I was 21 years old, studying at university in South Australia and going steady with the girl I would probably marry. It was a familiar and unremarkable course for a life to follow.
My social life was also fairly typical of the times. The music of the late 70s; Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Led Zeppelin and still-years after they had broken up-The Beatles. Two litre flagons of cheap wine with which to dose yourself up and minimise the need to buy many drinks at nightclub prices. Clouds of lung-busting dope (cannabis) and the occasional trip (LSD).
And one day, late to the mind-altering menu, came magic mushrooms. A sickly-looking grey colour with a bluish edge, they didn’t taste any better than they looked. We chewed up three or four at a time, and they tended to make us giggle. Pretty harmless, we thought.
One night I took a bag of these mushrooms to the home of a couple of acquaintances and proudly dropped them on the kitchen table.
“Ah, mushrooms.” said one of my hosts. “How have you been taking them?”
I told him.
“No, not like that” he said. He took the bag and emptied it-perhaps twenty or thirty mushrooms-into a saucepan, added some water, and put it on the stove. After the mushrooms were boiled down into a grey sludge, he poured it into a mug and gave it to me.
“Scull it down”, he said. And like a fool, after waiting a few minutes for the sludge to cool, I did.
Life, for me, would never be the same again.
It took about ten minutes for the first hallucination to hit.
We were watching TV, and a man’s talking head was showing. Suddenly his eyes became twin points of light, and everything else in my field of vision turned grey. I shied away from the TV in horror. My hosts noticed this. One of them stared into my eyes and said “Yeah, you’re tripping”. Suddenly, that became a very frightening statement.
I decided that I was in for a very bad time, and I didn’t know these people well enough to go through it with them. A close friend and his girlfriend, David and Carole, lived nearby, and I decided I had to get to them. I got up, grabbed my crash helmet, and announced my departure, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as I could. To their credit, my acquaintances tried to talk me out of it, realising I was in no condition to ride my motorbike. But I was intent on getting out of there.
Moments later I was an insect, riding a water buffalo down a river of molten larva.
Later on, I would analyse this hallucination and recognise the factors that had caused it: my helmet made me think I had an exoskeleton, hence I was an insect. The wide handlebars and bellow of my motorbike turned it into a water buffalo, and my amber-coloured sunglasses turned the road into molten larva. But at this point, I wasn’t doing much analysis.
I remember that I nearly stalled the bike, probably because I was going very slowly in a high gear. I’m pretty sure that I even chugged past a parked police car. But luckily, David and Carole didn’t live far away.
Sitting down in their lounge room I informed them, as calmly as I could, that I was having a bad trip. They looked at me with some interest.
It’s hard to describe the next few hours. I couldn’t decide which was more terrifying, keeping my eyes open or closing them. Closed, I contemplated the vat of seething madness over which I was hanging by a thread. The thread could break at any time, plunging me permanently into insanity. Open, my eyes just found material to use in hallucinations.
Carole, a beautiful woman, was removing makeup in a mirror. As I watched, one of her eyes moved up onto the top of her head. I gave a whimper of fear, and dropped my gaze to her feet, only to see two electric cords that promptly turned into snakes. Eyes clamped shut again, back to suspension over the vat of bedlam. I started to cry.
And so it went on, into the early hours of the morning. At one point David and Carole were holding onto my arms to give me some physical contact with reality. At last I felt “straight” enough to go home.
After a few hours of tortured sleep I found myself sitting in my loungeroom, quietly terrified, staring at the lace curtains and trying to decide whether I was still sane.
It took about a week to have my first flashback. I had just finished a tutorial at university, and I was sitting in the Uni Bar. I had bought a beer, which now stood, cold and frosty, on the table before me. Suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, I was filled with a heart-stopping dread. Without touching my beer, I got up and hurried out of the bar as if someone had just announced that there was a bomb in there.
The flashbacks, which took the form of panic attacks, became regular occurrences and quickly started to dismantle my life.
I dropped out of university, too afraid to speak at a tutorial in case I had an attack in mid-sentence. I broke up with my long-term girlfriend. I decided to run away from the situation. I packed my rucksack and moved to Tasmania.
I found that I could no longer stand any mind-altering drug, not even marijuana. But I could take alcohol. And take it I did, copiously.
Ironically, I now started to enjoy some success in my chosen career as a writer, being commissioned to write some childrens’ drama treatments and documentary scripts by the local Film Corporation. But my private life was in a downward spiral. I couldn’t even hold a casual conversation over the backyard fence with a neighbour without a couple of beers inside me. Alcohol seemed the only effective medicine for the panic attacks. I needed alcohol just to function on some level of normality.
Meanwhile, David and Carole had moved to Northern Tasmania to build a mudbrick house. I sometimes travelled up to lend them a hand. Then, about 18 months after I had arrived in Tasmania, a chain of events started that would prove profoundly life-changing for me.
David received news that his older brother in South Australia had turned Christian, had joined the Salvation Army, in fact. This was an unlikely turn of events; Paul was a large, aggressive businessman given to picking fights in bars. The image of him handing out copies of the War Cry in the same bars where he had previously caused mayhem was hard to conjure up!
David jumped on a plane immediately and returned to South Australia. There he listened to Paul’s excited and zealous personal testimony. He would later tell me despite all the questions and barriers his mind kept throwing up, one idea would not go away: “Whatever he’s got- I want!” Within a few days, David returned to Tasmania as a Christian.
It didn’t take him long to make his way down to Hobart. Being fully aware of my history and current condition, he considered me a prime prospect for conversion! He evangelised me mercilessly for two days.
When he left to return to the North, I remained unconverted, but not closed to the idea of Christianity. I wasn’t sure if it was true, but David clearly believed it was, and I knew him to be neither a fool nor a liar. I sort of folded this Christianity thing up and put it in my back pocket, “In case I ever get that desperate”.
It took me two years to become that desperate, and they were two very strange years indeed. As my alcoholism increased, I would drunkenly preach a kind of outsiders “pseudo-Christianity” to my cricketing friends. They had no idea how to respond.
I moved up to Tasmania’s East coast when my girlfriend (later my wife) was posted there as a teacher, but the only work I could find was splitting scallops. At this point my drinking had progressed from beer, through wine, to hard spirits.
I was obviously in a terminal downward spiral, so I told my girlfriend that I was going back to Adelaide to find work. My real plan was to give her a few months to get used to not having me around, and then quietly break things off. I didn’t want to take her down with me.
Once in Adelaide, I began drinking to blackout every night. I would awake every morning with a crashing hangover and no recollection at all of what had happened the night before. I am sure this nightmarish phase would have been the end of me, but after two weeks I found myself staying with David and Carole, who were now “cottage parents” for the Salvation Army, looking after three troubled teenagers.
After a weekend of intensive evangelism I found myself laying in a Salvation Army bed on a Sunday night, staring silently into the darkness. I decided enough was enough. I pictured Jesus hanging on the cross, and started to “give” Him every sin I had ever committed. This took a long time, because I was blessed (or cursed!) with a very good memory and I had been a very bad boy.
Eventually, I was pretty sure I had confessed everything. I finished my prayer with these words:
“Okay Jesus, I think that is everything. I accept that you are the Son of God, and that your blood spilt on the cross has cleansed me of all these sins. Thank you. Now, in the morning, I’m going to get up and start telling everyone that I’m a Christian. And unless you want to be very embarrassed, you had better do something about the way I live!”
The following morning I told David and Carole that I had made a decision for Christ. They were quietly pleased, but no more. They had heard such grand pronouncements before, from other people. Sometimes they had been genuine, sometimes not. They would wait and see.
I accompanied David to the Salvation Army church, and was there given some small jobs to do. After an hour or so, David and three other Salvationists approached me and invited me to prayer in the church proper, known as The Citadel. I sat down on one of the bench seats, with the other sitting beside and behind me.
Apart from my prayer of confession the night before, I didn’t really know how to pray, so I contented myself with making little affirmative noises to what the others were praying about. Then, at one point, they all reached over and laid hands on me. They continued to pray, and I suddenly became aware of a strange language running through my head. I know now that had I opened my mouth I would have spoken in tongues, but I just sat there quietly, monitoring this strange language with some interest.
When we had finished praying, we walked out of The Citadel into bright sunlight. I suddenly realised that my mind was completely blank, like a tape that has been totally erased. Had someone approached me then and asked “Do you believe?” I would have answered with an emphatic “Yes!” But if they then asked “What do you believe” I would have had to answer “I’ve no idea!”
That all changed over the course of the day. I believe that God removed all the “pseudo- Christianity” that I had drunkenly regaled my cricketing friends with, erased what was wrong, corrected what was half-right, re-organised what was true and replaced it all gently into my mind.
That evening David, Carole and I had a mutual unsaved friend to dinner. I preached to him passionately and accurately over the meal, and David and Carole now knew that my conversion was genuine!
The changes in my life were immediate and profound. I stopped drinking that very day, with no effort whatsoever on my part. I just had absolutely no desire for the stuff. A short time later I gave up smoking, cold turkey, with no withdrawal symptoms. I started running and lifting weights every day.
Three months after giving my life to Christ when I was on the edge of death, I was free of addictions, fit and strong, facing a life that was full of purpose and value.
I wish my story finished there, but it doesn’t. After a year or so of clean, fruitful living I let alcohol back into my life through a mixture of pride and complacency. It would be a decades-long battle to be free, this time. There would not be a second miraculous cleansing.
But there was a first one.
You don’t know me at all. I could be a liar, or a fool, or a madman for all you know. But if you don’t think I am any of those things, I would ask you to consider this: the changes that took place in my life were not the result of willpower, or indoctrination, or medication but of an external power that entered into me and changed me from the inside out.
You can call that power anything you like. I call it the Holy Spirit, cleaning out His brand new temple. And as a result of that experience, and many others that followed it, I can promise you that God is real, God is love and God is reaching out to you right here, right now.
Make the decision. Pray the prayer. Then, most importantly, go tell another Christian about it. Because as it says in The Word:
“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” Romans 10:10
God bless you!