When I was in college, a few friends and I decided it was high time to expand our horizons or whatever and got ahold of some magic mushrooms. I didn’t know much about psychedelics other than whatever I’d gleaned from that one episode of Broad City, in which Abbi and Ilana take ’shrooms and hallucinate an animated world. My own trip didn’t feel that different: A door melted before my eyes, I conversed with a Princess Diana figurine, and I fell into an hourlong loop in which the only words I could say were perhaps, perchance, and Parcheesi. At some point, I ate an orange and then afterward I cried because I felt like I ate my friend. Last weekend, I received some advice from someone who has taken many more trips than I have: “Next time, just thank the orange. I thank them every time.”
This from a woman whom I’ll call Gloria: a sailor-mouthed, 40-something hot Brooklyn mom whom I met a couple of months ago while hanging out at a dive bar. It was after midnight on a Sunday, but she didn’t have her kid for the night, so she was out drinking with her very sexy boyfriend. I expected her to be a writer or an artist or someone who owns a bookstore, but Gloria described herself as an “underground therapist,” telling me she treats patients with PTSD (like combat veterans) using psychedelic drugs, including MDMA (a.k.a. ecstasy or molly) and psilocybin (the magic ingredient in mushrooms). Still, Gloria likes to have fun, and as much as she believes in the therapeutic power of psychedelics, she’s also no stranger to using them recreationally. And sometimes they’re both, like when she took ketamine to process a breakup and then ’shrooms to bond with her new boyfriend.
Over the past 15 years or so, psychedelics, which once had the reputation for being a thing you dabble in while in college and then leave them there lest you become some sort of modern-day hippie burnout, have gained more mainstream acceptance, even prestige. As therapy, the New York Times reports on it, as do serious publications like Nature. December 1 to 5 was Horizons, New York’s annual psychedelics conference, founded in 2007, that has become “a big fucking deal, our Super Bowl,” per Gloria. “This is the Zeitgeist right now. Everybody wants to be part of it. Everybody wants a piece of it because we’re all born into this narcissistic western society that rewards money,” she said (the lead sponsor of Horizons this year was a VC company called Vine Ventures). Of course, Horizons has after-parties, which Gloria, again without her kid for the night, said she would take me around to while we’re in a suitably altered mental state.
In the meantime, because the drugs are illegal, the psychedelics industry is mostly unregulated, leading to a number of issues within the clandestine space, especially around sexual abuse (a topic covered in a new New York podcast, Cover Story). Gloria describes herself as something of a “woke” psychonaut, aware of these risks: “It’s very easy if you’re an underground therapist to get sucked up into weird sexual dynamics. You have to maintain your boundaries, and people don’t.”
One thing she told me early in the night: “Psychedelics don’t make everybody better, and they make some people worse.” When I joined Gloria on Saturday night, I hoped I wouldn’t be one of those latter people, or at least that I wouldn’t cry over a piece of fruit.
10:44 p.m. | Gloria asks to rendezvous at the bar where we first met, and I walk in to find a couple dozen middle-aged men from the neighborhood pounding beers and jamming to “Mr. Brightside.” Gloria knows how to make an entrance, arriving in 4.5-inch Louis Vuitton heels and a vintage silk dress. She is, excuse my language, a total MILF, and the bearded DILFs in the bar turn to watch while she looks for a seat. One of them eventually offers up his stool. She’s tired after several days of conferencing (and, she admits, partying hard last night), but she’s ready to do it all again with me. We game-plan over her drink of choice, mezcal on the rocks, and she tells me about one of her first experiences on psychedelics back in college. “I took acid, and I went to this rave, and I was like, Holy fuck. I see God,” she says, eyes wide open. “I definitely went overboard with drugs in college — and continue to do so at times.”
11:01 p.m. | I ask Gloria what she thinks the biggest misconception people have about psychedelics is, and she says, “That it’s a magic pill and all you have to do is take it and you’re better. That’s not it at all.” She believes these drugs are useful for learning “little things” about yourself that can be “integrated” into your real life. “It’s not the experience itself where you see God; it’s what you do with that,” she says, lowering my expectations, or at least muddling them a bit. I wonder what my Princess Di doll would have to say about that.
11:19 p.m. | Tonight, I’ve agreed, for better or worse, to go full gonzo reporter Hunter S. Thompson, so Gloria and I walk the two blocks to her apartment to pick up the fun stuff. She apologizes profusely for the mess, reminding me she has a young kid and a pet, but I tell her not to worry; it’s much cleaner than my own apartment. “We’re gonna weigh the drugs because we’re going to be responsible. I want you to have agency in this scenario,” she says. After she retrieves her metal “drug box,” she asks for my height and weight (one of the few times it makes sense to tell the truth) and measures 125 milligrams (“What they use in the studies”) of white powdery MDMA into a clear capsule. We wash each of our pills down with mezcal because, she explains — questionably, I realized, but I was already down for whatever happens by now — “We have to make sure to hydrate.”
11:46 p.m. | There are two different parties we could go to, so first we order a car to the Brooklyn one. I ask Gloria what the crowd will be like, but all she knows is that they will likely be “highly intelligent people who really know their neurotransmitters,” which honestly doesn’t sound like a fun thing to know. If one thing is clear so far, it’s that these psychonauts think awfully highly of themselves. “I do really good work. I’ve fucked up a couple of times, but I do good work. It’s important work,” Gloria tells me between puffs of her vape. There will definitely be a lot of men there tonight, she adds, which I can’t tell if she finds thrilling, irritating, or both.
Midnight | Sure enough, when we arrive at Bogart House, a bro-friendly East Williamsburg event space I’d last visited for a blockchain blowout, the line outside is almost all young white guys. Gloria engages with one of the said bros, who is shivering in a black puffer, after first doing her due diligence, assuring herself he’s not with “the FDA or law enforcement.” They trade stories about being on DMT (the main active ingredient in ayahuasca). “I melted to the ground, in a fetal position, eyes closed,” he says. “I had a lot of experiences understanding geometry and mathematics — just the relational angles and how things fit together.” Meanwhile, my brain starts to buzz, and, still standing outside, I start to feel really cold; I assume this is the come-up and start praying that my takeaway from this evening is something other than “how Galileo figured out geometry.”
12:10 a.m. | After standing in the cold for ten minutes, which feels like an hour, we’re told that the party is currently at capacity. As we consider our options, a woman with a tiny jewel stuck to her third eye approaches us, placing her hands on my shoulders and saying, “Your eyes are beautiful. Look at your eyes. I want to study them for a second.” Unsurprisingly, we find out she’s been on MDMA all day. She knows Gloria and tells her there’s someone named Brendan inside, adding, “I know you had a schism of sorts.” Gloria looks about as uncomfortable as I’m feeling inside my brain and orders a car to the Manhattan party instead. “Fuck this. I’m out of here,” she says.
12:22 a.m. | In the car, Gloria explains that this man, Brendan, is a “journey circle” (“a group experience where you take drugs”) facilitator who was busted and became an informant for the FBI: “He got my good friend arrested — ruined his career. I would love to rip him a new asshole.” I observe that her career path sounds a bit risky for a mother. Is it worth it? For her, it’s a calling: “Could I stop doing this? Could I stop helping people in a way that they actually get better — and get better fast? No. I’m going to have to keep doing this. I have to take care of my own shit and not be a burnout and not fuck up.” And avoid the narcs.
12:30 a.m. | “Mhmmmm … Oh, wow … Yep, here we go … I feel like we’re both coming up on the MDMA … This is wonderful … Look how beautiful this bridge is … I’m feeling very nice,” Gloria says, each sentence spaced out by a quick breath. Our car drives through a tunnel, and we’re suddenly spit out into Manhattan. Determined to leave the bad vibes back in Brooklyn, and also not to bore me with psychedelic medical talk — “Don’t talk about the limbic system! Don’t talk about the limbic system! No, Gloria, nooooooo!” — Gloria says we should “set an intention,” which sounds very Goop. Our intention, we decide, is to “have fun.” Seems easy! We both start several sentences, but don’t finish them, and instead end up giggling like kids. “I am going to try and be less weird. And I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Gloria says. Suddenly warm and comfortable and feeling like I’m in the presence of a trustworthy friend, I tell her I think I’ll remember this night for a long time. She’s not so sure: “Well, maybe not. Because your memory might be impaired.”
12:48 a.m. | The Manhattan party is at the Tailor Public House, a two-floor pub near Penn Station, and when we hop out of the car, Gloria and I sprint carelessly across Eighth Avenue, and she sings an improvised ditty: “Woooooo we’re on drugs! We’re gonna make it happen! It’s gonna be really cool! We’re gonna get some water when we get there ooooooooh! And I have more drugs that we can doooooooooo!”
12:49 a.m. | Inside, the speakers are blasting Pitbull to a crowd of dumpy straight people watching sports on flat screens. We stumble around for a moment before realizing our party is upstairs in a Christmas-light-bedecked bar area crowded with bizarre-looking, poorly dressed people in flowy shawls, jaunty fedoras, and the occasional business suit. “These are the fucking nerds. The super-nerds. I’m pretty sure I took you to the worst psychedelics party ever,” Gloria says, and I notice a banner on the wall advertising the hosts: Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Sensible! “Do you want to sit in the corner for a second and do more drugs?” Gloria asks, and I say yes, because how else are we going to survive this crowd?
1:07 a.m. | In a booth, Gloria pulls a plastic baggie of MDMA out of one of her socks, and we dip our fingers inside. It tastes awful. On the dance floor, a QAnon shaman-esque man is bouncing around in a raccoon hat next to a svelte woman in a black dress and white pumps to very intense bongo-heavy tribal music. They’re two whirling dervishes, clearly drugged up and dancing right next to each other without ever seeming to notice. “This is the Worst. Psychedelic. Party. Ever,” Gloria gripes again. “Everybody’s going to Brooklyn, even the FBI informant.”
1:18 a.m. | On the dance floor, Gloria spots a handsome man in a blue suit jacket whom she recognizes as one of the speakers at the Horizons conference. She explains that they have differing theories on “episodic and repressed memories,” and she’d like to go challenge him. Oh, and she thinks he’s hot and wouldn’t mind fucking him either. “I KNOW WHAT I WANT TO ASK HIM ON MDMA. WHEN YOU SAID THE THING ABOUT HOW PEOPLE CAN’T RECALL MEMORIES, BLAH BLAH BLAH, LIKE, FUCKING BULLSHIT, DUDE,” she rants before telling me that she has a tendency to “fuck up potentially sexually exciting situations in a group context.” After applying a layer of lip gloss, she confronts him. She does so expertly, issuing a compliment before carefully laying out her critique. The tone of his response is dripping in male condescension, but she remains cool, ending the conversation before he can: “This is a party. I’m not going to do this.” He sincerely thanks her for being the only person to question him today.
1:23 a.m. | I head to the restroom, and when I open the door, I’m greeted by a short man with a long mustache who tells me, unbidden, “I think it’s so important to perpetuate the grandiosity of love.” Unbelievably, he claims he’s not on any drugs.
1:30 a.m. | When I return, Gloria is chatting with another clean-looking man, and when I approach them, he asks her, “What team sport do you know well?” “Sports ball,” she responds flirtatiously. He says, “All right. If you’re a sports-ball coach, then I’m a sports-ball player. So you make sure the refs don’t blow a whistle on me, if you catch my drift.” “Well what kind of whistles are not trying to get blown?” she asks, and he tells her, “Everything. Molly, acid, mushrooms, ketamine.” When she gives him her number, she names the contact “Dr. Gloria.” I conclude this man is some sort of dealer, but when we walk away, she tells me he wasn’t a dealer but a “famous sports-ball player,” though she can’t remember the sport. I assume she completely misunderstood the guy, but then again, this woman seems like she’s got game.
1:37 a.m. | Suddenly, my vision starts glitching — just for a few seconds every few minutes, like my eyesight is a cracked phone screen submerged in water. I tell Gloria, who responds, “Yes. You already told me that.”
1:48 a.m. | Gloria decides to challenge another scientist who’s here: a man in a striped sweatshirt who apparently works as a researcher at Johns Hopkins. When she walks away, she’s radiating with satisfaction. “I’m AMAZING. HOLY FUCK. I DONT GIVE A FUCK!” she says.
1:58 a.m. | The party continues to be a nerdy bore plus some ABBA. “These Louis Vuittons are easy to wear when you’re fucked up!” Gloria chirps when we sit down to enjoy “more drugs.” Suddenly the lights come on, and the music is turned off, so we decide to head back to Brooklyn. “How many of these scientists did I piss off tonight?!” Gloria gloats on our way out the door. I compliment her man-eating and ask if these guys are usually this receptive to her opinions. “I look like a crack whore. They’re receptive because I’m an attractive woman … I have done so many fucking drugs. I don’t know how I look as okay as I do. I think it’s genetics.”
2:21 a.m. | In the car, I start rambling about my relationship with my family and my sex life with boys. “DON’T SHRINK HIM, GLORIA!” she says out loud to herself.
2:41 a.m. | This time, we have no trouble getting inside, and in an elevator, Gloria compliments a man’s teeth. When he opens his mouth, his canines have been sharpened, which I guess is a good party trick when everyone is already tripping. The party upstairs is much more lively than the last one — there’s a dance floor; a light show covering a massive wall that has trippy, very on-brand, appropriative Middle Eastern belly-dancer images; and in-person dancers spinning around with glowing Hula-Hoops. It’s like the real-life version of a cartoon acid trip. It’s not as nerdy as the party in Manhattan, but it’s still heavy on the white people in weird outfits, many wearing hats. Gloria is once again the chicest person in the room. A chubby bald man runs past us, licking molly out of his palms and offering it to the people around him. Gloria tells me again, “I want you to have autonomy over yourself,” and then we both independently decide to each eat a chalky ’shroom chocolate, which is nearly impossible to swallow without another mezcal.
3:19 a.m. | On the patio smoking a cigarette to calm down, I meet a nice-looking nice-guy photographer who says he’s having a rather “intense time.” He smoked some weed to help with his ketamine comedown, but now he’s just paranoid. He’s “an advocate for and a connoisseur of psychedelics,” but right now he’s worried about his love (or sex) prospects with a “really cool girl” he met tonight. “I’m, like, kind of freaking out. I got really weird because I got high. I’m real concerned that I did something wrong,” he says. Nevertheless, the girl in question joins us on the patio a few minutes later and tells me she experiments on mice with ketamine. “Ours are anorexic mice,” she explains, though no one asked. “And I really don’t want to go into how we induce them to be anorexic, but we do. And we treat them with ketamine. They seem to react well. They recover.” After that lovely piece of information, no one appears to have an appropriate response. “I’m going to be real honest: I’m real high,” the girl says. We all are.
3:29 a.m. | Unable to move from where I’m standing, I strike up another conversation with a more-sober-looking man, who brags that he owns a company that is “developing the next generation of psychedelic medicine.” His first experience with psychedelics was with mushrooms at 14, and in college he got arrested in a famous Columbia University drug bust called Operation Ivy League. These days, he says the future of psychedelics in the mainstream is looking bright. “In five years, MDMA and psilocybin are going to be legal medicines regulated by the FDA.” I tune out a little until I hear him say “It’ll be covered by insurance.”
3:34 a.m. | The mushroom chocolate seems to be kicking in because suddenly I’m unable to look at my phone — also, everyone appears to be wearing Gloria’s glasses. And then everyone is Gloria. I ask another man on the patio if I could have one of the Tate’s cookies he’s keeping on his back, and when I see the look of confusion on his face, I realize I’ve hallucinated them. I feel like an amateur.
3:42 a.m. | A voice note to self, hiding in the unbearably bright restroom: “I just had a conversation with a man who said, ‘Can I hug you?’ And then it got weird. Um. But it might be because we’re all on drugs.”
3:48 a.m. | I can’t find Gloria, so I return to the photographer who is hanging out with a group of friends and grooving to the soft, twinkling music. “She’s not part of the conference. She does drugs,” he says, introducing me to a curly-haired blonde in a sparkly gown. “I’m the mice,” she replies, and I become sad, remembering the anorexic, roofied mice. “This is a little straightlaced for us,” her friend adds, before introducing me to an older white-haired man in a bodysuit, antennae, and blue lipstick. This time, unfortunately, I don’t think I’m imagining anything.
3:54 a.m. | I’m back in the restroom, but I appear to be about three times my age in the mirror (voice note: “I’m like the Crypt-Keeper”), so I go back outside.
4 a.m. | The lights come on, and I find Gloria again, in conversation with a gentleman in a top hat who she tells me is her therapist. Both of us are really tripping now — suddenly everyone I encounter seems to be wearing a black veil, and every time I look at Gloria, I only see Rose Byrne — so we start asking around about after-parties, hoping to find somewhere to come down … or keep coming up.
4:19 a.m. | On the street in the cold, we meet Rob, a visibly excited 53-year-old self-described “suburban dad” from Philadelphia who tells us he’s trying to gather a group to keep the party going. “What lovely spirits you guys are. You can definitely come on our little bandwagon,” he says. “I’m burning bright! I’m burning wattage! Some of this is MDMA, but I’m a generally effusive person anyway.”
4:29 a.m. | After all this time together, and now that I’m tripping my brains out, I tell Gloria I love her, and she sweetly replies, “I feel the same way. It’s not just the drugs.” For some reason, I’ve been talking about my parents all night, and now I’m afraid I’m mistaking her for a mom. Somehow, Gloria’s brain still works, however, and she delves into childhood trauma, “neural networks,” and “integration.” Rob is still working on the afters, telling a small crowd, “I don’t get to hang out like this. I can’t let this opportunity go.” Apparently it’s Mom and Dad’s Big Trippy Night Out.
4:43 a.m. | Turns out Rob is fantastic at gathering a group, but all along he had no plan for where to go. “I’m not whoring myself out right now because I’m too fucked up. I want to find a party, but I hate coming off desperate,” Gloria says, so we decide to order a car back home.
4:55 a.m. | In the car, we sit really still. “I love my boyfriend,” Gloria whispers, and I start thinking about the idea of loving a boyfriend. She invites me inside for a nightcap. She may be a party girl, but she’s still a mom, making one rule if I come over: “You are not allowed, under any circumstances, in my kitchen. If you need anything, I’ll get it for you.”
5:07 a.m. | Gloria makes each of us another mezcal, and we sit down on the floor around her coffee table. Her boyfriend is still awake, so she dotes on him while I pet what I am convinced is a wonderfully exotic lizard.
10:03 a.m. | I wish I could tell you what happened in the past five hours, but I’m afraid all of that is gone with the brain cells. At ten, I walked back to my apartment. I know that from a selfie. When I wake up in bed, eight hours later, I have a text from Gloria: “Brain gone … such a good night. Xx.”
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