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Less is More

teafaerie | Musings | Friday, March 5th, 2010

I’m a big fan of epic doses. Before Erowid was around I had no reliable way of knowing what  a typical dose was, and in my vanished youth I tended to err on the side of intensity. Indeed, I hesitate even to report on some of my more ridiculous escapades because someone somewhere just might be stupid enough to try to imitate my folly. I’ve been lucky. Some of my tippy-top most memorable (if not exactly best remembered), most meaningful and most transformative experiences have occurred at dosages that rightly ought to have left me gibbering in a puddle of my own drool.[…]

That said, I think low dose experiences are underrated. If your goal has always been to get as bleeped up as possible, you’ve probably been blowing right past some of your favorite substance’s more subtle offerings. Back when I was a little raver kid I remember always being irritated at dealers for selling such weak ecstasy pills and doses that I had to take two or three of whatever it was to really get off. I figured it was just their way of moving more product. Now something that’s perhaps finally beginning to resemble mature wisdom tells me that one weaker hit was actually kind of ideal for that sort of environment. (Assuming that I planned on taking any drugs at all.) Yeah, I know, there is a weird half-ass liminal high that’s just uncomfortable, but I’m talking about aiming for the state just beyond that, where it first starts to become what it actually is.

I had a couple of impressively transcendent high dose experiences early on, and I think on some level I was always trying to retrigger that perfect ecstatic bliss by recreating the conditions under which it occurred. I went through periods where I spent a lot of my time exploring these matters and I think I sort of built up a tolerance; physically, psychologically, and possibly even spiritually. After a while I learned to dilate the raging chaos down to something manageable, which had its uses. For instance, I was often the one elected to attempt to perform the Jedi mind trick on law enforcement officers who sought to engage with our adventure party. (You don’t need to see our identification. These are not the drugs you’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.) Or maybe that was just because I was the hot chick. Point is I never biffed it. Eventually I got so good that I could almost always pull off a passable imitation of sobriety no matter what was in my system. I was always so damned proud of the staggering amount of psychedelics I could take and still continue to serve Tea properly that it took me quite a long time to realize that I was missing the point entirely.

It turns out that one can, indeed, have far too much of a good thing. A naif might imagine that if one ecstasy pill makes him very happy, two pills might make him twice as happy. If he finds this to be true, he will quite naturally assume that four pills would make him yet happier still. Alas, many of us have learned the hard way that this is not necessarily so. Many drugs have a very steep dose response curve and seem to change character entirely when the intoxication reaches a certain threshold. Some substances seem relatively benign and even therapeutic at low doses, while at dangerously high doses they can present as the menace to public health that drug foes would love to make them out to be.

From one perspective, a lot of the super trippy visual distortions and so forth are side effects at best and many might be inclined to classify them as symptoms of an overdose. Some people might think that they’ve gone too far when their co-ordination or their memory becomes significantly impaired. How would they feel about losing all sense of time and space, getting pulled into a portal by hallucinatory aliens, becoming convinced that they’re some kind of galactic super hero and throwing up in the neighbors garden? Sure, one person’s train wreck might well be someone else’s great success. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste. There is nothing good to be said about medically sketchy overdoses, though. If you end up hurt or if you require intervention it’s not just you who has to deal with the mess, and it’s not just you who ends up looking dumb. You don’t want to be that guy who gives some drug a bad name because you can’t handle your shit and you do something stupid. The higher the dose, the more likely it is that you’ll either tax your system to the straining point or make an ass of yourself in public.

I’ve written before about the long-term low dose experiment that I did on Maui during one particularly glorious mushroom season, now more than a decade bigbangward. After a while, as I have reported, most of the distortion effects went away but the magic part kept on happening. I was never sick, I was never confused about what was going on, my memory was excellent, time flowed in the right direction and all that; but I felt like I was subtly telepathic and my wishes came true. That’s when I started realizing that psychedelics can be delicate tools for making finely tuned adjustments rather than thrill rides or crash courses.

For one thing, if I take small doses of a drug, I find that I can actually accomplish stuff whilst under the influence. I can write or draw or clean the house. I can load my pipe. I can dress myself. When the dosage is matched to fit the situation I find that I can dance at a dance party, walk around and interact with strangers at a festival, carry on a linear conversation at a social event, and comport myself politely in Ceremony. When I used to overdo it a lot I kept finding myself somewhat alienated from my environment and unable to smoothly mesh with the local gestalt. I would tend to huddle in a corner with one or two comrades in the same predicament and focus my will on just getting through it somehow and coming out the other side relatively unscathed. In retrospect all that seems kind of immature, like college kids who get puke drunk at frat parties. Some of those incidents were learning experiences, without a doubt, but like many important learning experiences they’re more than a little bit embarrassing in hindsight.  I wish that I could have picked up on some of these lessons by learning from the experiences of others; but, alas, I was always far too stubborn and conceited to do things the easy way.

For another thing, drugs are expensive. When I used to smoke a lot of pot, I found that I could easily smoke up all of my meager discretionary income and still find myself jonesing before the month was out. The resulting poverty eventually helped push me to discover a brilliant solution to my conundrum. Now I smoke just about as often and I get just about as high, but it costs me a lot less. No, I’ve never been a dealer and I never will be. My husband would be utterly unamused by that sort of thing. I just use a little fake cigarette pipe rather than a big old honking six-foot bong. Turns out in my case it’s mostly about the ritual, and when I’ve smoked my body starts relaxing on its own, regardless of the dose. I know I know. It’s partly the placebo effect. (Now there’s Extra Strength Placebo! Placebo! It works like crazy!) but why not take advantage of the way that you’re wired and save some brain and lung cells while you’re at it? Sure, sometimes a good tree needs pruning. Gotta make the hardware last, though.

I once talked to an ayahuasca shaman who drank the potent jungle brew almost every day. She told me that far from having developed a tolerance, she has learned to go in super deep on almost nothing. That was inspiring to me and I started trying to learn to tune into smaller doses. I’ve gotten pretty damned sensitive over time. I even get off on contact high now, which is generally entirely free of cost, risk, time commitment and wear and tear on the system. Plus when I actually do smoke a real bowl these days I start tripping clit right away. I’ve become a cheap date again, just by smoking less for a long time and slowly bringing my tolerance down.

Taking recreational drugs less often is also a good way of cutting down your risk. Some of this stuff can be hard to integrate. Working through a big trip can take a lot of time and going back in again while you’re still chewing on the previous session can lead to unprocessed material piling up. Why not put some of those groceries away before you go out and buy some more? You’re also safer if you have a smaller number of different drugs active in your system at the same time. Everybody knows this, but it’s important to drag it out once in a while and dust it off and consider it in the light of your evolving practice.

Mary PoppinsA good rule of thumb is to always take the lowest and most infrequent dose that you need to achieve the effects to which you aspire. That’s the least invasive approach, and it has a lot to recommend it. I’ve not always been an excellent exemplar of this model, and I hope that my admonitions are received as a warning from someone who sees herself more as an object lesson than a role model. I’d hate to be afraid to dispense good advice out of fear of being called a hypocrite, though. I think with effort many practitioners can learn to tune into their own sensorium and get a lot of what they really want out of lower doses without courting the familiar host of unpleasant side effects that can accompany heroic leaps into the unknowable. Enough, as Mary Poppins says, is as good as a feast. If you’ve got something to prove it’s way better to work all that out before you start wildly flinging your ego around inside of your own unconscious, if you get my drift. And if you’re determined to hit it really hard (and I know that nothing could have stopped me in the first flush of my Discovery) then at least do it somewhere safe and private, with a sitter and an emergency plan.

Sometimes I still push the boundaries. It’s just a contextual thing for me, now that I’m a grownup and stuff. I find that over time I have consistently tended to lower my dosage at social events, with the intention being to add just a little bit of sparkle and energy to an already magical occasion. Conversely, I’ve tended towards upping my less frequent deep exploratory doses in the direction of the maximum intensity that I think I can safely tolerate. There is a time and a place for that sort of thing. It’s probably not at a party, though. It’s definitely not at school. It’s not in the mall. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes more is more, too, of course. Sometimes more is more than you bargained for, though. Another good rule is to start low and work your way up. You don’t have to learn this the hard way. Unless you do, in which case may the Force be with you.

Ever Higher! (except for when it would be better to just smoke a bowl or two and check out the scene.)