On the 8th of October, at a music festival, surrounded by friends, I ate magic mushrooms – and for the next three hours all of my anxieties, paranoia and fears were magnified to debilitating levels. (Did it have something to do with taking synthetic acid tabs the night before? I have since been told ‘yes’ and ‘definitely’ and ‘you nong’.) It revealed something new and terrifying about myself. Something unexpected; something I was happier before I knew.
There was a seismic shift in perception: my mind cracked and rearranged itself into new and alien combinations. A friend once said to me of their depression that “Sometimes, I let my perception sharpen, I just remove some barrier, and there’s this terror always under the surface”. At the time I didn’t understand – but doing mushrooms it came back to me, and I understood it with a sudden and perfect clarity.
I became a sad man on the internet, an entry in a bad VICE article, everyone you should avoid at a music festival. The tarp I was sitting on rose and fell; I imagined I was laying on the chest of some giant, slowly inhaling and exhaling. The clouds above formed kaleidoscopic patterns, shifting and twisting before me.
Accompanying beauty was utter panic. The lines of communication had been cut; I couldn’t speak to anyone. I could barely think. I could start a thought, and come to an understanding, but the words were never there. Everything that I’d ever done was suddenly re-evaluated in a new light. It wasn’t just that I was convinced all my friends hated me, but that I deserved to be hated. I was stripped of everything I valued, I was worth nothing I had done nothing – and I could say nothing.
After the fact it seems arrogant, but at the time I was sure I was having a real insight into crippling mental illness. I began to imagine auras. Everyone else would be a bright colour; I was of the darkest black. I was reduced to expressing myself with New Age bullshit, and I hated myself for it. I was a dark cloud on the horizon, I thought, I was a compressed failure of a lump of coal. Not a diamond – just a lump of coal.
The other shroom-takers were having more fun. I looked up at them, clothed in white translucent rain coats, looking for all the world like angels – then I looked back at me, squatting in the mud and the filth of my mind. Jealous but not wanting to contaminate them with my shittiness. I hated them, but didn’t want to spread my disease.
All the goodness leaked out of me. All the empathy, all the compassion. I was left with hatred, envy and an overwhelming fear. I couldn’t speak – hadn’t for about an hour; every time I tried, I could only say something incredibly ominous:
“I need to talk to Patrick Marlborough.”
“The virus spreads.”
“Sometimes I need to breathe deeply and remember the worst of it is over [it wasn’t].”
“I will be of no use to you.”
The staring was beginning to unnerve passersby. Communication became impossible. I couldn’t speak for fear. I was sure anything I said would mean I was about to be cast out of the group permanently. I was consumed by a need to be accepted, yet sickened by my neediness.
I became convinced that other people on mushrooms could see into my soul if we made eye contact. I would turn away when they looked at me, convinced that my bad trip was infectious, that I was Pandora’s Box and I just had to stomp down hard enough on the lid to keep everything in.
Eventually, I retreated into my tent to try and write about what was happening (and, incidentally, those notes were not very helpful when I was trying to write this piece: how many times can one man write “Oh man this is SO bad”?). I could hear my friends worrying about me, and popping out briefly to shout “Hey guys I’m fine, I’m fine,” didn’t seem too convincing.
But the worst thing was that I never really came down. I just came out of the tent, and pretended to be fine, trying to talk to friends who were clearly concerned. I had completely forgotten how to talk to people, how to appear interested in what they were saying, how to be funny or charming, how to laugh with genuine warmth and not just force out some awful chortle.
Suffice it to say I was not very good company that evening.
But, strange as it may sound, I don’t regret the experience. I feel closer – however falsely, however artificially, however transiently – to an understanding of what it means to live in the land of severe depression and anxiety. And I know I’m very lucky to be a tourist, it was good to visit – but I’d hate to live there.
Words by Al Mowbray
Art by Taylor Brown