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When the Drugs Stopped Working for Author Tao Lin, He Changed Drugs

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When Tao Lin finished the final draft of his last novel, Taipei, he found himself in a dark, bleak headspace — largely from bingeing on Adderall and Xanax. “I was in my room, zombielike and depressed after embodying a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude regarding amphetamines and other drugs and completing my novel,” he writes in his latest book, Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change.

But instead of dropping drugs altogether, Lin traded his pharmaceutical habit for psychedelics like psilocybin, salvia, and DMT. Critically, this also meant discovering the work on psychedelics done by the late Terence McKenna. Once dubbed “the Timothy Leary of the Nineties,” by Leary himself, McKenna was a staunch advocate of using psychoactive plants and fungi to explore things like the mysteries of existence, to enliven the imagination, and to rekindle a connection with nature. He also promoted wild, interesting ideas like the “stoned ape” theory (which, in short, says magic mushrooms played a critical role in human evolution). As Lin has it, “McKenna seemed excited and delighted by topics I’d just finished expressing in my novel as sources of bleakness and despair and confusion — technology, drugs, human existence, the future.”    

In the epilogue for Trip, Lin turns away from McKenna and instead recounts going to California (a tale he tells in third person) to visit with McKenna’s ex-wife, the ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison (a shift, he says, that was used to balance out the book and make it “trend toward the feminine”). In between, Lin recalls his frenzied experiences taking psychedelics (and how they instilled a sense of wonder in him), and also offers up a meditation on why psychedelics are wrongfully illegal.      

Before Trip (which is his first nonfiction title), Lin, 34, published three novels — Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), Richard Yates (2010), and the aforementioned Taipei (2013) — a novella called Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009), and a book of poetry, You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am (2006). Lin is often pegged as an author of autofiction (along with writers like Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner) and a head figure of the so-called Alt Lit movement (that is, writers who use concepts of the internet in their work, such as Lin’s incorporation of Gmail chats into a novel).

I recently spoke to Lin about, among other things, how McKenna’s ideas helped him, why he struggles with abandoning the internet, and what recovery means to him.

You write that you first discovered Terence McKenna the same day you finished the final draft of Taipei in a haze of Adderall and Xanax. What was it about McKenna’s work that made you want to give up pharmaceuticals?

I had already wanted to move away from things like Adderall and Xanax pretty much right when I started using them in 2010. And these were drugs I wrote about in Taipei. But McKenna motivated me to do that more because the thing he promoted, and made such a good case for, was why plant-based psychedelics are useful. Still, that wasn’t what first excited me about him. The first thing was his idea that the universe complexifies and builds upon previously achieved complexity with more complexity, and that this logically will end in a kind of singularity. Within that view, everything gains purpose because there’s limited time, and humans might fail at this transformation. That seemed like a positive way of viewing the chaos in the twentieth century and this century that I hadn’t heard before.

And was that the next thing that you got from McKenna?

Yeah, from there I got into his thoughts on plant-based psychedelics. He promoted cannabis a lot. He smoked it every day for 25 years, pretty much. While I was stopping pharmaceutical drugs, I was feeling really bored. Really depressed. And the plant drugs were able to get me out of that, and let me feel wonder and awe almost every single day.

You mention in the book that you changed its title from Beyond Existentialism. Why’d you change it?

That was the title up until the third or fourth draft, and it referred to how, before encountering McKenna, the worldview I most subscribed to — even though I still felt detached from it — was existentialism. And existentialism, from what I can tell, says people exist in an indifferent universe. And they have to make their own meaning. And McKenna tried to correct the existential French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, and his claim, “Nature is mute.” McKenna pointed out that it’s humans who are deaf. Nature, however, isn’t. In other words, we can get meaning from nature and the unknown, instead of ignoring nature and just trying to come up with our own meaning. So he moved me beyond existentialism with this and other ideas. The thing about McKenna is he strikes me as someone who didn’t have a worldview in a sense. And by that I mean he got his ideas from the thousands of books that he read, and from nature itself. So it seems really easy to subscribe to his ideas, because it feels like I’m subscribing to no worldview. It’s just about being open to everything.

You make the distinction between “drugs” and “psychedelics.” Can you explain the difference?

The word “drugs” has gotten so polluted. And psychedelics can be distinguished from all other drugs in certain ways, in that, say, a mushroom or LSD trip is something you would use a few times a year, at most. That is, if you’re planning on trying to get the most out of it. And when people talk about drugs, they never think that — as something you just use two or three times a year. You typically end up using them daily. Cannabis, though, that’s something I look forward to using every day. Because unlike, say, Xanax, ingesting cannabis can help me every time with creativity, and experiencing empathy and wonder. And cannabis is natural, unlike Xanax, of course.

From the way you describe the hallucinogen DMT, the trip doesn’t necessarily sound like an enjoyable one. 

With DMT, when I smoked it, I would say it is still enjoyable, but it is really weird and can be terrifying. Even horrifying. But partly because I’m a writer and I know I’ll be writing about all these things, it all has purpose. And the more terrifying it is, the more interesting and enjoyable it is. And I know I’m not going to die from it or be hurt.

You do an incredible job describing what a psychedelic experience feels like. For instance, you write that while you were on DMT, you “arrived, with amazement, in a silvery-gray, bulgingly dimensional, complicatedly pulsating, profoundly unfamiliar-feeling, nonphysical place that seemed ancient, public, and, because I couldn’t change perspective, strangely screen-like.” Was it difficult for you, and if so, why?

It really was. In part, it’s just such a new experience for me. I talk about being on mushrooms in the book. Dying by a comet would be unexpected. Experiencing a different mental state than I ever had seems beyond unexpected, too.

And I just can’t compare it to anything else, yet. And most people in society haven’t had psychedelic experiences. So how do you explain it to them? When I talk about it, I like to focus on what it’s not like. For example, when writing about smoking DMT, I quote McKenna talking about how he’s telling what happened in his trips. But it’s all lies, of course, partly because after you smoke DMT, you don’t remember it as clearly as you hope, and you have to come up with a story to explain all these vague and complex images and feelings that you experienced, and put a narrative on it.

One line that struck me in the book was that you began to believe “life was like a higher dimensional form of language-based art.”

Yeah. One thing that excited me about McKenna, when I first encountered him, was his idea that when we die, we might be released into the imagination. And in his view, the imagination is a place just like the universe. But with a different order of realness and largeness. And his idea that after we die, we might be released into the imagination and gain this degree of freedom in the same way that a character could be released out of the role of a book, into the universe.

And that made sense to me. That’s something that could actually happen. And also what really interested me, because I’ve written all these things, and have been thinking about things like, “What is a character and what’s a person”? So if dying releases us into the imagination, where we gain another dimension of freedom, that means we can think about the after-death state by comparing our current state with a lower-dimensional world. Like a book. And it’s been hard for me to think about, too. I feel like I’m just gradually understanding it over years.

Do you think psychedelics have made you more spiritual?

I usually don’t think the word “spiritual” when I think about all of this. Because, in part, I don’t have that word in my vocabulary that much. But thinking about this, it makes me more convinced, to a point, that I’m excited that there’s more to life than just the universe.

So it made you less materialistic, in the philosophical sense.

Yeah, I think so. One benefit of thinking of life, or thinking of people as higher-dimensional characters, is you can take more control of your life. If you think of yourself as part of a world with themes and narrative threads, you can use all that stuff that you find used in novels in your own life to help you plan better. Get better. And when I’m really stoned, ideas like this make normal reality feel magical.

You’re known as a writer that’s tethered to the internet literary world. And you’ve blatantly used the net in various ways for self-promotion. In Trip, however, there seemed to be a short unraveling with all of it, with you describing a point where you broke your computer on purpose and deleted Tumblr, for instance. Was that, in part, a reaction to this perception of you?

It was less a reaction to the perception of me than to just my own dissatisfaction with the internet in general, by that point.

But you’re back on Twitter, your website is active, and you use Instagram.

I gravitated back immediately, yeah. And since then, it’s just been a thing I’m always trying to balance better. To use less. And, no, I don’t think I’ve found the balance, yet. I feel like I still use it too much. And I find myself compulsively refreshing things sometimes. But I feel like, over these last couple of years, I’m working on becoming more balanced.

This is your first work of nonfiction, though your fiction has a lot of autobiographical elements in it. Can you talk about making the leap to nonfiction and if you want to continue to write it?

Oh yeah, I’d, like, love to write more nonfiction. I like it a lot. The main difference for me has been research. For my fiction, I never did any research, didn’t quote other books, but for this book, I read around 150 books and hundreds of scientific papers. And I included a lot of what I learned in this book.

And then I like nonfiction because I can just talk about myself when people ask about the character. With fiction, a lot of times, people will just ignore the novel label and ask me questions as if the protagonist was me. And then it’s hard to talk about that when they haven’t acknowledged the fact that I made myself into a fictional character. But with this book, we can just get past all that stuff and I can just start talking about my interests, and I like that.

When you’re working on nonfiction, do you still feel that you’re working on art?

Oh yeah, yeah. Something about my fiction is that I’ve created a lot of it as nonfiction, in that I consulted my notes and thought about my memories, and viewing my memory as my first draft, instead of trying to come up with stuff. So besides the research in this book, the other aspects I feel really familiar with, just writing about myself, my experiences. So it does feel like art. It feels more like art in a lot of ways, because I’m doing that and then I’m also working in the research.

The notion of undergoing a “recovery” is central to this book. And that recovery was not only from stopping taking things like Adderall but also moving away from seeing the world, as you write, as “dreadful, and boring,” to routinely viewing it as “moving and awe-instilling.” You contribute that shift, in part, to your beginning to regularly smoke cannabis. Do you think you’ve fully recovered?

It’s something I’m still working on. And now I view it as a never-ending process. Partly because I don’t think I could ever recover, or anyone in the 21st century can recover. That is, to a state of humans before 12,000 years ago. So, for instance, a study came out in 2005 that found 287 synthetic compounds in umbilical cord blood. We’re all born really toxified.

It just doesn’t seem rational to think it’s something I could ever complete, which makes it even better for me. To leave it this way — as something I can always be working on.

At first, it was just pharmaceutical drugs I was recovering from. And then that expanded to everything that I’ve experienced in my first thirty years. Growing up in Florida and then moving to New York City. Just all the food I’ve eaten. All the toxins I’ve accumulated. The radiation and the effects of malnourishment on my body and things orthodontists have done to my teeth. The culture I’ve consumed. I’m recovering from all that. Gradually.

Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change
By Tao Lin
Vintage

320 pp.

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