Summer of Salvia: Exploring Nature’s Most Powerful Hallucinogen and the Fabric of Existence, is officially for sale. To give prospective readers a taste of what the book is like, here’s the first chapter:
Chapter 1: Boyhood Innocence
“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”
Disney’s Peter Pan
Salvia? You have salvia?”
It was a warm summer night and there were about ten of us mingling on the deck.
I didn’t know any of these people. It was my friend Katie’s birthday party and I’d only come to wish her well and drop off her gift. But I’d had a little too much to drink, and the alcohol (mixed with a few puffs of weed) had overridden my normally reserved personality, allowing me to socialize with people that half an hour ago had been—and in a few hours would once again be—complete strangers.
I had returned from a beer run when I heard her mention salvia. I don’t remember her name, but I remember exactly what she looked like. She had light brown skin and a long, petite body. Her hair was cut shorter than mine, and for good reason—she was in the Army, and she was a lesbian. And, apparently, she was into drugs.
I’d first heard of salvia in my local newspaper. Since I’d just recently started smoking pot, the headline for an Associated Press story by Andrew Bridges sparked my interest: Unpredictable hallucinogen is legal—for now: Plant is sold legally on the Internet.
The article talked about the plant’s use in rituals by an Indian tribe near Oaxaca, Mexico and explained that it wasn’t governed by any federal laws “even though, by weight, the active component of salvia divinorum is more powerful than that found in peyote, psilocybin mushrooms or any other natural hallucinogen . . . The drug’s effects last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour and more. During that time, users can lose all perception of reality.”
This sounded too good to be true! Stories of LSD trips had always fascinated me and I’d always wondered what it would be like to try it.
But I’d also heard stories about people wallowing in bad acid trips for hours at a time, or being plagued by acid flashbacks for the rest of their lives. It was enough to keep me from ever even trying the drug. My reluctance to try “magic mushrooms” stemmed from similar concerns: someone told me that prolonged use burned lesions in people’s brains. It was only after a friend convinced me, after weeks of heated debate, of marijuana’s relative safety that I gave into peer pressure and smoked my first bowl of weed. But no amount of peer pressure could convince me to try something that could permanently cost me my sanity.
But here was a hallucinogen that only lasted at worst an hour, but probably only a few minutes. Best of all, it was legal.
Of course, I conveniently ignored other parts of the article.
It quoted clinical neurobiologist Dr. Ethan Russo, who said, “I don’t know anyone who has ever taken it and said, ‘Gee, that was fun,’” and, “It’s not pleasant in anyone’s conception that I have ever spoken with.”
It’s not like the guy was saying, “This stuff will kill you!” or, “Salvia kills brain cells!” He was just saying it was unpleasant. If it turned out unpleasant, oh well. I could live with that. As soon as I finished the article, I knew I wanted to try this drug. I had to.
But I was a broke college kid counting pennies, and when I went online to try to buy some salvia, I found out it wasn’t particularly cheap (relatively speaking—remember, I was broke, and shipping costs made it more expensive). It was more cost-effective to buy a forty-sack of weed than it was to buy a vial of salvia. Life went on and in time I completely forgot about salvia.
Until I found myself standing on a crowded deck and heard a butch Army chick mention it.
“Yeah, I’ve got salvia,” she said. Immediately, enthusiastically, she asked, “Do you want to try it?”
I didn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I want to try it. Right now.”
“Awesome!” she yelled and threw her hand up for a high-five. I shifted my beer to my other hand and gave her outstretched palm a hearty slap. “Hang on dude, I’ll be right back.” She rushed into the house and returned a moment later with a bulging backpack. “Come over here,” she said, walking to the opposite corner of the deck. I set down my beer and followed her.
“I’ve always wanted to try this,” I said excitedly. “I just read about it not too long ago. This is going to be wild!”
“It’s pretty amazing,” she agreed. “But it’s really intense. Sit down.” I complied, lowering myself with my back against the rail of the deck and my knees tucked up to my chin. “You might want to take your jacket off. Sometimes people get really hot after they do this.”
“I’ll be okay,” I said. It was a warm night, but a light breeze was keeping me cool.
She seemed okay with that. She unzipped a pocket at the front of her backpack and took out a little vial—the salvia extract, she explained.
She unzipped the center pocket and pulled out the largest bong I have ever seen in my life. If she’d set it down beside her, it would have stood past her kneecaps.
“Holy shit! That’s a huge bong!”
She laughed. “Yeah, this is my baby.” Carefully, she unscrewed the vial and tapped some of the extract into the bowl.
Two other people came over to watch me. One was a guy I hadn’t talked to yet. I glanced at him and a flash of jealousy shot through me. His T-shirt clung to tanned, defined pectoral muscles and his flawless face was crowned by a perfect head of hair. He was a sharp contrast to me, with my slight beer gut popping out of my shirt and my hair marred by half a dozen cowlicks. It consoled me a little when I found out he was gay—as were most of the people attending the party, it turned out. The other spectator was a cute brunette girl with shoulder-length hair I’d talked to earlier about her bisexuality and her job at a local hardware store.
It gave me a rush to have them watch. They were paying attention to me. I was doing something they were too scared to do. I was cool to them. It was a wonderful feeling and I decided right then and there everything I’d been told in school about drugs not being cool was a lie.
She placed the bong between my legs.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” she said. “You’re going to put your mouth over the bong and suck in the smoke. That’s all you have to do; I’ll light the bowl. Hold the smoke in as long as you can.”
“Okay,” I said. This was going to be easy. I wasn’t a total pothead, but I’d had enough experience smoking weed that I could hold in smoke until my lungs ached, and then some.
I wrapped my lips around the bong. She brought her lighter’s flame to the bowl.
“Suck,” she said as flame met extract. I sucked in the smoke, filling the air with a bubbling gurgle as the bong water rippled. After what seemed like at least a full minute, she told me to stop. I held my breath. And held it. I became lightheaded.
“Whoa, look at him!” the brunette girl said. “How long can this kid hold his breath?” That gave me quite the ego boost (ironic, since I’d be experiencing an ego death in a few short minutes) and gave me the strength to hold my breath even longer.
Finally, I felt that if I held in the smoke even a second more I’d pass out, so I exhaled. A thin stream of smoke sailed out of my mouth. It looked like it was flowing in slow motion.
I felt a tingling sensation in my right thigh. And although my head felt a little funny and I was seeing stars, the only thing out of the ordinary was this tingling sensation. I thought, is this it? Is this what all the hype is about?
That’s when shit got crazy. That’s when my perception of life, the universe and reality was torn inside out.
Not for five minutes. Not for an hour.
I never thought I’d do drugs. Who actively thinks that early in their life? No one grows up thinking, “Someday, I’m going to put all kinds of substances in my body that will fuck up my perception of the world!”
I’ve asked myself many times how I got to the point that I found doing drugs acceptable. How did a good, innocent, Christian boy become a booze-guzzling, reefer-smoking miscreant eager to sample a hallucinogen whose effect on the human brain scientists are only now beginning to study?
To answer that question, we must travel back in time a bit. We have to look into the soul of a young boy who is almost unrecognizable to me today.
As a young boy, I was timid, but full of ambition. I was shy, hesitant, and lacked confidence, but I was determined to shed those traits and trade them for those possessed by the heroes I saw every day in Disney movies. I would be as confident and self-assured as Aladdin, as heroic and loving as Pongo, as adventurous and daring as Pinocchio.
That wasn’t all. Those were perfectly good and respectable traits for any boy to have. But I didn’t want to be just good or respectable. I wanted to be righteous.
I realized I would never lead a perfect life—I was told that the only one to ever do that was Jesus Christ—but I wanted to live my life as perfectly as I could. Thanks to my Christian upbringing, I formulated a mental checklist constantly running in the back of my mind. Some of these items only appeared as I grew older. Others evolved as my understanding of the world matured.
- No having sex until marriage
- No watching pornography
- No drinking alcohol (alcoholism runs in my family, so I decided rather than drink in moderation, I would abstain completely—why tempt fate?)
- No smoking cigarettes
- No taking drugs
I wasn’t raised by religious zealots. Both my parents were Christians and took my brother and me to a Presbyterian church off and on, but, since it was an hour commute, we didn’t make it every Sunday.
When we did make it to church, I took what I heard about God, Jesus and the Bible very seriously. I understood that the pastor preaching to me was talking about the very foundation of the universe I inhabited. God created everything I was experiencing through my five senses and, moreover, created me. He created my ability to be aware of the world around me. He created my ability to be aware of myself. That blew me away. I was fascinated by the concepts of sentience and consciousness. What a wonderful gift to be self-aware! How blessed I felt to be born a little boy instead of a rock or a leaf that couldn’t do anything but sit there, never even aware of its own existence.
But the pastor didn’t stop there. At some point, obviously, I learned about Jesus Christ, how He died for my sins so I could live with Him forever and ever in heaven. I would never die, because Jesus died for me. All I had to do was believe in Him.
So how could I ever hope to face Jesus Christ in heaven above if I was a womanizing, smut-loving boozehound? The very notion of my savior’s disappointment (not his rejection, because I knew Jesus loved me no matter what) filled me with dread. So I wouldn’t disappoint him.
It would be like a test, I decided. I might not get a perfect score, like Jesus had, but I would do well and maybe get eighty or ninety percent. I’d show I’d made an effort, that I’d earned my salvation more than the poor saps getting F’s. I imagined myself growing up to be the ideal human male. I imagined myself growing up to become President of the United States of America—and my campaign would be the most successful since George Washington’s, because I’d have lived a life of honesty, purity and virtue that set me apart from all other politicians. I would abstain from the pitfalls ensnaring all the competition. No premarital sex. No alcohol. No drugs. I’d decided to become Straight Edge before I’d even heard the term.
It’s funny how life never goes how you plan for it to go.
Looking back, I think my plans were foiled by what I’ve referred to as shyness, social anxiety, or social ineptitude. Let’s just put it this way: I was a terribly awkward little boy.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my awkward behavior began, but if memory serves, I’d say it all started in preschool.
It wasn’t even a significant event, although it seemed significant to me at the time. What’s significant to a child is never the same as what’s significant to an adult.
My brother Tim and I went to the same preschool class. I never hesitated to yell at him if he bothered me. We were brothers; politeness was unnecessary.
My brother and I, along with half a dozen other kids, were on the floor one day, playing with some toys when I felt somebody brush up against my leg. I thought it was my brother. “Knock it off!” I yelled. The assault on my leg continued. “Knock it off!” I yelled again. Still the onslaught continued and finally I whipped around and shouted right in my brother’s face: “KNOCK IT—”
Only, it wasn’t my brother. It was a chubby blond boy, someone I barely knew, and suddenly my confidence evaporated and my voice became small. “. . . off.”
I was embarrassed. I had just yelled at a complete stranger. Yelling at my brother was one thing. We were comfortable with each other. But here was someone I barely knew, and I had yelled at him!
Looking back, I wonder if I would have developed more self-confidence if that had never happened. Maybe I would have made more friends and developed better social skills. Maybe I would have felt comfortable in my own skin instead of turning to drugs and alcohol. Maybe I never would have done salvia and my life wouldn’t have spiraled even further into the depths of mental illness. On the other hand, maybe it was inevitable, just the catalyst opening the floodgate. Maybe my social anxiety is genetic; both my parents are somewhat shy introverts. What matters is that, whether it was nature or nurture that caused it to happen, it happened.
That incident set a precedent of awkwardness and social incompetence that followed me all the way through high school. Screw it, let’s be honest. To this day, it still hasn’t completely lost my scent.
Things weren’t any better in kindergarten. We all brought bag lunches from home and ate them at a round table in the classroom. One day, as we were eating, a girl sitting across from me turned to her friend and asked what she had brought for lunch. She smiled devilishly and said, “I’m eating a snake sandwich!”
The air suddenly filled with “ewwws” and “icks,” but also with fervent giggling. Honestly, the notion of a snake sandwich grossed the hell out of me, and I didn’t find it funny. But I was trying to fit in, so I laughed along with everyone else.
“I have beetles in my sandwich,” another girl said. More smiles, more giggles.
“Oh yeah? Well I have worms in mine!” said the boy next to me.
Just like that, everybody’s lunch was suddenly grotesque and instead of vomiting in revulsion, like I was on the verge of doing, they giggled with their mouths full, crumbs cascading out of their mouths and landing unnoticed on the tabletop. I realized if I wanted to fit in I would have to think of something gross to be eating, and quickly, before every conceivable culinary atrocity had already been picked.
“Well,” I said, “um . . . my sandwich is made out of guts!”
The laughter stopped. The smiles turned to frowns. The girl that had started this disgusting exchange turned to me and said plainly, “That’s gross.” She said it without giggles. She said it with a tiny hint of malice.
I finished eating my sandwich in silence, barely able to keep it down now that all I could think about were snakes and worms and guts. How is eating guts any more disgusting than eating snakes or beetles? I thought. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I fit in?
We had two kindergarten teachers, Mrs. Paul and Mrs. Grey. Often, Mrs. Paul directed the entire class to gather on the floor around her. She sat in a plastic chair and read us books, holding them up so we could see the pictures. The stories enthralled me. This is when I decided I loved stories and books.
But when Mrs. Grey pulled us aside individually so we could read to her, my blood became hot. I saw my peers slowly learning how to sound out letters, then how to string the letters together to form words, and then how to string those words together to form sentences.
I couldn’t do it. The first couple times I tried to read the words, I failed horribly, and the sting of those defeats shamed me. It shouldn’t have. I’m sure the teachers were very understanding. But every time Mrs. Grey pulled me aside to read to her, the thought of failing again mortified me.
Instead of trying extra hard to learn to read, I paid rapt attention to Mrs. Paul when she read to us. I memorized the books and when Mrs. Grey pulled me aside to read to her, I recited the book from memory. At least, I think I did. To this day, I’m not sure whether I successfully fooled her or not. Maybe she was on to me but didn’t want to devastate my self-esteem any more by letting on that she knew.
Writing out words was even harder. If I couldn’t recognize a word when it was already constructed, how in the world was I supposed to construct one myself?
But I kept trying. One day, sitting at a table with a blank piece of paper and a red marker, I attempted to write out the sentence: “The car is green.” My hand moved the marker across the page, forming the letters and praying I’d arranged them in the correct order. But I was certain, deep down in my heart, that I couldn’t possibly have spelled it correctly. I was certain I’d failed then just as I’d failed many times before.
A paraeducator sat next to me helping another student. I turned to her and said despondently, “What does this say?”
She turned to look at my writing and said matter-of-factly, “The car is green.”
My breath grew short. I brought the paper up to my face and stared at it. I wrote this, I thought reverently. I could hardly believe it. I had taken a bunch of letters that, separately, meant nothing, and arranged them in such a way that they meant something. I had created something out of nothing, honoring God through this tiny imitation of His creation of the universe.
That was the beginning of my love affair with reading and writing. My sudden success was a shot of confidence, but it was an isolated shot. I never excelled at mathematics or history or sports. But when it came to reading and writing, it was like a light bulb suddenly went off in my head. One moment, I couldn’t do it at all; the next, I lived for it.
It was the worst thing that could have happened to me.
Giving an introverted boy a book is like giving a schizophrenic person LSD. It doesn’t help anything; it just causes them to delve deeper and deeper into fabricated realities. It’s nothing more than a means of escaping the world, a way of forgetting that you don’t know how to talk to the other kids, you don’t know how to play with them the same way they play with each other and you’ll never attain the close friendships you long for. Reading, for lonely introverts, is nothing more than an emotional and mental painkiller. It treats the symptoms, not the disease.
As a result, my social skills never reached their full potential. Throughout elementary school, when other kids played on the seesaw, pushed each other on the swings, or played touch football, I parked myself on a bench and immersed myself in a book. It’s funny; I remember hardly any of them now. I regret many things about my childhood, but my foremost regret is that I interacted with books more than I interacted with my peers. Middle school wasn’t much different. Although I tried harder to make friends, with some success, I still spent more time by myself, usually reading or writing, than I did joking around and playing games and being a normal pre-teenager. It didn’t help that I had an unhealthy obsession with science fiction, which eventually developed into a fascination with accounts of UFO abductions. One day I posted a flyer on our class bulletin board, advertising myself as a UFO investigator, asking anyone who had encountered any unidentified flying objects to contact me. One of my classmates came up to me and told me he’d been abducted and anally probed. Then he laughed in my face. I wanted to punch the bastard and wipe the smug grin off his face. If I hadn’t had Jesus in my heart, I might have.
There was one notable exception to my solitary middle school existence, and it coincided with the decline of the moral checklist I’d carried ever since I was a little boy. In the sixth grade, near the end of the school year, I snagged myself a girlfriend.
Actually, it was more like she snagged me. For a pubescent boy with an ever-growing interest in the female anatomy, this was dangerous territory.
Every year the sixth-grade class took a weeklong trip to a former military base that had been converted into a campground. It was like a summer camp we got to go to during the school year. We ate our meals in a mess hall, slept in barracks, walked trails, combed the beach, captured each other’s flags. Regardless of my anemic social skills, it was some of the most fun I’ve had in my life.
We had a dance the night before we left. I heard they were going to have a student DJ, and I wanted the job. For some reason, I thought it would blow the other kids away that I was choosing the music they were dancing to. I imagined them coming up to me after the dance and giving me high-fives: “Way to go dude! The music was awesome!”
As a shy person, I spent a lot of time thinking to myself. I spent much of this time inside my own head praying to God. Literally every day, I prayed for a girlfriend. But that night, I abstained from that particular prayer just long enough to make another one: Please, Lord, let someone ask me to be the DJ for this dance.
My jaw dropped when I was approached by Travis Epsom, one of the more popular kids in our class, and he asked me if I wanted to be the DJ.
Holy crap, I thought. If this isn’t proof that there’s a God in heaven, then there isn’t any.
I accepted. It was only later that I suspected the reason he asked me to be the DJ was because nobody else wanted the job. They wanted to go out on the dance floor and shake their booties. They wanted to go have fun, not place CDs in and out of the tray of a CD player. Of course, it still worked out to my advantage, because I felt horribly awkward dancing by myself and the thought of asking a girl to slow-dance mortified me.
As it happened, I wasn’t the only one spinning discs. A group of high school students were in attendance serving as chaperones and mentors, and one of them, in possession of a vast collection of CDs, helped me pick out which songs to play. His name was Andrew.
While we sat watching everyone, Andrew told me to go ask one of the girls to dance during the next slow song.
“I can’t do that,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked with exaggerated incredulity.
“Because,” I said. “I’d be way too nervous. I wouldn’t even know what to do. And I’d have to . . . you know . . . touch her.”
“So? That’s half the fun.”
I was about to construct a foolproof counterargument when fate intervened.
Maria, a biracial girl who almost always wore her hair in a tight ponytail and always sported a pair of glasses that made her look just a tad bit nerdy (although she never quite achieved the matching reputation, partially on account of her ample bosom) asked me to dance.
I was speechless.
Andrew was more enthusiastic than I was.
“Duuude! Go out there! You’re going to have a blast!”
“I . . . I, uh . . .”
Before I knew what was happening, Maria had grabbed one of my limp arms and dragged me onto the dance floor.
“I, uh . . . I don’t really know what to do,” I said.
“It’s easy,” she said. “I’ll show you.” She grabbed my hands and placed them on her hips. I swallowed heavily. She wrapped her arms around my neck.
“Okay. Um. Now what?”
“Kind of move your feet back and forth like this,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. I imitated her and gave a little sigh of relief. This wasn’t that hard. Still, I couldn’t quite get the rhythm down and that made me self-conscious—as did my fervent effort not to develop an erection.
As we swayed back and forth we stared into each other’s eyes. It was more of an awkward moment than a tender one, although I suppose there is a sort of mild tenderness to pre-teen inelegance. I turned my lips upward into a smile that was not at all genuine. I wanted to mask my obvious discomfort as much as I could.
Even so, some small part of my brain was elated. I am dancing with a girl! I am, at this very moment, touching an honest-to-goodness female human being, feeling the warmth of her body against my hands, smelling the sweet fragrance of her perfume. I am close enough to kiss her! Of course, I was far too self-conscious to gather the courage to so much as peck her on the cheek.
The song ended (I believe it was “Nice and Slow” by Usher) and we released each other.
“Thanks,” Maria said softly.
“No problem,” I said and scurried back to my seat beside the CD player.
“Dude, that was awesome!” Andrew said when I returned. “Way to go!”
I couldn’t help but grin stupidly. No longer in the intoxicating presence of a female, my mind was halfway sober and I let myself reel over what had just happened.
This is a huge milestone! I thought. Maybe this is the start of a social life. Maybe I’ll make close friends. Maybe Maria will even be my girlfriend. Maybe my luck is about to change.
I shook my head.
Not luck. God. He already answered one prayer tonight. And now he’s finally answering another.
I had a feeling—I hoped and I prayed—that Maria would soon become my girlfriend.
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