Acid redux: My long, strange, cancer-fighting trip back to tripping

Our dual cancer diagnoses plunged me and my wife into depression. Could LSD, the drug of my youth, help now?

Published August 12, 2017 7:30PM (EDT)


In March 2013 I was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Four months later, my wife was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. In the four years since that dual catastrophe, we have been fighting a relentless battle to survive. We prayed to God, but it seems He has determined that we should not be spared this trial.

A large part of the trial has been our struggle with depression. Our lives, what is left of them, will never be the same. That loss and the specter of death are overwhelming. The prognoses might change from month to month but the fear, anxiety and despair steadily metastasize.

Three years into this ordeal, I read news reports that psychedelic drugs were being used with some success to alleviate depression in late-stage cancer patients. It made sense to me. I had taken LSD hundreds of times in the ’60s, following the death of my mother and my father’s remarriage. In an ugly family tragedy, I fought bitterly with his new wife for my father’s favor and when, at 17, it became clear that I had lost, I left home to act out my anger and sorrow with self-destructive behavior in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.

But LSD changed all that. Expanding my consciousness brought compassionate closure to my past, opening a future of stupendous potentiality, a world of radical joy. In a very real way, acid saved my life, made it worth living. I got married, raised three kids, bought a house in the San Fernando Valley and had a long and rewarding career in the music business. In due course seven grandchildren arrived. I counted my blessings.

As those busy years progressed, my use of the drug steadily diminished. For a time I followed my own micro-dosing regimen, maintaining a low frequency high for days at a time. But I finally let it go altogether. Decades had passed since I had last tripped. Now suddenly, there was an urgent need to try it again. A half-century on, I wondered if LSD might not, once more, come to my rescue.

It was in 2012 that the New York Times first reported on research studies showing significant relief from depression and anxiety in terminally ill patients given psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Three years later the New Yorker detailed clinical trials at NYU, this time specifically with cancer patients and LSD, showing similar results. A Newsweek article quoted the quizzical researchers: “LSD appeared to allow patients to address their problems in a way that produced some resolution or catharsis.”

While they might not have known what to make of their research, I immediately understood acid’s potential to ease the fear of death. The drug itself induced a kind of dying, the surrender of ego and identity as a prelude to revelation. I needed that reset now more than ever.

My wife was having none of it. She made it plain: the idea was insane. It had been years since I last took LSD. It was a dangerous drug. And it was an illegal dangerous drug.

She was right about that: In 1968 LSD was designated a Schedule One substance, like heroin and cocaine, defined as “having no currently accepted medical use.” A first offense for possession can run as high as five years. Was I, indeed, crazy?

That last question spoke to her greatest fear. What if I took the trip and never came back, a late-stage acid casualty? I understood her trepidation. Psychedelics had never agreed with her, inducing paranoia and confusion instead of visions and ecstasy. She knew just how potent the drug was, how hard it could be on a brain and body. We were already virtually toxic from the arsenal of cancer medications we were taking. LSD could tip the balance into chemical chaos.

Her concerns were echoed by my two daughters. Along with my son, they had seen close up the ravages cancer had wrought. They had been trying to keep us alive ever since, joking that they should start a hip-hop group 2PWC — Two Parents With Cancer. Like my wife, my daughters took it personally that I would now recklessly risk my fragile health with an illicit drug. My decision to try LSD again was beginning to have unanticipated repercussions.

But I wouldn’t be dissuaded. Acid might help me cope with the crushing depression brought on by my disease. It was worth a try and at the same time, what was wrong with wanting to recapture some small token of my misspent youth?

There was only one problem. Where would I get it?

* * *

At 68, I’m definitely showing my age. Retired, on Medicare and Social Security, I am a certified senior citizen. Suffice it to say my dealer contacts had long since expired. I would have to start from scratch. I considered attending Burning Man in hopes of making contact with the millennial underground, but quickly concluded that trying to score in the middle of the desert from cosplay hipsters on a tear would amount to a net deficit in my quest for serenity. And what about undercover narcs? Actually, I had no idea whether there even was such a thing anymore. Would police disguises that formerly consisted of sideburns and bell-bottoms these days require piercings and a man-bun? I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to take any chances. There had to be an easier way.

Working for 35 years in the record industry, notorious for drug use from the executive suite to the tour bus, you’d think something would turn up. It didn’t. While I was getting older, more settled and cautious, so was everybody else. Robust health was the new high, hanging in there as long as possible. LSD was a relic in the Baby Boomer’s trunk of memories. Or so it seemed.

As I began asking around, I was surprised to discover that many of my colleagues, who I’d always assumed were members of the psychedelic brotherhood, had in fact never taken the drug. One in particular was a devoted Deadhead and Phish follower. It made me wonder: Would acid have the same effect on me now that it had had a half century ago?

Despite its prelapsarian promise to “get us back to the garden” billing, LSD is best understood as a product of the Atomic Age. Like the bomb, there was something atomic about psychedelics, too, synthesized by heedless scientists drunk on pure research, unlocking secrets to explode the world. Maybe acid was a time-sensitive historical phenomenon, its shelf life expired at the end of the ’60s. Instead of a supercharged change agent, it had become a recreational party favor. My friend had simply aspired to be psychedelic. It was a lifestyle choice.

The search continued, down various dead ends. There was no point in asking my oldest surviving comrade from the ’60s, a former dealer and epic head back in the day; he had since become the pastor of an evangelical church. Early hopes were pinned on another friend who had an acid-dropping ritual once a year on his birthday. But when I asked he told me that his refrigerator had failed back in the ’90s and spoiled the stash. He hadn’t seen any since. I tried to widen the net, putting out feelers to anyone I knew 30 and under, mostly my kids’ crew. What I hadn’t bargained for was the innate creepiness of having your friend’s father ask you to cop. None of them got back to me.

Of course, finding acid was only part of the problem. Once procured, there would be no way of knowing exactly what I was getting. The same applied for dosage: Would it be strong enough? Would it be too strong? None of that ever used to bother me; buying acid on the street was always a crapshoot. I once scored an eyedropper bottle of pharmaceutical-grade Sandoz (the Swiss company that first commercially manufactured LSD 25 in its purest form). More often I would end up with something variously stepped on or, worse, adulterated with meth, which made for a Boschian ordeal. God knows what diabolical designer drugs are being passed off as the real thing these days.

I took a deep dive onto the web, searching “Buy LSD.” It yielded dozens of sites, where I was instructed to download Tor, open a Bitcoin account, install encryption software and cover my webcam with duct tape while surfing Blue Viking on the Dark Web. It all seemed more random and risky than the old-fashioned way, in a back alley from a stranger.

One thing I did learn, however: LSD was very affordable. The average price for a 250mc hit is around three dollars, essentially the same as it was in the ’60s. Even though a dollar back then is worth seven today, it still seemed like a bargain. Not that I really cared. I would have happily paid hundreds. I’d thrown caution to the wind. My web activity had probably already landed me on a government watch list, anyway. There was no turning back.

But secretly, I was starting to have misgivings. What if my wife was right? What if my synapses had grown brittle with age? What if they snapped under the strain? Not being able to score was giving me too much time to think about all the ways this could go wrong. It was going to have to happen soon. I was losing my nerve.

My wife watched all this frantic activity with growing alarm. If I was seriously going through with it, she demanded that I find somebody to guide me on the trip, in case I decided I could fly or stare directly at the sun. And she wasn’t about to volunteer.

I wondered who would agree to hold my hand as I stepped into the unknown. It didn’t seem fair to ask my friends. It wasn’t like asking for a ride to the airport. There could be dire consequences.

That left me with one option: my son. Unlike my wife and daughters, he didn’t seem overly concerned with my antics. He had, of course, tripped. All my kids had. Growing up in the ’80s, it had been, apparently, a rite of passage, checking a box on a to-do list of your parents’ youthful follies. Since then he’d settled down, gotten married and was raising three of his own kids. But he seemed to understand instinctively what it was I was after — some kind of liberation — and it was all right with him. I like to think that maybe my quixotic quest for a drug I had last taken when I was his age stirred some dormant impulse in him as well for the wild times he had long since put behind him. A friend laughed when I told him the plan: I’d just handed the boy a wealth of material for the psychiatrist’s couch. My son laughed, too, when he agreed to be my guide. I felt safer with him aboard.

* * *

I went back to reread the coverage of the LSD studies that had first caught my attention, looking for clues as to how the scientists were being supplied. If I couldn’t find any illegally, then legality was my last resort. Would I qualify as a research subject? That didn’t sound promising. I had zero interest in the clinical setting, picturing a windowless room with incense and New Age music setting the “mood,” while being observed, presumably, through a two-way mirror. But if that’s how it had to be . . .

My research eventually led me to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which had been consistently on the cutting edge of psychedelic research since the late ’80s. A nonprofit based in Santa Cruz, California, they had done the first therapeutic study on humans using LSD in 40 years. In 2008, they conducted trials using acid to treat anxiety due to life-threatening illnesses. They were currently testing the efficacy of MDMA (aka Molly) on PTSD patients, all with DEA and FDA approval. It was a long way from the street corners of the Haight where I used to wait for my man.

I started at the top, writing a letter to MAPS founder and Executive Director Dr. Rick Doblin, a pioneering name in psychedelic research, asking if he could "point me in the right direction.” Not surprisingly, I never got a reply; there are many excellent reasons not to give drug contact information to strangers through the mail. But I eventually did connect with Director of Strategic Communications Brad Burge.

My search had raised some intriguing questions along the way. Among them: Where would this renewed, albeit cautious, interest in psychedelic research eventually lead?

“We are primarily advocating for research and funding for research,” Burge told me. “But we also support much broader uses for psychedelics, with an emphasis on safety and responsibility. We are focused on the therapeutic approach because we see it as the most likely way to gain social and legal acceptance. At the same time, our goal is to open up its spiritual uses and benefits for personal growth, general science, creativity and whatever other applications people find.”

But what was that going to look like? Were we heading for a brave new tomorrow where LSD would be available by prescription, or even over the counter? Would there be acid emporiums alongside pot shops? Would it be administered in churches as a sacrament, or included with your concert or movie ticket, a premium enhancement like 3-D glasses?

“While we do advocate for the careful use of psychedelics beyond the therapeutic context,” Burge continued, “we don’t have any precise policy recommendations. We’re not lobbying to change laws. Especially not now, when at the federal level there is no effort whatsoever to reschedule or legalize psychedelics for broader use.”

As far as getting into a clinical trial, take a number. “We screened over a thousand people for a little more than a hundred slots in the second phase of our MDMA trials,” Burge explained. “And we had another thousand on a waiting list. They’d been referred by a psychiatrist, or read about the study on or just called us directly. We have a very rigorous criteria that varies with each study. You can read about it on our website.”

I did, and learned that potential subjects are evaluated by metrics like the Self-Compassion Scale, the Death Attitude Profile and the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. It seemed pretty daunting. I wasn’t at all sure I could pass muster. I could guess what my attitude toward death might be (bad) but where was I on the Self-Compassion Scale? Besides, Burge told me, there are currently no upcoming or ongoing LSD trials in this country.

In fact, at the moment most of the action seems to be in Switzerland. That’s where MAPS obtained acid for LSD-assistant psychotherapy studies conducted jointly with Swiss scientists. The psychedelics needed for the work were was obtained from Swiss pharmaceutical companies willing to produce it in the relatively small batches required. It’s also there that one such company, Eleusis, is currently doing a study on LSD micro-dosing. It’s all very fitting considering acid was first discovered in Basel in 1938, but a long way to go to find out you don’t qualify. There was also a better-than-even chance that I might be flying halfway around the world to take a placebo. Once again I was barking up the wrong tree.

* * *

With nothing to lose, I next went to my oncologist. I had no expectation that he’d be able or willing to help me, but I confess that part of my reason for asking was just to hear what he’d say.

I had seen dozens of doctors since my diagnosis, with a wide range of bedside manners. Oncologists seemed to be in a class by themselves. They have developed a blandly empathetic affect, behind which they hide from their daily dealings with life and death. I wanted to see if I could reach beyond the protocols. Given studies into its benefit for depressed cancer patients, could he hook me up?

To his credit he didn’t blink. He could get into a lot of trouble for something like that, he replied evenly. But I could tell he was interested. He knew too well the limits of existing treatments for depression. He didn’t exactly tell me to keep looking. But he didn’t exactly tell me not to, either, and on a subsequent visit he inquired, is if in passing, whether I did that thing we talked about. No, I told him. But I’d keep him in the loop.

Meanwhile, I had stumbled across the book "Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America" by Jesse Jarnow. It was a revelation. An author, radio host and alt gadfly, Jarnow’s well-researched and entertaining work charted the course of the drug underground in the wake of the ’60s. He described a scattered spectrum of scenes linked in loose affiliation and drawing in everyone from graffiti artists to coding geeks to EDM DJs and unreconstructed Deadheads. The psychedelic subculture hadn’t withered away, after all. It had been continuously morphing all this time.

The book also had some tantalizing clues as to where I might look next. For example, there is a particular tree near the Central Park playground in Manhattan that had been used, Jarnow wrote, as a communal stash for a spontaneously generated gang of kids who hung out at the bandshell, got high and worked all night on dazzling graffiti murals. They called themselves the Parkies. Maybe Jarnow could put me in touch with them. Maybe they would take me to the tree. It was a measure of my desperation that the Parkies had last been active in the mid-’70s.

I emailed Jarnow and explained my situation, wondering if he might “know anybody.” He was sympathetic but guarded, leaving unspoken the assumption that if you had to ask, you probably couldn’t be trusted with the answer. I had lost the insider’s edge, the nod, the wink, the secret password that would get me through the door. Yet, even given the inherent risk, Jarnow did graciously direct me to a place where I “might be able to meet someone.”

So it was on a balmy spring evening in a down-market neighborhood on the fringes of Santa Monica that I attended the monthly gathering of the Psychedelic Integration Circle. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but a yoga studio in a converted garage under a jacaranda tree seemed about right. Folding chairs, set up around the mirrored walls, were slowly filling with participants. Their diversity, a range of race and age and various affinities, was reassuring: students from the nearby junior college, hippie re-enactors down from Topanga Canyon, Westside housewives and gloomy teens and Venice Beach flotsam. Who knew psychedelics drew such a wide range of citizens, all here for the same thing?

Except, as it turned out, for me. In a flyer handed out at the door the Circle laid out its mission: “to facilitate a reorganization of the mind, body and spirit after an experience of non-ordinary states of consciousness instigated by a psychedelic.” So far, so good, but below that, boldfaced, was a stern admonition: The solicitation or sale of any illegal substance was strictly prohibited on the premises. Why had Jarnow sent me here? Was this a test? Was I going to be the dude who breaks the rules? Was that the point? Or not?

Eventually, a trio of New Age sylphs, jacaranda blossoms in their hair, got things rolling. It was then, as we went around the room introducing ourselves, that I finally realized all these people had already taken psychedelics. They had solved the supply problem. What was on offer here instead was “reintegration,” professional help in case anyone needed their head screwed back on. Group settings and one-on-one sessions were available. There was a sign-up sheet at the hospitality table. Psychoactive drugs, it seemed, had given rise to whole range of monetized goods and services, an extension of the old neighborhood head shop.

I scanned the faces of the participants, looking for someone I might sidle up to afterwards, flashing cash under the streetlight. But my heart wasn’t in it. My search for LSD suddenly seemed pointless. These people wanted to fit acid into their daily lives. I wanted to fit my daily life into acid.

Back in the day, I loved psychedelics. I took them as often as I could find them, trying to stay under their influence as long as possible. Now I was trying to get there again, to shake off the fear of death. But I had changed. And so had LSD. The visions and ecstasy had faded. Agendas abounded instead. No wonder I was depressed.

When it was my turn to speak, I instead started to cry, great racking sobs. I wish I could say it was because I finally realized that the cure for my depression was acceptance, or that I had resolved to live each day as if it were my last, or something equally anodyne. But what it really was, I later found out, was akin to PseudoBulbar Affect, a neurological condition brought on, in my case, by the surfeit of medications I was taking and resulting in bouts of inappropriate tears and laughter. I was having a drug response, just not the one I had in mind.

Drying my eyes, I looked around. The group was stirring uncomfortably. The facilitators regarded me with smiles of glazed empathy. I made my exit as soon as I could.

Two days later I received an email. A friend of a friend had heard I was looking for something. Maybe I’d like to drop by.

* * *

Two doses, tiny paper squares, were printed with what looked like microchip circuitry, the manufacturer’s mark. There was no way to know how pure they were, or how potent. I paid my money to take my chances. Except I hadn’t paid anything. They’d been a gift, a benevolence from one old freak to another. Or maybe he just wanted to avoid a rap for intent to sell. There’s not much I can tell you about who finally came through for me without unduly compromising him. We ran in the same music business circles, knew each other without ever quite making contact. Suffice it to say, he embodied the creed: What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Once I had the LSD it took me a month to screw up the courage to actually take it, working backwards from my now serious qualms to the reason I had embarked on this course in the first place. I was still depressed. I still had cancer. I still needed a paradigm shift in the time I had left.

Finally, early one afternoon in late spring, my son and I drove north in his honkin’ Tahoe with the premium sound system, staying overnight in a Cambria motel overlooking Moonstone Beach. We woke to a pristine morning, cloudless and balmy and ocean scented: a good day to drop. The central coast of California, with its hallucinatory natural beauty, had always been a spot uniquely set aside for the psychedelic experience — the mackerel-back sky mimicking the lattices of mica left by the receding tide; the feldspar tributaries of a granite cliff face; the fractal complexity of a cypress tree.

What’s the old saying? The only thing more boring than listening to someone describe their dream is listening to someone describe their acid trip. Let’s just say that my misgivings dissolved in the onrush of that pure hit, expertly engineered and perfectly portioned. Somebody knew what they were doing. We rode up the coast, past a zebra grazing in a field below San Simeon, a remnant of W.R. Hearst’s private zoo. We stood barefoot in tidepools, ecosystems seething between our toes. We caught our breath as one sweeping Pacific vista after another opened up, each grander than the last. My son made note of his contact high as he curated the playlist for the day. Not the old standbys — the Dead, the Airplane — but music new to me, ambient and ethereal. There was a girl singer from a band called London Grammar with a voice that followed us everywhere. She sang “Hey Now,” our day’s anthem as we watched the sunset through the arch of a huge rock hollowed out by the waves. It was a perfect day, a perfect trip. Hey now, indeed.

But it wasn’t all bedazzled sightseeing. I had come here for a purpose, and in the afterglow of the motel room that night I tried to take stock. Had LSD lessened my depression? How did I feel about my imminent mortality now? Had a new day dawned?

Not really. The feeling I got from my much-anticipated, much-delayed trip was one of . . . familiarity. I immediately recognized where I was, in the benevolent hands that had set the course of the cosmos. I had been here before, many times. I had deciphered the palimpsests, lifted the corner of the curtain, caught a glimpse of the peerless synchronicity. And it was good to be back.

At the same time it was clear to me what had happened. The subjects of those clinical trials, the cancer patients struggling with depression, were just like me. Except that, chances are, most had little or no experience with psychedelics. For them the insights and revelations were new, and life-changing. But I was an old hand. Whatever LSD had to teach me I had already learned. Its work here was done.

I can’t say I was particularly disappointed. It had been a long shot from the beginning. There would be no shortcuts around whatever suffering was still to come. But at the same time I understood that my embrace of psychedelics had in some ways already equipped me to grapple with the big themes; Life after death; the impermanence of memory; the inevitability of change. I had long ago encountered them all. Now, all I had to do was apply myself.

And then there’s that bonus dose from my benefactor. I think I’ll hang onto it for a while. Maybe I’ll wait to drop it like Timothy Leary, on my deathbed (probably not). Or maybe I’ll save it until there’s finally a Main Street parade to honor the last unsung American hero, the volunteer acidhead.

For the moment it just feels good to be holding.

— Special thanks to Gene Sculatti.

By Davin Seay

Davin Seay is an author and journalist who lives, one day at a time, with his wife of 47 years, in Woodland Hills, Calif.

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