From the time I first learned what LSD is until just a few days ago, I had thought of it as one of the many interesting experiences Earth has to offer and put it in the category, “Things that aren’t a high priority for me to try but that I might get around to, someday, in the right circumstances, if I get bored.” Over the years I’ve had several friends who tell me acid trips are really fun, and I’ve even hung out with people while they’re tripping, yet the idea of trying LSD myself never budged out of the “maybe someday” category. It’s illegal, and it can be dangerous, but what really gave me pause was the idea of hallucinating, which I didn’t think I would enjoy. I’ve experienced hallucinations from migraines, fevers, and other medical conditions, and they were scary, not entertaining.
What I recently realized is that my way-too-many experiences with the visual aura that precedes some migraines have built up expectations about that type of visual experience that would likely suck all the fun out of an acid trip for me, if they did not actually trigger a headache. Oddly enough, this realization came out of a conversation that was aimed at explaining to me why LSD is not scary because “You’re not hallucinating things that are actually not there at all; it’s just this really cool shifting of what you see.” This was followed by a lot of description of the experience and showing me a video clip of something that looks similar. I was able to watch the video without flinching and to agree that it was beautifully kaleidoscopic and psychedelic and interesting. But I also recognized that squirming movement. I’ve seen something very much like that before, and I’ve found it fascinating, compelling, so absorbing that I will watch it and play with it (experimenting with looking at different surfaces to see what they do) and not take my medication and not tell anyone what’s happening because it’s so interesting, so powerful, so promising that I will keep watching it until I walk off the fucking cliff.
I don’t mean that I’ve actually been so distracted by a migraine aura that I’ve ignored external safety risks. The cliff I’m talking about is the point at which the painless aura ends and the migraine headache begins, the point beyond which most medications are useless or at least less effective. It’s taken me years and years of strategizing and determination to get myself to respond to the aura by taking medication immediately (800mg ibuprofen plus a large cup of coffee is what works best for me), which can prevent the headache from happening at all or make it significantly shorter and less intense. For me, the visual aura doesn’t happen every time–some migraines are preceded by other symptoms, which are harder to recognize, and sometimes I get a headache that seemed to give no warning at all–but when it does, it’s so recognizable, so much the same every time, that I’ve learned to snap into action when it happens, despite all the complicated things twined through my psyche that tempt me to succumb to it. I’m still working on recognizing and resisting the other styles of preliminary symptoms, but for the visual aura I’ve got it down, now.
This is not an argument against LSD in general. Other people like it, and I respect their freedom. It’s inspired some cool music and art that I love. What I’ve realized is that with my brain–with wiring that’s susceptible to visual aura migraines, and with accumulated experiences of “trippy” visuals leading me toward horrible pain in a way that feels so manipulative I’ve come to visualize it as being lured by a demon–an acid trip might go very badly. At the least, I’m thinking I would spend a lot of it fighting off feelings of impending doom. That’s not a fun thing to do for six hours!! So maybe I had better not ever try LSD.
That said, I’m going to explain the migraine visual aura as I’ve experienced it (which has been at least 95% identical every time it’s happened, since I was 11 years old) so that anyone who’s curious will understand what I mean. This might also be helpful to people who have experienced something like this and wondered what caused it–ocular migraines can occur on their own in people who never get headaches–you’re not crazy, and it won’t kill you, but you should tell your doctor about it.
This is not just a visual experience. Certain emotions, physical sensations, and perceptual distortions come with it.
A Description of Migraine Aura as Experienced by ‘Becca (individuals may vary)
I see a small spot, like the after-image from looking at a bright light. Heck, it may be the after-image of a bright light; at this point I can’t tell. It is slightly below and to the right of the center of my visual field.
When it’s persisted for several minutes, and it’s beginning to grow instead of shrink, then I know this is no ordinary spot. It is dark but bright. It’s not like a floater that moves across my field of vision making my eyes want to follow it; this spot is always in the same place relative to the center of my vision, no matter how much I move my eyes. Something about it makes me want to study it. I feel apprehensive but also excited, like someone is promising to open a door to a secret room.
As the spot gets bigger, it develops vague, pulsating stripes of bright and dark that roll across it, like an old television. I can see through the spot, but things look blurred or twisted. The spot is basically oval, wider than it is tall, but with a slightly irregular, puddle-like shape. I move my eyes to put the spot in different places and see how different things look when viewed through it. This is fascinating, yet I have an uneasy feeling that this is a serious malfunction and that at any moment my right ear will suddenly spin off and clatter to the ground and my brain will pour out and I’ll be so embarrassed–wait a minute, that never happens–I shouldn’t be so silly; I won’t tell anyone about this; they’d think I’m weird.
The spot continues to grow. Now it’s got a border which is just wide enough that I can see that it also has stripes, rolling in the opposite direction. I feel a little queasy. But I also feel like someone is pulling me by the hand, whispering, giggling, “Don’t tell!”
Whatever I see through the spot is blurred, colors swirling together–unless I’m looking at a very regular, repeating pattern, in which case after a split second the pattern fills in and I see only a faint shimmer where the spot is hiding in the ridged denim of my jeans, the grid of small holes over the speaker, the sheet of lined paper. It’s hiding, it’s playing with me, but if I look straight into your face I can melt your left eye into your flesh. I am powerful and frightened. I can’t stop looking at things.
The spot grows to cover about one-third of my total visual field, still slightly off-center toward the lower right. Border stripes scrolling one way, main stripes scrolling the other way, and in the center a tiny tornado almost too small to be seen. I can’t read anymore. It’s very difficult to walk, eat, wash dishes, change a diaper, drive, use a knife…but if I try, if I just DO WHAT I HAVE TO DO I HAVE TO HAVE TO PEOPLE ARE COUNTING ON ME, not only am I able to do it, but most people won’t notice anything’s wrong. See how good I am? I am super-competent, yes I am, but oh I wish–well, never mind; I’ve got more important things to do.
The spot’s border becomes especially stripey and bright and distracting at the lower right edge. Then the spot begins to change shape. It becomes a C, hanging in the middle of my vision, slanted with its curve toward the upper left. The stripes and the border begin to swim into each other; the spot is a seething, crawling sheen over everything I see. I don’t like it anymore, and I want to look away, but it’s in the middle; I can’t pull my gaze away from it. If you’re looking at my face, you might notice my eyes jerking oddly, might see me close my eyes for a second, might hear my breath quiver. Huh? No, I’m fine, really! No, I don’t need anything! Wouldn’t want to be a bother! If I look at an irregular pattern like speckled tile, wood grain, grass, a soap bubble, pebbly concrete, or rippling water, it [I’m actually breathing fast and gagging just trying to describe this] twists and leers and bubbles and writhes. (This particular effect also happens when I have a high fever.)
The C straightens out into a sideways L: a horizontal line almost straight across my field of vision (angled just enough to be annoyingly imperfect) slightly above center, ending at a vertical line that goes almost straight down near the left side. Well, this is an improvement, right? Those lines are thin; the center of my vision is clear again–ohh, but the bouncing, the bits of image flaking off along each side of each line and then clinging in this rubbery, vibrating WHAT?! What do you want NOW?! Sorry, I, yeah, you startled me, that’s all; I’m sorry; no big deal; please stop touching me with your grating cold fingers and of course I will, whatever you want, right now, sure, sorry, no problem. But how do we do that? I can’t remember, and my hands are so cold and far away, but somehow they’re working. The thin, bright, dashed lines of the L are wrapped in spirals of darkness, everything vibrating and pushing reality away into fragments, but there are my hands doing something so normal, it must be all right.
The L gradually moves toward the upper left corner of my vision. Finally it’s hovering riiight at the border, jiggling, humming. It looks a lot like a contact lens that’s slipped so that the edge of the lens is crossing my pupil. It’s almost over, almost gone, and I’m still okay! It did not get me. See, I will too be okay. I will. Right at the edge. Almost over.
Then my vision clears completely, and the world is beautiful, and everything’s fine. I feel silly for ever thinking there was a problem. The entire vision disturbance may have lasted anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, but it always seems like a long time while it’s going on, and then afterward I realize it was only a short time and I kept on Getting Things Done all through it. I am proud of myself, and relieved. For about half an hour everything is very normal and happy.
And then the door opens and I’m pulled through and it slams behind me and I’m trapped and it’s not a wonderful secret room; it’s just the other room, the one next to where I usually am, so the view is a little off-kilter, and I don’t have all my stuff. Allowing a visual aura to proceed all the way through without medication will always land me in the other room, by which I mean a perceptual state that feels achingly separate from normal reality even though I can see and do a lot of normal things. Sometimes there’s no headache. Sometimes the door is unlocked, so I can get out of the other room for a while, but as I go about my day every so often I’ll look up and realize I’m back in the other room.
Most often, though, the visual aura means a headache is coming, and if I don’t medicate to prevent the headache, it will grab me and have me in its clutches for hours, even days. It reminds me of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Saruman shouts at Gandalf, “You have elected the way of pain!” and slams him against some walls and then up to the top of Orthanc. It’s not until that slamming loss of control that I’ll admit I knew what was going on, I had a choice, but I chose to do nothing and thus elected the way of pain.
I’m working on it. I’ve made a lot of progress, and these days I can make myself drop everything and insist on coffee and ibuprofen the moment the spot starts expanding, and that almost always takes me down The Path of Feeling Fragile With Slight Headache instead of THE WAY OF PAIN. It’s a big improvement.
Still, having endured this “trip” about 50 times, I’m not eager to take a drug to induce this kind of visual effects on purpose. Make your own decisions about which of Earth’s drugs will play nicely with your own brain, but I’ve decided that not taking LSD is something that works for me!