My love of getting high was likely connected to autism, but what about my bad experiences?
Reflecting on the intensity of my love and then hatred of taking recreational drugs.
Between ages 13 and 17, I was obsessed with drugs. I had no idea I was autistic then, but drugs would certainly meet the requirements to be classified as a ‘special interest’. Drugs fascinated me, and I wanted to try them all. I loved the way draw made me giggle, and speed made me calm and effective. Ecstasy made me confident and sociable and loving. And unlike alcohol, it didn’t make my face red, or make me aggressive, or cause me to puke and humiliate myself. Hurray!
It turns out that my interest in getting high may have been more unavoidable than I ever realized. ‘Untreated autism’ is tied to alcohol and drug abuse in a measurable way, according to a Taiwanese study published in 2021.
“Substance abuse problems were more prevalent among those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than among sex- and age-matched controls,” the study says.
Was I already self-medicating at 13? Trying to correct a psyche that I already welcomed escape from? Hard to say. At the time, all I knew was that drugs made me feel great. Apart from when they didn’t. Smoking bongs made me whitey and sometimes spliffs sent me into a spiral of paranoia. Mostly ecstasy was pure wonderfulness. Cocaine was meh.
But it wasn’t until I tried acid that I really got into trouble with drugs. Earlier this year I wrote about the bad trip I had when I was sixteen, but more recently I’ve been wondering how much autism played a part in the horror of that experience.
Waking from the nightmarish trip, I felt shaky and weak like after a long illness. I tried to convince myself it had been a nightmare and almost believed it until my friends let me know I truly had freaked out in the way I recalled.
Knowing myself in the way that I do now, I can see that taking psychedelics under the supervision of older hedonistic boys was a terrible idea. I have no sense of time or direction and a very weak short-term memory. I have a vivid imagination and am prone towards intense self-consciousness and rumination, as well as drawn to deep philosophical thinking when not under the influence of anything. Stone-cold sober, I struggle to tell whether people have goodwill towards me (another autistic trait I only recently learned about). It’s not at all surprising that my acid trip was seriously disturbing and disturbed.
Scouring the internet for evidence of a tendency for autistic people to have terrifying trips, I came up empty-handed (so far) so please regale me with your stories if you have any.
However, I stumbled across different interesting results. Apparently, during the 1950’s and 1960’s there was “a short-lived surge in research using LSD to ‘treat’ autistic children. The first public reports on the use of LSD in the treatment of children occurred in 1959 at a conference in Princeton New Jersey focusing on the use of LSD in psychotherapy.”
There were some ‘promising’ findings back then, the article says, but the explosion of bad press around the recreational use of the drug seemed to get in the way of progress. A resurgence of interest in the therapeutic use of LSD could challenge this, with recent research suggesting it could “enable treatment for autism and social anxiety.”
So we know that autistic adolescents are more likely to take drugs, but I wonder how well we assimilate the experiences we have on them? Honestly, I’m still struggling to assimilate some of mine. My doubting nature, struggle for identity, tendency to ruminate and existential questioning has made dodgy druggy times difficult to process and move on from.
Nowadays, I can see the positives from my scary acid experience. I stopped taking so many drugs, started at university, found a subject I loved and learned to apply myself. But I continued to struggle with social anxiety, which the drug-taking seemed to have exacerbated, rather than helping in any long-term way. The fact is that taking acid so young had long-reaching repercussions in my life. If I had known I was autistic, and how that might influence my experience, would I have found it easier to resist the temptation?
The new and growing field of research that uses traditionally recreational drugs to help with trauma, autism and depression is exciting to observe, and I hope it will be fruitful. Social anxiety is still an obstacle for me, and my sensory sensitivities are sometimes debilitating. My tendency towards rumination and catastrophising can make life tougher than it seems to be for others.
If it’s true that I was both more drawn to, and more negatively impacted by the experience of getting high as an autistic person, that seems to be information an adolescent (and their family) needs to be armed with.
Do you have any experiences that speak to this? Have drugs affected you strangely? Have you been very drawn to them over the years? Have you used them to self-medicate? I’d love to hear from you, if so.
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Chelsey Flood is the author of Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, and a senior lecturer in creative writing at UWE University. She writes about freedom, addiction, nature and love at Beautiful Hangover, autism and self-compassion at Polite Robot, and is also working on a non-fiction book about getting sober, and a new YA novel.