IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was Hospitalized for Eating Hallucinogenic Flowers from a Public Tree

The other two students who’d tried it had been incoherent and stumbling and experiencing difficulty breathing, and had been taken to the hospital after eating four flowers each.
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The other two students who’d tried it had been incoherent and stumbling and experiencing difficulty breathing, and had been taken to the hospital after eating four flowers each.

It’s time to set the record straight.

Toward the end of the summer before my senior year of high school, I consumed a Brugmansia blossom I’d picked at the People’s Park in Berkeley while enrolled in a summer semester program for teens at the University of California there. As a result, my two friends were briefly hospitalized in short-lived comas, I spent several hours in the ER, the three of us were kicked out of the program, and the City of Berkeley cut down the tree in question (much to the distress of local botanists).

Local media coverage of the incident varied, but generally suggested that my two dude friends were 17 and fell quite ill, that I was 16 and fared better, that Brugmansia can be highly poisonous, and that we were morons.

People's Park [Creative Commons photo by Minesweeper.]

People's Park [Creative Commons photo by Minesweeper.]

Over a decade later, I’d like to make the following statements as a means of correcting long-shelved reports: I was 17, you jerks, and I wasn’t a wholly uninformed ingenue guzzling greenery; despite what happened, I maintain that I knew what I was doing.

In my younger years, I tended to be game for whatever, especially drug-wise. Between the ages of 16 and 20, give or take, I tried marijuana, a few kinds of psilocybin mushrooms, salvia, molly, ecstasy, acid, cocaine, amphetamines, synthetic mescaline, two forms of DMT, 2ci, 2cb, and a few combinations thereof. Some I tried once, some I used many happy times, and did so in a slew of locations and social situations, some glorious, some ridiculous (to wit, I got my college boyfriend’s number at a beer garden while I was on acid, and spent much of that spring night basking in the moonlight among a hundred lengths of oceanside driftwood, the relics of Canadian logging history; during another trip, I wept in skid row and saw a nightmare personified as a frizzy-haired woman in a 7-Eleven).

But I felt (and feel) that I did so from a position of being well-informed, safe, and thoughtful: I was being an Intelligent Recreational Drug User.

***

When I was back home in Honolulu one summer during college, a friend offered me DMT crystals that she and a chemistry peer had cooked up themselves and bedded on some oregano, and I smoked it gladly. And even though, both times I tried it, I was convinced I’d peed myself (I hadn’t) and had to shuffle in silent, humiliated horror to the bathroom, I was in my own apartment surrounded by friends, and I knew it couldn’t hurt me.

When a gang of us split an ounce of mushrooms before scampering around, barefoot, through the blissfully dark, empty, warm streets of Manoa Valley in high school, we knew enough to keep in touch, be careful when crossing streets, keep an eye on the newbies among us, and behave ourselves back at the established base camp of Sully’s parents’ house. We knew we couldn’t freeze to death, be bitten by anything too poisonous, or be stalked and eaten by salivating beasts on the gentle island of Oahu. When one member of the pack, someone’s younger friend, became nauseous and assumed a sort of self-immobilized repose in the garage, two friends and I kept him calm and quiet, and conscientiously cleaned up the vomit before any adults could stumble upon us (even though his seemingly writhing, paisley-like complexion was a bit much to rest one’s eyes on). He felt better soon, and we got back to business.

When an old friend visited during my first year of university in Vancouver, British Columbia, and wanted to try acid for the first time, I was experienced and thoughtful enough to give her a small dose, take her on a walk, and plan for us to enjoy some of Vancouver’s dazzling natural beauty for an hour at sunset before the masking of nightfall (ever-helpful to the young urban psychonaut). To make sure she was warm, to play it perfectly straight while buying her a vegan brownie from the Picasso-faced Starbucks barista, to have Sgt. Pepper’s loaded in my full-batteried Discman, to have plenty of water, pot, and Xanax on hand for bad times and come-downs.

When, that same year, my best Vancouver buddy and I decided to go ahead and cook up ayahuasca with the ingredients we’d been saving (British Columbia used to have some really fun laws about over-the-counter, obscure hallucinogens), we’d done the research, and carefully calculated that any substances likely to interact adversely with the syrian rue’s MAO inhibitors would’ve already passed through our systems. We even got the guy down the hall, who had a long-standing crush on my friend, to wait with us and watch us (to make sure we didn’t react poorly right then and there) while we competed with one another to keep the sludge down as long as possible (for maximum absorption of the drug) before the inevitable protocol step of vomiting the stuff up all over the perennial planters behind the dorm (note: I won, keeping it down several minutes longer than my pal did, but — not to be one-upped — she returned to the cheap electric kettle we’d used and gulped the actual dregs, to her undying credit).

Admittedly, we’d decided to brew the shamanic drug at 3 a.m. in a plastic kettle because the acid we’d taken several hours earlier seemed a complete bust and, apparently, we weren’t prepared to surrender that particular night to a state of cerebral monotony. Nevertheless, we’d done our homework for this project (if not that week’s academic ones). When my friend started panicking, thought she was going into cardiac arrest, and sent me running outside to call 911 from a spot with better cell reception, I stopped — steps from the building’s back entrance — and recalled my research.

I returned, reminded her that we were perfectly safe, that DMT — a chemical supposedly and famously released in the brain upon the body’s near-death, and the active ingredient in our ersatz ayahuasca — necessarily makes a person feel like death is sweeping in, and that panicking in response to this sensation is the only real, related risk for creating a heart attack’s onset. She relaxed. We’d passed the trip’s first test, we said, and continued meandering toward yonder sky funnel of universal blackness. Problem solved.

***

So in the summer of 2003, when a bunch of other 16- and 17-year-olds and I were shipped by our parents to a program at UC Berkeley for six weeks’ worth of out-of-the-house-ness and three units of college credit squared away, I was excited, and I was game. But I wasn’t as idiotic as I could have been.

For the first five weeks, we knew from early judgments that weed from Squatter Sean on Telegraph Avenue around the corner from our dorm was cheaper, of better quality, and all-around more pleasantly purchased, his porkpie hat giving him a proprietary air over (and easy-to-spot presence among) that summer’s group of gutter punks. When, a week before the program’s completion, Sean told us that angel trumpet a.k.a. Brugmansia flowers were growing in the People’s Park and had hallucinogenic properties, but that we should by no means eat more than two each, I noted his advice. I spent one of my first-ever hours on Erowid.org and learned that Brugmansia and similar Solanaceae plants can cause, among other things, headache, thirst, nausea, hypertension, heart arrhythmia, severe agitation, fever, blurred vision, hallucinations, delirium, and heat stroke, or just a generally cruddy time. I noted all this and bought a bottle of water.

Brugmansia in Berkley. [Creative Commons photo by Pimpilala.]

Brugmansia in Berkley. [Creative Commons photo by Pimpilala.]

Next, I walked to the park, picked two plantain-size flowers, went back to my dorm room, placed one paper-bagged blossom in my rich roommate’s mini-fridge in case I wanted a second dose later on, and went to tell my good friend Liz what I was about to do, mostly because it was hilarious. And then I proceeded to eat an entire eight-inch poisonous flower, which, I seem to remember, tasted like any-other-flower-you’ve-ever-looked-at-and-wondered-about-the-taste-of-but-decidedly-didn’t-eat would have tasted. Which is to say, not much. And I waited.

And, basically, nothing happened. I think I shrugged the whole thing off as a miss and went to go get stoned or bum cigarettes on Telegraph or find the guy I had a crush on (who, prohibitively, had a girlfriend back home), or something benign like that.

Some time later, the program’s director, Lacey — who, for whatever reason, saw fit to tell some of us a story earlier in the summer about the members of Green Day doing speed in her basement in the old days — came hustling down the dorm hallway toward me, a member of our pot-smoking friend group (we’ll call him Neville) trailing just behind her. His face was consumed in a cringe.

“I told her,” Neville blurted. “I had to.”

“Hmmm?” I said.

The director explained that the other two who’d tried it had been taken to the hospital, that these guys had (amazingly) eaten four flowers each, had been incoherent and stumbling and experiencing difficulty breathing, that Neville had told her everything, and that she would be taking me to the hospital right then.

I explained that I was fine, that I’d only eaten one. Lacey explained, in essence, that she didn’t give a damn.

She drove me to the hospital, and I was checked in. I remember sitting up in a bed in an open ward (maybe the not-actually-urgent wing of the ER) through the night. The boy I liked came to visit me at one point, I think. At the drug’s utmost peak, I had boring, barely noticeable hallucinations in my peripheral vision that made the curtains on either side of my bed shimmy a bit. I think I slept for a while.

In the morning, Lacey picked me up in her station wagon and, without a word, handed me a number of pages she’d printed out, stapled together, and highlighted. They contained news stories about teenagers eating Brugmansia flowers and ending up sick or dead.

“See?” she said. “Right in Hawaii, where you live, these kids did this. It was stupid and dangerous.” 

I didn’t say much.

In the aftermath, some humdrum stuff happened, none of it awful. I ended up back in Honolulu finishing up the final paper for my UC Berkeley Classics 100 course on my dad’s computer, for which I received an overall A- and three units of college credit, despite missing the last week (and, to be perfectly honest, the previous 4.5 weeks) of lectures. The two guys were released from the hospital after three days and sent home; we haven’t kept in touch. I didn’t get one last chance to throw myself at my crush, or to see a production of Urinetown in San Francisco with the other kids as part of the last weekend’s excursion to the city across the bay (which, despite firm rules against leaving an eight-block radius in Berkeley, we’d been bumming around in all summer).

Coming home on the plane, I cried into my hoodie, journaled furiously (as mixed-up 17-year-olds are wont to do), felt sorry for myself, and ignored any clouds of shame that might well have engulfed any other washed-out urchin in my place; indeed, if any such clouds existed, they went wholly unnoticed 'til my parents picked me up at the curb at Honolulu International Airport, when, for just a moment, the shame threatened to descend.

But, to their own undying credit, my parents simply said, with sheepish sympathy in their eyes, that they “would’ve done the same thing.”

Eleven years later, I’ll still say: so would I.

I will always be the first to point out that eating a big hunk of anything found in a public park, and especially a vigorously inhabited one, is a bad idea. Looking back at any number of things I did when I was younger, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that some of them were award-winningly stupid, from layering acid with ayahuasca and doing coke in Waikiki hotel bathrooms to carefully shoplifting Red Bulls between my thighs and smuggling mushrooms across the U.S.-Canada border in my underpants.

But if I had to do an absolute shit-ton of stupid things as a kid (and we all really, truly do), then at least — as I keep and will keep telling myself — I did them in a rather intelligent way.

And my only real regret is that I, very probably, will never be that badass again.