Suzanne*, a junior in college, lounges in a high-backed, computer chair in a darkened room, her face submerged in shadow for the one, dim light bulb illuminating the space. Her hands lazily clutch a cigarette, and her feet slowly, methodically graze across the carpet as she rotates to and fro.
A soft smile plays on her lips as she reminisces her favorite acid trip.
“[It was] one of the happiest times I’ve ever had. We went to a park that was next to a lake, and we listened to Pink Floyd and looked at clouds, [and] we talked about how we all felt like nothing could go wrong for us that day.”
She adds, “I flew a kite… it just felt so childish, in a sense, and also innocent and peaceful.”
According to an article by Barry L. Jacobs in American Scientist, hallucinogens affect the neurotransmitter serotonin, leading to a distorted sense of time, altered perception of colors, sounds, and shapes, rapid changes in mood, and sometimes nausea. There are many types of hallucinogens, owing to the fact that new drugs are always being synthesized in laboratories, but the most common found on college campuses are LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin mushrooms.
LSD is a colorless substance that can be ingested in its liquid form, but is usually dropped onto any number of ingestible objects like blotter paper, sugar cubes, or SweeTarts. Psilocybin mushrooms have light-colored stems and dark brown caps. Elmhurst College sophomore, Millie*, prefers to put her mushrooms in a peanut butter sandwich because of their distinctive taste, not so dissimilar from earwax.
Is it the promise of beautiful visuals and a dramatically new way of thinking causing 7.8 percent of college students to want to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs? Not so for Millie.
“When you’re submerged in an environment where drugs are the norm… it doesn’t seem so insane to want to do something like this. If I look back at myself in high school, I don’t think I ever would have imagined myself trying these things, but once you take that first step, it’s so much easier to keep raising the bar and trying new things, and not being so scared of new experiences.”
Millie relates her mushroom trip was unlike anything she had or could ever experience.
“My body felt… completely different. I really appreciated the music I was listening to, and [I remember] sort of being amazed by everything around me.”
“Time… seemed slowed down, but then it also went by so quickly,” she added. “[My emotions were] almost like a roller coaster. Like, you’ll be really happy for a minute, and [then] I’d get bummed out about something, but it didn’t take much to get me out of that.”
EC senior, Jim*, recalls a similarly mind-expanding experience.
“We were camping and listening to Led Zeppelin, and I kind of watched a whole concert of Led Zeppelin in the reflection of a window.”
It’s not all beautiful and mystical, however; 1960’s psychologist Timothy Leary’s mantra of “set and setting” remains key in experimentation. The location of your trip, who is around you, and your level of emotional stability all play into how the trip will play out. And sometimes, it can be terrifying.
EC junior, Ralph*, describes his first trip, as “horrifying then beautiful.”
“[My] first [mushroom] trip I melted to the floor in a small bathroom wishing I would die, [but] as I peeled myself away from hell and found peace, everything was okay for the next six hours,” he said, “but just okay.”
College sophomore, Vince*, recognizes the unforeseeable nature of these drugs and chooses to avoid them.
“I’m afraid that I’m going to be one of those weird tweakers. I feel like I’ve got a lot of demons deep down inside, [and psychedelics will] just release them.
Suzanne had such a startling experience in the first week of her sophomore year that she took a year and a half break from hallucinogens.
“I took three hits of acid instead of my regular two hits, and it just turned out to be really strong.”
According to Suzanne, she and her friends decided to trip on her campus lawns, but the trip turned sour after a group of RAs asked them if they wanted to join their game of catch. “We were all super strung out so we had to say no, and we all just sounded really weird and nervous when we were talking to them, and it just kind of set off a weird mood,” she remembers.
“But the real bad part came when one of my friends freaked out, and if one person freaks out, it freaks everyone out ‘cause you’re just like a group, you know?”
Humphrey Osmond, co-author of the 1970’s book Psychedelics, brings up the fact that drugs are seen as dangerous because of the modern concept of the drug addict—of “an individual so enslaved by his need to escape reality… that he seeks these dangerous substances to the exclusion of the more conventional activities that keep society functioning.”
Although LSD and mushrooms have no addictive chemicals, they have been linked to several deaths, many of which have been suicides. For example, the 1991 Chicago case in which Kirstie McDonald, 15, fatally shot herself in the stomach after ingesting LSD, according to the Chicago Tribune.
However, Millie believes psychedelics can be completely safe if they are used properly.
“I think you should always know how much you’re taking and let somebody know… you’re tripping. I don’t think [psychedelics are] dangerous. I’ve heard of people killing themselves on acid, [but] just take precaution so nothing goes wrong.”
Ralph approaches ingesting mushrooms with trepidation.
“…They can shatter your stability by taking all the shit in your closet and throwing it in your face and making you deal with it for eight hours while going through it with people who are having the same experiences.”
Some trips are enlightening and some frightening, but Millie took her experimentation with mushrooms as a learning experience.
“I came to some realizations about myself and the way I was viewing myself and other people,” said Millie. “I know I tend to get hung up on little things, so I think while I was on ‘shrooms–it felt like an epiphany at the time but it was just sort of a minor realization–that these trivial things don’t really matter in the bigger picture.”
Regardless of what hallucinogens can do for you, possession of these Schedule I drugs is a felony.
“The only stigma behind it and the only danger that I see is that sometimes it opens up a reality that society doesn’t want you to see,” said Suzanne.
“Society doesn’t want you to see beyond all of the buildings that it’s made, and the highways and your office job; it doesn’t want you to see beyond that because then you would be going against the structure that they put up.”
*Names have been changed.