5-MeO-DMT, a Review by a Confused Customer
it's a drug
My consciousness is a small thing. It’s true that, from the inside, it feels massive, containing, as it does, the knowledge of Paris and Prague, the smell of apple seeds, the tune of “My Humps,” all of my love, and all of my regret, smoldering in a corner like July. But it is a tiny portion of all the consciousness that is out there, one book in an eternal library of consciousness, containing other volumes, each one comprising what it’s like to be something else—a jellyfish, a bear, perhaps protozoa just emerging on a moon of Jupiter, a different guy named Sasha. Everything I experience is an unthinkably tiny slice of the vast oak of awareness.
It’s a gift that I get to inhabit this one slice. But the central price is the feeling that I am alone inside it, that I am a separate being. Any particular bubble of virtual reality has, within itself, only itself as primary evidence. Even though I know, in theory, that the awareness at my core is shared with every other aware being, it feels like this is it, that when I die, consciousness is over.
It would be nice, however, if you could lift that barrier for a second, the translucent skin between our translucent bubbles. Maybe nice isn’t the word—maybe it would be overwhelming. Maybe a glimpse like that would permanently drive you insane. Or maybe it could be salutary and nourishing. Maybe it would be nice to really know, just for a moment, that you are not all there is.
I had heard about this drug, 5-MeO-DMT, for years, which, for some people, does roughly that. It is fabled to give you a momentary glimpse of what the eternal boundlessness of all consciousness is like. The experience is also brief and it is typically not physically dangerous in any way—reasonably convenient, as glimpses of eternity go. It is also, funnily enough, a molecule found in the Sonoran Desert Toad, although most MeO is synthesized in a lab.
I like glimpses of eternity. I also like toads. Despite this, I didn’t seek out MeO for a long time. The main reason was the terrifyingly varied nature of the reports I heard about it. From what I heard, peoples’ experiences ranged from unimaginably blissful to unimaginably horrible. What’s more, there was seemingly no predicting who would have what kind of experience. Based on my casual survey of the reports I stumbled upon—from hardcore psychonauts, mid-career professionals, glamorous artists, and others—there was no apparent factor that correlated with a pleasant brush with infinity.
One friend of mine, a hardened materialist with a respectable job, reported spending “no time and all time” in a “perfect rainbow universe” and mentioned that, after the experience, he was less sure of his atheistic convictions and happy about that. On the other hand, my ex-wife took it as part of a scientific study, and she reported visiting a barren void in which there was no love or warmth, where she resided for, subjectively, an eon. I really wanted the former, but I was pretty afraid of the latter, and, given that my life has already contained a fair number of weird experiences, I didn’t feel like rolling the dice.
So I never sought it out actively. But recently it washed up on the shore of my social group. A friend of mine had an extremely positive experience with it—his first encounter with something that felt truly mystical. His experience was administered by a local facilitator who he recommended in the highest terms. He couldn’t stop talking about it. He is a smart, fun, wise person, who has fed me nice meals. So I said, fuck it, let’s do the toad thing.
A couple of weeks later, the facilitator came to my home, after a highly informational, thorough intake call during which I was screened for signs of mental instability, among other things. She was one of those effortlessly radiant hippie types, with a sunflower-like warmth, who could say the words “in perfect love and perfect trust” without that sounding weird. At the same time, she had the intelligence of a medical professional. I felt hopeful.
Her recommended protocol was three doses. First, a “handshake” dose—a small amount of the drug, designed to provide an introductory experience. Then, a larger dose, then an intermediate dose to bring the experience to a conclusion. In all three cases, the administration protocol was the same: breathe a large amount of smoke through a vaporizer, hold it in, and slowly collapse backward onto a pile of pillows as reality is blown to pieces.
For three seconds after I inhaled the handshake dose, nothing happened. Then, subjectively, I died, as my vision was replaced by white, pulsating energy, and my personality dissolved completely. In heaven, after death, I felt the mass of other souls around me, and the utter majesty of the multitude of potential perspectives. This registered as an orgasmic physical sensation, more than something conceptual or visual—except that I had no body, I was a timeless ocean, so the sensation was a ripple through all possible space.
I liked it, a lot. If that’s what dying is actually like, dying will be fine. As I came down, as the room reassembled, I was grinning from ear to ear. I don’t remember what I said, but it was something like, “it would be such a bummer if there was nothing more to the universe than my silly little games. It’s good to be reminded that isn’t true.”
But, well. O seekers, I am here to remind you of a truism of drug experiences, which I call the Iron Law of Exactly Enough. It goes as follows. If you have a wonderful experience with a substance—whether it’s caffeine, a martini, or a pill in Ibiza—and it’s absolutely perfect, but you want just a little more of that perfect experience, don’t. Don’t do more, don’t chase it. Be very happy that your trip to the Substance Lottery has gone this way.
I know this. And yet, the facilitator asked me if I would like to proceed to do another dose, and I said yes. Given how intense the first dose was, we decided to do another “handshake.”
The second time I have trouble recalling, since, at this point, my perspective was already so distorted, and the events were all so much larger than my memory’s normal capacity. I think it was similar to the first, except, this time, there was something pain-tinged about the experience, something wearying, something about feeling both the expansiveness of the universe as well as how much sorrow it contains, how exhausting it is to do all of this breathing and wanting we all do. I returned with nothing more in the way of insight, but a little more in the way of anxiety and sadness.
So I should’ve stopped there. I should’ve stopped when the experience was turning slightly sinister. But I asked the facilitator whether, in her estimation, I would get something from the full dose, and she said she couldn’t decide for me, but that I probably would.
The third dose, I didn’t, strictly speaking, experience. Past a certain threshold—which varies based on individual tolerance—MeO simply whisks you out of conscious experience. You just black out for an infinitesimal instant and come back instantaneously. That’s what happened to me. Except, subjectively, I didn’t come back the whole way. Something got left out in the cosmos.
When you meditate a fair amount, as I have, you experience what it’s like to have the “ego” layer of your personality de-emphasized or discarded—that little inner controller who constantly tells you who you are, and what’s appropriate to feel, and what you should be afraid of. It’s the part of you that is constantly simulating futures, or living in the past. Often, having the option to look past this layer is deeply refreshing, and it allows you to more fully inhabit the present moment. Once people gain the ability to look past that layer, they tend to de-emphasize it a fair amount of the time: seasoned meditators often have quieter inner monologues.
However, after I came down from MeO, this layer was nowhere to be found. Like, it was inaccessible. And it turns out that this layer being optional is far different from it being gone. Having it gone, at first, is absolutely terrifying. I found myself locked fully in the present moment, with none of my “psychology” arising in the blank spaces. I tried to dream, fantasize, conspire—my inner voice could not be reached, it was un-summonable. All I could do was feel everything really really hard.
This might have been wonderful, had the present moment been a pleasant place. However, simultaneously, I was drained of all positive emotion. The only thing I could feel was drab fear and desire, the pain and longing at the base of human existence. I had the confusing experience of looking at the facilitator, who I had liked a moment ago, who was smiling at me, and feeling nothing towards her, as if she were an empty cup.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse. Even in my lowest moment of suicidal ideation, there was still this liquid fire in me, the force of an animating principle, a will to persist, even if persistence could only conceivably consist of pain, even if I spent all of my time arguing against that will. But this was much different. This was all the intensity of meditative awareness, with all of the grey slop of dissociation.
I asked the facilitator if I could do another dose. I told her that I felt like I was a hundred-sided die, and I’d been thrown up in the air, and that, unfortunately, I’d landed on the worst possible side, so maybe we should re-roll. She was concerned by my condition and thought that the re-roll was a reasonable idea. The follow-up dose did absolutely nothing. I sat there, afterward, feeling only ashen, shrunken emotions, until I realized, after a few minutes of silence, that I could feel something else: anger. I felt angry towards this woman. I knew it was irrational anger, but I felt that she was a Satanic emissary, who came into my home to give me poison. I told her as much. “Nothing personal, I know you’re a good person,” I said, trying to believe this as I said it.
She tried to get me to feel some emotions, with some meditative techniques, and this worked for moments here and there—which is to say, I felt more pain, which expressed itself as a few ragged tears. She reassured me that I would feel better, that she’d had clients with difficult reactions previously, and that they all came back to reality in time.
Here is my model of what happened.
In the midst of my aforementioned meditation experiences, I have occasionally peered into the stitches of my conscious experience, the basic functioning of my operating system. Sometimes, in doing so, I have subtly altered the operation of the system. Perceiving differently, after all, is being differently. This is a common experience. For example, after meditating for a few years, it is common for meditators to obtain a subtle understanding of how the system encodes the passing of time. Thereafter, the experience of passing time is changed; you notice that time is, itself, an artistic product of consciousness, and begin to appreciate it aesthetically.
Sometimes, such alterations can be destabilizing at first—reality can seem less real, or differently real, or more intense. Almost always, the switchboard eventually gets wired up functionally again, but it can take a moment.
As far as I can tell, MeO did a similar thing. In the process of rebooting my whole self repeatedly, the drug slammed me violently against the boundaries of my consciousness. Perceiving those boundaries, and breaking through them, changed their position and their durability. And, like an intense change in perception brought about by meditation, it was destabilizing, except more destabilizing for being more sudden and dramatic.
The following day, I shared this opinion with the facilitator on the phone. She had asked me to call her, because, after she texted to ask how I was, I responded with something like “I hope my mind returns from its damaged state someday.” (I still felt awful—and, also, oddly, like my field of vision was twice as large as normal.) She said this was an opinion she’d heard before, and she felt it was a plausible reading of the situation. “It’s an opening,” she said. “Now there’s more space in your mind, so things will move around.”
Indeed. For the next few weeks, my conscious experience reconfigured itself into something that felt normal-ish, with my emotions and inner voice returning in bits. However, along the way, my inner workspace didn’t always fit together straightforwardly. I felt love for my girlfriend again—this was unavailable during the first twenty-four hours—but it felt like the love was an inflatable scarlet balloon bouncing across the room at me, rather than something coming from my heart. Sensate reality was unpleasantly vivid at times; stripes of light coming through the blinds tickled my spine like knives. My sleep was consistently disturbed by glimpses of the void, a fairly common aftereffect that can last for weeks or, rarely, months (!).
Also, throughout those weeks, my emotions were especially pronounced. Sometimes, I managed to harness this productively. I had a few important, frank conversations with people close to me that I was putting off, which enriched my relationships significantly. This might have happened without MeO—there is a trendline of increasing frankness in my life across the board—but I’m unsure.
Curiously, during the recovery, nobody noticed that anything was off with me, except my girlfriend, who was a good sport about me tossing and turning every night during the aforementioned void glimpses. I performed well professionally and personally. The only way people knew I’d done MeO is if I told them—which I did, saying to almost anybody who would listen, “we should’ve left that shit in the toad.” I was being hyperbolic, but, also, there was a lot of hype about MeO in my social group, and I felt that airing some petulance might bring some balance to the climate of opinion.
Another weird thing—during the first day of recovery, I went to the gym and I had a freakishly good day, ripping through all of my previous PRs. Then I went to the rock climbing wall and hurled myself up a bouldering problem that had previously been beyond me. Apparently, without an inner monologue, I am about 10% stronger.
Now the shape of my consciousness is normal again, inner monologue and all. But is it the same normal I once possessed? I am left with the spooky intuition that this drug has permanently changed me, in ways that I cannot fully identify. However, the mental experience of recovering from MeO was so odd that I may have fallen out of touch with the way things were before. So my ability to report on any underlying change accurately is limited. I am this way now, whatever that is.
I find it difficult to evaluate MeO. It gave me some of the most ecstatic moments of my life, as well as some of the most terrifying. At times I’ve felt that it’s been productive. But at times I’ve felt that this is just rationalization—me looking for the upside of a harrowing and disruptive event. I really can’t decide.
I don’t know whether even speaking of “recommending” it makes sense. Though I am, within reason, an advocate of responsible psychedelic use, it’s in a different category from the other “classical” psychedelics like LSD. There is probably no preparing for it, not really—nothing I can tell you can convey how powerful this thing is. In absence of any information about you in particular, I would tell you to avoid it, knowing that if you are the type of person who must do such things, you will eventually.
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