BRAIN ON DRUGS
This Is Your Brain on Burning Man
Burning Man begins on Sunday, and there will be plenty of people dropping acid for the first time. Here’s why that may not be a bad thing.
It was summer of 1994, smack in the heart of the Cape Cod’s white-trash-meets-the-Hamptons busy season. Ace of Bass dominated the radio airwaves with their smarmy melodic Swedish pop, just eclectic enough to bridge the gap to the coming alt rock takeover. Green Day was blowing up on MTV, meaning attendance at local hardcore shows like the one that had just ended was growing, not that there was much else to do for those of us under the get-wasted-and-barf-on-the-beach age. It was hot and humid so everyone and everything was simply damp all the time.
Oh yeah, and I was tripping my face off.
My most vivid memory from that night is a guy with antlers—they may actually have been ram’s horns—strapped to his helmet riding a mountain bike full speed into a concrete wall. He was the lead screamer of an artsy local hardcore band, and the wall was part of the warehouse that made up their practice space, live music venue, living quarters, and club house tucked back in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hyannis, Massachusetts. His name was Chris, and he was making a howling sound while popping a wheelie every time he got close to the vertical plane, pedaling furiously to gain speed and traction for his gravitationally contradictory route.
Outside, a contingent of Irish college students—hundreds of them used to be imported every summer on work visas—milled about, hitting on local girls or clambering aboard an abandoned school bus and passing out. Their voices, loud with a night of heavy drinking, were making me uncomfortable with their lilting accents and strange slang. Reality was becoming hard enough to hold on to without the added atmosphere of a tripped out version of—what was in my mind—a Lucky Charms commercial. One of them grabbed me by the shoulders as I tried to slip through a knot of them, peering sagely into my eyes and muttering incoherently, his words sing song, until his nose flattened into his cheeks and, giving up, I fled.
This wasn’t how my night was supposed to go.
I was freshly freed from high school and loving the first tastes of freedom. I thought, at the time, that I was very adult to be living on my own for the first time, although “on my own” meant paying some small amount to camp on a friend’s screened in porch with two other dudes.
I had recently broken my collarbone skateboarding, and the summer was rapidly turning into a haze of painkillers, crappy weed, and purloined booze. At some point I had decided that I was just going to wear a bathrobe for a week, and, thus attired, faded, and in a sling must have really radiated “responsible adult.” Such was my state when I casually ate a Sweet Tart handed to me by a friend at that show, only to discover, 20 or so minutes later, that I was getting a lot more than corn syrup and citric acid with my candy.
It first became clear that something out of the ordinary was happening when I felt all of the hair growing on my body. Not growing longer, nothing extreme like that, just an awareness of the sensation of cells building on each other and slowly, inexorably pushing outward from my skin. I was about to become alarmed by this—who wouldn’t?—when I was suddenly distracted by the ripples that pulsed wildly from the drummer’s kit, undulating through the room, a gentle swell in the space time continuum’s ocean. Faster and faster they came, pushing, hitting me softly at first but then escalating in physical force, stretching me backwards with them like a swirl of heavy cream poured into a clear glass of black coffee. I felt myself expanding into the room, at once growing larger and more aware and losing myself completely. It was in the midst of this that the dry voice in my head pointed out that shit was getting super weird and I snapped out of the groove I was in, my consciousness pulling back even as, visually, everything continued to gel into a giant fractal energy smoothie.
A little panicked, I plugged my gaping mouth with a cigarette from the box in my bathrobe pocket, dug around for my Zippo lighter, flicked it open, and pushed the ribbed wheel down to call forth the flame.
My head exploded.
Actually, I think everything exploded in the sudden purity of the flickering fire’s light. I must gave stared at it for a solid minute before remembering to touch it to the tip of my cigarette, which flared and then settled into a ruddy slow burn that pulsed and lived with its own breath. I have no idea how long I stood there staring deep into that little burning world, but it must have been long enough for Katie, the friend who’d given me the Sweet Tart, to notice me and recognize that perhaps I required some rescuing.
She led me by the elbow outside into the swamp-like air and sat me down on an old tractor tire, listening patiently while I unloaded the copious revelations I was receiving. Katie was short, with bead-infused brown dreadlocks that chunked past her shoulders, and standing in front of me, bent slightly and peering with a noted concern into my blown open pupils, she looked more like an Ewok than any character that ever graced a Star Wars movie. She was asking me questions that I didn’t have answers to, her words registering as English but not fitting into boxes of understanding. It was so hard to focus on them, all I could think about was whether or not she had a tree house we could go hang in, and why didn’t everyone live in tree houses?
She was annoyed, and the discordance of that vibe shook me a little back to some clarity.
“Dude, chill, you’re on acid,” her lips were saying while her tongue swallowed her teeth like a starving moray eel. The meaning of that settled in, and I suddenly recognized my symptoms, at least somewhat.
“You’ve never done this before, have you?” Sympathy was evident, but I didn’t need, or want, sympathy. I was too busy making major life decisions while the knotted hairs in her dreads seethed and flexed, like there was something inside trying hard to be born.
A couple now-blurry-but-colorful hours later and the concert was over, Chris had failed at anti-gravitational mountain biking, and I was fleeing the Irishmen’s spell casting brogue. I wound up inside the porch I inhabited, watching a patient girl with green hair paint the sunrise while I babbled incessantly and the intensity of the visuals slowly wound down to a general sparkliness. Eventually, I passed out.
The next day my collarbone was killing me, my cigarettes and lighter were gone, and I’d lost my mud-caked bathrobe. My head, however, was surprisingly intact, considering the expanding it had done the night before. Over the coming days it became clear something else was different, too. My brain, in reassembling itself, had managed to retain some space between its neurons and synapses, a previously unfelt openness to the world around me and an ability to more easily access, or at least be open to, some creative notions. This wasn’t the last time I consumed hallucinogens, far from it as my twenties came into play, but with the exception of a peyote jag in the Texas desert it was the only one that had real and lasting influence on my life.
There are studies galore that extol the potential value of psychedelics to treat PTSD or manage mental illness or depression, and shamans for centuries have used them to bring people closer to what they perceive as a spiritual plane. I’m no scientist and I’m certainly not a medicine man, though I did act like one for a couple years in the ’90s. While I’m always skeptical of people espousing “revelations” discovered under the influence of anything—drugs, religion, or otherwise—this is an experience that fundamentally shifted the navigation of my psyche in a way that I’d only describe as good. Would I have pursued a life in the creative space were it not for that summer evening? I don’t know. Probably. But the expansion, the ability to open up a little further mentally that I came away with absolutely aid me in what I do every day. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have gotten here on my own, and I’m not advocating anyone else jump down a psychedelic rabbit hole seeking to emerge a better person—I’ve definitely seen the opposite happen as much as anything. But for a kid in a bathrobe on a man-made island in 1994, it made a difference.
I still get a little nervous around large groups of Irishmen, though.