Trip of a Lifetime

Sebastian Horsley
The Observer — (Sunday June 20, 2004)

He’s tried clinics and therapy, Narcotics Anonymous and rehab. He’s taken up exercise and gone through reduction cures. He’s even given up on giving up. Now, though, Sebastian Horsley thinks he may have found the answer to his lifelong craving for heroin. Only problem is, it’s another dangerous drug…

As I started to feel the effects of the drug I was suddenly seized with fear. I had taken a hallucinogenic which could confuse the dreaming and iwaking states, my adulthood and childhood, and in doing so break the cellophane between myself and insanity. Sometimes drugs have been a trip into the horrors of my life and sometimes a means of flight from them. But nightmares are never more horrific than real life. Are they?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried. As a child I saw everything as a novelty – I was always intoxicated. Alcoholism didn’t run in my family, it galloped. By the time I was in my teens I was already sluicing down liquor with the abandon of someone truly spooked by his own existence. And it went on from there.

By the time I was 30, crack had taken me, as swiftly and easily as an eagle taking a rabbit. Crack led to heroin: first smoking, then the needle. I took drugs as an escape from a life which I found unendurable. I took drugs because I enjoyed taking them. The fixing ritual is the sweetest form of pleasure a man can have. The needle, the belt round the arm, the first feeling of the spike sliding through the flesh… The ecstasy of hitting a vein is incomparably pleasurable. Complete happiness is about to be yours. You hear the angels sing. You feel the kiss of God. The whole world is bathed in the luminous glow of entrancement, of contentment, of peace.

Those who have never taken drugs can’t understand this bliss. How could I ever give up? It wasn’t just the pleasure, it was my life. I had always been absorbed by the idea of the decadents – by those doomed visionaries, strutting peacocks possessed of an arrogant lust for life. I wanted to wear their outlaw colours. I wanted to share their fearlessness. Some see addiction as weakness. But for me it was a strength. It was the strength to lose control, to run counter to convention, to escape the banal confines of what I saw as bourgeois life.

Of course, the heroics couldn’t last. In the end, taking crack and heroin is about as glamorous as swigging meths. The irony of the drug experience is that it comes from an outgrowth of genuine longing, a reaching out for meaning, a yearning for transcendence and salvation, and it ends with sitting in a darkened room staring miserably at the wall.

I had wanted freedom, but all I had made was a prison. Just as I can’t describe the pleasure of drug taking, I can’t describe the dead end of loneliness, of abandonment, of the boredom that it led to. So I tried to give up. Then I gave up giving up. The relapses were endless and tedious and sad.

I was like an escapologist who messes up his tricks and gets even more tangled. My life was an ongoing flight. I guess in a way my on/off relationship with drugs was an external expression of my internal struggle. I tried clinics, I tried Narcotics Anonymous, I tried therapy, reduction cures, exercise and, eventually, sheer white-knuckled denial. I had multiple stabs at rehab, and sometimes I managed for maybe a month, maybe more. Finally, I even got as far as a year – quickly followed by a four-month relapse. I was exhausted. I couldn’t see a way out of my predicament. I wanted to want to stop. But I couldn’t get over my cravings. And so I would come to the conclusion that if I was thinking about drugs that much I might as well take them. And so I did. But this time I decided that the drug would be ibogaine.

I had been reading about ibogaine for some years. And I think, to be honest, I had been put off it for the simple reason that I was afraid – afraid it might work. Who would I be without my addiction? If I kicked out my devils would my angels leave, too? Without my caricature to hide in, how could I find a disguise? I was frightened that I had become a self-parody – but without going to the trouble of acquiring a self first.

The time had come to find out. After a grand finale of a relapse which left me more dead than alive, I contacted an ibogaine treatment provider who I had traced through the internet. She was called Hattie Wells and she said she could supply me with the drug at an affordable price and help me go through the experience. ‘This is no pleasure trip,’ she warned.

It’s not a small task. I had to go to my doctor for blood tests and heart scans to check I was up to it. I was advised to take a week or two off work. I had taken my life off already so that was no problem. Then I had to suggest somewhere I could go, a quiet place where I felt safe. Some people go to clinics abroad, in a controlled medical environment. I chose my girlfriend’s house.

But even there I desperately wanted to cancel at the last minute. I had reacquired a heroin habit from my last relapse. I didn’t feel emotionally capable. I was frightened of dying – among ibogaine takers, four (recorded) deaths have occurred suspiciously close to the time the drug was tried. And even more suspicious were my own motives: taking drugs to stop taking drugs. Yeah right, that’s a new one.

Hattie arrived with a doctor who gave me a medical and I signed a form exonerating her from any liability. Then, after a test dose to check that I wasn’t allergic, I took a gel-capped extract of the rootbark powder.

Hattie led me up to my room. She put a bucket by the bed in case I vomited. And I lay down feeling excited, but nervous. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was on my way. And there was no going back. And then… well, nothing much. After an hour of waiting for the sudden drug rush that I had learnt to expect, I felt nothing. A little light-headed perhaps, but nothing dramatic. And then I shut my eyes. And that was it. Sudden images began to emerge out of the darkness like staccato flashes from a film screen. The first was a woman on a raft smiling inanely as she came towards me. I was sceptical at first – you’re not fooling me with this, I thought. This is not real. But then all my self-consciousness was swept away by the sheer force and intensity of the visions.

It was a bit like going down into an echoing cathedral, a yawning underworld. But at the same time it was like being inside a miniature jewellery box. Everything was tiny and winking and gleaming and plush. And my head was filled with a buzzing noise, like a telephone line that has been disconnected.And then, immediately – inevitably – I was back, running about amid my childhood. I was at High Hall in Yorkshire, where I had been brought up.

Face pressed against a window, I watched my mother and my sister inside the study running round and round in circles. I don’t know who was chasing who, but even at the time I took it to mean something about their relationship, eternally unresolved. But I felt that there was nothing that could be done, that I couldn’t interfere.

Then I was flying, soaring over the gardens. It was like lucid dreaming – when you know that you are dreaming and can somehow control your fantasies. But the drug was going to control the visions, not me.

I was strangely aware I was not alone. I heard voices. They could have been simply manifestations of the mind, but at the same time I was aware of the presence of some sort of guide, the spirit of Igoba, the Africans call it. It comes to you as a teacher.

I wanted to swoop through the front door and into the house. It wouldn’t let me. It kept dragging me round to the side. ‘Everything you need to know is at the side door,’ it kept saying.

After the trip, Hattie quoted Gabriel GarcÀa MÀrquez to me: ‘I have learned that everyone wants to live on the peak of the mountain, without knowing that the real happiness is in how it is scaled.’ This made sense to me. I have spent my life going for the hit, the big experience, the extreme situation. I have always needed a drama from time to time to remind me that I still existed. Was this telling me that I could discover beauty in ordinary things? That I didn’t always have to take centre stage, to be hopping up and down in an attempt to get noticed? I could slip back into my life through a quiet side door. My reading, for what it is worth, is that Iboga was trying to teach me that all men are ordinary men – the extraordinary men are those who know it.

I can’t remember the order in which everything happened. But I remember having a vision about my brother with whom my relationship had always been fraught – the usual sibling rivalries carried to some pretty nasty and petty extremes. He was, after all, a potential threat to my individuality. We like to speak casually about ‘sibling rivalry’ as though it were some kind of by-product of growing up, a bit of competitiveness and selfishness in children who have been spoilt, who haven’t yet grown into a generous social nature. But it is too all-absorbing and relentless to be an aberration; it expresses the heart of the creature – the desire to stand out. Now, suddenly, I saw that the war was over. We flew together until we faced each other. I took off my head. He took off his.

I placed mine on his shoulders and he placed his on mine. I have to say that I think he got the better deal. But all the time I was aware of some brooding presence – something that was waiting for me, something I would have to face. It was underneath the surface of everything, glowing away to itself. It was time to face my addiction. I started my journey, soaring and swooping, plunging and diving through forests and mountains and oceans and galaxies. It felt like forever. And then suddenly I was in an opulent room. The sort where kings banquet in fairy-tale castles. I was waiting for an audience with someone – some god who would reveal everything to me. It was an utter inevitability. I waited, resigned.

Then the door swung open… and I walked in. I got up to meet myself. I walked slowly towards me and kissed myself on the lips. And as I did so the other me disintegrated, crumbled away like a china doll. I stepped forward to find it again. It was gone.

This was the end of the road. No more excuses. No more psychobabble. No more alibis. Father didn’t love me? So what. I’m a failure? Who cares. If you simply put heroin down you are avoiding the issue. It wasn’t the horse. It was the Horsley. It had been me all along.

Well, now it was over. Now it was time to be a man. A junkie wouldn’t treat a dog the way he treats himself. And if I had ever believed – as I had – that people are far more interesting if they don’t learn to love themselves, then it was time at least to try and change. I expect that I can’t. I don’t know where I would be without grandiose self-loathing.

But the main thing I realised was the unbearable lightness of addiction. The ball and chain had floated off, light as a feather. It was as simple as the flick of a switch. You just put ‘No’ where ‘Yes’ used to be. So much of my connection with life had always been with the dark side. But throughout my trip I was aware that my death was always with me. I didn’t have to run around looking for it. I didn’t have to open that door any more. I wanted to ask Iboga where I would go instead, and I was shown an image of myself and my girlfriend with a child between us. I have never had a paternal stirring in my life, no desire to breed misfit freaks like myself, so I found this alarming.

Of course, I can only remember a tiny part of my journey, a few snatched fragments of images – perhaps those that meant the most? I opened my eyes. I guessed that maybe 15 minutes had passed. I saw the room through a veil. Hattie was sitting on the floor by the bed.

‘You were under for more than nine hours,’ she said. She told me that my trip had been one of the most acutely physical that she had witnessed. I had been shaking spasmodically, making weird breathing noises. My arms and hands had assumed infantile gestures for much of the trip.

This tallied with my feelings that I had been involved in some sort of exorcism. I don’t believe in spirits, even if they do exist, but I had a real sense that my body had been emptied out. It felt like I had had a blood transfusion, like a benign force had come to help me. That was a complete contrast to the drugs I had been used to taking. Hallucinogens may often be considered sacred – there are peyote cults and bannisteria cults, hashish and mushroom cults – but no one ever suggested that heroin is holy.

There are no high priests of crack. These drugs are profane, pernicious. When you are in the grip of them you could almost imagine you are under some diabolic possession. When you come down you are swamped with guilt and self-loathing. But after taking ibogaine I was overwhelmed with a feeling that something good had happened. I felt that my brain had been reset. Maybe it is a case of things having to be believed to be seen, but throughout the trip there was a buzzing and fizzing and popping in my head, almost as if nerve endings were being sorted, reconnected, cleaned and ordered into parallel lines like the ploughing of a field.

Trying to explain my insights, they start to sound obvious or silly or indulgent. But that wasn’t how they felt at the time. They felt profound, almost divine, delivered with great weight and authority.

I am cynical by nature. Spirituality seems to me to be a form of drug pushing. Our age is a hysterical hot zone of trumped up disorders, imaginary illnesses, panic attacks. We are abducted by aliens. We recall false memories. Truth wears a thousand different faces. Religion is an accident of geography. Nothing more. Nothing less.

My ibogaine treatment was the same. It can be interpreted according to any belief system. It could be reincarnation, astral travel, a shamanistic trip. For me it was merely a chemical substance that made me feel a certain way. And the way I felt was that I had been emotionally reintroduced to myself. It was as simple – and as complicated – as that.

Afterwards I didn’t sleep for two days. I burst into tears all the time. I think it felt like mourning. I was confused for a week or two. I didn’t recognise who I was. I used to be woken every morning with stimulants so that I could drift through the day on sedatives. But now what? Hattie had told me not to worry, to ‘find glory in dismemberment’. But I didn’t like it.

It is now more than three months since I took it. After a while I began to notice that I didn’t need as much sleep as I used to. Apparently this is typical. For most of my life I have been plagued by obsessive compulsive disorder. I have been a slave to endless rituals – touching and counting – all to keep control, to stave off the chaos I sensed inside myself. Sometimes these rituals were occupying two hours a day. And now they had all but disappeared. I still feel sad – a melancholy that is probably part of my character. Clean, my outlook remains deathlike, as it was on drugs. On heroin. Off heroin. I am essentially suicidal. But at the same time I feel centred and calm. And that’s new.

But the most extraordinary thing is that my craving for drugs has disappeared – completely, and yet in a quiet way. In the past I always came out of clinics with all guns blazing, on the so-called ‘pink cloud’. If I could take drugs like a demon then I could go straight like a demon. It never worked.

This time I feel I have replaced the habit of using drugs with the habit of not using drugs, but gently. The whisper can be louder than the shout. I don’t for one moment regret the drugs I have taken. If I had to live my life again, I’d take the same drugs, only sooner. And more of them.

But now I hope it’s over. I’m excited. It’s some time since I’ve been excited about anything except the arrival of my dealer. I’m not sure that things ever get lighter, it’s just that we become accustomed to the dark. But I shall try. Now I’ve tasted the bitter root of drug addiction, I’m hoping the fruit will be sweet.

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