Lately, I’ve been enraptured by John C Lilly. A man of many hats, he was a physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, writer, inventor, and psychonaut. After inventing the now prominent sensory deprivation tank, Lilly became one of few early researchers focussed on psychedelics substances and phenomenon. Lilly obsessed over human-dolphin communication, certain that dolphins could mimic human speech. He speculated on aliens in our midst and tried his hardest to ascribe from what he experienced in the psychedelic world, their motives. “Cosmic love is absolutely ruthless and highly indifferent: it teaches its lessons whether you like them or not.” Lilly was, in short, a fantastical pioneer.
The psychiatrist Karl Jansen believes Lilly was schizotypal. “Schizotypal is to schizophrenia as Asperger’s is to autism”. If you wish to understand the world through that perception, schizotypal people are socially restrained, cognitively liminal, and creatively journey along the borderlands of human imagination. The traditional terminology is “odd” or “eccentric”; thinking in steps and jumps, seeing things out the corner of your third eye.
Ascribing the terminology of neurodivergence in retrospect is a controversial move; we think of schizotypal as psychiatric and deem it calling someone medically ill. But if you think of these ideas as descriptors and not diagnoses, you have to admit there’s nothing you can say about Lilly without saying he was schizotypal. The description is there, and every word of it fits; all of it sounds as though you described the man and anonymized him. I feel the same when I read the criteria – every quirk and every detail of “schizotypal personality disorder”, every passing note in a study on one of this neurotype’s odd characteristics, is a perfect pitch repetition of all the notes I’ve ever played. Labels have swum around my head since early childhood. In the end, this one settled.
“I WAS TERRIFIED MORE THAN ANYTHING OF TAKING ANTIPSYCHOTICS“
Per conventional wisdom, taking psychedelics while on this spectrum is one of the most dangerous things you can do. There’s something to be said about going on a perilous journey and returning, but, says the Narrative, if you take this trip you may not come home.
It’s understandable. Psychosis was not the most fun thing I’ve ever experienced – though, in the end, neither was it the least. I lived at a level of florid dysfunction papered over only by the fact no one else in my life was much better. I held as my highest virtue throughout the early period never to let anyone know – I was terrified more than anything of taking antipsychotics. I knew a sixteen-year-old presenting with “first episode psychosis” would have no choice in the matter. I held Robert Whitaker close to my heart and wrote my contraries in my sleep. In the end, neither sleep nor wake were different. But I survived.
I first tried LSD when I was nineteen, two and a half years after the hump. In retrospect, tracing my late adolescence is an exercise in reinterpretation. I was miserable, perhaps, but I don’t know what misery is. I lived in a town I hated and mourned my failure to launch, but every rocketship I engineered was too quixotic for blastoff. My first experience with acid was pure unconcentrated love and joy, stumbling into my dad’s front yard and immediately being distracted by Beauty and Truth. I could tell you all the beats – but you know them all, don’t you?
“Psychedelic healing” is an increasingly popular byline, an idea swirling through trauma and depression and isolation and going – well, none of our solutions are working, but what if this one did? It’s a fair point. Where psychedelics were once understood as tools of madness, as mind breaking monstrosities that destroyed their users in every lurid manner of after-school specials, we know now they’re quite the opposite. Yet nightmares may lurk in the corners of your mind when you first wake up, and some forms of mental trauma, spiritual suffering, whichever words you wish to use, are still off-limits.
Psychosis hangs a spectre over mental health. Mild depression and anxiety have become dinner party conversation, but maniacs and psychotics are people who have crossed a line. The irony, of course, is that knowing both, I’d rather be psychotic than depressed. There is a beauty to being the centre of the universe; there is none to being its refuse.
Psychedelics are off-limits to psychotics. This is the highest law. This is the widest wisdom. If you propose otherwise, anywhere people congregate to discuss drugs, you’ll at least get odd looks. Quite often, you’ll be accused of trying to ruin people’s lives. But what I know is my life was the opposite of ruined.
When I tripped for the third time, I had two prior experiences with positivity. The third was – “bad trip” would be the wrong wording. But the script suddenly changed on me. Over the course of two trips, I was forced at the corners of my mind to confront my problems, my stymied ambition, my desire to “get the hell out of this town”. A year later, head swirling with half-realities, I moved across the country to start university and rebuild my life. (My mother warned me not to “take too many drugs and go into a psychosis” as I left.) I am not always happy with myself today, but I am living, and I can owe my life to what I have done.
But alas, n = 1 is n = 1. How am I to know if my story is an aberration?
John Lilly gives pointers. Schizotypal is the knife’s edge. In the current psychiatric understanding, schizotypes are understood as a schizophrenic phenotype, as proto-psychotics from whom one gains more understanding of the people who have crossed the border. There is little appreciation for the neurotype in itself. The effect of this is that we can learn as much from when schizotypal people aren’t psychotic, are “high-functioning”, as when we play on the borderlands of the definition.
Psychedelics, if anything, appeal uniquely to the schizotypal. We are internalizing, intellectualizing people; we want to know everything strange and everything backwards, and we turn the ideas around in our heads, trying to wrench everything we can out of them. To someone who lives too far in his own mind, psychedelics can do the opposite of the stereotype; they draw people out, let them interact more with the world as it is, not just the world as it’s imagined. There are many people with the neurotype who have taken psychedelics without falling into an inescapable hole. They may not be normal – no one would call Lilly normal – but is normal a prerequisite for a life worth living?
The idea of psychedelics as knives tearing apart a schizotypal mind dissolves if you look at the people who take them and realize this is clearly a disproportionately schizotypal group. Nonetheless, the matter of taking them when you’ve been fully psychotic does raise more questions. I can’t recommend my route to everyone. Yet per Hunter S. Thompson: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
“Psychotic people have made great strides living amongst shamans and understanding ourselves in thousands of inappropriate ways”
I feel strange, telling my story, for how thoroughly it goes against every wisdom. Psychedelics users are a people of received wisdom; wisdom from ourselves, wisdom from our teachers and gurus, wisdom from what we see when we pull back the veil. It is an uphill battle to dispel what spells have gone wrong. But you’ve got to spell it out, haven’t you?
Psychedelics are not magic, but they can, in the right light, be magick. I’ve had experiences several times over outside the range of human understanding, both intentional and unintentional, and I’ve learned to love both. I cannot see myself in images of disabled, detached schizospectrum people; I am trying at every point to keep my head above water, and so far I haven’t drowned. The story of my survival is an inappropriate story, an unacceptable story, a story that flies in the face of everything it’s supposed to be, and yet it took me much further than many others. It bleeds out of me and demands its telling.
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Who else like me hasn’t realized it? What could we accomplish for people with such unusual experiences if we looked at it from a different lens? Psychotic people have made great strides living amongst shamans and understanding ourselves in thousands of inappropriate ways. Are we a group uniquely ill-suited to psychedelic use, or are we particularly well-suited to it? Are our experiences contraindication or indication for this form of healing and self-discovery? Are we, as a society, so afraid of the bad outcomes that we close ourselves off from the good? As I walk my path, I face the question of what beautiful things we’re missing by closing it off. I remember John C. Lilly, and I wonder.