Before I relate my story, I need to say that I no longer would consider taking these powerful substances recreationally. Find a professional guide and the right setting to realize the full potential. But, nevertheless, even without a controlled setting, these experiences have a lot to teach us, providing we are mentally strong, and not the victim of abuse or other trauma.
As a sixteen year-old suburban kid in the seventies, death was largely an abstract notion. I had seen ancient people in caskets at funerals, people I was related to, but they were as abstract as the reality of death to a kid just learning about life. But I had an experience one summer night with a friend that profoundly changed that abstraction into a visceral reality.
Bored, I connected with my buddy one night and we decided to do some acid and wander around town. Somehow we found ourselves sitting on a patch of grass at the corner of a busy commercial intersection, dazzled by the lights and sounds winding around us. Today, this mundane location is the last place I’d consider altering my perception but there we were and it was altered.
We were past the peak when a motorcycle, a big Harley, came roaring up to the greenlight. A drunk in a red pickup truck (why do I remember the color? Memory is strangely selective) ran the light and hit the bike, which went down, at speed, and skidded a hundred feet down the road, the rider trapped beneath it. This sight, with its shower of sparks and screeching metal slid by us, perhaps ten feet away. I can see it in my mind’s eye.
We found, for the first time, that it is possible to come down, relatively, in the face of an emergency. We raced to the bike and the driver was immobile and obviously dead, contorted by the crash and vivid beyond belief. I know nothing about him, not even his name, and that was many, many years ago. The police arrived and we somehow told them what we saw and they gave us a ride home. For once our town police force ignored our state of mind, faced with some real crime for a change.
Oddly enough my friend and I did not spend a lot of time talking about the experience. For each of us it was both personal and impersonal in a way dictated by our altered states that night. Years later I wanted to take up that conversation, but my friend had passed away, and by then death was a more familiar creature, as it gets as you grow older.
I told a few people but could not share with my family because of the drugs involved. So I suppose I suppressed it. But death wasn’t done with me that summer. A few weeks later there was a big summer storm on the great lake whose shore I lived on. Often, after these big evening storms, there was a spectacular sunrise and I found myself walking along the long beach at around 5:30 AM. And I saw a strange sight a ways down the beach; a 30’ keel sailboat lying on its side in the calm surf.
My assumption was that it had broken loose from its moorings and washed to shore, so I walked down to take a look. As I approached, I saw something floating nearby, something I would prefer to not see again; a young woman lying face down in the water. I pulled her to shore and once again gazed into that mystery. Then I ran to the nearest house and pounded on the door until someone answered and called the police (this was far before mobile phones). Tears were streaming down my face and I could barely speak.
This time, unprotected by chemicals, I had clearly seen her face, no older than my own. The reality was undeniable. I did not know her. She and her teen boyfriend had been forbidden by their parents to see each other and decided to take a family boat and run away to Canada. Their timing was spectacularly bad. Lake Ontario in a storm is no place for inexperienced sailors. Somehow they had gotten the boat out into the river, though the hatch was still locked.
The boy was never found. As for me, I now had something in me that did change me. The LSD had not made this happen but these events did happen. In those days no one considered therapy in these situations. Today I would probably be medicated and watched for signs of PTSD or other trauma. I’m glad I missed that. These encounters gave me a kick into a slightly maturer life, a life where I began to more seriously investigate Buddhism and how life works. Eventually these experiences and a million more made me the writer I wanted to become.