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The Initiate

A first-time acid trip leads to jail, madness, and a career

By Stephen Kessler


In 1969, Gualala author, poet, and journalist Stephen Kessler--then a 22-year-old grad student in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz--dropped acid for the first time at the notorious Rolling Stones concert at Altamont raceway. The trip sparked a six-month psychosis that landed Kessler in jail and several mental hospitals, and ultimately led to a career as a poet and what he concludes is a better life. The following, an excerpt from Kessler's own account of that transition, is reprinted with permission from the recently published Tripping: An Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures (Penguin/ Compass; $18) by Charles Hayes.

THE NOTION that I was a poet with some positive role to play didn't come out of nowhere. I was a poet, though it was unclear to me how I was going to make a life of that. I only knew that I wanted to make a contribution to the culture at large. But it wasn't by merely being a poet that I would make a difference. It was by being poetry, moving in the world in a way that would poeticize not only my experience but everyone else's.

After several months on heavy doses of Thorazine, I was emotionally exhausted. I'd lived an incredible amount in that time and I felt completely emptied. I was never quite climbing the walls, but I was worried at times. I had paranoid fantasies that I'd be assassinated, that I was never going to be let out, that I was being prepared as a sacrificial martyr. My family got involved when they saw how little progress I'd made in abandoning my delusions, and got really worried that I'd be permanently crazy.

During this time I'd been in and out of a series of hospitals and one of the things that sobered me up was seeing people who really seemed destroyed, way further gone than I was. Who knows when they'd come back? When things were clearly not going my way, when I was subject to the rigors and rules of the psychiatric ward and thought I might wind up like these other zombies, I wanted to get out. The whole thing had gone far enough. So I conceived a plan. Instead of acting on every fantasy I had or saying everything that came into my head, I just played it straight, hoping they'd let me out.

It worked. I was eventually released and, for lack of anywhere else to go, I went back to grad school. But I hated being there. The Thorazine had drained and depressed me and made me sexually impotent. It was the closest I ever came to contemplating suicide. Fortunately, I wrote my shrink in L.A. about that and he contacted me in Santa Cruz and encouraged me to come down to see him. That began a yearlong period of intensive psychotherapy during which I began to explore my personal history for the sources of my psychosis and subsequent depression.

It seems so facile to say, "I was mad at my parents." I came from a privileged background, growing up in Beverly Hills. I harbored a rage for having been neglected by my parents when I was little, and for being so privileged. I was really outraged that I'd grown up so protected and then discovered as I went out in the world that not everyone had such comfort to back them up. To me this was just an unbelievable injustice. Instead of going out and blowing up buildings or organizing antiwar rallies, I decided to be an artist, and then it was somehow decided for me that I would go crazy as a way of shedding my former identity. San Francisco City Prison was my unconscious alternative to professional school and social respectability.

Even during the worst of it, I felt it was a price I was willing to pay to come out at the other end as the person I was hoping to be. In fact, that's what happened. When I became a professional writer, I actually created the life I was looking for, even to the point of playing a prominent role in the Santa Cruz community as a kind of cultural agitator--organizing events, doing radio shows, starting magazines and newspapers, writing columns. I tried to integrate my somewhat eccentric skills and diverse interests into a way of life where I could do journalism, poetry, literary writing, and translating in a way that would contribute in some small way to the local community and the larger world. I don't know if I can credit psychedelics with having pushed me over that edge, to dare to do that, but they were certainly a contributing factor to the madness that brought me there. My psychosis was a crash course in the revolutionary aesthetic consciousness I sought in order to become an artist. If I hadn't had poetic instincts, who knows what would have become of me? Literature was the real safety net, I suppose.

I feel very lucky that I was able to live through this psychotic episode and emerge from it without being destroyed. My circuits had been fried and so profoundly modified that people around me didn't know whether I'd ever rejoin the ranks of the normal. But I came out of it actually treasuring the experience. Somehow I got through this extended strangeness relatively unscathed. I didn't get killed or maimed or go permanently insane. Instead of the devastating breakdown it could have been, the psychosis became a breakthrough into the life I wanted to live.

My aspirations for an angelic mission were in the tradition of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, which shows a consistent pattern through various hero myths in several cultures: The initiate goes to the wilderness, is completely cut off from society, goes through illness or other physical ordeals, has visions, and then rejoins the community as a wiser person with special knowledge and powers. He may become a leader, priest, or healer.

Although I can't make any grandiose claims for subsequent shamanic accomplishments, I do feel that I underwent a similar odyssey over those six months. My sojourns to the depths of the unconscious were analogous to a wilderness initiation rite in which you wander in the desert for a while. All I really lost in the process was the desire to have a respectable occupation, to fit in and conform, and to do something my mother could be proud to tell her friends about.

I still believe I was participating in a mythic initiation. I'm not a bit less convinced of this now than I was then. It wasn't exactly what I thought it was at the time, a transformation of the whole society, which changed a lot less than we hoped it would. But in many ways I still haven't shed those delusions. I still subscribe to that vision of the artist's job.

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From the June 7-13, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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