psychedelics are a cure for alienation, that they dissolve the boundaries of self and provide a unity experience which is joyous, comforting, and spiritually rewarding. I do not disagree with this, but the unity experience is only one possible outcome of a psychedelic trip. One person’s unity experience may be another person’s alienating experience, and finding your way between the two is not as easy as it sounds. For example, suppose you have the most mind-blowing unity experience of your life, and believe you have been embraced by God, kissed by the angels, and blessed by the great ancient forces of creation. Now that you have confirmed for yourself that God thinks you are a special snowflake in the vast storm of the universe, who do you share that experience with? Who could understand the mind-blowing enormity of what you felt in the same exact way you felt it? How do you share those feelings with another person without being frustrated by the limitations of language? Wouldn’t most people simply think you were high and crazy? And, to make things worse, the stranger and more profound the psychedelic experience becomes, the harder it is to share and thus the more frustrating the sense of isolation becomes. This is what I refer to glibly as “The Trap of Enlightenment”: Once you are enlightened, who do you hang out with? It’s not like there are social clubs for special snowflakes who have been soul-kissed by the logos of the universe, and if you find one they are always run by really creepy guys on a guru power trip. As cool as it might sound, being a special snowflake in a sea of semi-conscious dirt clods is a hard place to find yourself, no matter who you are.
For example, I have had many incredible psychedelic experiences, so incredible that the only thing I could think was, “Holy cow! I wish someone else could see this!” It is a common tripper’s frustration, I think. I have also had moments of pure joy and gratitude that I desperately wanted to share with every sad and lonely person on the planets, and especially my parents, just so they could see that their greatest wish for me (to be happy) had strangely come true beyond their wildest imaginings. But I could not teleport the suffering people of the world (or my parents) into my mind to share that joyous experience, so all I took away from the experience is a sadly impotent anecdote that rings hollow even as I recount it. Funny how all important moments simply fade with time. I have had extremely “far out” experiences that were so strange and bizarre I don’t even know how to explain them, or who would even want to hear them. I have had mystical experiences where God or some other alien force spoke directly through me and revealed the hidden secrets of the universe in great detail, none of which make perfect sense in retrospect, but sounded damn good at the time.
The elation of such paranormal events is beyond description, but upon returning to sobriety all I felt was depressed and confused, because who in their right mind could ever be expected to understand what I just went through? Who could I tell who would even care? The psychedelic trip was some kind of sick in-joke I played on myself, a paradoxical wormhole of timeless enlightenment that exists only in my own mind for a very limited duration of time, and then fades almost instantly. This feeling is particularly typical of my smoked DMT experiences; it happens so fast and the event itself is so bizarre beyond imagination, in the aftermath it is hard to come to terms with the explanation that it was “just a drug” that made all that crazy stuff happen in the middle part. Something far weirder than a drug-trip just went down, though I can’t quite put my finger on it…
I refer to the sense of isolation that follows intense psychedelic trips as “paradigm shock,” and the transformational impact of paradigm shock is typically strongest on first-time or novice explorers on their first big session. Seasoned veterans of psychedelic use have already undergone paradigm shock or they would have given up psychedelics long ago. Paradigm shock is very much like erasing all your beliefs, identity constructs, and social programming, and re-inventing your entire belief system and sense of self out of whatever you take away from that first big transformational trip. Paradigm shock is an essential part of all classic brainwashing and mind-control techniques, which is why psychedelics are particularly useful in brainwashing and cult-induction exercises. Cult leaders and born gurus know that if there is a ready made support group on the “other side” of your transformational trip — a group of groovy people eager to take you in and reinforce that memory of touching the big bliss in the sky — then welcome aboard baby, we own you now.
Dealing with the fallout of paradigm shock is hard enough, but there is another intensely isolating factor of the psychedelic journey, and that is what I refer to as the “introspective spiral.” The introspective spiral is an essential part of any shamanic journey, and involves an exhaustive, winding, hard look at the nature and substance of your deepest self. You must wallow in all of your weaknesses and imperfections; feel disgust at your most callous and primitive behaviors; and feel shame for neglecting all the unique and special things you take for granted. It is a messy business being human, and our personal messes inevitably creep into the lives of others, affect society, affect culture, affect nature, and have complex ripple effects which stretch throughout time. In the psychedelic state the mind becomes too astute to ignore all the messy details of organic life, and a person caught in the introspective spiral actively digs through repressed and suppressed memories looking for personal “dirt” to mine. The introspective spiral opened by clinical LSD use was a gold-rush for classic Freudian psychotherapists looking for the embedded roots of personal neurosis, which is why LSD was embraced so quickly by the psychiatric community in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. This kind of psychic/neurotic housecleaning is the stock-and-trade of shamen and psychologists alike, and the only way to confront these issues is through reflexive self-analysis and obsessively digging for deeper motivations driving personal behavior.
Although picked at in modern times by Freud and others in the psychoanalytic vein, the introspective spiral is actually a far older meditation, and was canonized by Saint John of the Cross in the classic work, The Dark Night of the Soul, which describes how the imperfections of novices on the path towards wisdom my be cleansed through the act of sacred ritual. The dark night of the soul is literally a kind of purgatory where beginners must renounce the seven deadly sins of pride, avarice, luxury, wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth, at least according to St. John. This reflexive act of piety is very much like the spontaneous introspection produced by heavy psychedelic trips; the profound and sometimes painful meditation on how we constantly and thoughtlessly succumb to the cravings of human frailty. This cleansing of the soul through a painful, clinical, ritual experience is a common practice in most world religions, including Scientology, which uses a crude lie detector (E-meter) and basic trance-induction techniques to get newcomers to “spill their darkest secrets” before moving onto to higher levels of indoctrination. The process of “digging through the dirt” or “airing out the dirty laundry” can be looked at in two ways: As a means to cleansing the psyche of past trauma, guilt, and transgression; or as a means of destroying the old self and creating a “blank slate” from which to forge a new identity structure. Cleansing and re-birth are two sides of the same coin, and the metaphor of a snake shedding old skin seems apropos to this discussion: the process may be slow, painful, uncomfortable, and messy, but at the end of it you emerge shiny and new, re-forged in a more perfect form by the spiritual trial-by-fire.
Of course, psychedelics do not always work this way. If the context of the psychedelic ritual or clinical therapy is appropriately set, then a dark, introspective session may come out very nicely on the other side. But it should be noted that withdrawal, isolation, and obsessive introspection over one’s imperfections are all inherently anti-social behaviors and signs of a deeper, underlying chronic depression. Depressed people tend to isolate themselves and wallow in self-pity, often convincing themselves that they are worthless, unloved, and in fact are not worthy of feeling happiness, love, and contentment. People who are chronically depressed may benefit immensely from a psychedelic session, but only if it helps them connect with other people and start building a full and rewarding life again. If the depressed individual takes psychedelics all alone, with no one else around and no one available to reach out to when things get bad, then things will almost certainly go sour and just get far worse from there. Getting high is traditionally supposed to make you forget how depressed and lonely you are, but psychedelics do not work like narcotics. Depressed and lonely people who take a lot of psychedelics all alone either get more depressed and stop doing it, or they slowly start to build their own delusional universe around the tripping experience that bears very little resemblance to the world we actually live in. You may already know some people who fit that description, but at least we all know that withdrawing and becoming obsessed with the inner self is a psychedelic trap now. Don’t we?
From a pharmacological perspective, depression and anti-social behaviors like withdrawal, isolation, and self-loathing are considered to be serotonin production or uptake disorders, and are treated with drugs which promote an increase in the production, supply, or uptake of serotonin to the neocortical network. SSRIs like Prozac and Paxil are the most famous for treating depression, but MAOi drugs and even certain types of stimulants (like MDMA) can increase the supply of serotonin in the brain. However, the most important point I want to stress in this discussion is that there is a direct relationship between social activity and serotonin levels in the brain, and the amount of social activity you have is intimately related to the levels of serotonin in your brain. For example, people in leadership positions who command many people under them will generally have more available serotonin than people who work on the night shift and go for days without speaking to anyone. This is a somewhat intuitive correlation when you think about it; communication with other humans requires a sense of security and confidence in the way you express yourself. If you are confident and relaxed — as a person with a head full of serotonin would be — you feel free to speak your mind and people intuitively give more weight to your opinions. If you are insecure and unsure about how to express yourself, or reflexively over-analyze everything you say, you will be less inclined to say anything at all, and people will instinctively give your opinions less weight. Thus, people with more seratonin seek to be at the center of social situations, people with less serotonin tend to withdraw.
The above characterization may seem oversimplified, and I agree that it sounds too easy to be true, but as an extreme example let’s take a hypothetical room full of shy, introspective brooding types and put them all in a room together on about 150mg of MDMA for three hours and see what happens. As the MDMA causes seratonin to flood into their brains, these chronically retreating introverts will suddenly blossom into the most articulate and effusive extroverts you have ever seen, and may even wind up cuddling in a large sweaty pile on the floor with each other. There is no better demonstration of serotonin’s power to inhibit social anxiety than the extreme social bonding and spontaneous eruption of group cuddle piles found at “E parties” around the globe. And the cuddle-pile is not necessarily a sexual thing, it is an extreme desire for as much human contact as possible, all over the body, all at once. Social interaction at a visceral level, and a ton of it, now! With the serotonin flood there is a sense of warmth, safety, and comfort found nowhere else in time and space, and the act of lying in a pile with a bunch of other mammals is extremely sensual no matter what the context. I expect this particular sensation can be traced directly back to the mammalian litter mind, when all the freshly nursed pups with full bellies of milk all nuzzle in a warm and dozy heap around mom and take a little nap. It should be no surprise that mammalian milk contains tryptophan, a direct metabolic precursor of seratonin, so this luxurious feeling of piling up on one another is a kind of familial safety and satiety, the state when everyone is good and fed, and it is safe to doze off and drift in reverie for a while.
That would be a classic MDMA experiment, but classic psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin effect serotonin uptake quite differently. Hallucinogenic tryptamines active at the 5-HT2A receptor act as partial serotonin blockades, which means they decrease the uptake of serotonin and thus increase the amount of social anxiety. This is especially true during the first stages of the psychedelic trip when the body seems shaky, nervous, anxious, and the tongue and mouth have difficulty formulating fully articulated sentences. Stuttering, slowed speech, and rhythmically altered speech patterns are typical of the early-stage hallucinogenic voyage, so social interaction and confidence in the way you are communicating can take a drastic plummet early on. Paranoia may also be a social factor at this point, but these awkward and anti-social feelings indicate (to me, at least) a cyclical drop in the uptake efficacy of serotonin, an pharmacological effect which can ultimately lead to complete and total social withdrawal, such as curling up into a frightened ball in the corner, depending on dose and context.
Adventurous psychedelic explorers have found that mixing MDMA with tryptamine psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms — a practice known as “flipping” — can help smooth out the rough edges felt while coming up on a psychedelic trip. The most common method is the “candyflip,” which is a combination of MDMA and LSD, but there is also the “hippie flip,” which is a combination of MDMA and mushrooms, and many other very creative flip techniques I will not go into here. Needless to say, the addition of mild dose of MDMA taken before or during the early portion of a tryptamine session can provide a small rush of seratonin that lubricates social interaction during the trip, like chatting, hugging, dancing, flirting, and so on.
Although using MDMA to balance out the serotonergic blockade felt during tryptamine sessions is a somewhat common practice in the underground dance culture, it is certainly not a sure-fire remedy for social-anxiety disorders caused by chronic serotonin uptake problems. In fact, people who are chronically socially-anxious and depressed should be very careful about using MDMA at all, ever. Although the MDMA will certainly make a depressed person feel better temporarily, the backlash (or hangover) caused by a total serotonin depletion will almost certainly make them even more depressed and prone to withdrawal in the days following the trip. This “bottoming-out” of serotonin supply can be mediated with certain pharmacological tricks, such as dosing with an SSRI (like Prozac) towards the end of an MDMA trip, or taking melatonin or 5-HTP supplements after the trip to help the body relax, sleep, and metabolize more 5-HT (serotonin) in the aftermath. However, for the chronically depressed person these gambits do not always work, and it is important to understand this fact up front, before you try MDMA, or the hangover may lead chronically depressed people to try even more MDMA so they can get back to that “perfect feeling,” which tends to deliver only diminishing returns upon repeated use over the course of lifetime, leading people who are chronically depressed to do more and more MDMA while achieving less and less of the positive results they hoped for. Once again, another trap to watch out for. This one is called the “Diminishing Returns” trap, and it is particularly bad with MDMA.
In the proper setting or with the right group of people, the introspective spiral of alienation and despair may never even enter into a psychedelic trip, but for people who experiment frequently with psychedelics it is bound to happen sooner or later. Seasoned psychonoauts often make elaborate plans to hike off into the wilderness or find some kind of mountain refuge where they can trip in perfect solitude, possibly for days on end. This practice mirrors the classic hermitage of religious monks and prophets who spend weeks or months at a time in total solitude so that they may seek wisdom undisturbed and in total peace. I can’t claim to know if this monastic figure is any different from the depressed and lonely shut-in who cannot figure out how to confidently interact with others, but the need for self-imposed isolation crosses the realms of both healthy introspection and pathological depression, and it is always good to check and see which side you fall on. For busy people who rarely take the time to examine their own lives, a few hours trapped in the introspective spiral of reflexive self-analysis might be the slap on the face that wakes them up to invaluable insights about the self, but in terms of treating chronic depression the jury is still out on the impact psychedelics actually have.
From the personal and anecdotal evidence I’ve collected, it appears that psychedelics can have a profound impact on depression the first time they are used, but the anti-depressant effect typically wears off after a few weeks to a month after initial use. However, since the factors of dose and context vary greatly in all modern reporting, attempting to make any final statements on the issue would be foolish at this time. I am inclined to believe that the proper psychedelic therapy in a controlled clinical or shamanic context could actually be a very effective treatment for chronic depression, but that individual experimentation and unsupervised self-medication with psychedelics to treat depression will most probably have mixed results, and could very well make the condition much worse.
Withdrawal, Eccentricity, and Intentional Freak Communities
One last note about psychedelics, alienation, and isolation I want to convey: Since psychedelics can produce very unique experiences that are hard to share with others, it is common for people who are attracted to the psychedelic experience to withdraw into themselves for long periods of time. These people may be doing something akin to “soul searching” or “finding themselves” or “trying to figure it all out.” A particularly heady psychedelic trip may send the user on a “knowledge quest” where they begin to read and consume information on a wide variety of esoteric topics like religion, botany, philosophy, chemistry, metaphysics, etc. Some people may turn to Buddhism and eastern philosophy for guidance; others will discover that they are “plant people”; others will become “entheogenic experts” and devour all the knowledge in the field; and others still will become self-styled gurus who wrap themselves in occult philosophies and world-shattering paradigms. The point I am trying to make here is that people who use and/or study psychedelics for any length of time tend to become a bit eccentric, or what most people might call weird. This weirdness may express itself through clothing or fashion sense, through passionate issue-driven activism, through occult philosophies and metaphysical belief systems, or through downright crazy behavior like outrageous acting out, pathological social withdrawal, delusions of grandeur, etc.
This tendency towards eccentricity led the ‘60s psychedelic subculture to embrace the term “freak” used to describe underground drug users in the media, as in “acid freak” or “speed freak” or something like that. After a while the term “freak” was no longer considered pejorative within psychedelic and drug subculture, and it is often used as a term of endearment, as in, “Oh yeah, I know Kevin. He’s a total freak.” Freak culture, by and large, was what the hippie movement was all about: getting freaked-out, freaky, and letting your freak flag fly. In a safe, accepting, and tolerant community, letting your freak flag fly is very empowering and liberating experience, and this notion of freak empowerment has carried over from the days of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock to the hundreds of specialty freak festivals hosted annually worldwide today. Burning Man is a good example of many different freak subcultures coming together to celebrate the whole idea of “getting your freak on” in a community atmosphere. At Burning Man people are encouraged to be outright freaky, it is stated right in their literature. In a place like Burning Man a freak feels right at home, accepted, and happy. But take that same freak back to the city, where conformity is valued, and put them in a small, drab apartment or office cube, and you will have one depressed, alienated freak. In other words, eccentricity and the embrace of the inner freak can lead to liberation and joy in a supportive environment, or profound alienation and social withdrawal in an oppressive environment.
This dichotomy between freak liberation and freak oppression can lead a lost freak to spontaneously join a new community of supportive freaks without ever looking back, like the Acid Test community of the ‘60s, the thousands of suburban kids who went to their first Grateful Dead shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s and never came home, and the techno-rave kids who ruled the freak underground through the ‘90s and beyond. These communities happened because the freaks needed a place to fight the alienation they felt in normal society, a place where they could let their freak flag fly without being mocked or judged by people who didn’t understand them. In terms of fighting depression and withdrawal, these freak communities were a good ad-hoc alternative to isolation and despair. And while jumping into a freak community is certainly not the only answer to psychedelic alienation, it does seem better than becoming excessively withdrawn and trapped into your own internal melodramas, as enticing as that sounds.
Intentional freak communities are not always solid entities. Some stay cohesive and emotionally healthy for very long periods, but the majority tend to dissipate as the core members get older, settle down, or go their separate ways. Since sex and drugs are two of the main attractors of these underground communities, it is almost inevitable that you will find tangled interpersonal relationships, pregnancies, marriages, divorces, and all the other human drama you would find in any other close-knit social group, but with more sex and more drugs. The overload of human contact and initial rush of being accepted into a freak community can be very intoxicating, but there are also inherent dangers in any community that prides itself on experimental or risky behaviors. Well-grounded freak communities can grow and flourish for many years, but the introduction of harder drugs like heroin and methamphetamines can lead the happiest freak communities to spontaneously combust in a string of overdoses, STDs, and accidental deaths that leave everyone traumatized for the long haul. You have been warned.
While I do not want to stigmatize freak communities, I do want to point out that these subcultures are not actually a remedy for social withdrawal, they are more like a support group for people suffering from social withdrawal. Freak subcultures withdraw into their own internal melodramas just as completely as the alienated individual does, but they do so on a group level. Much like a cult, the freak subculture often limits their social interactions solely to other members of the freak tribe, making the interpersonal relationships particularly tangled and incestuous. In terms of fighting alienation and depression, jumping headlong into freak subculture may work for a while, but you may be trading one set of messy issues for a whole new set of messy issues you didn’t see coming, so be warned. The beautiful people are not always beautiful, but some of them certainly are. As with any commitment to any intentional community, your mileage may vary, so choose wisely.
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Tags : psychedelics depression alienation withdrawl cult
Posted on: 2006-07-29 00:00:42