Astral Plane Crash
The first time I smoked Salvia, I was sitting on my living room floor with my then-girlfriend. She'd just taken her first hits to no effect. She reported feeling a little high, but there were no hallucinations. No "incredible five-minute trip," as her friend had described after his own first experiment.
We'd been warned, though: smoking salvia divinorum is a bit more complicated than smoking marijuana or hashish. There are certain things one must do in order to facilitate the psychedelic's efficacy. First and foremost, use a butane lighter: The leaves must be incinerated quickly and completely. Your Zippo doesn't put out enough heat. Second, use a bong or water pipe: The smoke must be inhaled immediately and held for thirty seconds, and the water can provide a cooling mechanism. Still, as my friend discovered, even when one does follow procedure there's no guarantee that the psychedelic will take hold.
Salvia Divinorum has been used for years by native America shaman, though exactly how long is up for debate. Shaman healers living in the Oaxaca state of Mexico are called curanderos; in Mazatec they are called chotacine, which translates as "one who knows." According to the curanderos, they use it whenever they feel it necessary to travel into the supernatural world in order to suss information that eludes their corporeal selves. Uses include divination, diagnosis of sickness and disease, and even locating missing persons and objects. The leaves, which resemble their cousins in the mint family, are traditionally chewed and held in the mouth like tobacco or crushed into a juice.
At the time of this writing, salvia is legal everywhere in the world and very easy to obtain via the web, often sold by home-growers. Research shows it to be non-addictive, and users report no increased tolerance after repeated use. In fact some salvia enthusiasts report an increased sensitivity after multiple uses. Presumably, their bodies have learned how to process the active ingredient, Salvinorin A, more efficiently and effectively.
My companion tried two or three more times, yet still felt nothing more than light-headed. I refilled the little glass bowl, hit it with the sharp blue flame and sucked in the cool, white smoke. Immediately, I felt something lurking on the edge of my awareness, something a bit frightening and a bit exhilarating, something waiting to be invited into my head. I quickly packed another bowl and fired it up.
Suck it in. Hold thirty seconds. Exhale.
Now then, there's something --
Something --
-- was coming --
And like -- that! I was in another world. I felt myself pulled backward by strings that had suddenly and quite inexplicably become embedded in my shoulders. I was a puppet dropped by its master, now called back into action. The room around me disappeared in waves of concentric circles, like ripples in a pond. As I looked around me, my bookshelf, my couch, my coffee table, my dog... All faded away as the waves pushed over and past them, sweeping them out to an unseen sea. And the strings -- they pulled me back to such a degree that I nearly fell over and onto my back.
I knew my girlfriend was in the room, but I couldn't speak to her. I could only motion that I was fine by holding up my left index finger in the "just wait a second" gesture. Despite my complete disorientation, I knew everything would be fine just as soon as I got back into the room.
As soon as I got back into the room.
For what seemed like an eternity, I was elsewhere and it was fine by me. My physical body didn't seem so important, my struggles with the phone company, the electric company, my work...whatever. None of those things were terribly important. Life made a lot more sense on this grander scale, and it made more sense for what seemed like hours.
While the salvia trip was more intense than any acid or mushrooms I've ever eaten, it only lasted only a few minutes, perhaps recalling the adage that the candle that burns twice as bright burns twice as fast. The ripples slowed to a gentle throb, a pleasant heartbeat surging around me. Now, with every pulse, my bookshelf, my couch, my coffee table and my dog calved away from themselves, chunks of glacier falling into the surrounding water. The trappings of my life were peeling away like the outer leaves of an artichoke. Then the pulsing slowed to a stop, the tide went out, and I was back in my living room, once again a forgotten puppet.
In my absence, my drug buddy had taken another hit and found herself in her own other world. The only similarity between our trips was the sensation of being pulled backward.
For the next hour, we sat on the couch, silent and still, continuing to float. I enjoyed an incredibly vivid recollection of my recent trip on the Underground from Heathrow to central London. I saw the countryside rush past. I read the station announcements and recognized the names that had not been familiar to me at the time. I could see every person who had been around me, what they were wearing, could hear how they spoke. Of course, there's nothing saying that the people in my recollection are the same people who were there originally, but that's a discussion for another time.
After a bit, we retired to the bedroom but didn't sleep. We remained a bit high, mellow but energized, chatty but not overly animated. Eventually, we slept.
Four hours later, a little after 9 am, the phone rang. Her concerned mother, calling to inquire if we were alright. "Sure, sure, why?" I managed.
"Turn on the news. Two planes flew into the World Trade Center."
I hung up the phone and turned on the television.
"Are we still tripping?" I asked.
"I don't know."
She stared at the live broadcast on the tv screen. I hung out the bedroom window and got a clear view of the burning towers from my Brooklyn neighborhood. I grabbed the dog, my camera and led us down to the riverbank, where we watched the second tower collapse.
More than once since that day, I've wondered whether or not I ever emerged from my salvia hallucination. Is it possible for one to disconnect from reality, yet continue to function in something resembling that reality?
There is a rumored history of depression and paranoia in the lower branches of my family. What if my drug experiment triggered a break from everyday life due to a dormant chemical imbalance in my brain? What if there was an unknown agent of insanity lurking just beneath the surface of my psyche, biding its time, looking for the perfect excuse to throw the switch from real life to not-so-real life?
Is it possible for my brain to have truly taken control, directing events as it sees fit yet keeping everything plausible enough so that I don't rebel against its control? If so, then what's the difference between that scenario and what we consider to be normal reality? Do not our brains control all perception as it is? The classic bio-philosophical argument comes to mind: How do you know that the color blue you see is the same blue everyone else sees?
Who's to say all of this isn't already just a construct built of my mind for my mind? What do the insane see around them? Can one be institutionalized, sitting in a comatose or catatonic state, yet continue to function in his or her own world with firm conviction that their perceived reality is solid and concrete?
According to one website, some salvia users have reported "living an entire lifetime" during their trip, or "becoming paint on the wall." Is it so far-fetched to consider that I'm still in the hallucination? Shaman claim to travel to other realms of existence, speak with other beings and eventually return to their physical forms, presumably with helpful knowledge or insight. Will I eventually touch down, find myself in my living room a mere five minutes after taking that second hit?
The problem, as I see it, is that I have smoked salvia since that night and enjoyed similar experiences. It doesn't seem right that I could hallucinate while inside a hallucination. I don't know why, something about double negatives or anti-matter meeting matter. Still, though... I think of one of the warnings in the salvia FAQ:
"Individuals with a family history of schizophrenia or early onset mental illness should be extremely careful because strong psychoactives have been known to trigger latent psychological and mental problems."
I wonder if it might be time to call my parents to get a more detailed history of the family's mental background. As if that will do any good at this stage.