A Bad Trip to Amsterdam In the fall of 1997, at the age of 20, I was making a healthy living under the table, enjoying an unheard-of deal on a midtown studio, getting plenty of sleep. That September I got a present in the mail from a longtime friend who had come into some money. It was a ticket to Amsterdam, where you can buy a gram of grass or hash with your morning espresso, snack on a bag of Mexican Cubensis mushrooms in the afternoon and, after dark, window shop for $25 sex?all more or less legally and safely.
The trip, which I began in November as a planned one-month stay, turned into a disaster that saw me in and out of mental hospitals five times in as many months. I've steered clear of mental wards for almost a year and a half now, and over a long weekend this summer, in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, went cold turkey on the prescribed pharmaceuticals that had been administered me in varying measures since that November of '97. Since this move elicited litanies of potential risks from doctors and social workers, I've also decided to stop attending the outpatient program I've been part of since my last hospital stay in April '98.
I've decided that it's not in my best interest anymore to travel up to 114th St. twice a month to be told by two professionals, without fail, the likelihood of winding up in another lockdown within six months to a year?the possibility that I'll "hurt myself or hurt somebody else."
How I ended up delusional, in someone else's hotel room with Dutch police at the door, then in jail, and the next day in the Academic Medical Center of Amsterdam, is, in retrospect, a surprisingly simple story. It begins with a brief but acute period (essentially the tail end of three years brimming with experimentation) of psychedelic drug use, starting with an exceedingly pleasant experience with pure ecstasy at a James Brown show in Central Park that September of '97. In the two months between then and my Amsterdam trip, I also had the occasion to drop the most potent LSD I'd ever used, and to smoke by far the strongest and most wonderful hallucinogen I've ever tried: dimethyl triptamine (DMT). A drug indigenous to the South American tropics, DMT when smoked provides the user with the most frenetic, visual 15 minutes imaginable, taking you into the jungles of your psyche long enough to wallop your outlook on life and sense of security in the world?then leaving you feeling oddly refreshed, back in emotional safety, ready to check out the Halloween Parade in the West Village, as my case was. A very vivid drug; the most common vision people who have smoked DMT report is encounters with benevolent elfin entities.
I left for Europe a week later, packing lots of energy and anticipation. After a couple days in Amsterdam, staying at a cheap but clean hostel in the red-light district, doing what most tourists do in Amsterdam, I met an expatriate from Detroit who had been living there for six months. He brought me to a local shop that sold herb seeds and a bevy of magic mushroom strains, the most compelling of which was a substance known as the Philosopher's Stone. Originating, I was told, in Tampa, the sack contained a 12-gram concoction whose active ingredients include psilocyn. The effect was described by the lady who sold it to me as a more cerebral version of the characteristic mushroom experience.
I set out from the store and began thoroughly chewing the wet, gummy substance. It turned out to be an easy-going trip, a slow-rolling yet intense experience. Without really realizing it, I spent the next three days wide awake, wandering the streets, drinking coffee, smoking spliffs, reading Paul Auster's Ghosts?until late one night, at some kind of end, I encountered a policeman (the cops in Amsterdam are very cool) who, seeing my exhausted eyes roll in 12 different directions, assured me, empathically and with great conviction, "It's okay to look there. That's the mystery." I found the closest hotel, put down my credit card and got some rest.
The events of the next few days are hazier in my memory. I went on another binge without sleep. Finding myself hopelessly lost, in the middle of the night, in a strange and unfriendly area of the city, I swallowed my pride and walked into a police station, figuring they could get me back to the main part of town. I vaguely remember being on some kind of public transportation after that, and then being in Centraal Station early the next morning, then the Free World Coffee Shop, where for whatever reason I gave my purple Jansport backpack to the guy working there. Probably could've returned and retrieved it, but I wound up back in that hotel, sitting in the lobby, and by this point seeing some strange and disturbingly vivid hallucinations, the most memorable of which was skin tones darkening.
Under the impression that I still had a room in the hotel, I walked up one flight, literally followed an arrow to the end of a hallway, where there was an open door to a room with a made bed and a suitcase and travel iron tucked in the corner. Not realizing that this was in fact someone else's room, I got undressed and took a bath.
Fifteen minutes out the tub, I was startled to find the police at the door?two guys in uniform, smiling, plus one scary guy with a sprawling, bald head, and a woman with a device that beamed a small red light. Arrested for trespassing.
And so, a week after landing in Holland, I was spending 24 hours in jail, visited by my father who, being a concerned and caring guy, flew over from the States immediately. Random people visiting my cell, asking me questions; then an ambulance transporting me to the Academic Medical Center, where I spent the next four days, resting. My feeling today is had I stayed there for another week or two, recovered more completely, the next five-month period of relapses could have been curtailed.
Anyway, the hospital in Amsterdam was by far the most human and caring of the five institutions I would wind up visiting. The activities for the day, besides taking medications?I was administered a low dose of the antipsychotic Haldol?consisted mostly of eating?laudably, staff and patients together?and smoking tobacco (it was the only hospital where the patients were allowed to smoke freely, all day, in the common indoor areas?love Europe). Like most wards, AMC also had table tennis and a stationary bike. Everyone in there had problems, naturally, but there was a sort of tenderness and understanding among the patients, and a sympathy between the patients and the staff, and at least one guitar and didjeridoo on the ward. Six people sitting around the table talking and smoking would spontaneously burst into the mellifluous chorus of "Wordy Rappinghood"?quite a trip. "Que Sera Sera" was a favorite. And there was always plenty of tobacco, so although I never visited any kind of canteen I was always stocked with other people's smoke: from rolling tobacco to Marlboro Reds and my favorite, Dutch Panters, mini-cigars like Clint smokes.
Coming down with mental illness is kind of like reading Death in Venice: suddenly references abound. Mental illness starts to show up on Larry King Live and Law & Order; damaged dudes from Korn and Limp Bizkit talk about their need for pharmies on MTV. My favorite reference: Method Man's opening line in the second verse of Wu-Tang Clan's "7th Chamber": "I be that insane nigger from the psycho ward?"
I didn't spend much time at the AMC?or finish my vacation. My mother and uncle came to the hospital, basically bailed me out and arranged for me to fly back to the U.S. without a passport. (It was in my backpack; the rest of my shit was stashed in a locker at the train station, never to be seen again. I didn't get to go back to New York right away, either. From JFK I went straight to a high-end establishment in Connecticut: Silver Hill, whose past celebrity patients reportedly included Michael Jackson.
I spent Thanksgiving '97 there. Spent a week on a very-locked acute care ward with some very unhappy people, waking up at 6:30 every morning for the first of three cigarette breaks. From the acute ward, you get transferred either to K-House ("Chaos," I thought) for drugs or to the Main House if you were dual diagnosis: drugs and mental illness. The Main House, where I wound up, was like a luxury bed and breakfast?I had my own room and bath, and I got back my glass bottle of aftershave, and there was an outside porch area where you could smoke 24/7. Your first reaction after being transferred from the acute-unit hell into this relative luxurious space is, I don't deserve this. And as soon as that thought expresses itself, there's someone there?many longtime 12-steppers?to lay some AA shit on you like "Attitude of Gratitude."
At this point, the process of diagnosing my condition had begun. The AMC characterized my experience simply as a psychotic breakdown. It was in America that the shrinks began to try to figure out what my underlying psychological disorder was. The possibilities ranged from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia, and included everything in the gray area in between. The possibility that my symptoms were drug-induced and not indicative of a larger and more resonant psychological disorder was not addressed until recently, and then not to my satisfaction.
After a couple weeks of insular suburban dormancy, AA meetings and being pressured to attend them, I was transferred to a less structured halfway house, then finally discharged. I returned to the island of Manhattan for the first time in close to two months.
I wound up in the emergency room at St. Vincent's one night in late December, having trouble sleeping, aggravated and uptight. I had been slowly and steadily becoming more out of touch with reality, disappearing in the city while walking with friends. Spotting the proverbial Mothership over Central Park, thoughts racing, weird conspiracies blooming in my head. It was a Tuesday evening, in front of S.O.B.'s, when I met my friend K-Hill and his road bike. I had already unintentionally ditched my buddy David, with whom I had walked from midtown to the East Village. I asked K-Hill if I could take the bike for a ride around the block, then we'd check out Reggae Tuesday. I put on my friend's biking shoes and rode off.
Only problem was, within two blocks I forgot that I had promised to bring the bicycle back. I raged that sucker all the way up to Central Park, eventually winding up at an EJ's Luncheonette on the Upper East Side, where I grabbed an egg sandwich and zoned out. Eventually I called home and arrived at my apartment building to a very worried K-Hill and my father. It was four in the morning; unable to fall asleep, I agreed, not knowing what it entailed, that my father should take me to the ER.
Thing is, you may go voluntarily, but even then you're in for it. At each stay, I would sign a piece of paper that said I was "voluntarily" there, which, even though it's a lie, is better than not signing the paper. If you don't sign, you will be "two-PC'd"?two psychiatrists commit you, and you are officially screwed. When you do sign the paper, what you're really saying is: I'm sane enough to know that I want to get the hell out of here as soon as possible.
At the ER they put me into a room where I became extremely lightheaded from what felt like some kind of gas in the air. I got blood taken and met with a couple of kind doctors, Drs. Tannenbaum and Pollack. One guy with a tie who was working in the ER intoned, "Is it safe?" from Marathon Man, a movie my father had turned me onto, my mother hating him for it. Dark humor for a dark night.
Once you're in the ER, it's really hard to leave. If they believe you need help in any way, you're upstairs on the psych unit, Reiss 4. There's no stepping out for a smoke before they whisk you through the hospital's internal maze to the proper floor.
So I spent Christmas 1997 at St. Vincent's on W. 11th St. The thing about Reiss 4, besides watching James Bond and Tom Clancy movies, the thing that got me through it relatively painlessly, was the people. It was easily the hippest of the three New York lockdowns I spent time at. I still remember and occasionally run into New Yorkers with whom I spent time at St. Vincent's, and they are some of the most down-to-earth and interesting people I've ever met?certainly while being somewhere I didn't want to be. There was a very direct and yet light-hearted way everyone?doctors, staff, inmates?dealt with shit on Reiss 4. The group counseling sessions?art therapy was my favorite?were at worst boring, often productive, and occasionally uproarious.
A few days before New Year's, this one kid returned for his second visit to Reiss 4. He bore uncanny physical resemblance to Tupac. Recounting during group his reason for landing again in the hospital, he said something to the effect of, "I buy a nickel bag and the next thing I know, Adolf Hitler is chasing me down the street?" To this day, his flustered homeboy shtick makes me smile.
I got out a few days before New Year's 1998. Spent New Year's Eve celebrating a friend's birthday at Zen Palate and not attending the P-Funk bash at Hammerstein Ballroom. Friends came by my grandmother's apartment where I was staying, and we spent the night talking about the past couple of months, checking out the fireworks over Central Park at midnight.
Over the next few weeks I worked myself into another frenzy. Flying once again, I spent a lot of time walking all over Manhattan, talking to strangers, waking up early in the morning like clockwork. I was attending the Mustard Seed AA meeting on E. 37th St. and the St. Vincent's outpatient program, occasionally bumping through the night with no sleep. Found myself back on a ward mid-January, for a slightly longer stay.
What happened this time was I was having a session with my outpatient psychiatrist at St. Vincent's. She was in the process of prescribing me the mood stabilizer Depakote in an effort to level me out when, upset over something, I closed the door on her. A big no-no, apparently. I was surrounded by staff and back on Reiss 4 before the session really began.
Valentino, who dribbled and drooled and babbled and was a beautiful, warm and totally unintelligible human fixture of Reiss 4, was being released as I was showing up for the second time. Few others from before were still there; it was a whole new cast of characters. Kap, a guy who'd wanted to kill me the first time, was gone.
I was released the second time in stable and healthy fashion?but now Haldol was proving to be one of the most warped drugs I've ever tried. It had me rolling my eyes back into my head; contributed, I'm sure, to my then-burgeoning gut; and caused extreme shakes, especially in the first minutes of the morning, on the way to the kitchen to swallow the meds. Worse, I still hold the opinion that the Haldol was inducing more delusional, erratic behavior and fucked-up thinking than it was preventing. Haldol has a subtly disorienting and ultimately debilitating way of making daily life an even greater struggle than it already is.
February 1998, I went to the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in White Plains?not because I'd relapsed, but because my family figured I should spend a nice, long month getting off the Haldol and pot. I was out of there within a week, once the attractive Brazilian doctor who was assigned me realized that if she were to transfer me to a halfway house, I'd be huffing joints right away. Kids at halfway houses tend to be deft at getting done what needs to get done, if you know what I mean. While I was at Cornell a patient who reminded me a lot of Kim Deal caused some excitement when she successfully "eloped"?i.e., ran the fuck away. When they discharged me I was still on Depakote, but the folks at Cornell had thankfully eliminated Haldol from my diet, and didn't replace it with any other antipsychotic.
In early March I had my worst episode since Amsterdam. Probably due in large part to my broken vow never to drop LSD again. Things came to a head this time when I uttered a physical threat?surely an empty one?toward my father. The cops were called.
My stay St. Luke's-Roosevelt on W. 59th St. was more than a month of pure misery. My first memory: waking up in leather restraints. You wake up prostrate in restraints, what's a normal reaction? To scream and twitch and bug the hell out. So they shoot you in the ass with several mg's of Haldol, wheel you upstairs and stick you in the Quiet Room?a mattress on the floor of a locked room?where, when you finally come to, for obvious reasons, you scream your fucking head off once more.
At Roosevelt, if you didn't attend this one fat, limping bitch's morning exercise group, she made it next to impossible for you to go out on the coveted twice-daily walks. Even though I became quite adept at obtaining cigarettes and smoking them through the bathroom vent, I would get caught and punished, making outdoor exposure during my five weeks there roughly nil.
At Roosevelt I had sex with a female patient, a huge mistake. Besides all the obvious reasons why having sex with a stranger (the unit does not distribute condoms, mind you) who happens to be a fellow psychiatric patient is a bad idea, we were busted in the act, hospital staff rushing in and throwing on the lights while we were doing the nasty. It was worse than being interrupted in the act by your parents. My punishment: more days in the quiet room. Worse, the girl somehow got my address and phone number (I think my father, while visiting, gave her his business card, innocently enough) and later started calling and writing weird messages. Just some baggage I didn't need.
At Roosevelt I got through Stephen King's The Shining rather expeditiously?and, oh yes, the crew of immigrant doctors managed to come up with what seems to have been a stable concoction of meds, adding Zyprexa, a more palatable antipsychotic, to my regimen. In fact, this combo stabilized me through the next year and change?well enough, I finally felt confident, that I could move on successfully to the next step, no medications whatsoever.
I left Roosevelt two weeks before my 21st birthday, May Day, 1998, and have not been back, there or to any other hospital. This summer I completely abandoned both the drugs and the therapy.
When I think about going back to a locked ward...well, I guess I just don't think about it like that. I sincerely believe that if I were ever to experience symptoms reminiscent of my psychosis I'd be able to handle them in a way more fruitful than simply checking into a psycho ward. There are many young people my age, like the ones with whom I spent hours in group discussion at the outpatient program, who completely accept that they'll be swallowing horse pills, seeing doctors and being part of structured mental rehabilitation programs for the rest of their lives. This attitude has become not only foreign to me, but obscene. You wouldn't take antibiotics every day and see your doctor every week for the rest of your life in case a cold comes back, and I've decided it's equally inappropriate to take Depakote and Zyprexa for the rest of my life lest I suffer another psychotic attack.
Yes, I still smoke grass. I'm happier smoking a joint after work and getting up for work the next day at 8:30 than I was waking up at 11, wasted off last night's meds, and shoving more pills down the hatch first thing.
It's upsetting that the professionals make no effort to instill the confidence that you can stay sane without the meds, and without the implied threat of another hospital stay just around the corner. I certainly never want to go back to inpatient treatment, and I'll do anything to avoid it. I just feel the business of keeping my head stable is best left to me.