The Guardian, London
14 July 2001
I am not Thomas de Quincey (or Coleridge, Baudelaire, Cocteau, Huxley, Paul Bowles, Carlos Castenada, William Burroughs, Ken Kesey or Hunter Thompson), and the harm that revealing my identity would inflict, not only upon my professional reputation but upon those whom I love, is not commensurate with the likely benefits. I am fast approaching my 50th year, and most of my adult life has been lived comfortably on the right side of the law, first as a journalist, then as a novelist, prose-poet and essayist. I am at present what I so long ago explicitly aspired to become - a man of letters.
Nothing surpasses the life of the mind. And so, if eating Ecstasy be chiefly a sensual, and so a mindless pleasure, and if I have indulged in it to excess, no less true is that I have struggled to understand my habit, if not yet with the religious zeal required properly to get shed of it. But then, perhaps I do not wish to get shed of it.
I have occasionally been asked how I became a regular Ecstasy-eater. I was aware of its reputation as the "love drug", had heard it described as a "four-hour, full-body orgasm" and I found this intriguing, alluring and worthy of further investigation.
Which is odd, because ordinarily I would not have condescended to pay it the slightest heed. Even at university, the high times of those heady years - in my case 1969 to 1976 - I was not a user, chronic, casual or otherwise. Despite an environment in which smoking grass and dropping acid (if not yet snorting coke or shooting smack) was not only benignly accepted, but benevolently smiled upon, I deliberately chose not to indulge. Everyone - including my friends, and most of my professors - was doing it. Except me. This had nothing to do with feelings of superiority or intolerance. It had to do solely with fear. Not only was I afraid of "fucking with my mind", I was petrified of irreparably fucking it up. I steadfastly refused to buy into the druggie/head trip/ stoner agitprop of the day. Reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, listening to Hendrix or the Doors, Cream or the Airplane was more than enough for me. Not that I was, despite my midwestern Calvinist upbringing, narrow-minded or uncurious, nor was I unhip. Simply, I was scared. Small wonder, then, how often those select few with knowledge of my current habit have remarked upon my being the "least likely person in the world" to have fallen prey to it.
Well, yes. And likewise, no. For I believe that my coming to Ecstasy goes further than mere thrill-seeking. I believe it goes to the centre of my life at the time. It was a period of personal devastation. It began with my only child, a son - he was then my best friend, from time to time still is - and I did not see it coming and it culminated in Ecstasy, and to that I see no end. He was beautiful and sensitive and extraordinarily talented, talented enough that at 13 his poetry had won the notice of university professors and New York book editors alike. So when he undertook to destroy himself, he took his mother and father with him. That was not, nor is it, his fault.
He was 13 and had neither the capacity nor context to grasp what he was doing. He attempted suicide. He ran away, serially. He purchased a handgun from a schoolfriend. He stole, sometimes from stores, more often from his parents, typically in the middle of the night. He got drunk, and when he got drunk he got violent. He verbally and physically abused his mother. He attempted to set her hair on fire. He dismantled furniture, broke china, smashed crystal and, unprovoked, punched out windows and kicked in walls. He shredded his wardrobe with scissors, every stitch of his clothing, and when he had finished, started in on his mother's. He trashed his bedroom and graffitied what remained with every racial and sexual epithet imaginable. He slept on the floor amid rotting food, curdled milk, the mouse droppings that appeared in their wake and a rubble of plaster, drywall and broken glass.
He refused to bathe. He defecated in the yard and urinated in Coke cans which he deployed about his bedroom in pentagrams. He carved his arms with the filed-down ends of paper clips. He discovered marijuana, then cocaine. Then PCP. Then "Special K" (an animal tranquilliser he called "cat food"). He disappeared for days at a time, often into New York City where he slept in storefronts and abandoned buildings and on park benches. He was consigned first to lockdown in a private psychiatric ward, then to a special school out of state. He was counselled. He was diagnosed with a variety of acronyms: AD, ADD, ODD, ICD, possible BP. He was prescribed medication. He was now dealing as well as using drugs. His lifestyle was redolent of a vampire's, for he lived upside-down, sleeping all day, drugging all night.
Eventually, in the course of one five-day spree, he totalled two automobiles, one his father's, pulverising his ankle so badly in the process that it required 26 staples, 10 screws and two stainless-steel plates to reconstruct. I would not swear to the precise chronology of any of this, but to this I would: he strewed wreckage every where. In the meantime his parents' marriage, all 20 years of it, was collapsing. My wife was and remains a beautiful, caring, generous, gifted woman. I would not hesitate to give my life for her, and though we have not lived together for years, I admire and, on some level, love her still, as I know I always shall. But sometimes that is not enough. The marriage had its long-standing problems, its rifts and fractures, and when it came under siege and then assault, the stress was too much. We lost our way, then ran aground, and then, at last, we broke.
I left. Not straight away - the break was anything but clean; it was tortured - and I never went far. I was back in and back out for years. I was at a loss as to how I could properly leave and unsure if I wished to find out. Eventually I found a place just bleak enough to mirror the way I felt, and I felt dreadful, wretched, unsalvageable. I stopped shaving, bathing, sleeping. In time, I stopped eating. (Over one three-month period I shed 40 lb.) The place was a single, windowless room scarcely larger than a tool shed, a cellar space attached to the back of an abandoned garage, and I wallowed in it, in its cobwebs and filth - alone. I began to disintegrate. I continued to write, frantically, because writing was the only way I knew to stay afloat, though looking back I cannot say whether I was writing myself out of what I sensed was an approaching madness, or writing myself more deeply into it.
The nightmares arrived on cue. Not images of hell and its hounds but waterfalls and rivers of words. No images, no meanings, just words, disconnected, decontextualised, foaming, alone. I was haemorrhaging rhymes and the metre of verbs, and each morning, 4am, 5am, I awoke unbuoyed and drenched to the bone.
Somehow, I completed the 500-page draft of a novel about, of all things, Lizzie Borden, but when I submitted it to my agent he deemed it "one of the most brilliant pieces of insanity" he had ever read, declared it utterly unmarketable, and declined to take it on. We parted company, on the heels of which my editor quit his job at a prominent New York publishing house. My marriage was dead - though I still insisted upon thinking of it as merely semi-comatose - my son still very much alive, I was agentless, editorless, apparently unpublishable, was living like a tramp and a recluse, my income close to nil, and I was going mad.
And then the unthinkable happened, or rather, two things happened. I met someone, a woman, and while I in my recalcitrant fashion followed up on that meeting so that she might eventually save me (as she eventually did), my son was becoming what is called, in the parlance, a "raver". And he seemed for the first time in years - he was 17 by then - happy. Not giddy or euphoric, but content, at peace with himself. I do not mean to invoke images of Zen and Buddha - my son is roughly as Zen-like as Eminem - but the transformation was as striking as it was palpable. It seemed so definitive that I could not help asking him about it, and when I did, he smiled and said simply, "Uh-huh. I am." And when I asked him why, what had happened, he smiled again and said, "Aw, you wouldn't understand. But it's my whole life now. I know why I'm alive."
I remember my response. And perhaps had I responded in some other way or simply not responded at all, what was about to happen would never have happened. What I said was, "Congratulations. I'm happy for you. Really. I wish I did." And so he turned to me and said, "Seriously?" And when I answered not only in the affirmative, but the declarative, he told me a story and made me an offer, and so was hatched yet another aspect of our relationship, an aspect that is as wholly illicit as it is morally unsavoury, and one that continues to this day.
We both know it is wrong, the arrangement, the dilemma it poses, wrong in the most intimate and unholy of ways, as we both know that neither of us cares enough about the fact to do anything about it. It is a shared shame now, and it has become, like the abiding commonness of our blood, a large and integral part of what bonds us. My son supplies me with drugs, with Ecstasy.
And so the first time I ate E - or X, or EX, or XTC, or MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) - it was having given my son permission to sell it to me. I became his customer, a buyer, a reliable and steady client, the lowest link on the food chain of the multibillion-dollar commerce that proceeds unabated every day, every hour, in every large city and small town in every state in this union, in what is called by those paid to "war" against them "controlled substances".
I find it ironic. Because I cannot think of a single commodity in our country that is less controlled than such substances, nor a single "war" that is as pathetically futile, vaingloriously chimeric and long-ago-lost as is this one. Wrestle as you will, you cannot reform or arrest human appetite. Ecstasy is as illegal as heroin. This is just the sort of run-amok governmental lunacy guaranteed to ensure that those like myself - and more importantly, our children - will write off that same government and those who enforce its drug laws as out of touch, coercive, morally bankrupt and, yes, un-American. Because America is not, or did not used to be, about throwing 16-year-old kids in jail for - all in the spirit of free-market capitalism and entrepreneurial enterprise - home-growing a little cannabis, even as the rest of us chain-smoke our Camels, sip our Absoluts with a twist, and devour our Prozac.
Visit a rehab centre some time. You will learn two things inside that first hour. One, that there are people in this world who are more susceptible to addiction than others; there always have been, always will be, addicts. And two, that the "gateway" argument is as simplistic as it is spurious. We are not losing our kids to drugs. We have lost our kids because we haven't the time, inclination, strength of character or political will to do the right thing in their name: to eliminate the black market that so mercilessly exploits them - and the runaway violence it spawns - by legalising, taxing and regulating the trade.
I pretend to no monopoly of wisdom on the subject. But I know something of Ecstasy. And what I know I know because I have eaten and continue to eat so much of it. I am an experienced eater of E and it is a fact of which I am neither proud nor mortified.
So here, in a word, a most sober, solemn, even a sombre word, is what I know: yum. Ecstasy is delicious. Or, put it another way, Ecstasy is delicious and I recommend highly, loudly and long that everyone whose health does not contraindicate or preclude its ingestion, ought to ingest it. Go out, I admonish you, all of you, hit the streets or collar that neighbourhood kid, drum up a contact, do a deal, repair thyselves home, soften the lights, put on some music - the best stuff - pour yourself a pitcher of ice water, perhaps two, keep a tin of Altoids handy, as well as a tube of Vicks inhalant and a couple of packs of mineral ice, make yourself comfortable, lie back and... swallow. An hour from now, perhaps less, you are going to experience something that shall forever change such time as remains to you on this earth. You are going to experience something that is, every second of it, delicious - deliciously, positively, unprecedentedly w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l.
It is your self-anointing, and I envy you that first time. So relish it, savour it, languish it, treasure it, that sacred four hours. You have just swallowed wonder, ambrosia and mead, you have partaken of lustre and grace. Just make certain that before you swallow you know that the pill is authentic, and not some rip-off. Do that, and the rest is a piece of cake, a piece of cake that is like no other you have ever tasted. Think of the best day of your life, or recall the sweetest, purest, most special thing along the way - person, place, moment, experience, accomplishment. Now multiply that tenfold. That does not begin to describe how impossibly delicious E is.
I am not unaware of how redolent this is of Timothy Leary's often loopy proselytising for LSD, and its "quasi-religious" associations, but this has nothing to do with that. Ecstasy is a clarifier. It enables one to see, feel and think, if not more deeply, then certainly more clearly. The high subsides, but the lucidity lingers. In that sense, not to mention in its chemical composition, it is quite the opposite of LSD.
Ecstasy is a clarifier, but it is a personal clarifier. It is not - despite all the peace/love/unity/respect hype surrounding it - a universal one. Its lessons may be universal in their implications, but they are intended to be applied to oneself. Which is not to say that the drug does not have its social dimensions or that one ought not to do E in the company of others. Indeed I would not find it congenial to do, nor have I ever done it, alone. (As close as I ever came was on an unpeopled, night-time sidestreet in London, and it was raining, and it was one of the memorable experiences of my life - neon, glistening, menthol, veneered in layer after thickening layer of thick honey. Lovely streets, London, and lovely, so lovely, its rain.)
But better by far to do it with those one loves, and best of all with one's one-and-only lover. And if what one takes in the broadest sense is all about human connection and empathy - E has proven highly effective in certain kinds of couples therapy - it is all the more about connecting with and feeling empathy for oneself. It is, contrary to its image as the current drug of choice among teenagers and the prevalence of its use at their "raves", the most intimate of drugs.
I did it my first time with the woman who saved me. It was her first time as well. We were, as zero hour approached, visibly apprehensive, an attitude, I think, that is only sane. We had cleared our schedules, switched off the phones, and we were in her home, just the two of us, in our bathrobes, in the living room, on the couch. Van was on the stereo, Astral Weeks, Moondance, Common One, The Best of: Volume One. A fire was roaring in the fireplace. The lamp was turned down low. It was mid-evening, and we had ready, as my son had taken care to instruct us, our pair of tumblers and pitchers of iced-down spring water. E increases body temperature and heart rate and elevates blood pressure, so drinking water - not beer, not liquor - is pro forma as one rolls along. And one wishes to drink, because E causes dehydration - one of its most immediate side-effects is a dry mouth. With much mutually nervous, serio-comic, ceremonial chit-chat, then, we each popped our pill, swallowed, waited, and - nothing.
We locked eyes. We still were alive. I think we were only half-amazed. I know we were relieved. Van was still belting as only Van can. It takes a while for Ecstasy to kick in - and then the world around you billows open like an eye and you are lifted and taken - coronaed, crowned, spangled and lantern-lit, your smiling face flambeaued as by a thousand chandeliers.
One of the most discernible early effects - it happened that first time, though often it does not - is what I have heard described as "fluttery" vision. This phenomenon is as close to an hallucinatory quality as E produces, and it is so mild - and weirdly pleasant - that to label it as such is frankly inaccurate. When it happened to us, we looked at one another, smiled, and virtually in unison commented on it. Cool. Images remain intact, they just move a little, as if jagged were a verb, within the texture of their own lines. These striations are very unthreatening, and very, well, cool. And then suddenly Van was singing waaaaay over there, and then waaaaay inside the very pith of my brain, yet way outside and all around as well. And that also was. Cool.
What happened next was that everything and all at once, while clearly remaining itself, was transfigured, transmogrified, a new self, a simultaneously deeper and higher, older and newer self - smoother and softer and rounder. The world was suddenly guilt- and worry- and wrinkle-free, palpably, beautifully buoyant - visually, texturally, aurally - transcendently right and glorious and divine. Whatever beautiful thing one can imagine, it is that much more beautiful on E. And so we looked at one another and felt one another, with our fingers and our lips and our tongues, indeed with the whole of our new-found faces, this plumbing of the new map of our bodies - new softer hair, new smoother flesh, new pinker, fresher, more fragrant, shimmering, altogether fluffier genitalia - and we smelled and tasted one another - she smelled of burst peaches and tasted as the recent salts of pearls - because sense of smell and taste is no less honed and heightened than the other senses.
We bathed in one another, each of our five senses, 10 in all, because that commingling is what had taken place, its rhapsody, and humanity, and caress. And we looked to one another exactly as we felt and smelled and tasted: rapturous, heavenly, transcendent, numinous, aglow. She a resplendent, bejewelled goddess, I a radiant god. Later, I got up, walked to the bathroom - walking on E is no more difficult than walking on water or floating on air - and looked in the mirror. I wanted to see what I looked like - I am just vain enough that the thought occurred to me even in the midst of the roll - though I already had seen reflected in my lover's eyes that I looked sufficiently, there is no other word, gorgeous. (If I looked half as gorgeous as she did to me I reckoned I was in for a treat.) And the person I saw looking back at me was gorgeous, but gorgeous in a way that floored almost as much as it thrilled me.
Here, now, as I stared grinning in astonishment, I looked 28. And not some 50-year-old version of myself at 28, but me the way I was back then. I moved closer, peered harder. I could scarcely believe it. I had recaptured myself. Dorian Gray. Fountain of Youth. Spontaneous regeneration. Somehow I had been restored, and I felt what I can only describe as an all-consuming nostalgia for the present.
And then, after helping each other off with our bathrobes, our old, nubby, cotton-twill bathrobes - suddenly spun of the finest cashmere and angelica, these clouds of talcum and down - we embraced, and kissed, and she whispered in my ear: "We've found fucking gold."
It distinctly was not an out-of-the-body experience, as it was not a mind-expanding one. It distinctly was a further-into-the-body experience, and a mind- clarifying one. An excavation of the self. An exhumation of the other.
And so we did. For four hours we dug, sinking further into each other, as likewise into ourselves, and eventually, after four hours of mutually synchronised digging, that felt exactly like 40 minutes, we found it. Only it wasn't gold. It was something far better. It was sex, the very EX in sex- and the climb and climax of sex- as revelation. And as soul.
So maybe Ecstasy does have something to do with religion, although the word spirit seems to me a more felicitous fit, because the peace one feels, and the insights one gains - epiphanies may be a better word - are no less than oceanic. You know, that you contain oceans and that those oceans are filled with beauty and grace and light and love and that they are yours to share as it may please and delight you. But there is a cost and that cost is high. It is as expensive as it is extravagant. The simple truth is, when you eat Ecstasy, you are deliberately messing with your mind, or more accurately your brain, or more accurately still your brain chemistry. You are releasing, in a rush, as a deluge - and that rush is unnatural in the sense that had God intended you to experience it, it would not require a flock of white-coated "cookers" in a clandestine laboratory somewhere in Holland or Israel or France to design and customise a pill for you to do so, nor would the delivery and distribution of those pills so lavishly profit the Mob - you are, as I say, triggering a veritable tsunami of serotonin, the human body's pleasure juice, that in turn floods in the most sensory, sentient way your consciousness, which in turn turns everything "gold", or rather, golden.
And in the wake of that rush - not the day after perhaps, when you are still basking, deliciously exhausted in its afterglow but the day after that, or the next, or the next, what I have heard described as "Black Tuesday" - you run the risk not only of emotionally crashing, but of feeling so rawly depleted, that you are tempted to pledge: "I have never felt this awful in my life, as empty, hollowed, flat, so soulless and lost to myself, so amputated, so emotionally exsanguinated, and I shall never, not ever, do this again." And also, "Whatever was I thinking?"
My advice, for what it is worth: wait a minimum of four weeks, the time purportedly required for one's serotonin to refill its reservoir and your thoughts and feelings to sort themselves through and get up and running again, before repeating the performance. Do it more often than that, get too greedy, and the upshot is "E-tardism" - a trimming down, clipping-off and curbing of the drug's effects, not to mention possible long-term damage to the serotonergic nerve grid of the brain, damage of the sort that may leave you so addled, you will find it not only a full-time challenge to control your own drool, but to recall that words are composed of letters and that each represents an actual sound, one intended to be pronounced aloud. So: moderation in all things, even things that are excessively restorative, for on occasion, cures do kill.
But here is the Catch-22 which must inevitably be grappled with. What one thinks - if one stops to think about it - is precisely this: "What is a mind, if not something to be messed with? What is consciousness, if not a state to be altered?" If it helps to substitute for the phrase "messed with" the word "clarified" or "purified" or "alchemised" or "beautified" or "beatified" then perhaps my meaning is taken. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and there is much being wasted when one deliberately chooses not to explore the ecstasy of its deeper horizons.
Perhaps there are those who feel that they are blessed with a sufficiency of ecstasy in their daily lives. Perhaps there are those who feel that such ecstasy, because it is "unnatural", induced artificially, chemically, "under the influence", cannot possibly be "existentially authentic", and must therefore be false, a fraud. Perhaps there are those who suspect that the disparity is too great, that having experienced such ecstasy, they will find it too daunting to endure the rigours and asperities of a mundane, often overwhelmingly corrupt and ugly world. Perhaps there are those who feel that such ecstasy cannot be reconciled with their religious, political, philosophical or domestic agendas, that it threatens or violates the very essence of that in which they are so wholly invested. Perhaps there are those who are reluctant to risk engaging in what our culture defines as socially unacceptable, even legally trangressive behaviour. Perhaps there are those who are afraid of footing the physical and emotional toll, or of becoming psychologically addicted. And perhaps there are those who simply, unapologetically, are flat-out scared. Scared of beauty. And of bliss.
There are such people, and they have every right to their feelings and beliefs. I know, because I was, for most of my life, one of them.
I am not one of them any more. I am not one of anything. I am, trite as it may sound, simply me, and here lately, that is more than enough. It is plenty. And there is something else, a secret: there are times, once a month, sometimes more or less, when the truth of that makes me, well, ecstatic.
My son? He is 19 now, and in his spare time - having some months ago kicked the Ecstasy habit himself - he spins mixes at raves, and this fall he is entering college, quite a reputable college, as a psychology major. And he is writing poetry again. More brilliant than ever. Minor triumphs, perhaps. Still, it does make one wonder. Would he have made it back intact without E? Would he have arrived at that which all of us deserve and so few manage to find, his chance for happiness? And it makes one wonder, too, about what they say: better living through chemistry.
© Anonymous, 2001. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect Guardian editorial policy. This piece appears in full in the new issue of Granta magazine, "Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ecstasy Eater."