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Bicycle Day (or the influence of pedaling under the influence)

4/19 is “Bicycle Day”, a minor holiday for some and a day of profound significance for others. It has little to do with bicycles and more to do with wheat fungus, curiosity, and a half gallon of milk.

Albert Hoffman (1906 – 2008) was a Swiss chemist researching pharmacologic uses of compounds derived from Ergot fungi. His discoveries of how to isolate and synthesize alkaloids from this fungus directly led to the creation of medicines that treat postpartum hemorrhage and these discoveries have saved countless lives during and after childbirth. He is more popularly known, however, for his contributions to spiritual rebirth as the discoverer of LSD-25 and as the author of “LSD, my problem child”, the book that tells the story of that discovery.

Almost 80 years ago, he accidentally subjected himself to the effects of LSD when a minuscule amount of the potent compound found its way on to his skin despite what he describes as “meticulously neat work habits” in his laboratory. He records the following:

“Last Friday, April 16,1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

He later remarks on his surprise that he could have been affected at all by the vanishingly small amount of the substance he was working with and suspected that he has discovered an extraordinarily potent new compound. (To be accurate, he had discovered LSD 5 years prior and found it to be pharmacologically “useless” as an obstetric drug in animal studies but he remained suspicious that it had other applications). Excited by the potential of his discovery, he decided to intentionally ingest the compound in the smallest dose that he could produce at the time, 250mcg. This method of testing a new compound is not unusual for the era and should not be construed as reckless or roguish. This occurred on 4/19/43 and this day is now celebrated as “bicycle day” to honor his curiosity.

With admirable scientific rigor, he records the following his laboratory notebook:

4/19/1943 16:20: 0.5 cc of 1/2 promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless.

17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.

Home by bicycle. From 18:00- ca.20:00 most severe crisis. (See special report.)”

After the above entries, the effects of LSD became more pronounced, and he was unable to make any further notations. He asked his laboratory assistant to help him get home and, due to wartime fuel restrictions, they had to get there by bicycle. This marks the first time a human being rode a bicycle on LSD and occurred 40 years prior to the first Burning Man celebration where bicycles are regularly used to convey beings who are barely tethered to any form of reality whatsoever. He describes the experience with curiosity and an enjoyably scientific mindset:

“On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors.”

That evening he experienced hours of intense psychedelia and became concerned that he had poisoned himself.

“ I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying? Was this the transition? At times I believed myself to be outside my body, and then perceived clearly, as an outside observer, the complete tragedy of my situation. I had not even taken leave of my family (my wife, with our three children had traveled that day to visit her parents, in Lucerne). Would they ever understand that I had not experimented thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, but rather with the utmost caution, and that such a result was in no way foreseeable? My fear and despair intensified, not only because a young family should lose its father, but also because I dreaded leaving my chemical research work, which meant so much to me, unfinished in the midst of fruitful, promising development. Another reflection took shape, an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this Iysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world.

The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk—in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.”

Fortunately for him, and for psychedelic medicine in general, he recovered without ill effect and was surprised to find himself appreciative of the experience the following day:

“A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day. This self-experiment showed that LSD-25 behaved as a psychoactive substance with extraordinary properties and potency. There was to my knowledge no other known substance that evoked such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses, that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness and our experience of the inner and outer world.”

After describing his experiences to his colleagues and superiors, he then convinced them to try LSD as well. He continued to have a remarkably successful career as a research chemist and made frequent and significant discoveries including isolating psilocybin, the primary active compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms. While he disparaged the casual and hedonistic use of LSD in the late 60s, he continued to advocate for its use in psychiatry over the course of his life and on his 100th birthday, said the following of the drug:

“It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation.... I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.”

As I have said repeatedly, psychedelic medicines are profoundly different from any other medicines in our culture because their effects depend on the context in which they are taken. Because they are so dependent on where, how, and with whom they are taken, they can not be categorized as good, bad, useful, or dangerous in and of themselves. The power of psychedelic medicines deserves respect and utmost caution. The current enthusiasm for psychedelic treatments is both exciting and concerning in a culture where people believe that a complex disorder of thought and spirit can be “cured” by ingesting a chemical. It just doesn’t work that way. These medicines are tools and their effects depend on the hands that wield them.

Nonetheless, our ability to access and safely use psychedelic medicines depends heavily on chemists like Albert Hoffman who gave us the ability to make psychedelic experiences reproducible and safe by quantifying the responsible chemical components. If that depiction is too reductionist or scientific for you, it could be equally said that Albert, with his unbounded curiosity, learned to translate the language of fungi into a book that we can all read. And anyone who can make the raw mystical language of the natural world into a set of recognizable symbols deserves a bit of respect.

So if you have a chance to ride a bicycle today, as you pedal along, take a moment to imagine that you have been poisoned in the most unusual way. Imagine that you have lost your ego entirely and that your experience of self has been terrifyingly smeared across time and space. But somehow this is OK. And then imagine that maybe, just maybe, that tomorrow’s breakfast and the sight of sunlight on flowers are tiny miracles that you may frequently overlook. Take a deep breath, close your eyes for a moment, and then reopen them to the brief wonder of now.

Asheville Integrative Psychiatry owners/physicians Drs Tiffany Sauls and Josh Short (who both know a few things about riding bicycles)

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