Photo credit: Claire Lewis
Last summer, I jumped off a bridge.
Falls Bridge in Blue Hill, Maine, is a historic bridge, built in the rainbow arch style. It’s made of concrete and passes over a set of reversing falls that connect Blue Hill Bay to a salt pond. At high tide, the current surges into the salt pond; at low tide, it ebbs out. I walked about halfway across the span along the narrow pedestrian pathway, and then climbed over the side, clutching the railing with trembling fingers. I stared at the churning water rushing below me, my toes gripping the ledge, my breath whistling through my flared nostrils. “Art Linkletter
,” I muttered, “would have blamed this on the acid.”
In 1969, the 20-year-old daughter of then-popular television personality Art Linkletter, Diane, tragically leapt to her death from the window of her sixth-floor New York City apartment. The young woman had struggled for years with depression, but her father, bereft and devastated, could not accept her condition as sufficient reason for her death. Instead, he blamed it on the fact that she had taken LSD a month before, claiming, “It isn't suicide because she wasn't herself. She was murdered. She was murdered by the people who manufacture and sell LSD.” Linkletter went on to become an anti-drug crusader. It was in large part his activism around Diane’s death that gave rise to the notion that people under the influence of LSD fling themselves off roofs and bridges, convinced that they can fly.
I had no illusions about my buoyancy, but some months before my leap, I too had taken LSD.
More precisely, I engaged in a month-long experiment in microdosing. A microdose is a sub-therapeutic dose of a drug, a dose administered at a quantity small enough to elicit no adverse side effects, yet large enough to elicit a measurable cellular response. In the case of LSD, a microdose is a 10th or less of the typical dose of 100 to 150 micrograms.
Therapeutic use of psychedelics got off to a promising start in the '50s and early '60s, but the LSD panic, of which Art Linkletter’s reaction to his daughter’s death was a part, caused the drug to be criminalized, and research banned. Now, after decades of enforced neglect, research into psychedelics is making a comeback at institutions like Johns Hopkins, NYU, and Harbor-UCLA Medical College. Scientists are exploring the psychedelic drug psilocybin as a treatment for end-of-life anxiety and depression, and for addiction. These studies are exploratory, but so far the results are encouraging, even remarkable. According to Dr. Andrew Weil
, “There is potential for microdosing with psychedelics, especially for treating depression and anxiety.” According to neuroscientist David Presti
, “It may be that, especially given the very small doses involved, LSD microdosing is safer and has fewer side-effects than many pharmaceutical psychiatric medications in widespread use today.” Both Weil and Presti hope one day to see research and data on the efficacy of microdosing as a treatment for psychiatric disorders. But here’s the thing. I couldn’t wait.
My fear had been something so old and deeply rooted, so much a part of me, that it would never have occurred to me to try to make it go away before the influence of the LSD.
I’m not a regular drug user. I hate the taste of alcohol, weed makes me cough, and thanks to Art Linkletter, I was terrified of LSD. I’d tried a small amount of psychedelic mushrooms once in college, and though the experience was not unpleasant, neither was it transformative enough to make me want to do it again. But I was desperate. The antidepressants I’d taken for over a decade to combat my mood disorder had stopped working as soon as I hit perimenopause. I was suffering from bouts of anger and depression. I was irritable and my temper was on a hair trigger, so my family was suffering along with me. Meanwhile, I kept reading glowing reports in the media about the fad for microdosing among anonymous Silicon Valley digerati who claimed that it enhanced their mood and increased their creative productivity. I read the book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys
, by Dr. James Fadiman, a psychologist and authority on psychedelic microdosing, in which he wrote that what a person might expect from ingesting a tiny bit of LSD in the morning would be to look back in the evening and find that she’d had “a really good day.” It felt like a long time since I'd had one of those.
I looked into the potential risks. According to a 2015 large-scale population study of 130,000 adults, scientists at Norwegian University of Science and Technology concluded that “Psychedelics are not known to harm the brain or other body organs or to cause addiction or compulsive use; serious adverse events involving psychedelics are extremely rare.” I also consulted with two neuroscientists familiar with the effects of psychedelics on the brain. Feeling reassured that a carefully monitored treatment plan involving a very small dose of verified LSD would be safe, and desperate to alleviate my depression, I decided to attempt what so many others have: a personal, illegal self-experiment.
For one month, keeping a careful journal, I took 10 mcg of LSD every three days, the protocol recommended by Fadiman. The results were remarkable. It’s not that I stopped being a bitch. But I was less of a bitch. More importantly, I was able to shake off my low moods. I was more easygoing and less liable to fly off the handle with my husband, my children, or random people on the Internet. The only side effect I experienced was occasional sleeplessness and minor irritability. Though my children had no idea that their mother was tippling from a bottle of diluted LSD, my entire family was happier during that month, because I was calmer and more pleasant. I even had not one but at least a dozen really good days. I wish the drug was legal, so that it could be studied and I could continue to use it beyond my month-long experiment.
However, though the experiment was a success, I was still — or so I thought — afraid. My fear had been something so old and deeply rooted, so much a part of me, that it would never have occurred to me to try to make it go away before the influence of the LSD. And yet here I was, having crawled off my metaphorical ledge, standing on an actual one.
No one who knows me would call me a coward. I cultivate a fearless persona. Before I became a writer, I was a criminal defense attorney comfortable in places and with people that other (perhaps more sensible) people avoided. I’m the person who will (sometimes ill-advisedly) say the things that others won’t. I encourage my children to go places and do things on their own, insisting that evidence shows that crime rates are down, child abduction is so rare as to be nearly nonexistent, and the world is a safe place.
But here’s the thing: it’s all just a pose. An act. A lie.
The truth is, I have always been remarkably fearful. I’m terrified that something bad will happen to the people I love. When my husband or children are on airplanes without me, I track their planes’ progress on the Internet, as if my clicking and refreshing can keep them aloft. I installed Find My Friends on my kids’ phones, and whenever they are out after dark I watch my screen, terrified that I might see their dots blink out. I’ve been afraid since I met my husband nearly 25 years ago that he will abandon me for some sexy, brilliant, tall young thing. I’m afraid that my new-driver son will crash his car, that my cigarette-smoking daughter will die of lung cancer, that my math-phobic children will be left behind by the tech revolution (why couldn’t even one
be interested in engineering?), that my friends will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
I fear for my own well-being, too. I haven’t felt safe in the ocean since my mother took me to see Jaws
when I was 10. (Oh, let’s be honest, I don’t even feel safe in a pool.) I’m afraid that I will never be able to write another book, and that if I do, no one will like it. Worst of all, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid that no one will like me
. I am also, as it happens, mildly afraid of heights.
It had been a hard summer. Our beloved dog Mabel was run over by a car and died in my arms. My older son left home for college. I was feeling doubly grief-stricken and bereft, and my anxieties were piling up. I worried when my younger children rode their bikes on the busy road where Mabel was killed. I worried about my son’s adjustment to dorm life. I worried about what our family life would be like without the daily presence of these two beloved members.
But the unexpected benefit of the microdose experiment has been that ever since I did it, I feel a little less afraid. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I still experience cascading, irrational fears. For example, the night before I had woken up at four a.m. in a sweat, wondering if my son was at that moment at a college party, drinking himself into a case of alcohol poisoning. What’s different since the experiment is that I am able now to recognize those fears as irrational, as thoughts rather than reality.
Research on LSD shows that the drug causes ego dissolution — giving users a sense of oneness with a universe. Is it the LSD that has allowed me to develop perspective, to understand that the world is not out to get me, that there is a difference between a feeling and the truth? There’s never been a study of the effects of the minuscule doses I took during my month-long experiment, but I hope as research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics continues, someone someday might be able to answer this question. For now, however, I only know what I feel, not why I feel it.
That day in Maine, as I watched people, including my own children, clamber over the bridge rail and leap into the falls, I was terrified. I quite literally felt my heart beating in my throat. My chest was tight, my breath shallow. But, and this was a tactic I’d begun using once I started feeling the effects of microdosing, I simply took a few long, slow breaths. I reminded myself that people have been jumping off Falls Bridge every summer since it was built in 1926, and no one has ever been hurt. I forced myself to notice how conscientiously my children tightened their life jackets. I watched how happily they bobbed along in the tide after they hit the water. Slowly, my fear ebbed.
I turned to my husband. “If you’ll jump with me,” I said, “I’ll do it.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
We put on our life jackets, strapping them tight. He climbed over the railing. I followed.
“You go first,” I said.
With a smile, he leapt, splashed into the water, and immediately was swept by the current beneath the bridge. Though I couldn’t see him, I knew he was bobbing happily on the other side.
I stood alone on the ledge, looked out at the reflection of the sun sparkling in the waters of the bay. I thought about how much energy I’d spent over my life hiding my anxieties and fears. I thought, I am afraid, but I am safe
And then I jumped.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels Love and Treasure
, Red Hook Road
, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits
, and Daughter’s Keeper
, as well as the essay collection Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace
, and the Mommy-Track Mystery series. She was a federal public defender and taught a course on the legal implications of the War on Drugs at the UC Berkeley law school. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children. Her most recent book is A Really Good Day
Copyright © 2017 by Ayelet Waldman. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Mary Evans Inc. Ayelet Waldman’s memoir, A REALLY GOOD DAY, is being published by Knopf in January 2017.