Please, Don’t Shake Your Head As If You Know Better

If I told you that I wanted to take a walk through the woods, listen to my favorite music, and think about my life—and that doing such a thing would make me happy—almost everyone would approve. However, as soon as I mention being under the influence of a drug, most people would disapprove.

There is an intense negative stigma surrounding psychedelic drugs in modern Westernized cultures. Whether it has been the fault of false propaganda or a simple fear of the unknown that one might say defines human nature, people tend not to think highly of drugs such as psilocybin mushrooms or LSD. Before I continue, I want to say that it is perfectly fine for others not to wish to take these drugs themselves, or even for them to disapprove personally. Perhaps it is better that way.

However, the problem arises when they try to make a universal, normative claim about whether these drugs are good or bad. We all acknowledge that each individual is unique, and that different things can satisfy one’s spiritual needs in a way as to make his or her life meaningful, valuable, and worth living. However, the vast majority of society has come to view drugs like LSD as bad for everybody. Even worse, they mock these drugs as something hysterical, something so completely separate from reality that those who take it should be laughed at, delegitimized, or even punished.

Happiness is not static or binary, not some oversimplified “happiness” versus “unhappiness”. Rather, it comes in many forms, with each varying in its degree of intensity. We cannot—and I mean absolutely cannot—know all possible manifestations of happiness until we have felt each at some point before. Not on the pages of a book, from the mouth of a friend, or on a screen; we must feel them ourselves.

Throughout much of my childhood, I felt a species of deep happiness (for lack of a better utilitarian word) that both pervaded throughout and was reflected in all that I encountered in the world. However, it eventually faded. It wore off. It had seemed all along that adults no longer felt this thing, whatever it was, and that someday I was doomed to the same fate. And sure enough, with time, I became just like all the other adults. I gave up on finding that level of happiness again.

This feeling did, however, return eventually—under the influence of drugs.

My freshman year of college, I took psilocybin mushrooms on a cool day in mid-November. For five hours in a small nature reserve near campus, I found myself again. I felt that complete sense of spiritual satisfaction that I had once had but had somehow forgotten with age and time. Until that day, “maturity” had left me no better off in some profound sense.

Many people with whom I talk about this simply smile and shake their head, saying something along the lines of “That’s sad that you need drugs to make you feel happy like that. I’m happy like that all the time.” But I find it extremely difficult to believe that most people actually feel the level of happiness that I felt on drugs that day, the level of happiness I typically feel for several weeks after taking a psychedelic drug, and the level of happiness I experienced as a child. In fact, I find it impossible; if most people really felt that, these drugs would never have gotten such a negative stigma. Perhaps it is simple: we are, as a society, afraid to feel anything too powerful or too different. We prefer normal, so long as it is disguised by the subtle façade of novelty, rebellion, or intellectualism.

However, some of us need something else to be truly fulfilled. Productivity, friendship, recognition, music, and love are all good places to start, but not always sufficient. What I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt is that certain psychedelic drugs have sufficed.

Do not dismiss them as “recreational.” Do not dismiss them as “reckless.” Please do not dismiss them at all. They are essential to my becoming who I am. It is easy to scoff off at someone who says that drugs are essential to who they are, but I ask you to think again. It is similarly easy to approve of someone who goes through her whole life more conventionally, who studies and stays in school and gets a good job and works hard and supports a family and then dies with an empty, superficial smile on her face. However, are we really doing her (or anyone else for that matter) any good by approving of this life—and thus encouraging it in others—if such a life does not make her genuinely happy?

I will conclude with a utilitarian platitude: We should wish for all people to live the best lives they can. We should also acknowledge that different people require different things to be happy. And so, when I decide to eat psilocybin mushrooms or press a tab of LSD against my tongue, do not shake your head as if you know better.

Like most people (read: everyone?), I still have a lot of shit to figure out in my life. But I have a pretty good idea of what it takes for me to be happy. And I will admit—without even the slightest trace of shame—that psychedelic drugs play an important role in that fulfillment. Nonetheless, I write this under the veil of anonymity; not because I am embarrassed, but because those who publicly endorse psychedelic drugs tend to lose the credibility and respect required to change that notion in the first place.

Similar shifts have already occurred in the advocacy for rights of different races, sexualities, and—more recently—the mentally ill. It is now time to apply that progress to drugs.