By Jacob Scheier
Before Grade 12, Jacob Scheier took a lot of drugs: 200 hits of acid and more than 60 tablets of ecstasy. Then he decided to hit the books and get serious. But five years later, after starting to take medications for depression and anxiety, he became afflicted with disturbing flashbacks. In My Never-Ending Acid Trip: Why I Still Hallucinate Years After Taking LSD, Scheier Ė now a Governor Generalís Award-winning poet Ė chronicles his painful descent from student to psych-ward patient. Scheierís book is a moving and darkly funny look at a young manís struggle to get well. It is also an indictment of a medical environment in which psychoactive drugs are dispensed like candy.
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My Never-Ending Acid Trip: Why I still hallucinate years after taking LSD
When I was 16 I dropped acid every weekend. That was before I became a raver and, at least once a month, did a tablet or two of MDMA (ecstasy) and whatever else those pills were cut with. By the time I graduated from high school in 1999, I had done about 200 hits of LSD and more than 60 tablets of ecstasy.
I was nervous the first time I did acid, but then I found it made my thoughts appear more interesting, reality more layered and colourful. I woke up the next day and felt just fine. I was an aspiring writer and felt a kinship with all the writers who had tripped out before me. Yet I also suffered from the invincibility syndrome that afflicts the young. I thought my brain and body could handle just about anything. I was a clever teenager in that I read a lot, but I was also extraordinarily dumb.
In my last year of high school, when the grades counted, I stopped doing hallucinogens — for good reason. LSD, in particular, is a serious time commitment: eight hours of dancing geometric shapes on walls, ghostly afterimages of light hanging in the air and a trail left when something or someone moves. Arms might appear to flap like a butterfly’s wings or, if the trip isn’t going so well, Mothra’s.
As interesting an experience as it is, eight hours is about all people can handle. This is because there is one thought people tend to have on acid that can send them spiralling into a bad trip: what if I never come down? Everyone has heard the urban legend about the kid who never stopped tripping.
I’m that kid.
Clinically speaking, I have been on a ceaseless visual acid flashback for eight years, brought on (according to several psychiatrists) by hallucinogen use in combination with little-known side effects from one or more commonly prescribed psychiatric medications. I eventually ended up in a psych ward, diagnosed with a rare psychiatric disorder called hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, or HPPD.
For a year in 2005, I was lost in my own mind and within the psychiatric system, so lost that I nearly killed myself. Eventually, I found my way out by learning to become my own doctor and discovering that sometimes the only way to fix something is to let it remain broken.
A short time after my 25th birthday, Feb. 2, 2005, I began to take medications prescribed for depression. I had been on this drug cocktail for about three days and was making my way into my living room when suddenly green lines flashed like laser beams before my face. I froze. Chris, my roommate, was sitting on our couch. Behind him geometric patterns spun on the wall. I looked around the room: the walls, the couch, the chairs were all breathing.
“Are you okay?” Chris asked, his oval face stretched out like a reflection in a carnival mirror. A halo of red light, the colour of his shirt, hung around his head and shoulders.
“I’m seeing weird stuff, I told him.
“What kind of weird stuff?”
“It’s like I’m on acid. I’m scared.”
“It will go away. Just sit down and watch the Oscars with me.”
Chris gestured towards the spot on the couch next to him and several faint copies of his arm flickered by. I inched towards him and sat down.
On TV, Chris Rock was hosting the Academy Awards. His face contorted and he smiled at me demonically.
I ran to the bathroom and popped a clonazepam, the minor tranquillizer (like Valium) prescribed to me for panic attacks; this certainly counted as one.
I went to my room, lay down on the bed and closed my eyes. Green spots appeared on the inside of my eyelids. There was no escape. I got up again and paced through the shower of green lines. After half an hour or so, the lines vanished as suddenly as they appeared. The walls shimmered a bit but had stopped breathing. I felt dopey and relaxed. The clonazepam had finally kicked in. Back in the living room, Chris’s face looked normal again. I went to my bedroom and slept.
The moment I opened my eyes in the morning, green lines rained down on me. The room pulsated like a giant heart. I popped a clonazepam and the visuals quieted, but they didn’t completely disappear.
My mother, the late poet Libby Scheier, suffered from depression. She took an antidepressant for it: Zoloft, I believe. Once, as a teenager, I swallowed a pill from the medicine cabinet to see what it would feel like and woke up with a rapid heartbeat that lasted for a couple of hours. It was not nearly as much fun as the other drugs I was doing. My mother had attempted suicide a couple of times. She might have eventually succeeded, but breast cancer got her first (she died when I was 20). My father has had bouts of depression and has been on antidepressants at different times in his life. His brother killed himself; so did his niece.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that I’ve been in therapy since I was a teenager. For eight years, my therapist was my GP; I’ll call him “Dr. Green.” He was a middle-aged man with the build of a sea turtle. His short neck barely rose above the collar of his pressed shirts. His deep, friendly voice seemed appropriate for the reading of children’s books.
By the time I entered my early 20s, I had contracted the family illness, in Dr. Green’s view. I was suffering from severe insomnia, anxiety and had trouble concentrating. I also have Crohn’s disease and, through 2004 and into 2005, the year or so leading up to my depression diagnosis, had been hospitalized three times because of my gastrointestinal condition. One of those times required colon surgery.
After each hospitalization I was temporarily put on a high dosage of a steroid, prednisone, commonly prescribed for Crohn’s flare-ups. The potential side effects, according to the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information and other websites, actually include anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. I was just a few weeks out of the hospital for my most recent flare-up when Dr. Green diagnosed me as depressed.
He thought I ought to consider taking an antidepressant. I initially declined, not because I was worried about side effects, but because I was concerned that the drugs would block my creativity as a writer.
But as the sleepless nights added up, I found the idea that I had a chemical imbalance in my brain that could be corrected by medication increasingly compelling. I began with clonazepam and a sleeping pill at night. Clonazepam, at least until tolerance builds up, counters anxiety but also makes you dopey, so I wasn’t able to study or write after ingesting it. Dr. Green prescribed the antidepressant mirtazapine (best known as the brand name Remeron), which works a little differently than the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). But it still increases levels of serotonin in the brain, which is supposed to make it easier to experience feelings of well-being. Dr. Green also prescribed a small dose of quetiapine (best known as the brand name Seroquel), which he thought would calm my anxiety.
Quetiapine is an “atypical,” or newer, antipsychotic. Though originally used to treat psychotic disorders, in recent years doctors have increasingly prescribed it and other atypical antipsychotics “off-label” for depression, anxiety, insomnia, dementia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and aggression in children.
One such atypical antipsychotic, ziprasidone, was prescribed eight times more frequently in 2012 than in 2008, according to the research and consulting company IMS Brogan. Prescriptions of these drugs for Canadians under the age of 18 increased 68 per cent between 2007 and 2011, from 772,000 to more than 1.3 million. Side effects of newer antipsychotics include involuntary muscle spasms and increased risk of obesity and diabetes.
Overall last year, Canadians filled 74 million psychiatric medication prescriptions, worth $2.6 billion. Forty three million of those were for antidepressants.
“I’m hallucinating from the meds. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared. Please call.” Beep.
This is a voice mail I left for Dr. Green the night of the Oscars.
He called me back the next day and asked me what I was seeing.
“Green lines, melting faces. Words are moving around the page. I can’t read.”
He told me to stop the mirtazapine but to stay on the quetiapine. But the hallucinations continued, alleviated only by clonazepam.
Our appointments now consisted of him flipping through a textbook the size of the Oxford English Dictionary sitting on his lap, looking up various drug side effects. He told me it was extraordinarily rare for people to have hallucinations from antidepressants, and that it would go away soon. After another week of melting faces and green laser beams, he told me to stop the quetiapine, too, but that didn’t end the trip either.
At the time, I was in the undergraduate creative writing program at York University. I continued to go to class, but the professor’s face would distort and I would run out of the room. When I tried to read, it felt like reading in a dream, with the ghostly afterimages of letters materializing on the page and sometimes moving around in circles like possessed dancers enacting a cult ritual. Pretty soon I stopped going to school altogether.
I also stopped bathing and brushing my teeth on a regular basis.
Chris was keeping the apartment relatively clean, but my room was just a pile of clothes and books. I had my own balcony and sat out there smoking a lot. I had inherited the apartment after my mother died. I was already a heavy smoker but started chain-smoking. The ashtray was a mountain of cigarette butts.
Chris was studying film in college and working as a production assistant, and after 14 hours a day as a gopher on movie sets, he would come home and listen to me talk about what I was seeing. Like Dr. Green, Chris kept telling me it would go away soon.
After a couple of weeks, the green lines and facial distortions did go away, but the trails, afterimages and halos remained, regardless of how much or how often I sedated myself with clonazepam. By this point I felt too scared to leave the house much. I dropped out of school.
Chris would come home to find me doped up on clonazepam, watching TV. He also discovered that I had begged my ex-girlfriend to move in and look after me because I was scared and felt I couldn’t look after myself.
He told me, “This is in your head. You have to do something about it.”
Dr. Green had come to the same conclusion.
It’s not uncommon, he said, for severely depressed people to become psychotic.
Dr. Green pulled the huge textbook from the shelf and started scanning the pages. He didn’t know what was safe to prescribe and told me he would consult a psychiatrist.
But I couldn’t wait that long.
The next day I walked into a downtown hospital and told the triage nurse that if I didn’t see a psychiatrist I would kill myself.