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The people who are tripping forever

HPPD is a perception disorder that causes sufferers to have visual experiences similar to taking hallucinogenic drugs, often sparked by over-indulgence in psychedelics

If you’ve ever taken hallucinogenic drugs, you may have had a moment to yourself – lost in the bright colours and fractured speech – where you think “will this ever end?” Of course, it does, but some LSD users report experiencing “flashbacks” – mild versions of previous trips that hit them weeks or even months later. Flashbacks, while perhaps uncomfortable (or more bang for your buck, whichever way you want to look at it), are temporary and transient, whereas a disorder called Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) is something that sufferers live with for life, sometimes day in, day out.

While there are cases of people being diagnosed with HPPD without having touched drugs, it appears that heavy weed-smoking or over-indulgence in psychedelics can trigger HPPD, a condition that causes what they see to be overlaid with “visual snow” or static, objects changing shape, an increase in the vividity of colour, or senses of disorientation. As you may imagine, a bout of HPPD when you’re doing something like driving a car or going on a date could turn out pretty detrimental to your life experience, although some say that they live comfortably with the condition.

Boston-based Dr Henry Abraham brought first made the world aware of HPPD in 1983 with his paper Visual Phenomenology of the LSD Flashback, an investigation that analysed 123 LSD patients and their persistent hallucinations post-trip. To find out more about the debilitating disorder from those who know a lot about it, we speak to three people who have HPPD to find out more about the condition, how they think they developed it and how it affects their everyday life.

SAM, 16

How do you think your HPPD came about? When did it start?

Sam: My HPPD came about after a period of maybe three weeks in which I discovered acid. Stupid as it was, I love acid and did it maybe six or seven times in these weeks. The first three times were 25-I and that last three or four were real LSD. The real trigger of my HPPD was when I took a high dose of Ritalin (ADHD medication) while using cocaine. I do not have ADHD, it was for recreation.

Do you take drugs often?

Sam: I do use drugs often. Largely marijuana and cigarettes. Most weekends I do MDMA or cocaine in high doses. My psychedelic use is limited to one low dose of mushrooms a long time ago, the frequent use of acid in those three weeks I described and one use of LSD since my HPPD came about. As I’m sure you can figure I really fell in love with psychedelics and tripping. I must stress that I am a happy, intelligent teen, my drug use is not a result of any depression or other such issues.   

How does your HPPD manifest itself? What do you see and how do you feel?

Sam: My HPPD consists of an overlay across my vision of visual snow similar to television static, present when my eyes are open and closed. I rarely notice this now and it’s still only been a month or so since I got HPPD. This does not bother me at all and in my opinion is bearable, though I can understand why it might drive some mad. The really interesting stuff happens when I smoke cannabis. When I get stoned, the visual snow turns into an overlay of patterns similar to that you have towards the end of an acid trip when the trips are less interactive with what you see and more prominent when your eyes are closed. I find I often see very similar patterns such as tessellating squares, triangles and pentagons of many colours. They seem to flash a little and change rapidly. The more I smoke, the more immersive and intricate my trips become.

The thing that I love more than anything about HPPD is how if am for example looking at my phone and I really think about a colour such as blue, I will see blue patterns on my phone. If I close my eyes and imagine a straight line across my vision I will see a straight line but not how I imagined it would appear. If I try I can make the walls warp but again only when I want them too and I can make it feel like the world is spinning. I don't know how many other HPPD sufferers experience this but it is one of the most amazing things you can imagine. When I use stimulants such as MDMA I trip hard and if I focus on one point my whole vision will shake and objects bounce around in the most incredible ways. There is a lot more to it than described but those are I think the most interesting effects.

“I see it in many ways as a gift, a souvenir given to me by LSD” – Sam, 16

So you find it enjoyable?

Sam: When I first noticed it I was distressed but I soon came to terms with it and now love it. I don’t really notice it in my day to day life. This condition allows me to have the most incredible immersive trips without any of the weirdness or anxiety of acid. It also makes me feel somewhat special. I know that when I smoke with my friends I am in a whole other dimension, and while many of my friends don't believe me, I see it in many ways as a gift, a souvenir given to me by LSD. Most HPPD sufferers say they would never touch LSD again but I did it after getting HPPD and had one of the most spiritual trips ever. 

Do you want treatment?

Sam: No I do not want treatment and I have decided to not tell my parents or doctor. Most of the medication for HPPD has the potential for abuse which I wouldn’t want to do. But the real reason is because right now I enjoy my HPPD. I look forward to having that gentle trip when I smoke weed, it’s entertaining but more importantly if you can as a sufferer get your head round it it can be immensely beautiful. 

KRISTY, 30

When did your HPPD begin?

Kristy:  I've always had a form of it since childhood. I remember telling my mother about seeing halos around the age of seven. I have also always had some sort of visual snow. It wasn’t until this past year that it truly manifested. I believe it came from the heavy use of mushrooms and LSD as well as an ayahuasca ceremony and DMT.

Are you a regular drug user?

Kristy: Yeah, I smoke weed daily and I’m still taking micro-doses of LSD occasionally.

How does your HPPD manifest itself? What do you see and how do you feel?

Kristy: My HPPD causes heavier visual snow than before and it increases with stress and anxiety. I see double, and even triple images, ghost images on everything, trails, starbursts, bright streaks of light across my vision, things move or “crawl” at times. I see geometric patterns on some things, like tiles or when I close my eyes. I also have tinnitus pretty bad, sometimes very irritating. Sometimes my hearing is affected, I’ll hear echoes or things sound like they have a mechanical filter on them. My anxiety was horrible at first but I have it under control now. I was having panic attacks daily for about a month until I accepted the disorder. I get brain fog, or as I like to say, a case of “the stupids”. It’s like my brain isn’t fully working. For example, I was driving and continued to make right-hand turns but couldn’t figure out why I was lost. I seem more emotional, like the emotions are more intense and harder to control. I struggle with random, depressing thoughts, like suddenly feeling hopeless for no reason. I have a very hard time sleeping and I get anxious easily.

Is it ever enjoyable or just distressing?

Kristy: It can be distressing because no one understands what I’m dealing with. The hardest part I have with it is being misunderstood by others or thought of as a liar or a drama queen. I’ve lost many friends, which is sad. I do find it enjoyable, surprisingly. I consider myself to be a Psychonaut, so I enjoy seeing the world differently. I’m also an artist and I find it helps me with my art. I also believe that staying positive is a major factor in controlling the HPPD.

Are you being treated?

Kristy: I’ve told my doctors about it and they all seem clueless about the condition. So, no I am not receiving treatment, however, I am on anxiety medications. I don’t know about a cure, but I hope one is found. There are many people who can’t handle this disorder.

BORISZ, 24

When did your HPPD begin?

Borisz: When I was around 18-20 I went to a festival and got really drunk. Someone gave me a pill and I ate it. As simple as that.

Are you a regular drug user?

Borisz: Since I took that pill I’ve studied drugs and kept my hands clean. I still like to smoke weed.

How does your HPPD manifest itself? What do you see and how do you feel?

Borisz: This is a good one. What I see is close to visual snow. It's like when your television doesn’t get clean source and you can see the little frames of the picture popping around really fast. It all started with a single white dot. At the time I thought I was seeing stars rotating and I thought it was awesome and enjoyable.

The feelings HPPD gives you are hard to describe. You are basically not in this world. And so everything you do, think and feel is questionable. Does my mother really love me? Mostly anti-social feelings. After waking up I don’t want to see people at all. I’m 25, a place where friends are not easy to find (for me) and thus I have no-one to talk to about my personal feelings. This is all a big fucking mess. And it’s in my head...

Is it ever enjoyable?

Borisz: It depends on your state of mind. If I am in a good mood I can enjoy the visuals, especially before going to sleep. The dots start to manifest and it’s like liquid paint all around me. Coloured shapes of nothing everywhere. Throughout my four or five years of this crap I have had only a maximum of ten times when I wanted to ditch the visuals. When you see something for years it can get annoying yes, but as I said it depends on my mood.

Are you receving treatment?

Borisz: There is no treatment for this. I’m trying to eat vitamin complexes, Omega 3 fish oil, Brahmi and other herbal extracts. I exercise of course, and eat easy to digest foods like cooked eggs. I do believe it can be cured, and it is my private goal in life to find a natural alternative medicine that will clear all of the symptoms. What else can I do?

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