The highs and lows of the downers and uppers


My first drugs experience was distinctly underwhelming. Tipsy off a couple of shots of vodka, I threw years of school-administered anti-drugs indoctrination to the wayside when, outside a 17th birthday party, I took my maiden drag from a moist-ended, clumsily-rolled joint. Nothing happened, apart from suppressing some guilty coughs. I didn’t see pink elephants; I didn’t travel through time. A disappointing experience all round for the teenage cannabis ingénue.

By the end of that year, I was an experienced stoner, but, frankly, the first joint is not so much a rite of passage as simply a right: most of us have tried cannabis, and all of us should. Given the anti-climax of my first brush with cannabis – something I imagine I share with most smokers – I find my first MDMA experience a much more powerful memory.

It couldn’t have started much worse. A couple of friends and I had been experimenting with salvia that evening, and I’d been recovering slowly from a vivid trip. Salvia is a powerful herbal hallucinogen – illegal to consume but not to possess – and a couple of hits had me incoherently splinched across hostile universes which multiplied exponentially as I slumped lower and lower across the sticky floor.

Fortunately, salvia wears off quickly. Within an hour, I was capable of slavishly dragging Marmite across a piece of toast, creature-comforting my way back into sanity. And it was at that point that someone suggested we try ecstasy. Inculcated as I was with society’s odd double standard of alcohol-and-tobacco-good, everything-else-bad, I might normally have turned down the fifth of a gram of off-white crystal.

And perhaps I would have refused it, if I’d known how the MDMA would taste when dissolved in water – foul, acrid, metallic, somehow filling my whole mouth with its bitterness. It was the brackish water of the Styx through which Elysium-bound travellers must pass, a magic potion in which the grand secrets of life are distilled – and it couldn’t taste worse.

First, it just made me feel ill, like taking too many paracetamol on an empty stomach. But slowly, surely, I began to come up. Yawning, I stretched, and felt the twisting ripeness in my arms as my muscles began to sing. Scraping hair off my forehead, every follicle tingled as I rolled my hair back over my scalp.

And, before I knew it, I was peaking, almost caught by surprise by the fierce joy that was coursing through my body. If you’ve ever worked through the night, and looked up to see that the sun had gloriously risen, and in casting its rays over the world had coaxed it into colour, then you have some idea of how it felt.
‘Ecstasy’ – the name for the pill form of MDMA, normally impure – is an appropriate name for the feeling of being high. This is a level of elation which, to be blunt, is neurochemically inaccessible in normal life. I could feel joy physically, and it was as if the messy little room we were in was the centre of the universe, like a log cabin in an icy wasteland housing a roaring fire, visible through golden windows for miles around.

I’d never felt so close to my friends. The high doesn’t create affection, instead making it more visible. But, speaking rapidly, hugging each other, we would have looked bizarre to anyone who wasn’t also high. Everything was better: music seemed to express every emotional rhythm the soul could experience; poetry could speak more profoundly than I thought possible. One friend, normally mocked for his spiders-on-alabaster combination of paleness and hairiness, became a joy to look at, despite being topless: MDMA makes people warm at the same time as it removes inhibition, while obviating sex drive.

After four hours, the magic ebbed away, like the mighty, mysterious waters of the Nile retreating into low tide. But seeds had been sown; those friends and I will always share the powerful experience of getting high for the first time, and my engagement with art will always be more empathetically-minded. It was an experience I will never forget – and it didn’t even give me a hangover.


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