Illustration by Jim Cooke

The first time I ever ate mushrooms I did just about everything wrong. I ate mine about two or three hours after everyone else. It was dark. We watched Full Metal Jacket.

At some point, I wandered out by myself to stand on an icy Lake Tahoe pier and look at the stars. (That decision wasn’t all bad.) Since we were staying in one of those condo developments where there’s like 50 buildings that all look the exact same, I got lost on the way back. It was very cold.

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At some other point, I went up to the otherwise unoccupied second floor of the condo, locked myself in the bathroom and stood in front of a mirror waving my arms around trying to see tracers since that was basically the only thing I thought I could expect from taking hallucinogens. When that didn’t work out I took a bath. Jesus.

And yet, somehow it all worked out. I mean, it was fun, and very apparent that the drugs I was on were not only causing me to experience some pretty interesting visual phenomena, but also fundamentally altering the way my brain was processing stimuli, and I came away from the experience pretty well convinced that mushrooms were fucking awesome, and determined to make better use of them next time.

Over the years, that initial belief has been validated both by continued personal experience and, also, science! Psychedelics have shown promise in treating a variety of conditions including obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, cluster headaches (which sound truly horrible), and anxiety. And having experimented with a wide variety of other psychedelics, mushrooms are still the one I come back to (though, if the 2C class of drugs were easier to obtain in the States I would not complain). I am of the opinion that every human should do them at least once.

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But for many people, the prospect of ingesting chemicals that will so greatly alter their base reality is understandably frightening. And I can’t guarantee that this guide will make you less frightened, considering the various cautionary tales it contains. However, I hope it will help you understand what to expect, and what to avoid.

Let me put this out there though: In my experience, so-called “bad trips” are rare. In the probably close to 100 times I’ve done psychedelics, I’ve had exactly one—and it had nothing to do with anything in this guide. (You know how when you get the flu, there’s a period of a few hours where you go from “Hmm, I feel a little something in my throat—probably nothing though” to “I welcome the sweet release of death”? Don’t eat mushrooms during that.) In fact, out of all the times I’ve ever observed someone on hallucinogens, I can recall five negative cases, and only one of those cases are we talking severe psychosis. (But lucky for that guy—who became convinced he was the central character in a Truman Show-esque manufactured reality, and started accosting people on the street demanding that they “STOP ACTING!”—at least he was following the second and third rules below.)

I’ve never seen anyone get arrested, and no injuries more severe than a scraped-up hand or case of mild nausea. The average person should be more worried about the adverse effects of getting drunk.

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My general advice: Don’t be scared, but approach your first trip with prudence. If you follow all or even most of the rules below you’ll be well on your way to an experience by turns joyful, exhilarating, astonishing, melancholic, cathartic, uh, all that good shit. You get it.

Clear your schedule

Some psychedelics last a few minutes. But for the main ones—LSD, psilocybin, mescaline—you can expect to be out of commission for at minimum six hours, during which you’re going to want to limit your contact with non-drugged individuals as much as possible. (The most horrifying scenario I ever heard was a friend who had come into some mushrooms in Hawaii, had a bit left over and didn’t want to fly home with them, so she ate them at the airport before hopping on a six-hour flight home with her mom and aunt. No.) I recommend not ingesting anything unless you have a full 12 hours with no responsibilities more pressing than clearing something off your DVR. Twelve is probably more than you’ll need, but it’s rare in my experience that someone post-trip is champing at the bit to reintegrate into normie society.

Make sure you have access to a familiar, safe environment

By familiar and safe I don’t mean, like, only do hallucinogens in your parents’ house. But you should have a base of operations that is reasonably comfortable and secure. Your place, a friend’s place, a hotel room—basically somewhere you and/or people you trust can control all or most of the environmental factors: lighting, temperature, noise level, audio and visual stimuli, etc. (Psychedelic researchers refer to this as the “setting.”)

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In fact, I would go so far as to label “control” as the most important concept to keep in mind. While on this category of drugs, there will be things you are used to controlling that will be well fucking out of your control—which can be part of the fun, but also why it’s important to maintain some tethers to you previous life of self-agency.

A few places I would not recommend for first-timers: bunk rooms in hostels, non-isolated campsites, Amsterdam, any place where going to the bathroom means using a Port-a-Potty (you’d be hard-pressed to create an enclosure that more specifically targets all the sensory weak points of someone tripping balls).

Imagine: You’re at your campsite, but the campsite next to you is occupied by bros of the upside-down-and-backwards visor variety and the women who love them (and also Bud Light Lime-a-Rita) who are, by default, choosing the topics of conversation and “music” you’re subjected to. Or, you’ve returned to your hostel room from a fulfilling afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum—now well on your way to a new appreciation of post-impressionism—only to be waylaid by a group of drunken Israelis who want to discuss the state of affairs in the Middle East.

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Basically, it’s important to retain some bulwark against the vicissitudes of modern existence, is what I’m getting at.

Take the drugs with a group of people you trust, and, if possible, have one or more members of the group with prior experience in whatever drug

In L.A. you hear about these events where a bunch of strangers go to a mansion in the hills and do ayahuasca (an Amazonian tea that contains the powerful hallucinogen DMT) with a “guide” or (sigh) “shaman.” For me, the least frightening thing about this scenario BY FAR is the powerful hallucinogen. Aside from egregiously violating rule No. 2, here, L.A. has the absolute worst strangers of any city. What if I’m seated between some lady extolling the benefits of Moon Juice on one side and “aspiring director” Zack Snyder on the other? I’m getting anxious just thinking about it.

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But, there’s a good reason that a market has developed for these guides. The effects of hallucinogens are unpredictable. Plus they can take a while to kick in—a period during which the impatient and unfamiliar might be inclined to up the dosage (do not do this). And then when they do, shit can get real weird, real fast. For all these reasons and more, it’s a great idea to have someone with experience around to tell you what to do, what not to do, and which YouTube videos are the most insane.

As far as the virtues of a group go, doing drugs alone is obviously not ideal for any number of reason more serious than “It’s not as fun.” But aside from being more fun, having people around you whom you trust and who care about you is the best way to ensure that you don’t get stuck in the type of spiral that can result in a bad time. Talking, laughing, just being around other people who are calm and happy, that’s the type of stimulus that can right the ship.

Also, best if everyone does the drugs at roughly the same time

“Peaking” is an actual thing, and being out of sync with others can be at least a slight bummer and at most an emotionally devastating crisis. I mean it’s generally the former, but just cooler if everyone is on the same wavelength.

If possible, make sure the drugs kick in while the sun is still up

Sunlight = more colors. Colors = of interest.

There is no way to not make this seem stoney as hell but here goes: Humans can see what, seven million colors? But being able to see and actually seeing are, like, different, man. Every hallucinogen I’ve ever done has had the effect of greatly enhancing sensitivity to light and thus, perception of color, which can result in some most excellent visuals.

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The best way I can describe the effect is, under normal circumstances, if you turn the lights on in a room that is already full of natural light, it’s barely noticeable, right? On hallucinogens, it’s noticeable. And since color is just the result of visible light bouncing off objects and hitting your eyeballs, the ability to perceive incremental changes in light intensity means you’re also able to perceive incremental variations in color. Just staring at relatively mundane stuff like tree trunks and granite countertops can be revelatory. Like, I am putting it out as my first definitive recommendation: Find a granite countertop and stare at that motherfucker for at least five minutes.

And, you know, there are lots of things way more colorful and interesting than tree trunks. Trees, in extenso, for one. Mountain vistas. Monets. And yes. Yes. Absolutely watch the sunset. Over a body of water, if possible.

The other thing about putting a sunset on the schedule is now you’re guaranteed some day and some night. And night has its charms as well. Stars. Cooler air. Campfires. The way a streetlamp projects light and shadow through foliage.

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I should make clear, again, here, that this is a guide for first-timers. If you’re only going to trip once, I feel a sunset or sunrise is a must. It’s the opposite of a Port-a-Potty.

Do things that will be hard to do on drugs before you do the drugs

Go to the store and buy snacks, roll some joints, get dressed—just assume that by one or two hours in you’ll be kissing goodbye to both your fine motor skills and your capacity for standard human interaction. Basically, lots of simple tasks become unbelievably hard, unpleasant, or both, so try to plan accordingly.

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You know how sometimes you’re in the line to use the ATM, and the person in front of you has been pressing buttons for so long that your mood goes from mild frustration to not-so-mild frustration to genuine bewilderment of, like, “What could they possibly be doing? Why is no money being dispensed?! Are they applying for a mortgage? Am I on Punk’d?” I’d wager that some significant percentage of those individuals have been high as all fuck. At a certain point while on psychedelics an ATM might as well be the hoverbike level in Battletoads.

Honestly, I would watch a game show where people have to drop acid and perform mundane tasks like buttoning a shirt, refilling an ice cube tray, putting a fitted sheet on a bed, etc.

I am only slightly exaggerating when I tell you that a grocery store is one of the most terrifying places you can possibly go while tripping. Crowds, looking for stuff, fluorescent lights, waiting in line, actually having a short interaction with a non-stoned individual—all of these thing are bad things. Like, I really can’t stress enough the waiting in line aspect and how mortifying it is. You standing there with your basket full of Sour Punch and yogurt-covered pretzels, barely holding it together, closed in on either side by carts, the cashier’s hair is coming to life and eating her face. Better not to risk it as a first-timer, IMO.

If you are going to go out on an adventure—a hike, to the beach, whatever—go prepared

Bring layers, bring food, bring twice as much water as you think you’ll need, bring anything you think you might want.

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Layers because rapid ambient temperature changes often don’t mix well with the physiological effects of these drugs, food because duh (one of the great moments of my life was witnessing a friend, very high on mushrooms, taste Kettle Corn for the first time. “Wait, so you’re saying it’s popcorn … with sugar on it?”), but headphones? Definitely. Sketchbook? Fuck yeah. Binoculars? Why not! 3DS? Okay. A towel and swim trunks? You never know. Bop-It? Hmm, I like the way you think, my dude. Anything but a book, basically. (I would also say skip the 3DS, but it can be hilarious to observe someone trying to play video games on mushrooms—also the 3D aspect is probably good for some wonderment.)

Just fill that backpack all the way up, because here’s the thing: It’s very easy to become fixated on something you want, but don’t have. “Man, a cigarette would be great right now. Oh well!” can transform in relatively short order to “A cigarette is the only thing that will prevent my body from turning to stone and crumbling under the weight of my parents’ expectations!”

DO NOT FUCKING DRIVE

Oh my God, you were actually going to get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle weren’t you? You were going to drive to the beach/state park/Shia LaBeouf’s house, take some drugs that last a day, and then try to drive your ass home—most likely in the dark. Please rethink this plan.

Be honest with yourself, especially about your emotional state

Evergreen advice, to be sure, but hallucinogens demand an amount of self-awareness that not everyone possesses.

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I’ve found that a good dosing has few equals in the Merciless Destruction of Artifice department. We all engage in some level of mythmaking when constructing our self-image: “I don’t care what people think of me”; “I have no regrets”; “Only God can judge me”; all the shit we tell ourselves so we don’t have to acknowledge our flaws and engage in the hard, slow work of self-improvement. Are you prepared to have the walls between the parts of your psyche that tell you comforting lies and the parts that believe them well and summarily obliterated? Great!

Maybe goes without saying but, external stressors also matter. If you’ve recently experienced some major trauma, if you’ve just lost a job or ended a relationship, if you’re a Knicks fan—any major sources of distress and anxiety should be considered grounds for a reschedule.

Frozen grapes

Just trust me here. The granite countertop of foods.