On the 5th of November 2015, to the best of my knowledge at the time, I died in a small rural hospital five hours south of Perth.
I’d been camping in the bush in Karri tree country with my boyfriend, Jasper. The two of us had a week to kill before we went travelling, so figured we’d spend it wringing as much goodness from West Australia’s spectacular landscapes as we could.
We started that Thursday with all the ingredients for a deliciously troppo afternoon: a vial of highly potent LSD, matching cowboy hats and a litre of pineapple juice. There was a colossal shifting sand dune to explore a short hike away, and we had no doubt that the acid – which had been procured from a long-time user – would do wonders in enhancing the grandness of our adventure.
The dune was phenomenal. A towering, barren mass of sand stretched 12 kilometres to the ocean on one side and straddled a forest on the other. The trees nearest were burnt orange and bent back like withered dancers, already trunk-deep in granules that would swallow them whole as the mass of sand slowly shifted inland with the wind.
For what could have been a decade, but was actually about two hours, we lay on the bleached sand with our bellies to the sky, giggling as we conjured up stories of the magical creatures that might call this bizarre habitat home.
When my schoolgirl alter-ego eventually kicked in and I insisted we walk back to the car and rehydrate, all the flies in the surrounding bush land seemed to have heard. They clung to us like blankets, hitching a free ride through the shade of the trees. One even crawled in my mouth in a desperate attempt to stake out virgin flesh. I choked and spat it out, my head reeling.
Back at the campsite, it became apparent that I had left my mind on the sand dune. We tried to reinvigorate by taking a dip in a nearby lake, but I struggled to engage with my surroundings. I was unsure if I was hot or cold, and very unsure what lurked beneath the surface. Shivering and still fully clothed, I pulled myself from the amber liquid onto a jetty, too lost in my own thoughts to think of drying myself.
As the sun slid lower in the sky, Jasper set up the swag and tried to make me feel more comfortable, but he too was struggling with the strength of the LSD, and threw up the entirety of his stomach contents behind a tree. I patted his back feebly, then turned the car on to listen to a song. The combination of sun, acid and not-nearly-enough pineapple juice had just about rendered me delirious, and I was hoping a familiar melody would re-establish a sense of normalcy.
A snatched lyric filtered through the speaker as the engine roared through the bush.
“What are you doing Gem? Turn the car off!” Jasper called out.
I obeyed, then repeated the process seven times over, stuck on repeat.
By this point, it was nearing 4pm and I was pretty much verbally non-responsive. Jasper still wasn’t feeling much better, and after surveying our dwindling water supply and my dwindling mental state, he started to panic. So he decided to do something drastic: approach the couple camping nearest to us and ask for help.
“Sorry to bother you like this. My girlfriend’s had a bit too much sun… and some acid. I want to take her to hospital, but I can’t drive – I’ve had acid too. Could you maybe drop us into town?”
Though the couple in question’s idea of substance abuse was probably having two sugars in their tea, they were gruff, understanding and efficient as they drove us 20km to the nearest hospital in their enormous 4wd
In the car, my thoughts were constantly interrupted by tangential hallucinations. There was a loud roaring in my ears, and my vision was going in and out. I strained the fragments of my working mind to deduce why I needed medical attention.
My thoughts flashed back to the warning on the back of a tampon box I’d glanced at earlier that day. TAMPON USE HAS BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME (TSS). TSS IS A RARE BUT SERIOUS DISEASE THAT MAY CAUSE DEATH.
I repeated the words aloud, and suddenly remembered a story I’d once read of a girl who’d had to have her leg amputated after contracting TSS.
My twisted brain joined the dots, and it all became very clear. I have my period — and I use tampons! I must have toxic shock!
I remember very little of the first few hours at the hospital. I am told I wrote my name on the identity form in page-sized capital letters, overlapping all the boxes and tearing holes in the paper with the pen. I am told the hospital staff didn’t really know what acid was.
“You can’t just take some random drug you get off a bloke at the pub!” the doctor yelled, wringing his hands.
“It’s organic,” Jasper assured them, pacing around the waiting room like a clockwork mouse. “A fungus that grows on rye. She’s just really dehydrated – give her some Valium and put her on a drip.”
“Do you know why you’re here?” demanded the doctor.
I was lying in a hospital bed, and this was the fifth time he’d tried to ask me. I couldn’t quite pick his accent. Something European, perhaps?
“Gemma! Do you understand what is happening to you right now?”
I looked at him pleadingly. I didn’t know the answer to his question, but I was hyper-aware of the blood pressure cuff that was cutting into the circulation of my right arm. I glanced down at the source of the pain, and looked back up to see a woman being pushed past me in a wheelchair, a thick bandage encasing what I could only assume was now a leg stump.
That’s right, I thought, a lump forming in my throat.
“Yes,” I whispered. “I’m getting my arm amputated.”
He looked at me in disgust and turned away as a nurse strapped wires to my chest.
“What do I have to do?” I asked her quietly.
“Recover,” she said simply.
“Will it take a long time?” I envisaged months of immobility, physiotherapy and learning to get by with one arm.
“You’ll get there.”
Tears prickled my eyes and I writhed in pain as my gut tried to cope with the enormous strength of the drug I’d ingested – a discomfort I put down to my suspected and potentially fatal illness. I squeezed my eyelids shut as I continued to try and come to terms with the loss of my limb and prepare for the sting of the operation.
Be strong! I commanded my body. Survive the surgery!
Then, as the acid continued to course through my brain, I reached new heights of insanity. The remaining threads of my conscious mind slipped away and I lost my subjective identity completely. My senses, my memories, my views, my personality – my knowledge of who and even what I am – dissolved. I forgot what a human was. I forgot what existence was. I ceased to be an individual and felt like I experienced the entirety of the universe, everything that has ever been and will be, in a single, protracted instant.
After however-many-minutes of nothingness, my vision returned, and I flickered from my private hell back to having a vague grasp of my surroundings. I was in a sterile-looking room that had been compartmentalised with curtains. A nurse came over to replace the bag in my drip, and I watched the process in horror.
Wait, wasn’t I on acid earlier? Is that man on acid too? Did an equally-as-drugged-up stranger just shove a needle in my arm?
Before the nurse’s back was even turned, I tore the drip from my veins, terrified it had been incorrectly inserted by some random lunatic. Two more nurses rushed towards me immediately, eyes like saucers. The doctor followed and grimly flicked on a TV hanging from the ceiling in front of me.
A new face surfaced on the screen – a video call from a hospital in Perth.
“Hello Gemma,” said the onscreen doctor. “Do you know why you’re here? Do you understand what’s happening?”
I looked at him blankly. Why doesn’t he just tell me why I’m here? Hang on, is that my parents’ house in the background? I voiced this last thought aloud. The man on the screen put his head in his hands.
With a new drip in my arm, my bed was wheeled into a shiny room reserved for day surgery, and I was hooked up to an ECG. A roll of paper spewed forth from the machine onto the floor like an endless receipt, tracking the rhythm of my heart. The in-house doctor turned the light off as he exited.
Alone in the dimness of the room, snippets of the day began to seep back into my memory, along with a rather large sense of dread.
I’ve been on a sand dune. I didn’t have any water. But how did I get to hospital? Did someone find me dying of dehydration? Was I airlifted in a helicopter? Was I on the news? Is Jasper okay? Why am I alone?
As I tried to cast my mind back to the order of events, the machine next to me let out a long high-pitched beep, stopped spitting out paper and switched off. My vision lapsed again, and through the mounting panic, a new realisation emerged – one that tore into my gut like a dagger.
I was dead.
Mum, I thought, pain rising in my chest. I’ll never see Mum again. And I can’t even tell her that I’m sorry I died.
I do not know how long I lay back in that blackened room and wept. The grief was agony. I was drowning in it, paralysed by it; every cell howled in despair as I confronted the finality of my own death and its repercussions. I was aware of my consciousness, but it meant nothing to me if I was irretrievably cut off from the living. I’d died on that sand dune, for nothing, and it was all my fault.
DEATH IS FOREVER! screamed my brain.
It was the single most heartbreaking moment of my life.
When a nurse finally came in and switched the light on to fiddle with something at the sink, I rubbed my eyes. She didn’t go away, and neither did the shiny silver room I was in.
I’m in Limbo, my tortured mind reasoned. Either that or a morgue.
As the nurse waddled over to me, with dread I started to ponder a new frightening possibility. Was I about to reincarnate?
I clung desperately to what I remembered of my life, frantic I was about to part ways with my former self and lose what little I remembered of my beautiful family, friends and boyfriend in order to become someone new.
I chanted my name and street address in my head, over and over. Gemma Clarke. 70 Tallai Road, Tallai.
“Kelly!” shouted the nurse as she slapped a hospital bracelet around my wrist.
“No!” I wailed aloud. “I’m Gemma!”
“Oh, that’s right,” she sighed, turning over her shoulder to address someone out of the room. “Kelly’s the boyfriend’s surname.’
Several more adults, Jasper among them, entered the room, and I was suddenly rushed back to reality. A lifetime of memories flooded back to me, and I almost gagged with relief. Unsurprisingly, so did Jasper.
“Gem, you’re back. I thought I’d lost you,” he croaked.
“This is the ambulance driver,” announced the doctor, tightlipped, as he ushered in a tall, elderly man. “He’s taking you to a town three hours north of here so you can go to a proper hospital. We don’t have the facilities here to test your blood.”
“No!” I gasped. “I’m fine! I can’t go up north – my car is parked in the dunes out here and I’m moving overseas to Indonesia in a few days!”
“No, you’re not,” said the doctor flatly.
The TV flickered back on.
“GEMMA!” yelled the city doctor from the screen. “STOP WASTING OUR FUCKING TIME! YOU ARE GETTING IN THAT AMBULANCE AND YOU ARE GOING TO ANOTHER HOSPITAL!”
“No, honestly,” I garbled, panicking as the gravity of the situation I had created sunk in. I started crying again.
“I just had a really bad acid trip – and heat stroke – but I promise I’m okay now. I’m so incredibly sorry for wasting your time but you can let me go now. I don’t need an ambulance!”
The city doctor swore again and disconnected the video call.
Like great aunties from an Enid Blyton book, the bustling nurses were kindly and reassuring as they fussed over me. With a flick of their wrists, they waved off my apologies: “Don’t worry dear – it’s our job to look after you.”
But the in-house doctor was not so sure.
“Were any of you even listening to the stuff Gemma was saying when she first got here?” he said incredulously, eyes bulging out of his head. “She is definitely not okay!”
One of the nurses passed me a generous handful of egg sandwiches and a can of lemonade.
“You can finish this bag of fluid off love, and you’ll be right,” she soothed, watching me with approval as I dug in feverishly and covered myself in crumbs.
After a few more heated discussions with the doctor, I wiped my tear-stained face in the bathroom and made my way to the reception desk, where, with a shaky hand, I signed a form to forcibly discharge myself from the hospital.
“You could die out there tonight, you know?” the doctor snapped as I made for the door. “We’ve got NO idea what you’ve taken.”
At 8:30pm, after four hours in hospital, Jasper and I stepped into a cool, starry night – me in racing-car pyjamas and bright blue runners, him in an old rugby tracksuit. I gripped his hand tightly as we made for the only light in the town of 2436 people: the local pub.
I was far too embarrassed to go inside; my outfit wasn’t exactly tout le mode and my splotched face and tangled hair rightly implied a madness I still hadn’t shaken.
“Do you think anyone would drive us out to our car at this time?” Jasper asked a waitress. “Is there a taxi?”
She snorted with laughter, but wasn’t unkind. “You should be able to hitch a lift in the morning if you hang around the petrol station,” she said.
“I’ve just got out of hospital,” I interjected forlornly, stepping inside. “I had… heatstroke. I guess we’ll have to stay the night. How much are rooms here?”
Luckily, when we’d left for the hospital, Jasper had thought to grab my wallet.
“Well, we’ve only got a family room left, and it’s $390 a night,” she explained slowly, looking me up and down. A fellow staff member suggested a caravan park a few kilometres away, where a cabin was $110.
“She can’t really get there,” retorted the first lady. “She’s had heatstroke, the poor thing.”
The two of them had a conversation in hushed tones behind the counter.
“Sweets, you know what – we can do you the family room for the same price as the caravan park.” She looked at her watch and shrugged. “It’s not like anyone else will take it this late.”
Aching with gratitude, I thanked her meekly and followed her to the room. It was posh – a boutique country-style hotel room complete with complementary dressing gowns and orange blossom soap. But I was in no state to enjoy it.
For half an hour, I sat down in the shower and let tears course out of me in rivers. When I crawled to bed and into Jasper’s tired embrace, I cried into my pillow till morning.
At first light, still exhausted, I showered again and stepped into the street to purchase supplies. From the only open shop in town, I bought apples, sunscreen, water and a cheap set of men’s summer pyjamas that looked slightly more like clothes than my flannelette racing-car attire.
Hitchhiking wasn’t as easy as the lady at the pub had suggested. One car stopped and gave me a cap to wear, but we were way out of town and almost on the dirt 4WD track when someone finally came to our aid. He was a park ranger and only had room in his car for one, plus he had to nip back to town to do some errands before he could drop me at the campsite.
It was a 40-minute detour, during which I relayed the heatstroke tale to him. I left out the part about the acid. After affording me lashings of fatherly sympathy, the ranger regaled me with a dozen other stories of backpackers and yuppies getting into trouble out on the dunes. He seemed sad to lose the company when we finally reached my car.
“I hope I didn’t rattle on too much,” he said as he waved goodbye. I drove back to the path where I’d left Jasper, and with a heavy heart, we made our way up north.
I have since learned that what first happened to me in the hospital was a phenomenon known as ‘ego death’ or ‘ego dissolution’ – a complete disassociation of the mind from the body that results in sensory deprivation and the loss of one’s sense of self. It can be achieved temporarily through the use of large quantities of entheogens, as well as through advanced meditation.
Hamilton Morris, psychedelics expert and resident pharmacopoeia correspondent for Vice, referred to ego death as a “neurochemical change”, a “painful feeling where you lose control” and “a very complex and strange thing that involves, at least, loss of consciousness”. Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof described it as the “instant merciless destruction of all previous reference points in the life of the individual”. Though it is often chased by those in search of enlightenment, for me, it caused nothing but extreme panic.
My second experience – the one where I thought I was dead – is also one that has been fairly widely documented. It is mostly reported by those who have overdosed on psychedelics such as LSD and NBOMe, as well as by suicide survivors.
Though I am not attempting to compare my drug-induced psychosis to the gravity of the mental aftermath of a suicide attempt, I do think that in confronting any sort of death experience – ego, near, imagined or otherwise – one acknowledges the temporality of human existence. More specifically, I acknowledged the temporality of my connection to the people I love, the ones who make life worth living.
I know there are positive affirmations I should extract from this incident: Don’t take life for granted! Make every minute count! Or another one, perhaps: Stop messing with your mind! I am by no means a regular drug user, or even a semi-regular drug user: before this incident, I could count the number of times I’d had acid on two hands. I haven’t touched it since, but I still don’t know where to go from here.
Just over a year on, I can finally reflect on what happened to me in that hospital without getting visibly upset, but I cannot shake the crippling fear and dread that has lodged itself in my heart. The death I used to laugh in the face of as I squeezed every drop from life now lurks at each corner. It is there when I pile into an aeroplane or descend towards a train platform. It is there when I cross a road and wait in fear for a rogue driver to run me down. It is there when a family member ignores a missed call, when a lover plunges into the ocean at a remote beach on a surfboard and when a housemate stays out late after work.
DEATH IS FOREVER my brain still screams, and I don’t know how to silence it.