Wonders of the Mind: Oliver Sachs in the New Yorker (2012.08.27)

It did not seem at all strange to me that a spider should say hello…

Oliver Sachs gives an in-depth history of a wilder side of his career, the side where he took a host of drugs.  In 1953, he crossed that threshold of staying objective through only reading about substance-induced experiences to objectively tripping on his own, writing about his psychedelic journeys and mentally-generated battle scene reenactments, with such scenes as to include his beloved indigo, fighting other colors.  And after taking too little one time, he often took way too much thereafter.  For the most part, the drugs he took then are either illegal or mixed with pesticides today.
Never one to be off in another world, Sachs is too objective a doctor to witness the textbook trip.  LSD marked hallucinatory experiences of the more ordinary kind: Jim and Kathy stopping by; a helicopter landing for a visit by his parents; however, a talking spider, with the voice of Bertrand Russell (he overheard Russell’s voice over the radio before).  But that only started him wanting more.  He demanded Indigo, so one sunny Saturday in 1964 I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine…, LSD…and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium).  The demand, aloud followed a big blot of the color, and then it faded away, never to be seen again.
He was alone again after meeting friend(s) of parents.  In 1965, awaiting a fellowship position in New York, the move from California to his hometown of London made things particularly depressing.  So during those three months, the parents away, he turned his ‘alone each weekend with high doses of drugs’ almost into ‘anything any day,’ and had his first at intravenous injection to celebrate turning thirty-two.  I had never taken morphine or any opiates before—why bother with piddling doses?  (It’s amazing he isn’t a drug addict!)  He saw late-1415 Agincourt, but realized he was in a stupor for over twelve hours.  He made sure his first at opium was his last.
Sachs’ near-ninety-six-hour climax could only occur after taking delirium tremens, where he saw eggs in place of people, and swaying buildings.  It was enough that he needed supervision, especially since he didn’t think he’d taken anything, overlooking that huge amount chloral hydrate—DTs.  Journalism was his way of dealing with it; he wrote down his experience to the point of clinical detail.  You’d think he’d stop, but in 1966, after arriving in New York, now seeing patients at a migraine clinic, he took on amphetamines in hope for intellectual excitement and emotional engagement I had known in my earlier years.  It was a total downer—vapid mania.  I never took amphetamines again.
Edward Liveing, M.D. wrote On Megrim, Sick-Headache, and Some Allied Disorders: A Contribution to the Pathology of Nerve-Storms in 1873, but Sachs made his own history, and found striking similarities of migraine symptoms to that of drugs, even short hallucinogenic symptoms.  Sachs didn’t just ‘trip’.  He became the writer of his time on this kind of neurological study.  And he knows it.

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