Ever since witnessing a bad mushroom trip at 14, I've had one drug rule: no psychedelics when I'm in a bad emotional place. It's a good rule in theory -- responsible, even -- but in practice I'm 1000% more unhinged after taking mental inventory of myself. It's a Virgo thing, or an anxiety thing, or an "Am I Too Old For Drugs" thing. I have to wonder if people in good emotional places even bother with this level of masochistic self-assessment, or drugs in general.
I asked myself this question as I made my way to the Aspire Center for Health and Wellness in NYC. A month ago I'd received an email from the center, subject line: Get High without Drugs (& Unlock Creativity). Click bait for ex-stoners. Click click click. Inside was an announcement that the Lucia No. 03 Hypnogogic Light Machine was coming to town for two days. The light's website told me it "allows an immersion into your own inner consciousness; a place of unimaginable peace and beauty."
Except, on the day of my appointment, my inner consciousness was a pile of hot garbage. In recent months, my anxiety has become so pronounced that I can no longer pretend it's a trendy version of stress. My jaw is perma-clenched; I'm ever aware of my heart rate; my stomach acid sends stabs of pain up the left side of my body. If I had scheduled an actual drug trip, I would've called out sick. As I rode the subway, I wondered if the light would induce the heart attack my anxiety tells me is lurking in my future. Would an EMT volunteer have to wheel me out of the Aspire Center for Health and Wellness on a gurney?
File under: Toxic drug thoughts.
There are two women in the waiting room. One has wet hair and takes a selfie with an iPad. The other is Allison. She's a US distributor for the Lucia light, petite with a broad smile and long hippy hair. Her Good Vibe Game is so strong that I take some of my anxiety and give it to her to hold.
She hands me the iPad so I can sign an e-waiver. It warns that I might experience the following during the half-hour session: fluttering of the eyes; the feeling of transcending my body; seeing visions and symbols; and in the case of undiagnosed epilepsy, a seizure. The form also asks what I hope to gain from this experience. I check the "creative inspiration," "spiritual experience," and "out of body experience" boxes. I gloss over "relaxation," because never.
I'm taking my iPad selfie when the wet-head girl speaks. "I'm going next, right? Because I've been waiting here..." Allison explains that my appointment is next; hers is after mine. "So I have to wait even longer? I've already been waiting an hour!," Wet-head says. Allison reminds her she didn't actually book an appointment, that they're squeezing her in. Wet-head sucks her teeth. I wonder if she knows there are rules to tripping, that she needs to be cool or risk emotional annihilation. My chill is quickly escaping.
Allison pulls me out of the room and the aggro spell is broken. Allison reminds me of high school and puka shells. I want to build a time machine with her.
She asks me what music I'd like to listen to during the light experience. I know it has to be slow -- too fast and my heart will explode. She plays some meditative music for me and I ask her to play Grimes, instead. I want Visions but Allison puts on Halfaxa by mistake and I don't want to make a fuss. We're waiting in the hallway while the guy before me wraps up. He is recapping every detail with Allison's assistant, his voice soaked in awe. "Man, that was incredible... is it really over? I can't believe it's over. Dude... when I asked you to turn up the visuals... my mind is blown, man." I picture him in jersey shorts and a t-shirt, maybe a visor, a post-frat bod. When he emerges, though, he is slight, wearing office attire and Ira Glass glasses. He scuttles past me and down the stairs, back into his own bleak reality.
I'm seated in a small room in front of what looks like a spotlight. Allison tells me we'll do a light trip for two minutes and then check-in. Then we'll do a medium trip for three minutes and check-in. The remainder of the 30-minute trip will depend on how I react to the trial runs.
According to inventors Dr. Engleburt Winkler and Dr. Dirk Proeckl (those are their real names), the Lucia Light "is a high-tech instrument that, due to its light rhythms, can initiate electrical activities in the brain which lead to a reorientation in the functional network of neurons." Lucia Light sends white light through the "traveler's" retina, toward the pineal gland (a.k.a. the Third Eye). "If the gland is brought back to its optimum state of health," the doctors posit, "the brain is in a better position to activate a range of healing powers, whether they be physical, spiritual, or both."
The truth is, no one has researched the mystic properties of the pineal gland to the extent that they've studied its medical properties. The other truth is, once that light turned on in front of my closed eyelids, I began to experience a three-drug bender for the price of one. ($50, in this case.)
Here are the three highs I experienced:
Phase 1, Molly: The music rolls on, the lights throb, and my eyelids flicker. Hard. If you've ever taken a touch too much Molly, you'll recall the almost-enjoyable eye spasms that come with. But I'm not on Molly. I'm sober, and I'm having a hard time dissolving into the moment. Instead I sit erect, trapped inside the light, trying to manage the uncontrollable fluttering of my eyelids. I clutched a cup of water in my hands, the water my security blanket. My heart was quaking. The visuals were subtle, like when you think there's a stranger sitting at the foot of your bed but it's actually just a shadow.
Phase 2, Shrooms: The visuals are constant and strong. I've got control of my breathing now. The keyed-up anxiety I felt during Phase 1 has dissipated. Now I'm slumped down in my chair, sitting like a propped-up potato. I laugh as Fantasia-like dancing knives spin around on a tiny spice rack in front of a maroon backdrop.
Phase 3, Weed: This phase began once the show was over. The music turns off, the light still bright but not flickering. It takes me a full minute to understand it's over. Allison and her assistant wear knowing smiles when I open my eyes, ask me how I liked it. I become aware that we were all in the same room watching two different scenes unfold: I saw bursts of color and shape and movement, they saw me tweaking out, moving through various stages of tension and relaxation. I begin to share my experience, gesticulating and forgetting the cup of water in my hands, which splashes onto the floor. We all giggle. Outside, my lungs feel wide open thanks to the deep breathing I did during Phase 2. My jaw is soft. My heartburn is undetectable. For the first time in a long time, I'm relaxed.
The feeling stays with me on the commute home. I contemplate meditation -- is that how people relax without drugs or hypnogogic lights? I might have to try it, or try harder than I have. (Later that week, Allison will tell me over email that NYC will soon have a permanent Lucia Light, so maybe I'll stick with that.) When the train arrives at my stop, I walk to El Loco Burrito and place an order of nachos for my phantom munchies. Everything in its right place.