I Took LSD and Broke My Brain — Here’s what I learned and how I put it back together
10 years ago today, I got the worst (and best) birthday gift of my life. I dropped acid with my friends and spiraled into existential confusion and panic (colloquially known as a “bad trip”). Fast forward 4 months later, I was enjoying some quality time with the family until a whisper of anxiety in the back of my head crescendoed into that familiar horror from a few months back.
This was the beginning of a long 6-month journey through daily panic attacks, mental health struggles, and ultimately getting back to some semblance of a normal life.
I hope by sharing my story, those in a similar situation find the hope and optimism they need to endure it. While hard times may feel they will last forever, I’m here to reiterate the long-standing truth that nothing lasts forever, not the good nor the bad. There is life on the other side of your current situation.
Here’s my story.
Why’d you do it Shaw?
Curiosity and becoming a man in the Amazon
I heard somewhere (don’t know if it’s true) about an Amazonian tribe that would subject their young men to intense psychedelic trips on their 18th birthday as a rite of passage to becoming a man. This idea was very interesting to 17-year-old Shawhin living a safe suburban life. While this wasn’t why I took LSD, it did get the idea in my head.
Ultimately, we can blame curiosity. Young and innocent me loved to think and ponder interesting questions (still do). At the time, I became fascinated (and skeptical) with psychedelics. It was this curiosity (combined with a naive over-confidence in my mental fortitude) that ultimately drove my decision.
Curiosity killed the ego
Ego death is a technical term describing a loss of subjective self-identity . While I’m not a psychologist, I feel this term describes my experience.
The best way I can explain it is at the height of the experience, I felt completely and utterly lost. It was like that fear and confusion you feel when you think you know exactly where you are, but then you turn a corner and realize you have no fucking clue where you are. Imagine that, but feeling lost in your own skin and head.
If that makes no sense, I apologize. I’ll just tell the story.
Happy Birthday.. bitch
It was me and two other friends. One was taking the trip with me, and the other was our sober babysitter. After each taking a couple of doses washed down with orange juice (apparently, it makes LSD more potent), we did what all 18-year-old guys do for fun and played Super Mario Strikers on Game Cube.
It was hilarious. Everything was funny (and still are looking back today). But then came the not-funny part.
The trigger was a benign interaction with my sister, who came in the room for our typical verbal jousting, but during our interaction, she became suspicious and accused us of “acting weird”. For a little context, my sister and I were raised by Persian parents. Drugs weren’t just a “no”, they were a “no, and if you ever do it, I will kill you”. So, needless to say, my sister was not aware of our psychedelic misadventure.
Anyway, that’s when the anxiety started to kick in. We decided to change scenery and went to the mall to watch a movie. As we walked around waiting for showtime, the anxiety and confusion were turning up.
I kept to myself and tried to think my way out of it using my incredible powers of logic and reason (not a good call). It really spiraled when I found myself pondering the idea of subjective reality, which got me caught in a loop that went something like “There is no truth,” followed by “Well, how do you know that’s true?” Needless to say, trying to figure out this contradiction while on acid brought on the existential confusion and panic.
It was obvious at this point things weren’t right, so we went to the food court to sit down. I put my elbows on the table and covered my eyes with my palms. We sat there for a few minutes until my mind settled down a bit. I had never experienced anything like that before, but little did I know it was soon going to become something very familiar to me.
We eventually went to the theater early to get away from all the commotion of the mall. That’s when things kind of went back to being normal and fun.
In retrospect, it’s amazing to think this internal panic lasted for maybe 30 minutes yet has reverberated through my life for the past 10 years. Talk about small things having an outsized impact.
Anxiety is a hell of a drug
Fast forward 4 months. I’m hanging out with my family (completely sober), yet psychologically transported back to that bad trip. I had been getting whispers of it on and off over the past few months, but I was always able to wrangle my thoughts through mental gymnastics. Not anymore. This was the same panic and confusion I felt sitting in the food court a few months back.
People call these post-trip experiences flashbacks. Some believe that when you take LSD, some gets lodged in your brain somehow and is released periodically. I’m no neuropharmacologist, but I don’t buy this story.
My take is the drug at play here isn’t LSD, it’s anxiety. And what I was experiencing was post-traumatic stress.
Stress has a funny little way of searing experiences into our nervous systems to keep us safe. When these experiences are maladaptive (i.e. don’t serve us) we call it trauma. While taking LSD with friends and pondering questions of existential philosophy doesn’t sound like a typical traumatic experience, it fucked me up.
Trapped in a bad trip.
When I had that first flashback, it was like the dam holding back all the fear and anxiety finally broke, and I was caught sitting beneath the spillover. Before that moment, I could chalk up the anxiety to “I was tripping”, but when I experienced that same level of horror and panic while sober, it felt like there was nowhere I could ever be safe.
The following week, it seemed like every waking moment, I was anxious. I thought I had permanently broken something in my brain and was now doomed to relive this bad trip every day for the rest of my life.
This went on for a few days straight until I reached my breaking point. I was terrified, barely sleeping, and completely powerless against the ocean of anxiety I was swimming in.
That’s when I took the first step toward getting out of that place and told my mom everything. This was the best decision I ever made.
The long climb out
Just don’t look down
It was a long 6-month road from that low point to getting back to something that even resembled a normal life. In the early days, almost everything was a trigger. It was amazing how quickly my mind could connect what was in front of me back to the trip.
One time I’ll never forget, I came across a Reddit post that was basically a full page of text, but in about half a second, just as the page loaded, my attention jumped to the letters “LSD” halfway down the page. You could almost consider it a superpower if it wasn’t so terrifying. This is when I learned the human brain is much more powerful than I ever imagined. Too bad mine was working its own agenda.
I was clearly outmatched, so instead of trying to control my mind, I opted to distract it. The goal wasn’t to be happy. It was just don’t be anxious. This mainly consisted of scrolling on Reddit for hours.
Learning to cope
Don’t think, just breathe
The upside of experiencing multiple panic attacks a day is you get a lot of opportunities to learn how to navigate them. After dozens of failed attempts to think my way out of panic attacks, I finally learned that thinking makes it worse.
Since the panics were basically the same story over and over again, I picked up on which strategies usually ended up with me spiraling into anxiety and which didn’t. All this trial and error, over dozens and dozens of reps, eventually taught me how to navigate my thoughts.
I found two core principles that drove my anxiety coping strategy and helped me through it all.
- Nothing lasts forever
- Don’t think, just breathe
The first principle gave me hope. Even though I didn’t believe it most times, I kept repeating that line to myself until it was a divine truth. Without hope, I’m not sure how we (i.e. humans) can do anything hard.
The second principle was more tactical. Through my repeated failures to avoid anxious spirals, I concluded that thinking=anxiety. So the only way to not be anxious is not to think.
While truly “not thinking” might be impossible (or just beyond my capacity), the trick I found wasn’t so much to silence thoughts by sheer will but to refocus my attention on something else. Namely, counting inhales and exhales. This also had the upside of turning up my parasympathetic nervous system and turning down the sympathetic NS i.e. calmed me down physiologically.
You’re anxious, and that’s okay
There was a final strategy beyond distracting myself and breathwork: acceptance.
The irony of it all was I was scared of being scared. So, when I would feel a panic coming, the knee-jerk reaction was, “don’t be anxious, don’t be anxious, don’t be anxious!” But of course, when you think that, all you can focus on is the anxiety.
While distracting myself and breathing helped with this, the ultimate strategy was simply accepting it. “You’re anxious, and that’s okay” became a pseudo-mantra for me.
Fear is a fight-or-flight response. Therefore, trying to fight it or run from it only makes it worse. Embracing it was ultimately the best way I found to diffuse it.
Get the poison out
I found secrets to be poison for my mind. They were like little tinders for anxiety, just waiting to blow up. The only way to get them out was by talking about them.
This started a habit of vigorous honesty. My anxiety wasn’t a secret, I wouldn’t have survived if it was. So I talked about it, mostly to my therapist, family, and close friends, but also to not close friends and acquaintances (when it came up).
Here is when I learned the irony of negative emotions. We tend to hold these emotions back because we feel that saying something will make it worse. However, the opposite tends to be true. Expressing negative emotions doesn’t enhance them. It diminishes them.
My conclusion was this. Put it into words. Thoughts are scary. Words are not.
Hell might be other people, but so is heaven
A key part of my “climb out” was other people. In that warped reality of panic and anxiety, I found that other people were what tethered me to reality.
While it may seem like an entirely lone journey, I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for the support I received from family, friends, and trained professionals. The flip side of Sartre’s famous “hell is other people” line is if we have good relationships, there is nothing that cannot be overcome.
Break, don’t bend
There is something to be said here about limits. If the anxiety I experienced were “manageable”, I still would rely on my old strategies of “thinking my way out” and “keeping it a secret”.
It wasn’t until I hit my breaking point that I was forced to learn new strategies. The net result is a more resilient mind. My new threshold for stress and discomfort makes my old limit look like the starting line.
This was a big lesson for me in the immense power of the mind to adapt when pushed beyond its limits. Exploring the full depths of this phenomenon is something I’ll spend the rest of my life on.
Make today better than yesterday
When I was in it, it felt impossible to imagine a life without fear and panic. Let alone having the vision to be able to chart a course out of it. That is where a simple rule helped guide my ascent out of that pit I had found myself in: make today better than yesterday.
When you can’t see the big picture, focusing on what’s right in front of you is enough. This rule helped me narrow my scope and to escape from the trap of the past and future by focusing on the here and now.
What this would look like is trying to gain an inch in any aspect of my life. For example, weigh less today than last week (I’d been overweight most of my life), which meant eating better today than yesterday or doing more reps today than yesterday. By tying my mental health to something more concrete (i.e. calories or reps), it gave me a greater sense of control and progress.
6 months later, not only was I a normal weight for the first time since elementary school (I lost 50 lbs), but I was back to something like a “normal life”. I could sleep alone (I slept next to my mother in the early days). I could hang out with friends. And I could survive without scrolling on Reddit for half the day.
While after 6 months, I’d say I was out of the thick of it, the panic attacks would still come and go. The difference was twofold, the frequency (from daily to weekly to monthly, etc.) and my ability to navigate them.
I had built up a lot of healthy habits in the name of survival over the last several months. And while the stakes weren’t as high, I still stuck with them. I worked out (at least) 6x a week, I counted calories, I was open and honest with people about everything, I would pass on short-term comfort for long-term payoffs, and I continued making today better than yesterday.
Continually growing and getting better is what got me out, but once I got out, I just kept going.
My 18th birthday was objectively the worst day of my life. Yet, at the same time, it was also the best. It forced me to become a better version of myself, which would never have happened otherwise.
Epilogue: other significant points
There are many other (personally) significant points that didn’t fit nicely into the above narrative. Many are listed below.
- Rock bottom is when you stop falling and start to rise.
- No matter how bad things get, it can always get worse.
- If the natural tendency doesn’t work, try doing the opposite.
- A helpful strategy for navigating stress: ask, what’s the worst-case scenario? Then, accept it.
- Creative expression helps a lot (mainly music, for me). Things tend to come out through art that simply doesn’t through conversation.
- Importance of Diet (for me) — I couldn’t control my thoughts, but I could control my actions
- Importance of Exercise (for me) — it gave the anxiety somewhere to go
- It’s amazing what we are capable of when backed into a corner
- The past is an illusion, and the future hasn’t happened yet, the only thing real is the present.
- No matter what, it’s okay (this too shall pass). We adjust to whatever our reality is, always.
- There are no downsides in life, you either win or learn something
- There’s always a happy ending, and if you're not happy, it’s not over.