How A Bad Trip at 16 Changed the Course of My Life

I took acid so you don't have to.

My older brother had been taking acid for years by the time I tried it. I wanted to be just like him — fearless, skeptical, brave — and to the greatest extent possible, I pretended that I was. I couldn’t pursue skating or BMXing — girls didn’t do those things in the Midlands in the 90s — so I went straight for the drugs. My best friend Jo Jo and I were committed hedonists. We’d already tried weed, speed and Es. Acid was next.

The question was how would we get it? And where would we take it? After all, we were kids.

Finally, the stars aligned. An older friend scored some Andy Warhols and my mum was away for the weekend. It was a Saturday in July. Perfect for our first trip. Except that when the day came, it was pissing it down.

“We should wait…” Older Friend said. “Tripping’s better on a sunny day…”

“Yeah, we probably should wait,” we agreed.

But the drugs were right here, close enough to touch.

“Fuck it,” Jo Jo said, and I laughed.

Who were we kidding? We pressed the little rectangles of paper onto our tongues.

The giggles

At first, nothing happened.

“Maybe they were duds,” we said.

We huddled together in my double bed, laughing and laughing at nothing in particular. There were quite a few of us in the house by now. Teenagers waiting to come up. Three or four of my friends and a few of my brother’s. Our friendship groups had started to merge together recently. I’d been waiting for this moment for years. To be accepted by my brother.

I don’t remember feeling worried. I remember feeling proud and grownup. Excited. It was raining outside, but we were warm and cozy. I was with my best friends, embarking on a psychedelic adventure.

I had no idea my life was about to change forever.

Visuals

Everyone had told us about trails, so I recognized them when they started. It was funny. I was tripping! The blue-silver pattern of the wallpaper I’d looked at for years started to have faces. One face in particular. A pointy chinned white man, looking sidelong at me.

The walls shifted texture, like melting wax and it started to flick out at me, just at the edges of my vision. The walls began to drip, and I realized I was soaking. Everything was soaking. I started to feel uncomfortable.

That’s the last thing I remember. After that, I only have flashes. Nonsensical moments of anti-narrative. Illogical loops of activity.

The worst had happened. The thing we all dreaded.

I was having a bad trip.

Hallucinations

I locked myself in the bathroom but couldn’t go because all my friends were in there with me. Not in the bathroom. In my consciousness. And not just my friends, but everyone I knew. Privacy was over. We shared a consciousness now, and I was so ashamed because my inner world was rotten. I was disgusting. A shit-covered, filthy, genitaled creature.

I forgot that I’d taken drugs. I thought we were dead maybe. Boys laughed at me and girls tried to help me, but they were all in on it. I ran to the taps in the kitchen but the water wasn’t running. Everyone laughed at me for believing water existed.

When I turned the tap it was like the punchline. What everyone had been waiting for. She’s fallen for it again! The world’s laughter track played. I ran to the front door and tried to unlock it, but someone barred the way. Maybe my brother. Nobody would let me out. I was trapped.

I went to my bedroom and threw my belongings out the window. I tried to take off my clothes.

Time dilation

Time had stopped, and it was my fault. Because of me, we were stuck in this time-free horror vortex forever. Everyone hated me because I was filthy and disgusting and I could never escape. More people arrived and I was tormented by deranged visions. All around me people laughed and fucked and shat and bled and were torn apart by time then put back together again.

At one point, I died.

I lay very still, feeling the life force pour out of me, with such relief. I was so glad it was over. Until I realized that death was an illusion. Because after you died you arrived back here. In the hell loop.

At some point Jo Jo came to talk to me.

“Chel, are you ok? It’s me, Chel. Are you ok? It’s Jo Jo.”

I stared through her. I wasn’t falling for it. Interacting with her would mean I believed she was a real person, that I

“Chel, you’re scaring me. Talk to me. Are you okay?”

She left, eventually, and I just kept staring.

Return

Wisps of sanity drifted through my head. It was dark and I was lying at the bottom of my bed with my boyfriend. He was holding me tight and stroking my hair.

“Oh my god,” I whispered. I felt my hair, expecting it to be covered in filth, but it was clean. Sweaty, maybe.

“What happened?” I whispered.

“You fell asleep,” he said.

I clung to him, telling myself it had been a nightmare.

It was dark outside now. The familiar scene outside my bedroom window. Our garden. The neighbor’s house. The orange glow of a street light.

Lucy and Jo Jo had gone, but the house wasn’t empty. I could hear loud, fast music, could smell the sweet, tangy smoke of skunk.

I felt shaky and weak like waking after a long illness.

My brother and his friends were smoking and eating pizza. They didn’t say anything when I walked through the living room. I felt self-conscious and a bit dazed. When I walked back through from the kitchen, holding two cups of hot chocolate, one of the friends stood and grabbed the door frame.

“I need the toilet! I need the toilet!” he shouted, in a high-pitched, panicky voice.

On TV Keanu Reeves walked through a room of human-filled tanks in The Matrix.

I scuttled upstairs to my boyfriend, heart pounding. We put the telly on and I tried to feel normal. It was a relief to be a person again, but I was very confused. What had actually happened? For days, I tried to convince myself that my bad trip had been a nightmare. When I finally gathered the courage to talk about it my boyfriend admitted he thought I'd been faking. I was aghast. Did everyone else think that, I wondered? The shame was crippling. My friends back then were thrillseekers and hedonists. Our main aim in life was to have fun. Nurturing and empathy weren't entirely in our repertoire.

And so I tried to pretend the whole thing hadn't happened. It was the best solution I could come up with. And a forcefield grew around me as a result.

The lessons

Twenty years later, I still get flashbacks. Last night I had a bad one, which is why I’m writing this. You see, I still haven't much talked about what happened. I blamed myself and felt humiliated so I stayed quiet. I felt like having a bad trip revealed something shameful about me. If my friends tried to bring it up, I changed the subject or laughed it off.

And I lived with fairly intense mental health consequences for the next five or six years. Panic attacks and flashbacks were so frequent I wondered if I had developed schizophrenia. For a while, I experienced incredibly disturbing OCD. I became even jumpier than I had been before. Big parties and raves scared me. Noisy crowds too. If I got overstimulated my brain could flip, and so I started to seek out quieter parties. I found that drinking still felt safe.

My relationship with my teenage party friends was never quite the same again. I felt like the trip had revealed something important and I scrabbled to understand what it was. Was I more afraid than I’d realized? Was I mentally susceptible? Maybe I didn’t feel safe with my friends because they didn’t truly care about me? I blamed myself and I blamed them. I felt like they had let me down somehow. I felt like a lot of people had.

But the truth is that anyone can have a bad trip. And it’s the nature of a bad trip to make you suspicious of people you previously trusted.

It wasn’t just my friendships that changed as a result of my bad trip. I stopped taking drugs too (well, I began the long process of quitting, which included many micro-relapses, right up until 2016.) After being determined to get a job, I u-turned and applied through clearing to university. I moved hundreds of miles away from everyone I knew to read English Literature by the sea.

The whole experience showed me I was on the wrong path. It made me want to start over. I found a subject I loved and learned to apply myself. I continued to struggle with my mental health, but I made good friends too.

Whenever I lost my resolve and took drugs again, the same hell loop would appear. A drag too many on a spliff or half a pill, and my mind would return to that place of madness. I’d run away from the party and frighten my friends. Drugs became a psychosis lottery, no longer worth the risk. So I had to learn to become a different sort of person. I drank a lot, but I took photos too. I partied, but I surfed and hiked as well. I made friends who were interested in more than getting wasted. I created a new identity. I left behind the lost girl I had been that night. Tried, anyway.

Not long after I moved away to uni my mum called to tell me she was selling our house, and I remember being relieved as well as sad. I’d lived there since I was a toddler, and we’d been happy in that house when I was small, but after the trip, the place felt haunted.

When I drive past it now, it’s not my childhood I remember, but that night.

If you had a bad trip, it doesn’t mean you are weak or broken. Sensitive, maybe, but that’s no bad thing. And maybe, like me, there will be a silver lining. My bad trip at 16 forced me to start over, which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.

It set me on a healthier path, pushed me to get an education, and led me to become a writer.

So if you’re thinking about taking acid, proceed with caution. You might believe that there are things you can do to make sure your experience isn’t like mine, but the truth is a bad trip can happen to anyone. And if you're recovering from your own psychedelic nightmare, then take heart. Because no matter how scary your experience was, you can overcome it. Talk to someone you trust, and ask for help if you need it. My only regret is that I didn't talk to somoebody sooner.

If you need help to stop drinking/taking drugs you’re not alone.

If you’re ready to try something different, try my alcohol experiment.

Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas. Read beautiful hangover. Listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind.

There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting.

Read extra stories at beautifulhangover on Medium<3

Chelsey Flood is the author of Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, and a lecturer in creative writing at Falmouth University. She writes about freedom, addiction, nature and love, and is working on her first creative non-fiction book.

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