[Excerpt from Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved (published in 1990 and usually abbreviated as PIHKAL) by Alexander and Ann Shulgin, pgs. 98-103]
Part Two: Alice’s Voice
When I finally gave it a name, I called it the Spiral.
This is how it was. Lying down for a nap time (as a child) or at night for sleep, I would have reached that point of relaxation where one is not very much aware of the body. The small itches and discomforts have subsided, and the mind is beginning to drift. When I sensed it beginning (I never knew when it was going to come), I would immediately snap into alertness, excited and pleased, then I would just lie quietly as it unfolded.
The first thing that happened was a change in my breathing. It became increasingly shallow, to the point where my rib cage was barely moving at all.
If someone came into the room and talked to me, as sometimes happened, I could open my eyes and answer normally; the experience continued uninterrupted inside my head.
Every part of it, every stage, was the same each time. It was always in black and white. There was no color anywhere, and try as I did, especially around the age of fourteen, I could not force color to come onto the screen. And I could never extend it, by so much as a few seconds. When it was finished, it was finished.
First came the image-sensation after which I named the entire experience – the spiral. I felt my entire self drawn rapidly into a tiny point which kept shrinking, until it could shrink no further, at which time the microscopic point became a tunnel in which I continued traveling at great speed, inexpressibly small and implacably diminishing.
Simultaneously, I was expanding. I was expanding to the edges of the universe, at the same tremendous speed as that of the shrinking, and the combination, the contraction-expansion, was not only an image, it was also a sensation the whole of me recognized and welcomed. This experience of myself as microcosm-macrocosm lasted exactly four minutes.
The image of the spiral is found everywhere that the human has left his mark on earth. It has been cut into rock faces, painted on huts and clay pots, traced on the walls of initiation caves. I’m certain that it has been important to all the races of man because it is a symbol for the experience I’m describing, and for the concept, the understanding that the intellect forms out of what is initially not an intellectual, but a soul experience of the Alpha and the Omega.
The next stage came abruptly, as did all the changes. I was looking at standing figures which were vaguely human, dark thin figures being pulled into elongated shapes, like the sculptures of Giacometti. They stretched out, arms and legs like black string, until it seemed they could elongate no further, then the scene changed and I was watching obscenely rounded bodies, Tweedledums and Tweedledees without costumes, their small heads and legs disappearing into their puffed, bloated flesh.
The sensation accompanying this stage was one of discomfort, unpleasantness, a feeling of something grating on my soul. I once timed this part and the one that followed; they lasted a total of six minutes. I disliked them intensely.
Abruptly again, the inner screen became white, a horrible dead-white, nasty and aggressive like the underbelly of a sting-ray. After presenting itself for a few seconds, the flat white began to curdle from the outer edges into black, until finally the screen was totally black. A thick, awful, dead black, a pool of tar in an unlit cave deep underground. After another brief pause, the black began to curdle at its edges into the white again. The process repeated itself once, and the sensation was similar in every way to the previous one: irritating, grating, a feeling of unpleasantness that approached repugnance. I always endured it with a mental gritting of teeth, knowing it had to be gone through because that’s the way it always went and it was not to be changed.
And then, finally, I broke out into the last stage, the final part for which I had always been and always would be willing to undergo the middle parts.
Now I was at the edge of an unseen cliff, looking out into a very different blackness, the deep, cradling blackness of the infinite universe, of space which stretched without end. I was completely happy and comfortable in that place, and would have stayed there indefinitely, had I been allowed, breathing in the beautiful darkness and the exquisitely familiar sense of infinity as a living presence, surrounding me, intimate and warm.
After a moment of this pleasure, came the greeting. From the upper left-hand corner of the universe there came a greeting from Something which had known me, and which I had known, since before time and space began. There were no words, but the message was clear and smiling: Hello, dear friend, I salute you with respect-humor-love. It is a pleasure with laughter-joy to encounter you again.
That which greeted me was an entity so far removed from anything in human experience that I concluded, when I was an adult, trying to find a way to describe it to myself, that even the word, “entity”, could not be applied; a word creates boundaries, it says this is the shape of what you are describing, as different from other shapes which are bounded by other words. It had no shape, no form, no definition, no boundaries. It was. It is. It was my oldest friend and it greeted me as its equal. I always replied to it with a rush of love and delight and my own laughter.
Then it was over.
It had taken exactly twelve minutes.
It was something I’d always experienced, taken for granted, and had given no thought to when I was very young. Not until age fourteen did I take a good look at it and recognize it as unusual, something peculiarly my own, my secret private treasure. I also got very analytical about the whole thing, began my habit of timing it and made the first of my unsuccessful efforts at altering it. But I didn’t decide on a name for it until many years later, discarding “Microcosm-macrocosm,” as too long and unwieldy, and settling on the simpler “Spiral.”
It had probably been going on since I was born. There’s no way to be sure, of course, but because it had been part of my life ever since I could remember, I tend to assume it was familiar to me from the very beginning. My mother said something once about having seen a change of some kind coming over me occasionally when I was a baby; she said she didn’t worry about it because when it passed, I appeared to be quite normal.
It always (with one single exception) came under the same circumstances, when I had settled down in bed for a nap or for the night’s sleep, but well before sleep itself took over.
The one exception happened when I was around fifteen, shortly after my father had been transferred to Santiago de Cuba as American Consul. We were staying in a hotel, while those responsible for helping us find a home were still busy with their search. My father and mother, my brother Boy and I were having lunch in the hotel dinning room and my eyes focused on the butter plate on the table. In the exact center of the round plate was a single pat of butter, and somehow the sight triggered the familiar feeling I associated with the beginning of the Spiral. I was surprised and very pleased, because it was a new thing to have it start under such unusual circumstances.
I was also pleased because it was my special thing, and in asking to be excused from the table to go up to my room, I felt a certain sense of importance, which was rare when I was with my family. I said just enough to make it clear that my strange “thing” was beginning, and my parents grudgingly gave me permission for me to leave. I reached the room upstairs in time for the completion, the wonderful last few moments. It turned out to be the only time it ever happened that way – when I was out of my bed, involved with ordinary matters of daily living.
I tried to make it come, searching out all sorts of images of round space with dots in the center, but nothing worked. I never found a way to make it happen. It came when it chose to, unexpectedly, once in a while. The times it chose had no apparent connection to anything else that was going on in my life, either generally or in particular. In twenty-five years, believe me, I looked for every possible connection; I found none. When I was very little, I think it might have happened as often as once a week or so, but as I grew older it came less and less often, until around age twenty-five, when it happened only twice in one year, then never again.
The discovery that I was not alone in my journey into the interior cosmos came as a complete surprise. It gave me a great deal of excited pleasure and opened up a whole new series of questions. I happened when I was around twenty two, and – interesting enough in itself – the two proofs came to me within a single four month period.
The incidents were astoundingly similar.
The first one took place one evening when I went to a party given by a friend in San Francisco. I was in the host’s kitchen with several of the other guests, doing what people usually do in strange kitchens at informal parties – talking, drinking and munching potato chips and carrot sticks – and after a while one young man named Evan and I found ourselves alone, deeply involved in a conversation about unusual experiences, mostly read about or heard from others, the kind of conversation that seems to come about more easily, somehow, in the midst of a high energy, noisy party than at any other time.
Suddenly Evan was telling me about what he referred to as “a really weird thing,” which had been happening to him ever since he was very young. I remember the prickling that spread up my back as he began describing it, and I understood immediately the look that gradually came into his face, a mixture of embarrassment and anxiety (She’s going to think I’m crazy; why am I talking about this?). I tried to make it easier for him to continue by nodding encouragingly and once – when he faltered briefly – I volunteered what I knew was going to be the next image, and he looked startled, almost frightened, drank a bit from his glass, muttered, “Yes, exactly”, and continued to the end. His end was not mine; his journey came to a close after the black and white curdles. I thought, with a touch of pity, that he seemed to have missed the best part, although he did have the wonderful spiral at the beginning. I was glad I hadn’t prompted him further. When he’d finished his story, I told him I’d had every one of the images he had described, and that he was the first person I’d ever met who shared the experience. I said nothing about my own different ending.
He was staring at me, and I wasn’t sure he’d really heard what I’d been telling him. Finally, he smiled and said that I was the first person he’d ever told about this private, “crazy thing,” and he couldn’t believe – it was so extraordinary – that I actually knew what he was talking about. He said that he had always wondered if the experience was a sign of insanity of some kind, and it was such a relief to know that somebody else had had it. Neither of us felt it necessary to add that, in a situation like this, it was also reassuring to see that the person who shares your strangeness appears to be relatively sane and reasonably functional.
I smiled back and said I understood exactly how he felt. We left the kitchen and joined the rest of the party. I never saw him again, and didn’t particularly expect or want to. It was enough to have heard one other person repeating what I knew so well, and it was intriguing to know that my journey, or process, had gone farther, longer, than Evan’s; after all, although I was more than willing to give up exclusive rights to the whole thing, I didn’t mind retaining a little bit of superiority.
The second incident was almost identical to the first, the only difference being that the young man (whose name I forgot almost immediately) was talking to me in somebody’s living room, instead of the kitchen, in the middle of another noisy party, when he began describing the “strange vision” that he, too, had had ever since he was a small child. His, also, ended short of where mine did, and he was astounded and obviously very relieved to know that there was somebody else in the world who knew about it.
Both young men seemed quite unremarkable, although pleasant enough and intelligent. I never saw the second one again, either.
I remember wishing briefly that I could put an ad in the Chronicle or Examiner, something along the lines of, “Seek contact with others who have experienced…,” and of course, the imaginary ad stalled there.
It happened – my beloved Spiral – for the last time when I was twenty-five. I had no way of knowing, of course, that it would not come again. It may or may not have been a coincidence that, within three weeks of the last time, I had my first encounter with a psychedelic material, the Divine Cactus, peyote.
Has the above ever happened to you? Did you experience the Spiral as a kid? If so, please let us know!
- Essential Therapy (excerpt from the narrative component of TIHKAL, “the continuation” of PIHKAL)
- Making Amazing Recreational Drug Cocktails (ideas for how to systematically explore the subjective effects of drug combinations)
- The Super-Shulgin Academy (imagining what it would look like to carry out the work of Shulgin at a grand scale)
- SSC Book Review of PIHKAL
Featured Image Credit: Matthew Smith