Oliver Sacks was a Druggy

As gleaned from Hallucinations:

His first drug experience was in 1953 when his childhood friend, Eric Korn went up to Oxford to visit him. They each took 25 micrograms of LSD and felt nothing, for the dosage was too small.

Starting a neurology residency in 1962, he became increasingly curious about the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

He began with cannabis. He took two puffs of a friend’s joint and saw that his hand was getting larger and larger and moving away from him. He could see a hand stretched across the universe, light-years or parsecs in length. It looked like a human hand yet it seemed like the hand of God. His first pot experience was a mix of the neurological and the divine.

Then, he began to sample LSD and morning glory seeds as they were readily available. Once, a friend told him to try Artane for a “really far-out experience’, asserting that one will still be in partial control with a dose of twenty pills. So one Sunday morning, Oliver took twenty pills. He expected disorganisation and paranoia but besides a dry mouth, large pupils and finding it difficult to read, he felt nothing. Then, he heard a knocking on his door and found his friends Jim and Kathy dropping by for breakfast. He made them ham and eggs, walked to the living room and found it completely empty. He had not thought that Jim and Kathy’s “presences” were unreal. He was shocked and frightened, as this did not happen with LSD and other drugs. He said to himself “Take yourself in hand. Don’t let this happen again.” Then, he heard the sound of a chopper and thought his parents had flown from London to give him a surprise visit. As he rushed out to greet them, he found that it was empty. The silence and emptiness, the disappointment, reduced him to tears. He then went back into the house and a spider on the kitchen wall caught his attention. It began to speak to him and they had a conversation on analytic philosophy.

As he was working as a resident at UCLA’s neurology department, he avoided drugs during the week and often experimented with them during the weekends.

One Saturday in 1964, he developed a concoction of amphetamine, LSD and cannabis. After about twenty minutes, he saw the colour of indigo. He was overwhelmed as he thought it a colour of heaven, of which Giotto had spent a lifetime trying to get but never achieved. He thought it was the colour of the Palaeozoic sea, the colour the ocean used to be. Suddenly, the colour disappeared and he was left with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness.

One day, he took a hefty dose of Heavenly Blue morning glory seeds with vanilla ice cream. After about twenty minutes, he found himself in a realm of paradisiacal stillness and beauty. At this time, he saw an a taxi backing up the steep trail to his house. An elderly woman got out of the taxi and he ran towards her shouting “I know who you are – you are a replica of Augusta Bonnard… You look like her but you are not her. I am not deceived for a moment.”  Augusta then got back into the taxi and took off. The next time Augusta met Oliver, she asserted that his failure to recognise her was psychotic. Also, his habit of taking mind-altering drugs every weekend, alone and in high doses, testified to some intense inner needs or conflicts.

In the summer of 1965, he had three months of break. In this idle time, Oliver descended deeper into drug taking, no longer confining it to weekends. He tried intravenous injection of several vials of morphine. Then, he hallucinated hundreds, thousands of men – two armies, two nations – preparing to battle. He did not realise he was merely staring at a spot on the sleeve of his dressing gown and laying in bed. He felt that the drug effect was fading fast, yet when he woke, it was ten, the next day. He had been gazing, motionless, for more than twelve hours. This shocked and sobered him, and it became his first and last opium experience.

In the December of 1965, he was having a difficult time. He was depressed and insomniac, and was taking ever-increasing amounts of chloral hydrate to get to sleep. It was up to fifteen times the usual dose every night. One Tuesday, a little before Christmas, he ran out supply. He went to bed without the usual knockout dose and had poor sleep. The next day, after a brain-cutting session in the hospital, he went across the road to get lunch, as usual. Suddenly, the coffee turned green then purple. He looked up and saw a customer with a huge proboscidean head. Realising that he was hallucinating, he quickly made his way home (suffering frightening hallucinations along the way). Thinking that he had lost his mind, he phoned his friend, Carol and told her “I want to say goodbye. I’ve gone mad, psychotic, insane.” Luckily, Carol knew that he was just suffering from DT – delirium tremens as he had just stopped taking chloral hydrate (in huge doses). For the next ninety-six hours, he continued hallucinating and when it finally stopped, he fell into exhausted stupor.

In February 1967, he had amphetamine and started reading Edward Liveing’s book on migraine. In ten hours, he read steadily through the five hundred pages. At times, he was unsure if he was reading or writing the book. He was moved by Liveing’s humanity and social sensitivity, the mix of science and humanism, and heard a very loud internal voice telling him to be the Living of his time. The next day, he began to write his own book. The joy he got from writing was real – infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines- and he never took amphetamines again.


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