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Learning the hard way that psychedelic drug use can have long-term consequences

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Tripping

Seven years ago in my middle school health class, I was introduced to a diverse array of recreational drugs. I still remember my friends' innocent, carefree chats on the way to the gym and our bespectacled, strict health teacher.

I remember at the time I wasn't much concerned with the drugs themselves. For our unit-ending project, I diligently researched and compiled the facts, prepared something to say, presented my work, and collected my grade. 

At the most, perhaps I briefly wondered why anyone would actually be driven to consume substances with qualities like that. It was unthinkable to me that one day I might be interested in actually trying any of them. Today, I marvel at my transformation from unquestioning obedience to eager open-mindedness.

Despite all of my health teacher's efforts, none of those teachings could dampen my curiosity just years later. I knew that nothing could replace firsthand experience. 

But the risks still existed, no matter how prepared or determined I felt.

About 4% of those who have taken psychedelic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms develop the condition known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). It's characterized by visual distortions, similar to those experienced while tripping, but persisting after the drug has cleared one’s system. HPPD can last for months and even years.

For me, the symptoms consist primarily of visual snow and afterimages. Visual snow refers to an intrusive layer of static over the visual field; as for afterimages, most people are familiar with the scenario of looking at a bright light and having the image "seared" into their vision. HPPD afterimages are similar, but they occur sporadically, in all kinds of scenarios throughout the day. 

After a trip midway through 2019, the symptoms appeared for me within a month. They can be pretty awful. They’re especially noticeable when trying to admire distant mountains and finding them difficult to focus on through the visual distortions. They also obscure and distort the blue sky. 

There are plenty of folks out there who have it worse than I do; for some, the condition hinders their ability to work and navigate daily life. Some require treatment with anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines. Thankfully, my symptoms aren’t that extreme.

Dr. Charles Chavkin, a professor in the department of pharmacology, shed some light on the condition. He said that, as of right now, scientists generally hypothesize that HPPD occurs not as the result of drug-induced neural damage, but as a result of the drug interacting with a person with already predisposed neurochemistry.

"There's really no evidence that typical hallucinogens like LSD or psilocybin are themselves neurotoxic," Chavkin said. “Some people are uniquely vulnerable for reasons we don’t yet understand.”

He pointed out that only a small, specific subgroup of UW students decides to ever experiment with hallucinogens.

“You gotta ask, what is it about that subgroup?” Chavkin said. “What preselects them, and is this vulnerability that we just described a part of that selection? Where's that curiosity com[ing] from? Could it be that they've been experiencing [something] that is triggered by some underlying differences in their existing neurochemistry?"

Chavkin also brought up the well-documented antidepressant effects of psychedelics and hypothesized that there might be a connection between them and the HPPD phenomena since both arise after the drug has cleared the system. In all the excitement over psychedelic therapy, perhaps something's being overlooked: If the psychedelic trip facilitates a long-term alteration in mood, then perhaps it causes other, less desirable long-term effects on the brain.

“[These drugs] have actions that are unknown; you're taking great risks that we don't really understand or appreciate,” Chavkin said. “Don't be assuming that you're invulnerable, as many people do."

Sound advice. It's always hard to imagine that you'll be among that tiny percentage that contracts a condition, until it happens.

The truth of the matter is that no amount of education, influence from my family, or advice from experts could have altered my decision to experiment with drugs. I don't regret it on the whole, but in the end, I believe I may have indulged in one trip too many.

I think for many college students, the drug education of their youth didn't make much of an impression. Maybe the voice of a fellow college student can be more effective. If you're like me, you're gonna do some drugs. Satisfy your curiosity, but maybe afterward, respect the substances enough to let them go.

Reach contributing writer Aidan Treat at wellness@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @aidantreat

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