My 12 hours as a madman
In honour of the late journalist, a look back at Sidney Katz's famous story about the effects of LSD
Sidney Katz | Sep 21, 2007 | 20:02:42
Sidney Katz, a veteran journalist who worked at both the Toronto Star and Maclean's, passed away this week at the age of 92. Lauded as a ground-breaking writer who pursued some of society's most controversial issues, his most celebrated piece might be "My 12 hours as a madman" from the Oct. 1, 1953 issue of Maclean's. Reproduced here in full, it was hailed this week as "the first detailed, first-person account in a general magazine of the effects of LSD."
My 12 hours as a madman
Here is the minute-by-minute report of a Maclean's editor who swallowed an experimental drug that turned him into a raving schizophrenic: what he saw, what he felt, what he said and did—fully documented by tape recordings, photographs, scientific witnesses and his own tormented memories that still haunt him
On the morning of Thursday, June 18, 1953, I swallowed a drug which, for twelve unforgettable hours, turned me into a madman. For twelve hours I inhabited a nightmare world in which I experienced the torments of hell and the ecstasies of heaven.
I will never be able to describe fully what happened to me during my excursion into madness. There are no words in the English language designed to convey the sensations I felt or the visions, illusions, hallucinations, colors, patterns and dimensions which my disordered mind revealed.
I saw the faces of familiar friends turn into fleshless skulls and the heads of menacing witches, pigs and weasels. The gaily patterned carpet at my feet was transformed into a fabulous heaving mass of living matter, part vegetable, part animal. An ordinary sketch of a woman's head and shoulders suddenly sprang to life. She moved her head from side to side, eyeing me critically, changing back and forth from woman into man. Her hair and her neckpiece became the nest of a thousand famished serpents who leaped out to devour me. The texture of my skin changed several times. After handling a painted card I could feel my body suffocating for want of air because my skin had turned to enamel. As I patted a black dog, my arm grew heavy and sprouted a thick coat of glossy black fur.
I was repeatedly held in the grip of a terrifying hallucination in which I could feel and see my body convulse and shrink until all that remained was a hard sickly stone located in the left side of my abdomen, surrounded by a greenish-yellow vapor which poured across the floor of the room.
Time lost all meaning. Hours were telescoped into minutes; seconds stretched into hours. The room I was in changed with every breath I drew. Mysterious flashes of multicolored light came and went. The dimensions of the room, elasticlike, stretched and shrank. Pictures, chairs, curtains and lamps flew endlessly about, like planets in their orbits. My senses of feeling, smelling and hearing ran amuck. It was as though someone had rooted out the nerve nets in my brain, which control the senses, then joined them together again without thought to their proper placings.
But my hours of madness were not all filled with horror and frenzy. At times I beheld visions of dazzling beauty—visions so rapturous, so unearthly, that no artists will ever paint them. I lived in a paradise where the sky was a mass of jewels set in a background of shimmering aquamarine blue; where the clouds were apricot-colored; where the air was filled with liquid golden arrows, glittering fountains of iridescent bubbles, filigree lace of pearl and silver, sheathes of rainbow light—all constantly changing in color, design, texture and dimension so that each scene was more lovely than the one that preceded it.
Two weeks have now passed since I spent half a day as a madman.(I was so frightened and bewildered by the experience that it is only now that I am able to sit down and write a complete account of what happened to me. Even now, as I relive the nightmare from this safe distance, I grow tense and my body is bathed in perspiration.)
I volunteered to become a temporary madman in the interests of medical research into the problem of mental illness. This is one phase of research where some of the guinea pigs have to be human beings. For animals can't describe their sensations.
The drug I took was LSD—lysergic acid diethylamide—an alkaloid of ergot, the poisonous rust that sometimes grows on rye. Two years ago when bread made of infected rye flour was sold in a French village many of the inhabitants died of poisoning or went stark raving mad. The mental condition produced by this drug—developed by a Swiss chemist—closely resembles acute schizophrenia, the most prevalent and the most serious form of mental disease in Canada. About half the patients in our mental hospitals suffer from some form of this terrible mental torture.
In spite of the fact that psychiatrists identified schizophrenia(sometimes known as dementia praecox or "split personality")fifty years ago, our information about it is still scanty. We do know that the victim lives in a disordered world of his own, suffering from hallucinations and delusions. His thinking, mood and behavior are affected. Schizophrenics sometimes commit suicide and murder in response to false beliefs which overpower them.
As to the cause of this disease, there are two main schools of thought. One group—particularly the psychoanalysts—tends to believe that the schizophrenic can't cope with the difficulties of life and therefore withdraws to a world of fantasy. The other group holds that schizophrenia is the direct result of a metabolic disorder—the internal glands have gone haywire, upsetting the body chemistry. They suspect that the culprit is the adrenal gland system, which in a complicated way produces a poisonous substance which causes the insanity.
These theories are not necessarily exclusive. Dr. Hans Selye, the University of Montreal scientist, has shown how stress and strain can so affect the functioning of the internal glands—including the adrenals—that they can produce a variety of illnesses, including mental illness.
By artificially creating a condition like schizophrenia in a normal person—as was done in my case—researchers hope to find the answers to a number of hitherto baffling questions. The psychiatrist wants to know: What does a schizophrenic feel? What does he see? What does he think? How does he think? How can he best be approached by a therapist? These answers are not easy to obtain from the chronic psychotic who has little or no insight and is usually uncommunicative. The biochemist seeks information which may finally lead to a cure for schizophrenia: What toxic substance is found in the psychotic which is absent in the body of the normal person? If this substance can be identified, then it is conceivable that a chemical agent can be created to counteract it, very much as penicillin and Aureomycin can kill certain kinds of infection. This could theoretically lead to the cure of half our mental patients.