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The Dreaded 'Bad Trip' on LSD -- Researchers Are Starting to Understand What Causes Them

New research into psychedelics as therapies is figuring out how to maximize safety and benefits.

My memory of that long-ago terror-filled night clicks into focus a few minutes past 2 am, after the bars had last call in the one-horse town Alleghany, New York, where I was a freshman at Saint Bonaventure University. It was late February and freezing, with snow piled high on the ground. Inside the town’s all-night pizza joint—where never-say-die partiers loaded up on greasy subs and 12-packs of beer for after-hours—I was waiting for the bathroom. About six hours earlier my friend Brian and I had each dropped a purple tab of LSD, chasing it with Milwaukee’s Best. I was feeling pretty good.

Leaving the counter with his food, a hockey player, wearing his team jacket, approached me with a wide smile on his face. He told me about a half-keg running at someone’s house nearby. Then, looking into my eyes, he said, “You’re pupils are huge. You doing acid tonight?” I nodded, shrugged and said, “Yeah, man. Why? You?”

I had only taken LSD once before, but it was a commonly used drug across the school by jocks and stoners alike. At the time, in the mid-1990s, both LSD and ‘shrooms were peaking in popularity after years of decline. But psychedelics had by then been divorced from their original counter-cultural context as purported tools of enlightenment. They were just a cheap and interesting way of staying fucked up. In my case, on this night, a little too interesting. How I went from pleasantly fucked up to massively freaked out was the mystery that led to my investigation into bad trips and their causes, cures and prevention.

“I don’t take acid anymore—too many bad trips,” the hockey player told me. “Anyway, man, take it easy. Maybe I’ll see you in a few.” Then he was out the door.

As with my previous trip, the effects seemed as advertised: I felt hyper-alert, had intervals of intense wellbeing and saw “trails” and other minor visuals. But now, stepping into the bathroom, I had a premonition of the hellish several hours that would follow.

First, an eerie silence and distant chimes. Then the room around me disappeared. Standing in a complete void, I heard an echo of the hockey player saying repeatedly, “Too many bad trips.” I inwardly shook it off as a trick of the drug. After exiting the bathroom quickly, I signaled Brian and we trudged back to our dorm. Glancing back, the trail of my boot prints in the snow looked ominous. I told Brian about the disappearing bathroom hallucination. “Weird,” he said.

Back in Brian’s dorm room, a fat bag of weed appeared and the bong was sparked. My roommate Dave, who claimed to have taken LSD nearly every day during his last semester of high school, joined us. I smoked weed frequently and assumed that, because I had been drinking, it would make me sleepy. But after a few hits the room turned flat and black. Intense color wheels sparked around me. The wheels transformed into long caravans of a defeated feudal population. My arms and legs felt as if they were stretching into infinity. That’s when I lost my shit.

Standing up abruptly, I choked out, “Something is going wrong!” My heart started to pound against my chest and Brian realized I was really scared. Patting me on the back, he said, “Let’s go for a walk.” I acceded meekly and we walked down four flights of fluorescent-lit steps into the cold deserted quad. Loud bells from the quad tower rang 3 am, each peal vibrating through my body.

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