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Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

Amid the thumping bass of the '90s rave scene, a long-troubled teenager had a moment of insight.

The drugs kicked in while I was driving. Suddenly, I found myself in a video game. The white lines on the road peeled off the ground, glowing against the darkness. Movements of the steering wheel seemed to shift everything on the screen. My objective was to transport the seven people crammed into my sedan to a destination a few exits down the highway. I tried pushing the pedals but couldn't distinguish what each did. Eventually, I noticed that pressing the middle one made the speedometer needle go down. Maybe someone else should take over, I thought, someone who'd ingested only one tab of LSD instead of the two I had taken a couple of hours before, along with Ecstasy. I pulled over, crawled into the back across my friends' laps, and felt my body melt.

Courtesy Matthew Hutson

It was March 1996 in southwest Connecticut, and we had just stumbled out of a rave called Vapor—a sly reference to the Vicks VapoRub people often smeared on the inside of a dust mask to inhale while on Ecstasy to enhance its euphoric effects. The venue was overfilled, with crowds of sticky bodies barely able to move through the warren of smoky rooms. The promoters were encouraging people to go to another, less crowded club a few miles away, and after a little finagling in the parking lot ("Back up straight... no, the other straight!"), my friends and I were on our way. Only after traveling the predetermined number of exits did we realize that we'd gone the wrong direction and needed to turn around. A bunch of teenagers on mind-altering drugs driving along icy roads in the dark was, of course, very, very dangerous. We could have easily crashed and died. But instead, my life was saved that night.

Although by all accounts I'd been a happy baby, I started to develop inexplicable anger and behavioral problems at age 2. There were years of acting out, followed by years of acting in, turning my aggression toward myself. At 15, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. One antidepressant I took did nothing; the next worked too well, cutting me off from the darkness I'd come to identify with, so I stopped taking it and once again addressed my emotional pain with self-harm. Cutting my body with razor blades gave me a sense of control and also felt like a way to punish myself for being someone I didn't like. On occasion, I poured rubbing alcohol into the wounds for an extra kick.

In the fall of my senior year at Groton, a boarding school outside of Boston, a teacher became aware of my self-inflicted wounds, which set off a chain reaction of alarm among my school counselor, advisor, dorm head, parents, therapist, and psychiatrist. Thanks in part to this discovery, I was soon whisked away from my dorm and deposited in a psychiatric hospital. There, in the adolescent ward, I made a couple of friends who insisted that I didn't need to be in the hospital. What I really needed, they said, was to go to a rave.

After being discharged, I found my way to one called the Ecstasy Ball at a hotel ballroom in Boston. (The general public was apparently so clueless about raves at the time that they could be flagrantly named after the very drug many people would be taking there.) Even outside the entrance, the earth-shattering bass of the subwoofers made my chest throb. Inside were hundreds of young people outfitted with visors, backpacks, colorful plastic jewelry, facial piercings, and almost comically oversized pants. Some lounged in clusters on the floor; others did a kind of running-in-place two-step dance that remains the telltale signature of old-school ravers. Lasers pierced the fog pouring from smoke machines.

Smoking pot was the extent of my drug experience up until that point. At the rave, I took a dose of LSD given to me by a friend and pretty soon started to hallucinate. It wasn't all pleasant. A guy breakdancing looked as if he were writhing on the ground in pools of blood. While sharing a blunt with some strangers in the men's room, I watched the color of the wastebasket lid turn from rust to puke brown to rust again.

Soon, though, I figured out that the drug didn't control my mind as much as it made me highly suggestible, so it was up to me to direct my perceptions. Rather than seeing myself as a socially awkward goober, as usual, I told myself I could fit in with anyone. I ended up doing things like, well, befriending blunt-smoking strangers in the men's room. I watched the breakdancing more closely and marveled at what people could do with their bodies. In one of the rave's lounge areas, kids took turns dancing around a tube of lip balm standing upright on the floor. Finally someone swooped into a handstand, lowered his face to the tube, and gracefully gripped it between his teeth before swirling back into a tornado of arms and legs. It was magnificent.

After that night, I started going to raves regularly with my townie friends. Accustomed to being an inhibited outsider with braces, scoliosis, and a history of being bullied, I was suddenly an insider running with DJs, drug dealers, and party promoters. Wearing a fireproof silver jacket and my own colossal pants, I was able to saunter assuredly into warehouses full of strangers. Dancing also became part of my transformation, bringing a new body awareness, freedom of physical expression, and sense of swagger. Some of my newfound courage was certainly attributable to the drugs—I took plenty of LSD and Ecstasy and dabbled in cocaine, crystal meth, and ketamine. But much of it was simply from feeling as though I genuinely belonged. Becoming a raver spawned tremendous confidence in me. For the first time ever, I was cool.

Still, my inner life wasn't entirely transformed. Around that time, a girl from school, whom I'll call Mary, took an interest in me. I'd had girlfriends before, but beyond the period of initial infatuation, I had never connected with anyone deeply. Intimacy was still a foreign language to me. Mary began nudging her way into my life after I got out of the hospital, intrigued by my experience and qualities in me that I didn't quite see. We hung out more and more, and after a few months she started saying she loved me. "I wish I could say the same," I told her, "but I'm not sure I love anyone, even myself." She kept saying it anyway.

During this period I also found an antidepressant that suited me. Mary and the medication set the stage for the internal breakthrough that transpired on that wintry night of Vapor. We eventually found the way back to the original venue, safely. Later, walking out at dawn after dancing all night, I bought a random mix tape ( DJ Tin Tin Live at the Freight Yard ), popped it into my tape deck, and drove off into the sunrise toward Boston. The friend I was with fell asleep in the passenger seat, so I was left alone with the open road and my thoughts, enhanced by the drugs still coursing through my system.

The soaring trance music heightened my sense of weightlessness, seeming to untether me from the habitual doubts and self-criticism that had guided my life until then. My ego subsided, and all my suppressed emotion welled up into the space that opened. I saw that I wasn't actually cursed, that I didn't have to hide from others, and that I had something to offer the world. I understood that I was a survivor and worthy of love. Most important, I realized that I loved myself. It was a new dawn.

The infusion of self-acceptance I felt in that rapturous drive home didn't fade as the drugs wore off. In fact, it rippled outward. A few days later, I told Mary that I loved her. It was the first time I'd said those words to anyone in years. We both cried. I also began to see a pathway toward loving my parents and felt new gratitude for and interest in people all around me.

Years later, as a cognitive neuroscience student and subsequently a science writer, I would study the mid-20th-century trials of psychedelic drugs used for psychotherapeutic purposes, an area of research that was swiftly shut down by government regulations in the late 1960s, only to be revived in the past 20 years. Now, many of these substances, including LSD, ketamine, and MDMA (otherwise known as Ecstasy or, these days, Molly), have been shown in clinical trials to successfully treat depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, and other ailments.

I would also become acutely aware of the dangers of these drugs, especially when taken in the unsupervised way in which I did. Raves were a far cry from carefully controlled clinical trials—even though the psychological benefits I received from certain drugs may have been similar to those being confirmed by modern science. Raving could have brought me grievous harm, as it did for some of my friends. But despite the risks, I look back now from my perch in adulthood with certainty that it rescued me—perhaps from suicide, likely from self-harm, and at the very least from becoming a different person, someone a lot less comfortable in his own skin.

I became someone who could venture far from his comfort zone (and reality) and dig himself out of deep emotional muck. And I gained the ability to have faith in others, and even to love them. It's hard to imagine what would have happened if, as a teenage raver, I hadn't cannonballed down certain rabbit holes to the sound of a throbbing bass line.

Matthew Hutson is a former PT editor and the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.

Image: "Space Oddity," a 1996 collage by the author

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